How to Buy a Vintage Camera

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How to Buy a Vintage Camera

A vintage camera could be defined as any camera that is more than a few years old. However, this article is concerned with film cameras that were manufactured before 1995.
Taking photos with vintage cameras is an enjoyable, hands-on hobby and the results can be stunningly artistic. From unusual early cameras to the plentiful and high-quality manual SLRs of the late twentieth century, there are vintage cameras for every interest. Vintage film cameras are most often purchased by photography and art students, but film photography is a great hobby for anyone who enjoys using a technology that’s complex, yet still mechanical in nature and fairly transparent.

Vintage Cameras and Film

Before buying a vintage camera, it is important to know where the film for it will be sourced and processed. Even though film photography is not as common as it once was, it is not difficult to find machines that can develop and print standard 35 mm colour film. However, finding a camera shop that can do a good job processing black and white film or unusual film formats has become a challenge.
Note that many older, larger format cameras use single sheets of film rather than a film reel. The film may need to be cut to the correct size. Other cameras use unusual-sized spools of film. Before buying a vintage camera, find out what kind of film it uses, find a source for it and determine how it will be processed.
One solution is to process black and white film personally. Many schools, colleges and universities still have functional dark rooms, and they may allow non-students, or at least non-photography students, to use them. Alternatively, an amateur photographer who uses unusual black and white film may choose to process it in a home darkroom or mail it to a specialist for processing.

Important Dates in Camera Design

Below are the dates for a few important advances in camera design.

1790s to 1879

A number of photographic processes were invented and become popular for portraiture, including the daguerreotype, calotype, tintype, wet plate negative and dry plate negative. None of these methods worked quite like twentieth century film photography, and a good understanding of the concepts is needed in order to use the cameras from this period.


Modern film was invented.


Both 35 mm roll film and larger standard formats came into use, however, cameras used many other film formats, as well.


Colour photography became accessible to the mass market.

Post-WWII period

Cameras, film and accessories were continuously improved and fully automatic point-and-shoot cameras were developed.

Types of Vintage Cameras

Vintage film cameras went through a long evolution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many different technologies were introduced, became popular and then went out of style. Some used standard 35 mm film, and others used film in larger or smaller formats.

35 mm Cameras

This is a very broad category. It could include both fully automatic point-and-shoots and high end manual rangefinders and SLRs dating to as early as the 1920s. Many types of camera use 35 mm film.

Box Cameras

These were used by professional studio photographers from the mid-nineteenth century onward.

Disc Cameras

These were a fad in the 1980s. They are fully automatic point-and-shoot cameras that produce low resolution images.

Folding Cameras

Popular from 1900 to the 1930s, these were the original portable cameras. They often use large format sheets of film, and they can produce very high-quality images.

Instant Cameras

These were a fad in the 1970s and 1980s, and more serious versions were used by professional photographers as previews up until the development of digital photography. They produce a fully developed print in just a few minutes.

Movie Cameras

Small film-based movie cameras were popular with hobbyists throughout the mid- to late-twentieth century.

Rangefinder Cameras

Rangefinder cameras have features that can help determine the subject’s distance so that the photographer can fine-tune the focus. This is helpful because the image in the viewfinder is not identical to the image captured on film. They were popular from the 1920s through the 1970s.

Stereo Cameras

These have two or more lenses and capture two images that are spaced to imitate human eyesight. This makes them appear three dimensional when viewed in isolation. Although older and newer models exist, they were especially popular in the 1950s.

Sub-Mini Cameras

These tiny cameras use odd film sizes and can be amazingly small. They were used by hobbyists and in espionage.

SLR Cameras

Single Lens Reflex cameras use the same lens for previewing the image and taking the photo. This is made possible by the use of a mirror and a prism, and it means that the photographer has an accurate preview. They were first introduced in the 1950s, and the most advanced mass-market film cameras are SLRs. Most are 35 mm cameras, although some professional models use medium format film.

TLR Cameras

Twin Lens Reflex cameras have separate lenses for previewing the image and for taking the photo. They are usually held at waist level, and the preview image is displayed on top the camera. They most often use medium or large format film, and they were in use from the 1890s to the 1960s.

It is important to note that many vintage cameras, with the exception of single lens reflex models, do not have a method for accurately previewing the image that will be captured. That’s because some use separate lenses for viewing and capturing the image, some simply use a window for the image preview, and others do not have a built-in mechanism for previewing the image at all. This means that the photographer must either be ready to practice careful planning and attention to detail or have a tolerance for unexpected results.

Vintage Camera Lenses

Some digital SLRs can use the lenses from vintage cameras. Many photographers like to coordinate their film and digital SLRs and use at least some of the same lenses with both cameras. Lenses that can be reused with digital cameras include Nikon F-mounts, Pentax K-mounts and Canon EF-mounts.
Some vintage camera buyers take advantage of this in order to match their digital SLR to their film SLR. Vintage camera buyers who simply want a high quality, inexpensive film SLR may wish to avoid cameras that use lenses that are compatible with digital SLRs. Choose a vintage camera with lenses that are fully outmoded, and the whole kit will cost much less. The film cameras that can use the same lenses as digital cameras are in higher demand.

Vintage Camera Features

Many features that are standard on digital cameras and on fairly recent film cameras are not necessarily going to be part of a vintage camera. Each vintage camera works a little differently, and it would be impossible to go through all of the variations. However, there are a few features that every buyer should be aware of.

Light Metres

If a vintage camera does not have a light metre built in, then a light metre will need to be purchased separately. They are needed in order to set the aperture and shutter speed and to produce photos that are not over- or under-exposed. They are generally inexpensive.

Flash Bulbs

Many vintage cameras do not have built-in flashbulbs. However, a camera without a built in flash will often have a hot seat for an external flash. The flash may be an item that needs to be coordinated with the camera and purchased separately.

Detachable Lenses

The detachable lenses on most vintage cameras contain the manual controls for aperture, focus and, if applicable, zoom.

In Conclusion

A vintage camera is a technical and artistic tool, and it is also a way to learn about the history of photography by developing hands-on skills. Many people believe that digital cameras just cannot match the beauty of the images produced by film cameras, particularly images on black and white film.
Vintage cameras, especially the ones that are fully manual, are brilliant pieces of technology that are still simple enough to understand fully. They are a pleasure to use and are usually meticulously designed and well built. Because there are so many of them in existence, they tend to be inexpensive. They are beautiful pieces of technological history that almost anyone can afford to buy.

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