The Vintage Film Camera Buying Guide

How to Find the Best Deal on a Vintage Film Camera

11 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Vintage film cameras can be your best bet when it comes to features and build quality per dollar spent. But finding one in good working condition for a fair price isn’t a given.

This guide covers techniques I’ve learned over the twenty years as a shopper and a seller on eBay. I traded well over 100 film cameras there, on Etsy, with friends, and at the local markets.

I got to shoot some incredible historical pieces, thanks to eBay and others. But not all purchases worked out — I’ve been lied to and lost money in various ways. I’ll share the lessons learned on avoiding getting burned by shady sellers, unfair prices, broken cameras, and surprise fees. There are also ways to make money and contribute to the cyclical economy, which I’ll cover briefly below.

In this guide, you’ll find tips for buying film cameras on eBay, Etsy, individual shops and local marketplaces. Whether you’re shopping online or seeing the camera in person, I’ve got you covered.

Where to shop for film cameras.

eBay. This is by far the most popular vintage film camera source in the world. You may find almost any film camera you can think of in any condition at prices often lower than anywhere else.

Etsy. Etsy is similar to eBay. It features shops run by individuals and small businesses that sell vintage and handmade goods. Etsy offsets the carbon emissions from all shipping trips. This marketplace also encourages its sellers to offer free delivery and superior customer service. Analog.Cafe readers may recognize Film Base — a five-star Etsy shop where I sell vintage film cameras, books, and more.

Local shops (online and offline). Depending on where you live, you may save on shipping and see the item you’re about to buy in person. Some shoppers choose to support their local businesses even if it costs a little extra.

International shops and brands. Japan Camera Hunter made his name by selling rare and mint condition pieces that are hard to come by anywhere outside of Japan. You may know of Camera Rescue, a Finnish brand that professionally refurbishes and sells vintage photo equipment. There’s also KEH and many others. All of these shops specialize in selling used film cameras and are known internationally for their service.

Local marketplaces, thrift shops, and yard sales. Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, physical vintage markets, and charity shops are good to get a deal while avoiding paying extra fees. They may not have everything you want in the condition you want, and sometimes you’ll need to travel to reach one. But you may get lucky and find something for a fraction of the price sold elsewhere.

Friends and acquaintances on social media. If you know and trust a member of a photographic community, you may want to buy their gear before they list it on eBay or elsewhere.

Research the price.

Once you know which camera to get, you should find out how much it should cost. If it’s a popular camera, you can search for it on eBay to see what it goes for. Only consider listings by reputable sellers and disregard listings that charge much more or much less than the average; try not to include listings that you think won’t sell (i.e., 0 bids close to the end of an auction).

Include working-condition and appearance in your research. For example, if you’re wondering if a cared-for, mint-condition camera your friend is selling is worth the price, compare it against listings that show similar qualities.

Include fees when comparing prices. For example, it’s always cheaper to ship something locally. You’ll find a full list of possible fees to check against below.

You may also see how much your item sells for at other places (local shops, Etsy, etc.)

Consider the service.

Refunds, warranty, as well as sellers’ expertise, responsiveness, ability to describe cameras accurately, and overall track record with the customers are part of the price. Individuals and brands that invest time into their camera-selling businesses will often lead to a better shopping experience.

Paying extra for service can save you time and money. Fast shipping, quick full refunds, and accurate descriptions can help you avoid repeat unsuccessful purchases.

Note that good service doesn’t always mean higher prices. Seller’s reviews and your interactions with them will reveal more about the experience you’re about to have.

Examine the camera/listing.

All vintage film cameras are used or stored for extensive periods of time, which means that they often have scuffs and issues. Some may look damaged but work perfectly; others may look brand-new but never fire a shot.

Read the description, always. Most sellers disclose any issues with their cameras in descriptions. They may also promise that the item is in full working condition or that it was film-tested. Marketplaces such as eBay bind sellers to be truthful and will often refund you if what you got does not match the description.

You should also be able to ask the seller any questions about the camera before buying. “Is it fully functional?” is a good one. Better yet, you can research common issues with your camera and ask them if they’ve checked the camera for those.

Some sellers may not be able to answer all your questions or provide all the photos. There are stores that ship out of off-site warehouses and sellers inexperienced in film photography on eBay, Etsy, and local marketplaces. It’s up to you to take the risk, but you’ll need to consider what will happen if you aren’t happy with your purchase. A reputable seller with a good refund policy may be all you need. But I don’t advise new camera shoppers to spend money on anything blindly.

Ideally, an online listing will have photos of a camera from six angles (top, bottom, left, right, front, back) with close-ups of the lens. Dents and cracks are usually not good signs, so are hazy lenses. Fungus may grow on some optical elements (it looks like spider webs); you’ll notice it if you shine a strong light into the lens. You don’t want fungus as it can decrease the contrast of your images. However, scuffs, small amounts of dust in the lens, and a few cosmetic issues are usually not a problem while shooting. Remember, many of the cameras on sale are older than you and I.

You may also find mint-condition” cameras on sale. This typically means that you’ll be getting something that looks like new. (Note that “mint” refers to appearance only; thus, you should still ask the seller if the camera is in working condition.) Some “mint” cameras come in the original box; that box may be in a worse or better condition than the camera.

Though some define “mint” as spotless, sellers often use that word to highlight various degrees of better-than-average appearance. This is why you may find listings like “mint+++” or “mint-minus.” Sellers often add charts to their listings that disambiguate their various condition grades. Experienced sellers will be able to describe their cameras better and more accurately.

If your camera’s appearance is important to you, you can specifically search for “mint” items, but you should rely on product photos and sellers’ descriptions to judge the condition. If something isn’t evident, try asking the seller directly.

Listings that have “READ” in the title typically mean that the seller will describe faults with the camera in the description.

eBay auctions.

eBay auctions may give you an opportunity to buy an item for less.

I typically decide on the maximum price I’m willing to pay for an item in advance and bid about ten seconds before the auction closes (your bidding time will depend on your internet connection as well as how fast you can click the buttons). Sometimes, this means I get outbid by someone else; I’m never happy when that happens, but the alternative is going over the budget, which is not a good way to shop.