Tips for Buying Used Cameras Online

There seems to be no end to the number of used cameras on eBay or other sales sites like Etsy. Everything from the old 120 and 620 film cameras, plate cameras, and everything in between, up to and including today’s most advanced digital models. If you’re into film there are literally thousands of cameras to choose from. Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Yashica, Minolta, and Rollei—they’re all there and so many, many more. Looking for a Daci Royal? You might find one on eBay, as I did. How about an Olympus Pen E-PL1? Got mine on eBay. A Nikon D90 Yep, on eBay. Not only can you find the cameras you want, you can find just about every accessory available for that model. It’s simply amazing what you can find.

"Kicking It Old School" captured by Andrew Raby. (Click image to see more from Andrew Raby.)

“Kicking It Old School” captured by Andrew Raby. (Click image to see more from Andrew Raby.)

Everyone dreams of finding that special camera. That pristine Minolta SRT101, or maybe that sweet, like new Olympus OM1. Or maybe you’re into the twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras and looking for that really perfect Yashica 635 or a Kodak Reflex 1A. The truth is, they’re online at places like eBay, Amazon, and others. I’ve seen some really sweet cameras out there that I would not hesitate to buy, like the Yashica 44A I have that’s in mint condition. Another one I have is a really pristine Kodak 1A Pocket folder that looks unused and is in perfect working condition. I also found a wonderful Kodak Six-20 Brownie Junior that takes absolutely beautiful pictures! I’ve been fortunate and lucky in my finds. But not always.

Buying a camera—whether vintage or new—on eBay is a gamble, and you have to put your entire trust into the seller and how they represent the item. You don’t have the option to handle, look at, or test the camera. Generally, sellers like Cameta Camera, Adorama, KEH Camera, and Henry’s of Canada are reputable places and will back their sales. It’s not that often that anyone would get stuck with something less than they wanted from any reputable online seller. Plus, these sellers will always be there to answer questions before and after the sale and to handle any issues you might have. I trust them!

But, there are those out there selling cameras online that, without bad intentions, will often cause you nothing but problems. Many of these sellers find their cameras at estate auctions, garage sales, maybe a thrift store or a flea market. The camera looks nice to the untrained eye, and if it goes “click” it is assumed it works. I can’t tell you how many auction ads I’ve read where the item is described as “clicker works” or “I clicked it” and it works. I cringe every time I read that! These are the words of a non-photographer seller who’s passing along what they assume is a nice camera. As I mentioned, it’s not intentional and they truly mean no misrepresentation in the sales. Like someone that would advertise a Minolta SRT 101 from the 80s. There are no 80s SRT101s, as production stopped in 1976. During that ten year production period from 1966 to 1976, there were only four models produced; however, this seller believes that this is the period the item is from and unintentionally puts in in his ad, not to deceive, but simply because he does not know. If it looks good, and its “clicker” works, then it’s gotta be working, right? Not so fast there, friend!

I’ve been buying used cameras online for quite a while now, and yes, I’ve been stuck with what I refer to as a bench parts camera sold as working and in excellent condition. On the up side, I have never had any problem getting any refund or return handled…yet. But, it is disappointing to await your prize only to find it’s not at all what you thought or even what the seller thought. So here are a few tips on buying a used camera on line, especially from an individual seller.

"Rollieflex SL35M" captured by Joaquim Prado . (click image to see more from Joaquim Prado .)

“Rollieflex SL35M” captured by Joaquim Prado . (click image to see more from Joaquim Prado .)

1. Find out where the camera came from and or who had it. Is it an estate sale, garage sale, flea market? I want to know who had the camera and how it was handled and used. If I can’t lock in on that, I usually pass. If it was an estate sale from a collector or photographer, I might look further. It’s like buying a car. Was it the “little ole’ lady that only drove it on Sunday” or is it a flood car from Hurricane Sandy?

2. Get as many pictures of it as you can and be critical on looking at close ups. They reveal a lot of detail; look at them more than once. More often than not, you will see scuffs, cracks, breaks, rust, dirt, corrosion, etc. after looking at the pictures over and over. Put it in your watch list and refer to it often. Pay particular attention to corners, creases, recesses, knobs, and glass for any signs of dirt or excessive wear. Look for identification marks scratched on the back and bottom by previous owners. I just saw one recently that had a previous owner’s social security number scratched on the bottom plate. There are data bases where you can research stolen items but it will cost you a few bucks. Never buy without looking at the actual camera. Stock pictures used by a seller will get passed by me every time. I don’t bother with them if they cannot show me the actual item I’m buying.

3. Ask detailed questions about the camera. Does the shutter fire correctly at all speeds? Does the aperture ring rotate smoothly? Do the aperture blades have any oil on them? What does the lens glass look like under heavy light? If you’re into cameras, then you know what to ask and you know what the answer should be. And if they can’t answer it, you most likely have someone who has no idea of what he or she is selling. I tend to not go for the “I’m selling it for a friend” routine. Like I said, it’s not intentional, just ill-informed.

4. Ask to see pictures taken with the camera. When I sell a camera, I always try to include a picture that was taken with it. Obviously, film takes longer to get and have processed, especially the old 120 and 620s, but it’s available. I’m selling an old Falcon Miniature 127 film camera on Etsy, and I’ve included two photos taken with that camera. This will show you any light leaks, slow shutter speeds, lens distortions, fungus, or dirt. It will also prove whether or not the film advance is working correctly. It proves beyond doubt that the camera is indeed working. I once found a Yashica Electro 35 at a flea market and it had the original battery in it. Battery was still functional and the meter was good. I got it home, dropped in some 35mm film, and off I went. It took some really amazing photos. The seller wanted $5 for the camera. I paid $3. I used it for about two months and enjoyed it very much. I put it up for auction on eBay, gave a full disclosure of where I got it and how it was working, including two pictures I took with the camera, and ended up selling it for $65—still with the original battery in it! It was a real gem of a find, and the buyer is very happy with it!

5. Compare, compare, and compare. Many times a seller will not have any real idea of the actual worth of the camera. Like my Yashica Electro 35. Sometimes they sell too low and you get a real bargain…or junk. I managed to get a Pentax K1000 for $15 and it’s in perfect working condition. I’m keeping that one! Look at many auctions. Never jump on the first “deal” you see. I’ve done it and it has come back to bite me. When I’m looking I usually have about ten or fifteen cameras in my watch list. Keep looking and do your homework. I shy away from any marked as cleaned, lubed, and adjusted (CLA’d) unless it was done by a reputable company I’m familiar with. For example, if it’s an older camera that requires one of the old mercury 1.35 volt batteries, make sure that is the battery (Wein power cell replacement) that’s in it. Sure a 1.5 will work, but the light meter will be off and another problem is the 1.5 drops in voltage too quickly and thus so will the ability of the light meter to function correctly. I never buy one that has been “adjusted” to use a newer 1.5 volt battery. To me that is camera blasphemy! Power cell replacements for the old 1.35 mercurys are available and they are designed for camera use.

"Argus 75" captured by Colby Johnson. (Click image to see more from Colby Johnson.)

“Argus 75” captured by Colby Johnson. (Click image to see more from Colby Johnson.)

6. Know the camera. If you’re looking for that really nice Rollei, then research the model you want. Is it a Rolleiflex or is it a Rolleicord, and which is the more expensive and collectible of the two? Know the years made, the year production stopped, the standard lens used, the shutter speed range, and aperture settings. Learn everything you can about that camera. Why? Two reasons. One, if you expect to use it, you’ll know how it will function and what its limitations are. And two, if you’re looking at the camera online and certain parts don’t match what the research tells you, it’s possible it’s been “refurbished” by someone unknowledgeable about original parts or who has taken two different models and made one working camera. A $1200 Rolleiflex becomes an expensive paperweight if it’s found to be not all original.

One more thing. When you buy it and the camera finally arrives, smell the inside of it! Yes, smell it. If it smells like WD-40, I’d be working out a return—soon!

As I mentioned, there are literally thousands of cameras to choose from online. I just searched eBay for 120 film cameras and got 1862 possibles. The first one is a Yashica 635 with a conversion kit. Next up is a Mamiya RZ67 with 90mm lens. Both look nice. But, looks can be deceiving. Never judge a book by its cover. The same goes for buying a used camera online.

About the Author:
C.G. Veach has a little shop on Etsy ( and is a combat wounded Vietnam veteran who served in Cat Lo, RVN in 69 & 70. He served with the U.S. Coast Guard Sqdrn-1 Div-13 on the Point Grace (CG82323) running coastal and river patrols in the Mekong Delta.

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