Collecting vintage cameras has become more popular in recent years, especially as digital cameras have replaced film cameras in most homes as the first choice for family and holiday snapshots. Collectors should follow a few simple guidelines when considering vintage cameras, whether they are collecting for fun or hoping to find rarities that will gain value in the future.
- Find out what cameras are collectible and which are just junk. Get a vintage camera collector’s guide, such as the McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras. The guide is large and expensive but is the most comprehensive book on vintage cameras on the market. Watch auctions on eBay and see which cameras get a lot of bids. These two sources alone can help you become familiar with vintage cameras.
- Poke around antique stores, thrift stores, flea markets and vintage camera shops. Look at the cameras that are available and see what prices these stores are asking. While browsing, you should pick up the cameras and give them a good going-over, checking for dirt, rust, mold and other conditions that might make the camera inoperable. You should also try the mechanics of the camera to see what works and what doesn’t. The more you handle vintage cameras, the more familiar you will become with the various brands and styles that are out there, as well as what a mint-condition camera versus a poor-condition camera looks and feels like.
- Look for cameras that were extremely popular brands and that were produced in high quantities, which may be easy to find in a decent used condition. These are great cameras to search out, especially for vintage camera collectors who wish to use the cameras to take photos and not just to display or resell them. Leica, Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Yashica are all well-known brands that created quality products. Beware of cameras that have no name on them or that are imprinted with brand names you don’t recognize. While some of these might be decent cameras, it is always a good idea to do the research first and find out before you buy. You will become familiar with the common cameras quickly, and after some study, the rare finds will begin to stand out.
- Look for cameras that will hold their value for a long time. Usually these are cameras that introduced new, groundbreaking technology when they were released or that became known as workhorses–cameras that could function well for a long time with little maintenance. Leica cameras were the first 35 mm cameras that were compact and portable and have maintained a lifetime reputation for being great cameras with exceptional lenses. Argus was the first American compact 35 mm camera, which sold for $12.50 when it first hit stores in 1936. While their value isn’t very high, vintage Argus “Bricks” can still be found in good working order, and they make great 35 mm cameras for amateur photographers who want to play around with manual film cameras. Rollei was a popular brand, especially for their medium format Rolleiflex, which was used by several fine art photographers. Rolleiflex cameras are still easy to find in good working condition. The Nikon F introduced an updated SLR design that made it much easier for photojournalists to use it in the field. Nikon still produces the F series, so there are several generations of these to be found, from the original through to the more recent F6. There are other great cameras to look for; just do your research and find one that suits your style.
- Decide what is of value to you and then start learning all about that type of camera if you want to collect vintage cameras. Small, portable cameras have been marketed to consumers since the 1920s. Millions of makes and types of cameras have been produced since that time. Some vintage camera enthusiasts are photographers first and want to collect cameras that will be usable either as is or with some minor cleaning and repairs. Photographers frequently collect several of the same kind of camera so that they can use the ones in good condition for photos and the others can be broken down for parts. Other collectors have no intention of using the cameras but are interested in finding and collecting vintage pieces to display for nostalgia or in hunting down rare treasures to resell them.
Tips & Warnings
- Visit your local vintage camera shops, thrift stores and antique stores frequently. In many places, the turnover of stock happens quickly, and frequent visits will allow you to keep up with what’s coming in. Also, the more that store owners get to know you and what you’re looking for, the more likely they are to start buying those items from others and letting you know about them.
- If you’re looking for vintage cameras that are still in working order, become familiar with how to check camera functions and how to clean old cameras. Some conditions, such as mold in the lens, are not easily reversed and make the camera inoperable unless you replace the lens.