In recent years, the growth of digital photography has led many of the general public to regard film cameras as outdated technology. Camera makers have populated their ranges with digital devices, and even the largest makers now have barely two or three film cameras available. This has had a knock-on effect on the high street, where developing and printing outlets have significantly declined in number.
The 35mm format dominated the film camera market for many years, but there have also been other formats – 6x7, with its larger frame size, and hence higher image quality, is favoured by many professional sectors, and miniature formats such as 126 (Instamatic) and 110 (Pocket Instamatic) made some inroads into the mainstream market.
Film cameras still find favour with many professional and amateur photographers, however, for various reasons.
There have been many different formats of film used for still photography over the years. When buying a used film camera, it should be borne in mind that many of these are now effectively obsolete, and there may be limited or no availability of film stock for the camera. Even if film stock is available, there may only be restricted developing and/or printing facilities.
Many photographers collect old cameras, and of course, it's perfectly valid to acquire these for the purpose of displaying a collection, but any photographer looking to actually use a vintage or outdated model of camera should research carefully the availability of film materials, commercial developing and printing facilities, or their own methods of self-developing the film.
6x7 (120, or 220)
The largest popular formats have been 120/220, also known as 6x7, introduced originally in 1901. The two formats differ only in length, 220 offering twice the number of exposures as 120 on a similarly-sized roll. Typically, this film is used with cameras exposing a frame size of 6x7cm, but different frame sizes can be accommodated on the same format of film. A typical camera to use this film format would be the Pentax 6x7 model. Ilford, Fuji and Kodak are amongst those still manufacturing 120 and 220 film.
When introduced, 120 format film was originally intended as a format for amateurs, but this came to be superceded by 135, also known as 35mm. 35mm, with its more compact cameras, became the predominant amateur format for many years, with many makers of cameras and film. Again, Ilford, Fuji and Kodak are the predominant current manufacturers.
Obsolete or Semi-obsolete Formats
A number of formats which entered the mainstream market over the years have disappeared, are in decline, or have been discontinued in
the past, only to re-emerge in the 2000s. Cameras of these types are probably best purchased only for static display, exhibition, or collection. The most common of these formats are;
Pocket Instamatic (110)
2004, 2011 (b)
(a) Discontinued by mainstream producers such as Kodak and Fuji, but re-introduced with limited production by Lomography in 2012.
(b) Camera production ceased in 2004, film production in 2011, although limited stocks may remain of the film
General Buying Guidelines
Once the decision is made to look for a used film camera, the photographer should keep in mind these few general guidelines when assessing a possible purchase.
Unless the camera is desired for a display model or collection piece, it should be in good working condition. If the seller has recent photos taken with the camera, then there should be no objection to these being made available as part of the sale. The availability of a test run of the camera prior to purchase would be a definite advantage, but is likely to depend on the sale price, the buyer's financial commitment to the purchase, and also the medium used for the sale.
Any assessment of condition will, again, possibly be limited by the sale method. If the camera is being sold by online auction, it will have to be assessed on the basis of pictures and the description within the listing, and possibly by correspondence with the seller. Any serious marking or denting to the casework of a camera should lead to caution as an impact strong enough to cause this could well lead to internal damage as well. Ideally, any significant purchase should be inspected in person prior to concluding the deal.
In some cases, foam or rubber light seals can perish, and these are critical to the operation of any camera. If a visual inspection cannot be made, and the seller is unable or unwilling to confirm their condition, it may be wise to reserve some of the budget with a view to possible later replacement.
Accessories and Packaging
The best used camera purchases will be those where the camera is in its original packaging and with most or all of the original accessories, such as the instruction manual or original body and lens caps. The inclusion of such items generally gives the buyer a good idea of the level of care any previous owners and the current seller will have given to the camera.
Many cameras will be limited to use with certain lenses due to compatibility issues. There are too many variations of camera makers, their own lenses, and aftermarket lenses to show them all here, but some dedicated online searching, whether generally or for a specific model purchase, should yield at least some indication of whether or not the camera will be restricted to certain types of lenses.
Prominent makers have included the likes of Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, and Leica to name but a few. Canon and Nikon have been the favoured choice for professionals in 35mm for many years. The other makes, whilst popular in the general consumer market, failed to make the same impact with the professionals. Other makers such as Bronica, Mamiya, and others have specialised in the 6x7 format and are less known to the general public.
In terms of the style of camera, the photographer should weigh up factors like size, film format, and the genre of photography it will be intended for. This may lead the purchaser to a compact 35mm rangefinder for candid photography, say, or to a 6x7 format for detailed studio work, with all manner of variations between.
The features to look for on any camera will vary according to style and film format.
Compact cameras offer a variety of focusing mechanisms, some with a simple viewfinder with fixed focus, others with the rangefinder method of variable focus. The level of automation on compact cameras differs by era, with the introduction of various automatic exposure modes becoming common in the late 1900s.
SLR and 6x7 cameras are typically the fullest-featured. The photographer should consider the presence or absence of auto-exposure and any manual over-ride features. Other features to look for might include depth of field preview, autofocus, self-timer, and multiple exposure capability.
Although many film cameras were built with now-obsolete film formats in mind, these cameras can still form the basis of a vintage collection or be used as display items.
Those photographers wishing to use film as an active medium are broadly restricted to a choice of 35mm and 6x7 cameras. Many of these have reached the used market as professional and keen amateur photographers have moved on to digital media and hardware. With some due diligence and research, following the guidelines above, the keen film photographer should be able to find quality products which have been built to last, and which should be expected to give many more years of good service.