Buying your first film camera is always an exciting venture. Film is a fun and exciting venture for any photographer or photographer to be, and right now is the perfect time to get into it. But if you’re used to buying digital cameras, film is a completely different ball game with some extra considerations.
For one, none of these cameras have a way to check the shutter count, so you can’t ever know how well used a camera is. On the same token, these cameras also break down in much different ways. If they’re coming from other, humid parts of the world, there’s always the fear that they’re going to have some mold or rust breaking them down from the inside.
And sure, the cameras may look good, but it’s hard to pay over $100 and have so much pent up anticipation only for it to become a shelf ornament. So here are the 5 tests that you should always do before buying a film camera in person. But if you buy a camera on eBay, and it fails one of these 5 tests despite having a Mint+++++ description, send it back.
For the most part, I’ve been very lucky when buying cameras, but I’ve learned to spot a few issues that typically spell doom for the camera in the short or long term. For all these tests, I recommend bringing a flashlight, but usually your phone light will do in most cases.
1. Smell the inside of the camera
The sniff test can tell you a lot about a camera, but the main thing you’re looking for here is an acidic smell, or a smell of mould. If you smell either of these, you’ll know this camera has been stored in sub-optimal conditions where it has been exposed to a lot of moisture.
If that’s the case, then even if this camera is working right now, there’s a good chance that it won’t work for very long. If the camera has a lens attached, it’ll likely also have a mould or fungus problem that will affect the performance and re-sale value over time.
If the camera has that acidic smell, look at the light seals on the back of the camera. Over time, the light seal foam can break down, and when that happens, you’ll have quite the mess to clean up inside the camera. It’s rarely a death sentence, and can be cleaned up with some rubbing alcohol — but it can be a sign that the camera was stored in sub-optimal conditions.
When there’s a bad smell inside the camera, the best thing you can do is pass it back to the owner and leave it behind. That camera will not worth the trouble.
2. Look for corrosion or bubbling paint inside the camera
The next test is to look around the edges of the camera back. If the paint is bubbling, or there’s visible rust around the edges, then chances are the same can be seen inside the camera mechanisms. Film cameras have so many moving parts that even a small amount of rust can mean the camera won’t be working much longer.
If you can’t see it with your eyes in good light, use the flashlight on your phone to take a look around the edges of the camera. Depending on the materials used to make the camera, the rust often won’t be visible on the outside, so the exterior condition isn’t always a good sign that there’s going to be a problem with the camera’s operation.
3. Check for battery corrosion
This is the first step, because it’s by far the most important. Older film cameras from the 60s and 70s typically don’t require a battery to operate. But many of the more modern cameras do require a battery for either just the light meter, or to operate entirely. But almost nobody is going to give you a fresh battery when you come to test the camera. If it requires a battery to operate the shutter, do not buy the camera without putting in a fresh battery.
So before you go take a look, research the camera and bring a proper battery. If they already have a working battery in the camera, then worst case you’ve got an extra.
When you insert the battery, check the compartment for corrosion. If the camera was stored for 15 or 20 years with a battery inside, sometimes that corrosion can actually follow the wires into the camera, corroding the wiring from the inside out. If you see a lot of green inside the battery compartment, then this is likely the case and the camera light meter, or worse, the entire system, won’t be functional.
4. Check the shutter mechanism and film advance
The second test that I always do is to check if the camera shutter fires. Most films cameras have a lever on the top right that you pull out, though some medium format cameras, like TLRs have a pop-out lever that you rotate to advance the film.
Make sure it doesn’t feel like there’s something crunching inside when you advance the film lever. If it’s smooth, chances are everything is going as planned. Then release the shutter and listen for that click.
Then, the next step is to open the camera back and repeat this test. Watch the shutter curtain to make sure it’s advancing properly, and that it actually opens and moves as intended.
If something feels loose, or you run into any problems with the camera, it’s usually best to hand it back to the owner and move onto the next one. In some cases it’s possible to fix, but in others it can become a very costly venture.
5. Make sure the light seals are intact
While you have the camera back open, this is the best time to check the seals. These seals tend to break down with age, but you’ll need to do this test to make sure it’s safe to run a test roll through the camera. As if the light seals are bad, you could come back with a bunch of negatives that aren’t properly exposed, and have tons of light patches all over the place. When that happens, it’s hard to diagnose any other issues that could be occurring with the camera.
So the best way to know if you need to replace the light seals is to check around the back casing near the edges of the camera. If there are a lot of thick, gooey black spots everywhere, the entire camera will need to be cleaned and resealed. This job is fairly easy to do yourself, but it’s typically advisable to send a camera like this to a professional for a CLA. This is a standard cleaning procedure that usually needs to be completed every 10 years, where a technician will clean out any gunk and re-lubricate the camera shutter. Usually adding a light seal replacement to a CLA job should be fairly cheap.
6. Set it in bulb mode and look inside the camera for mold or fungus
This test is really important. It’s where you’re going to look around the camera and really see how well it’s been taken care of. Take the lens off the camera, set the camera to bulb mode, and take a look around the camera with the flashlight on the back of your camera. Bulb mode keeps the camera shutter open until you release the shutter button. If you have trouble holding it down, it can be a good idea to purchase a shutter release cable, like this one on Amazon, that will allow you to lock the shutter open.
Once it’s open, use your flashlight to look around the inside of the camera. Look for rust, scratches, mold, fungus, or anything that looks like the camera degrading from the inside. If you can see some rust or mold here, there’s also likely the same thing clogging up the camera mechanisms.
If you’d like to learn how fungus can ruin image quality as well as the resale value of your camera gear, check out this article. Fungus is no laughing matter. I’d absolutely recommend passing up any camera body that shows even the smallest amount of fungus. In some cases, it can even spread to other camera bodies and lenses, making it an absolute blight on your camera gear.
While you’re looking inside the camera, check these signs
Next, release the bulb mode, and watch how well the shutter closes. If it’s slow to close on one side, that could mean that the images will be darker on one side than the other — a difficult problem to fix in post or in the darkroom.
At this stage, I also always check the camera shutter for signs of wear and light leaks. If it’s a cloth shutter, they sometimes develop holes over time. Place the light from your flashlight over the back of the camera when the shutter is closed, and look through the front of the camera. If you press it against your face to cover the outside, you shouldn’t see any light.
If you do find a bit of a leak, it’s an easy fix with a light touch of liquid electrical tape, like this one on Amazon. Let this tape dry as per the instructions on the bottle so it doesn’t clog up the shutter curtain area and do more damage to the camera. But a small amount will completely fix the problem.
Also look for signs of finger prints, which could mean the owner was having some trouble with it.
7. Test the slow shutter speeds
After you’ve ensured the camera is clean, the next step is to look at how accurate the shutter speeds are. One the mechanical cameras, it’s always the slower shutter speeds that break down over time. Most of them use spring tension, so if the camera was stored improperly, that tension may change the speed.
The best way to test the shutter speed is usually to look for the 1 second speed. If the camera doesn’t have a 1-second timing, then use the slowest timing available.
Cock the shutter, and set up a stopwatch on your phone. Let it run, and when you feel comfortable, release the shutter and count how long the 1-second shutter speed takes. If it’s off by 1/10 of a second, it won’t be an issue. But if it’s off by 1/20th or 1/30th of a second, your exposures will be inaccurate at the slower speeds.
This problem isn’t a cheap or easy fix. Typically if it’s off by too much, the best bet is to leave the camera behind.
So there you have it! Are there any tests that you make sure to do every time? Let me know in the comments below, or post about it on the official Learn Film Photography Facebook Group!
Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer. Discover his newest publications at Soft Grain Books, or check out the print shop.