What to check when buying a used film camera and lens

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As with any second-hand purchase, it’s a good idea to have a good idea of ​​what to look for when buying a second-hand film camera, lest you spend the money. for a device that has major problems. Luckily, there are easy ways to check for problems with film cameras and their lenses… including feeling them.

Jon Legge, senior professor of photography at Coventry University in the UK, has created a 7.5 minute how-to video that shows some quick ways to check for camera body and lens issues.

The best way to test a camera is to shoot a roll of film through it, but that’s hardly ever an option when you’re buying a used camera and when you’re pressed for time (for example, if you meet a salesperson somewhere and need to make a decision relatively quickly).

Here is an overview of the different steps Legge recommends for cameras and lenses:

11 Ways to Check for Film Camera Problems

#1. Check shutter mechanism

First, open the camera back and take a close look at the shutter mechanism.

A photographer showing the inside of a 35mm film camera with its mechanical shutter
Legge showing the shutter blades of a 35mm camera.

“What I’m looking for here are the shutter blades on this camera,” says Legge. “You can see these very thin overlapping metal blades.

“What am I […] checking is to make sure there are no bulges or bends in these shutter blades. Make sure they all overlap, touch each other, and there are no scratches on them.

#2. Check the inside of the body for visible defects

In addition to examining the shutter system, look carefully all around the inside and outside of the camera body.

“The other thing I check, especially around the edges of the door, is rust or any kind of bubbling, which usually indicates the camera is being kept in a damp place and that may mean there is has something wrong inside the camera.”

#3. Feel the camera

Sometimes poorly-placed cameras can look okay on the surface but have issues in the body in places you can’t see.

“It sounds a little funny, but a really good thing you can do is feel the camera,” Legge says. “If it smells damp, it’s probably been someone’s attic for a long time or somewhere a little damp, and [it] maybe it’s better not to go [camera].”

#4. Check the light traps

While you’re still examining the inside of the camera, you’ll want to pay close attention to the condition of the light traps. It’s the bits of felt-like material that help seal the film inside the camera from light from the outside world.

These parts are located in different places in different camera models, but you should be able to tell what they are based on the material.

“I make sure all of that is still in place,” says Legge. “Sometimes as cameras age this material can break down, so if you open the back of the camera and see what looks like little black crumbs inside it could indicate that the lightfast material disintegrates.”

While there are kits you can buy to replace the hardware yourself, and while there are repair shops that can help ensure the camera is properly isolated from light, you don’t may not want to go through the hassle and extra cost of replacement. solve these problems by taking into account what you already pay for the second-hand camera.

#5. Test the shutter

You should also cock the camera and release the shutter several times to make sure there are no red flags there.

“I’m looking to make sure there’s nothing snagged inside, that everything runs smoothly and smoothly,” says Legge. “When I roll up the camera, it doesn’t stick or jam in any way, and the shutter blades completely uncover the image area.”

#6. Visually inspect the exterior of the camera

Once you’ve completed your inspection of the camera’s interior, turn your attention to the exterior and look for signs of dents and drops.

“One thing in particular I look for are dents that indicate the camera may have been dropped,” says Legge. “You tend to find them
if they are there on the pentaprism, [the] pyramid-shaped thing on top.

#seven. Listen to shutter speeds

While you can’t accurately time shutter speeds when taking a quick look at a film camera, you can hear the relative times between shutter speeds.

“For example, if I set the camera to a one-second shutter [and] release the shutter, you can hear it’s about a second,” Legge says. “If you listen very carefully, you can also hear the movement of a clock if it’s a camera with a mechanical shutter.

“This [noise] must be pleasant and equal. You don’t want it speeding up or slowing down or looking like it might get stuck.

#8. Test the shutter with Bulb mode

B (Bulb) mode on a camera keeps the shutter open as long as it’s held down, and it’s also a good feature for testing the camera.

“What I check is to make sure the shutter is firing cleanly,” says Legge. “[…] What should happen is […] there is no delay. As soon as I release this button, it [should] Click on. This is the closing of the shutter.

“If there is any lag with this, it could indicate the mechanism is a little worn or there is a problem with the camera timings.”

#9. Look through the viewfinder

Take a look through the viewfinder and look for issues.

“I’m looking for signs of marks, scratches, stuff like that,” Legge says. “You may notice the odd speck of dust which is usually not a problem – it won’t show up in your photos – but it will be a bit annoying if you have scratches on the focus screen. “

#ten. Test the light meter

If the camera has a built-in light meter, look through the viewfinder and point the camera at various items to test it.

“Check if the light meter changes depending on whether we’re pointing the camera in a dark or bright place,” advises Legge.

There is also a practical rule that can help you with this step.

“Now it’s hard to check the accuracy of the light meter unless you have another portable light meter with you,” Legge continues, “but one thing you can do is if you’re indoors in a lighted room artificially or a room with light streaming through a window, exposure is usually around ISO 400, 1/60th of a second, at f/2.8.

#11. Examine the battery compartment

If the camera uses a battery, open the battery compartment on the camera and make sure everything looks clean.

“What I’m looking for are signs of furring or corrosion, which could be caused by a leaking battery,” says Legge. “It usually looks like some kind of blue fur or something.”

3 ways to check if a lens has problems

#1. Examine the opening mechanism

Most film camera lenses have mechanical aperture systems that you can open and close with a ring or lever. Open and close the aperture blades and examine them carefully.

Opening and closing aperture blades in an old camera lens
Legge opening and closing aperture blades in an old camera lens.

“What I’m looking for are marks on these blades, especially what might look like oil or grease,” says Legge. “Some cameras, as they age, lubricant leaks into the aperture blades. If they have oil, they are unlikely to open and close quickly.

#2. Look for physical flaws in the glass

Take a look at the front and back lenses and look for physical issues in the glass. It could be both damage and the presence of fungus.

“Obviously you don’t want a lens with any serious chips or scratches on the outside,” says Legge. “The other thing I look for is that sometimes there is mold. These are usually cameras that have been stored in a damp place.

“It almost looks like little sorts of cobwebs coming from the edge of the lens.”

As with some problems with camera bodies, mold can be cleanable, whether at home or professionally, you’ll need to consider whether the risk and the extra investment is worth it.

#3. Try the focus and zoom mechanisms

Give focus and zoom (if the camera is a zoom) rings a few turns.

“Try focus and zoom […] just make sure it’s smooth,” says Legge, “that it doesn’t constrict when you turn it one way or the other and that there isn’t any kind of squeaking or creaking , which could indicate that you have some sort of sand or dust or something.

Passing these film camera tests brings peace of mind

“If you can do it quickly […] checking out a camera before you buy it, you’re reasonably sure you’ve got a good, working camera,” Legge says.

Used camera gear sold by a reputable store will almost certainly come with some sort of warranty to protect you, but these easy self-checks are invaluable when buying camera gear in a private transaction.

Watch Legge’s video above to hear him walk through these checks and demonstrate how to perform some of them. You can also find more useful camera and photography content on Skills Circle, a YouTube channel run by the Media Tech team at Coventry University’s School of Media & Performing Arts.

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