Things I Learned in Five Years of Thrifting Film Cameras

Things I Learned in Five Years of Thrifting Film Cameras

2200 1238 Roberto Felipe

In the five years that I’ve been hunting for and shooting cameras, the film camera economy has changed a lot (for better or worse). The rise in popularity of the medium has lead to some cameras being over-hyped – those special cameras spotted in movies or shows, or in the hands of a celebrity or influencer. And still other hidden gems are still out there waiting to be picked up and used. We just need to know where and how to find them. I’m here to help!

Here is some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years that has helped me add to my ever-growing collection of film cameras.

Where to find them

One of the positives to come from the film renaissance is the ability of the average hobbyist to obtain a film camera has greatly expanded. The past decade has seen a resurgence in the number of retail and online camera shops selling refurbished and tested cameras of all types. These wonderful shops have joined the old standards of local thrift shops and eBay, and each offers today’s camera buyer their own unique positives and liabilities. Here’s the break down.

Pros and Cons of Dedicated Camera Shops

  • Low risk : Reputable camera shops sell tested or refurbished cameras that are guaranteed to work, and sometimes come with a warranty.
  • Super convenient (like shopping for a new summer outfit).
  • Decent choice : Depending on the site and what you’re looking for, online shops may or may not have something that tickles your fancy).
  • Premium price : Buying from a shop comes with a higher cost. Shops take the time and money to test and/or fix the cameras up to guarantee their performance, thus the risk is low.

Pros and Cons of eBay

  • Medium risk : Cameras are often sold untested, however some sellers take returns, and with eBay backing the transaction you’re usually protected.
  • Somewhat convenient (also like shopping for a summer fit, except you have to shop around a lot and each seller may have a different buying method like buy it now, bids, offers, different conditions of the product, more or less accessories, etc., so it can take a bit of digging to narrow down the options)
  • All the choices : Aside from the rarest of the rare, eBay is like the Google search engine of film cameras. I almost never have an issue finding someone that’s selling a camera I’m interested in.
  • Market Price : eBay often costs less than a dedicated camera shop. Sometimes even some deals can be made to go below market value.

Thrift and Antique Stores

  • High Risk : Most cameras we find thrifting are untested, collecting dust, and likely need a bit of elbow grease to get them up to snuff.
  • Inconvenient : Aside from Goodwill having a website you can shop from, sorry in advance to your wallet, thrifting usually involves physically going to second hand stores and antique shops. But that’s beauty of it!
  • Limited Choices : Thrifting is like hunting. You do it for the thrill and you go out not expecting to come back with anything. But when you score you SCORE. And it’s the adventure that brings you back. (I’ve never hunted a day in my life but this seems like a good analogy.)
  • Bargain Deals : Most of the time these stores haven’t tested a thing which results in the risk level being so high. However it’s also why you could score big while spending so little.

Research, Research, Research

This is arguably the most important piece of advice, no matter where you choose to shop. You have to do your research.

Sites like the one you’re reading right now, old timey forums, and even the wonderful world of YouTube are your best friends. The beauty of shopping for film cameras is that they’ve all been reviewed in some capacity at some point in time. Which means you can find out about a camera’s strengths, weaknesses and the occasional quirk. This will save you from making avoidable mistakes like investing in a camera that has known reliability issues. It can also help you find a hidden gem.

For instance, I recently acquired a Canon T70. Before researching it, I didn’t really consider picking one up, but the design kept calling my name. The majority of my findings pointed to the fact these cameras have held up well overtime, can be found for relatively inexpensive and are part of a line up of Canon cameras that are some of the last to be compatible with their FD lenses. I scooped it up for just shy of $40 and it’s proven much of that research to be correct!

On the flip side, when you don’t research before hand you can end up with a paperweight. I found a Canon A35F, in remarkable condition via Goodwill. After I purchased it I did some digging and found this really to be an in-between model that was viewed as rushed to market and flawed in design, quickly replaced by a more capable and thoughtful model.

I crossed my fingers anyway, but despite my hopes and dreams, the camera was a lemon. The flash fired inconsistently, the film advance lever fires the shutter sometimes, the shutter doesn’t always open and sometimes just gets stuck. On the outside it’s beautiful and on the inside it’s a nightmare. It’s since been relegated to shelf decor.

Which brings me to the crux of the thing that is thrifting. It’s a gamble, no matter how you slice it. You’re entering a larger than life casino and you need to only put up what you can afford to lose. There is some low risk routes, as mentioned, but sometimes it just comes down to luck. You have a chance at coming out on top. However, be smart, do your research and if it’s too good to be true it almost certainly is.

The hunt for film cameras has some bonus perks. I have run into scenarios that involve getting some unexpected expired film along with the camera. I’m often introduced to accessories I hadn’t thought about before, but suddenly have the opportunity to try. From telephoto or macro lenses, a variety of filters, and countless camera bags that all have a unique character to them. It adds to the experience of it all, and sometimes those bonuses can turn a camera that doesn’t turn out to be so great into a purchase of value.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Whatever avenue you choose to find your first or next film camera, have fun with it. These cameras are often decades old and come in all shapes, sizes, and conditions. The story of your experience, getting your hands around the camera itself, can add to the journey you’re about to go on with it. Being able to experience film cameras from different eras that have seen many things is another element that makes shooting film so special to me. It’s a beautiful hobby and profession that connects people in a way that can be hard to put into words. I suppose that’s where pictures come in.

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13 comments
  • Nice article, Roberto.

    I started buying old film cameras in thrift stores back in 2013 mainly for their lenses, which I adapted to my Olympus mirrorless. Pretty soon I had a small shelf of film cameras, which led me back to shooting film. The thrill of the hunt is definitely real, and made all the worse by G.A.S.

    Your point about doing your homework is a double edged sword. Case in point, I would never have known about the Yashica T4 had it not been for this blog, and several others, and would likely not have bothered with it. Go figure, I would eventually go on to find not one, not two, but three of them in thrift stores for a grand total of less than $20. Two of those have gone on to new homes.

    That said, I’ve been able to take cameras that I didn’t want or need and after cleaning, testing and re-sealing them, sell them at a reasonable profit to fund other, more desirable cameras that I wanted.

    One thing I do want to point out is that online shops like UsedPhotoPro and KEH will often sell cameras with 6 month warranties for substantially less than what eBay sellers are asking. I just picked up a Polaroid SX-70 from UPP for $60 with its original leather case, manuals, and two partially used flash bars. The only flaw with it is the (plastic?) trim coverings, which are worn and cracked from age and easily replaced.

    All that to say, that time, patience and some elbow grease are often your best friends when it comes to buying these beautiful classic cameras.

  • Jerome (EarthSunFilm) August 3, 2023 at 8:21 pm

    Nice article! Over the last four years, I’ve bought cameras from Goodwill, eBay and camera stores. I have scored big from Goodwill. For example, I got a Maxxum 7D for display because I could never buy one outright, but it works perfectly and looks great.

    eBay has been good for buying lots. I have bought lots where the seller tossed in cameras/lenses never mentioned. An Olympus e300 with full lens set and extra batteries was tossed in with a Maxxum 5 purchase. Once three books and a packaged set of SR-T parts camera as part of a lot.

    I’ve fared best by interacting with sellers on Goodwill and eBay before buying. I’ve only come up short once—for 25.00.

  • Hiii one more time, great article.
    Now I dont take photos because these dirty financial and ultra rich people dictature disgusts me like WEF, these people who are sponsoring war in Europe !!! But I have many cameras I have bought under very good advices from here and Ken Rockwell.
    I have bought in famous stores all over the world or also from Ebay : no problem. My favorite camera the M3 black versus from 1965.
    These great articles from here or Ken Rockwell have drived me to great cameras. Casualphotophile and Ken Rockwell are the last two web sites I only follow, the others I have told them : bye bye !!!
    Gratitude for your work James and all the great writers here.

  • Goodwill has become awful at actually putting cameras onto their shelves. I used to find cameras all the time that I love using at Goodwill but now their greed got the best of them and they list them on their auction site where every decent camera is bid up to eBay level prices. It sucks.

    • Agreed. Nearly every camera that comes to Goodwill now finds its way to their ShopGoodwill.com auction site. A couple years ago, you might be able to find good deals on this site, but not anymore. GoodWill is in the business to make money, and they know idiots will bid up cameras to high prices, so that’s now their process with any digital or film camera.

    • Why is Goodwill greedy? They have a duty to raise as much money as possible for their job training programs. Their responsibility is not to keep prices low for people like us.

  • Agreed, thrift stores can be a minefield. One local one recently put out a thoroughly clapped-out Nikon F80 without a battery and no accessories whatsoever, for the (to me anyway) phenomenally high price of AUD $180. I predicted it would rot on the shelf. It sold in two days. One is born every minute, as someone once said…

    My best two finds in these types of stores were made on the same day, in two shops in a small Australian country town I happened to be passing through. The first find was an almost mint condition circa 1950 Zeiss Nettar camera with the 80/3.5 Novar, a green filter, a lens hood, a case and a strap, for AUD $60.

    The other, in a nearby shop, was a Voigtlander Perkeo I with the legendary 75/3.5 Color Skopar, in its original case with the instruction manual, which I snared for AUD 450. The shutter speeds were a tad slow in those lower than 1/25 and I had to have these fixed, which added a further AUD $100 to my original cost. But well worth it.

    Both were in clapped-out ancient camera bags and tucked away on shelves well away from where such goodies are usually put out by these sorts of shops.

    The Perkeo is by far the best to use for color. The Zeiss does superb black-and-white. Both produce negatives I can easily enlarge to 8×10″ in my home darkroom. In fact I could probably go larger, but I don’t print any bigger than those sizes. Usually a square 5.5×5.5″ print on 5×8″ paper (an 8×10″ sheet sliced in two pieces), suffices for all my needs.

    The great finds in cameras and other photo gear are more rare now, but still can be found out there if one adopts a lateral approach and looks in unexpected places.

    Now, if I could only find a magical source of usable 120 roll film being sold cheaply, without the need to auction off one of my kidneys to pay for a ten pack…

    Best regards from DANN in Indonesia.

  • Sometimes thrifting works out very well, sometimes it doesn’t. Overall, I have had good luck buying cameras and lenses from thrift shops or garage sales. I once bought a working Minolta XD-11 from a local garage sale, with MD 50mm f/2 lens for literally $2 USD. The camera worked fine for about 18 months, before the shutter decided to implode. I didn’t pay to have it fixed though, since the camer was essentially free. I also found an excellent Olympus Infinity Twin point and shoot at a thrift shop for $4 USD that still works well.

    But the vast majority of the film photography gear I have purchased over the past 6-7 years has come from Ebay and KEH. I prefer being able to research which camera or lens I want to find first, then search for it on Ebay or KEH, and try to find the best value that I can. It’s nice to have a wide variety of choices. Rather than go with a camera or lens in like new condition, and pay an above average price, most of my items are “bargain” grade (KEH term), or a little “scratch-and-dent”. Cosmetic issues don’t confront me, as long as the item functions normally. That’s how I was able to get my Mamiya 645 1000s, with 80mm lens, and metered viewfinder for $265 a few years ago, for example, because it had some peeling leatherette issues. There’s no way anyone could find a working version of this camera today for the same price, due both to inflation and the fact that prices for all desirable cameras have gone up quite a bit in that time. I generally prefer going with Ebay or KEH because of the selection available, and because I generally know what I want to buy.

  • Good article. You can get some excellent buys. I bought an Olympus Mju Zoom 80 on eBay and as nobody else bid, I got it for its starting price of 1p. Okay the P&P was around £2.75 but as it worked perfectly, counted as a good buy. I also bought one of the excellent, and very underrated and commented on Pentax AF35 M compacts with its 5 element dead sharp lens for only £1.20 off eBay. Cheap because the seller listed it as faulty because ‘every time he switched it on it started whirring’. It just had a film inside that had come off the sprockets as he kept opening it up – it works perfectly and takes really sharp pictures.

  • You pictured a Nikon Lite Touch 70 for your artcle. Possibly the best P&S every made. I have had it for 5 years with zero problems. I only shoot with it occassionally when I want something light as I perfer to shoot manual when the situation calls for it. Get close and make a portrait with this camera and be amazed. I recently enlarged a portrait in the darkroom to 30 X 40 and it was as good as any I’ve ever printed in 35mm.

  • Most antique shops and thrift shops have gotten wise in recent years, and are at least checking Ebay sold listings when setting a price for vintage cameras they are selling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a new thrift shop, and they have a couple of dusty SLRs in their front case by the cash register, with hugely inflated prices. I’m talking about seeing dirty Canon AV-1 with crusty-looking Soligor 35-70mm shitty zoom lens, with asking price of $150. Or something like a Konica Autoreflex TC with no lens or body cap, with asking price of $100. Or even a shitty Kodak Instamatic, that you can’t even get film for, with price tag of $40-50. Seems there’s very few good deals to be found in thrift shops these days anymore either.

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