The Complete Guide to Buying a Vintage Film Camera

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The Complete Guide to Buying a Vintage Film Camera

Film cameras have been in use by the general public for over 100 years now, and as a result there are a large number of usable past models on the open market as well as some that have become static collector's pieces. A number of film formats remain in current manufacture, despite the growth of digital photography, meaning that it's still possible to acquire a vintage camera that works as a functional item, rather than as a display piece.

Film Formats

A few film formats are still being manufactured and remain in current use.


120/220 Roll Film

Also known as medium format, 120 or 220 roll film is supplied on an open roller of plastic or metal, and requires some care when loading or unloading from a camera to avoid accidental exposure. The two formats differ in length and number of exposures. 120 has a continuous paper backing sheet along the whole length of the roll and is supplied in typically 30 inch, 76cm rolls, allowing up to 15 or so exposures, depending on the frame size in use on the particular camera. 220 has roughly double the length of film on the same size of spool and hence double the number of exposures, achieved by omitting the full length of backing paper and providing just a paper header and trailer.

135 / 35mm

Historically a most popular format, for many photographers 35mm achieves a balance between compactness and quality. The frame size is large enough for fineness of detail when enlarged, while allowing compact camera bodies to be built. Supplied in a light-tight single feed cassette, 35mm film can be loaded and unloaded in ambient light conditions and can provide up to 36 standard exposures per reel.

Sheet Film

Primarily used by professionals and serious amateurs, sheet film is supplied in sizes of 4x6 inches and above. This gives by far the best image quality of any format, with the large frame size allowing great detail and freedom from film grain.

Obsolete and Semi-Obsolete Formats

A number of other formats have reached the mainstream market over the years but have since become obsolete or are in the process of becoming so. It will still be possible to find cameras specific to these formats, but these are unlikely to be of any practical use due to either the lack of film supply, the lack of developing and printing facilities, or both. Many photographers value these cameras as collectables or display pieces, and this is, broadly, the only use to which many of them could be put.


126 / Instamatic

126 films were supplied in a simple-loading cartridge, incorporating feed and take-up spools, with a film plane area between. Its primary appeal was simplicity of loading in daylight conditions, and while the reasonably large frame size could, in theory, yield good image quality, it was primarily an amateur format, and very few higher-grade cameras were designed with this format in mind. It was discontinued in 2008.

110 / Pocket Instamatic

110 film used an extremely small frame size, and the poor quality that resulted from this ensured that it never progressed beyond the amateur market. Supplied in similar cartridge style to 126 film, it was discontinued in 2009.


Disc film allowed cameras to be made smaller and flatter, and some of these were only slightly larger than the film disc itself. As with 110, the small negative size limited the quality of this format, and it disappeared from the market in 1999.


APS was designed as an enhancement to the 135 / 35mm format and used a similar size of feed cassette, with automated features on the camera driven by DX coding on the film cassette. Barely a few years after APS's launch, digital cameras were reaching the market, and these sealed its fate. Production of cameras ceased around 2004 and film production in 2011.

Types of Camera

Though not an exhaustive list, below are some of the different types of vintage film camera that can be found on eBay.



The earliest cameras were of the box type, with a basic viewfinder, fixed-focus lenses, manual film winding, and simple leaf shutters. Kodak's early models, introduced in an era when many photographers used glass plate negatives and performed their own processing, made photography available to the masses. Once films were exposed, the owner returned the whole camera to Kodak, who processed the film, reloaded the camera, and returned both to the customer.

Bellows or Folding Cameras

Folding cameras, using an expanding bellows between the lens and film plane when unfolded, allowed what was a large camera to be rendered compact and portable when not in use. This had a particular appeal when the dominant film formats were the medium format 120 and 620 sizes. These cameras were popular in the first half of the 1900s but were displaced by the growth of Twin Lens Reflex cameras.

Twin Lens Reflex

The Twin Lens Reflex, or TLR, began to reach the mainstream market around 1930 and offered a number of advantages over the simple box and bellows cameras that preceded it, mainly the ability to have variable-focus lenses. The TLR has two lenses, one providing a viewfinder image, the other, the taking lens, focused on the film plane. The two lenses are connected and allow the viewfinder image to be focused, with the same focus appearing on the film image. The one disadvantage of the direct mirror system used is that the viewfinder image, having been reflected on a single mirror, appears on the viewfinder reversed left-to-right, which can be disconcerting at first and can be inconvenient for moving subjects. Broadly speaking, TLRs use 120 or 200 roll film, although some models have been made in limited numbers to use smaller or larger formats

Single Lens Reflex

The concept of using a reflecting mirror to direct the scene in front of the camera to a viewfinder was further advanced with single lens reflex cameras. These placed a hinged mirror directly in the path between a taking lens and the film plane, which was flipped up out of the path at the time of exposure. In early models, this was done manually, but later was automated. Early models also shared the mirrored viewfinder image problem that TLRs had but this was resolved with Pentax's introduction of the pentaprism, which re-oriented the image by reflecting it twice toward the viewfinder.
Single lens reflex cameras come in two broad types, both offering interchangeable lens systems. Those using 35mm film are usually styled with a pentaprism-style body, and those using 120 or 220 film generally have a top-mounted viewfinder screen. A notable exception to this rule is the Pentax 6x7, which uses 120 or 200 film in a pentaprism-style body, which is similar in appearance to a standard 35mm camera.


Typically available in 35mm format, the compact camera generally has a simple viewfinder arrangement, removing the bulk of a pentaprism and reflex mirror arrangement.


It goes without saying that a camera should be light-tight, and certain vintage cameras can have trouble areas, such as leather or cloth bellows, or foam light seals, all of which can be liable to decay, especially on cameras which have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions. If the camera cannot be inspected in person, careful scrutiny of all photos in a listing should be made, as well as the description.

Ongoing Usage

When buying a vintage camera, consider primarily whether or not the film format is in current use, and whether or not film stock is available. If not, the camera has little practical use other than a display piece or collector's item.
If the film format is still available, the buyer should consider its future and, if not performing their own processing, how long developing and printing facilities are likely to be available. The camera may turn out to be usable for only a limited time, depending on the film manufacturers.

Looking for Vintage Film Cameras on eBay

From the eBay homepage, select Browse Categories, then Cameras & Photography, and All Categories from the submenu to the left hand side. From the pop-up category list, select Film Cameras. Some may be listed with keywords such as Vintage or Antique in their title or listing description, and these keywords or similar could be used to limit the search. Alternatively, the subcategory lists can be used to refine by Film Format, say 35mm or 6x7, or by Type – SLR, TLR.


With some careful consideration of film format, the keen photographer can still acquire a film camera for which developing and printing facilities are publicly available, and those who take on their own processing can benefit from an even wider choice.

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