How to Pick a Good 35mm Film Camera

I have a theory about buying used photo equipment. Buy a camera that wasn’t owned by a professional photographer, but buy a lens that was owned by a professional.

Here’s my reasoning. Cameras wear out eventually, and they have a finite lifespan, greatly influenced by the number of times the shutter is fired. Cameras owned by professionals tend to have a lot of shutter actuations, or firings, thus reducing the camera’s life. Lenses, on the other hand, if cared for (like most professionals I know do) will last a very long time.

This is just my theory – I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, it just makes sense to me. So, as a result, I always try to buy used cameras that weren’t owned by professionals. How can you tell? Well, little things, like the camera coming with a case, and having no scratches or paint on the corners worn off. That’s a good sign. Professionals, especially journalists (back in the days when journalists carried real cameras), tended to buy a Nikon F2 or Canon F-1 and carry it with them everywhere, and they generally didn’t bother keeping it in a case. It had to be ready to use fast. It would typically take a beating, and even thought it was built to last a very long time, would show signs of use (like the black paint being worn, especially at the corners). You can also see signs of the paint on the edges of the back door being worn because it rubbed on a belt buckle or coat zipper all the time (if the photographer hung it around his/her neck).

Before I buy a camera, I look at it’s condition (like I mentioned above). After I buy one, I like to check things like the shutter. I generally like to see how the shutter sounds, and feels. I look through the shutter (with the back open and the lens off) as I’m firing at different speeds – to make sure it’s working. After you’ve used these kinds of cameras for a long time, you know what the shutter should sound like at different speeds. Slow shutter speeds are easier to check by ear – you can just count (one thousand one) to see if it’s about right. Faster shutter speeds are trickier – but I tend to look through the shutter as I’m shooting. If you don’t see any light when you press the shutter release, that’s a bad sign. Even at 1/2000th of a second, you’ll see a tiny amount of light. With each longer shutter speed, more and more light will be visible. This is only an estimate of shutter accuracy – you can take it to a shop do have more accurate tests done, if needed. My tests also include running a role or 2 of my favorite film through. I try to take shots at every shutter speed, in various conditions, just to be sure things are working relatively well.

Also, if you buy a camera that’s 30 or 40 years old, or more, be prepared to replace the light seals. Even if the camera description says “Mint Condition”, light seals just don’t last that long. That’s another reason I run some film though the camera. You may not need to replace the seals, but when you take a roll of photos, you will see light leaks if the seals are bad. If you don’t replace them, at some point, light will start getting in and you’ll see streaks on your photos. The last time I checked with my local repair shop, they wanted about $100 to replace light seals. You can usually find pre-cut foam seals on eBay for $10 to $15, if you want to do it yourself.

So, getting down to actual cameras. If you can find a Nikon F2 or Canon F-1 that looks to be in good physical shape, it may be a good bet that it wasn’t owned by a pro, and still has quite a bit of life in it. An F2 or F-1 that’s beat up could very well have almost all of it’s 100,000 to 150,000 shutter actuations used up. If it comes with a motor drive attached, that’s a red flag to me. If it doesn’t have a motor drive attached, but the covers on the bottom are missing, that’s a red flag. If the covers are missing, it probably had a motor drive attached for most of it’s previous life, and the covers are nowhere to be found. With these cameras (F2 or F-1) you can find resources online that can help you determine when the camera was actually built. With Nikon F & F2, there are serial number charts. With Canons, they generally have a date code stamped inside the film door. Finding one that’s in nice cosmetic condition, and was built late (near 1980 for an F2, for example) may be a good indication of a camera with a lot of life left.

To avoid buying a camera who’s life is pretty much exhausted, I sometimes like to look at Canon or Nikon semi-pro camera bodies. A Nikon FE/FM can be a good choice, and you can usually find them for a good price. Similarly, a Canon AE-1, or Pentax K1000 are both very popular and are good solid cameras. One of my favorites is the Olympus OM-1, but be careful because this model (and the original Canon F-1) require a 1.3 volt battery (originally a mercury cell that’s no longer available). So, even though you can find batteries of the right voltage online, it’s not easy. You can also have an OM-1 modified to accept 1.5 volt batteries, but I don’t like to mess with my cameras; I like to keep them as close to original as possible. Mechanical cameras (like the OM-1, Nikon FM, Canon F-1 and the Pentax K1000) don’t technically require batteries. You can operate them without batteries, but you’ll need to use a light meter app on your phone, or a physical light meter to get the correct exposure (or just guess).

Also, I tend to stay with manual focus film cameras. If you want auto focus, the Nikon F100 may be a good choice. I don’t have personal experience with that camera, but I’ve seen others recommend it.

Lenses can be a little tricky. You can look into a lens, with your naked eye, or with another lens (lupe magnifier, for example) to see marks on the glass. A quick look into the back of a lens (with your eye close to the glass) will show any dust or other marks inside. You will probably see dust spots, and small amounts of dust are pretty normal. You can also see other things, like fungus and general fogginess or haziness on the inside glass elements. This can be a problem since too much obstruction on the glass will make your images less sharp. There can be other damage to the glass and/or coatings on the glass. If you have any doubts you can always show it to someone that does repairs and get a professional opinion. High humidity is bad for glass, and a lot of the lenses you buy online have been stored in a box for years in rainforest conditions – so you need to be careful when buying lenses online. A bit of caution is always safe. I’m cautious, especially with lenses, when the seller doesn’t want returns. Free returns is always a good thing.

If you find cameras and/or lenses at a garage sale or an estate sale, the person who owned them may not be around, and the person selling them may not even be aware of what they are. You can find some good deals, and you can inspect it yourself before buying, but it may be a bit riskier than buying something at a local camera shop, from someone you know and trust.

I like to buy camera equipment from friends. You’d be surprised what people have in their attics or basements. I know the value of something when I buy from a friend, and always try to be fair. Sometimes people that don’t collect cameras don’t really know what they are worth. It’s pretty easy to check online for the value of something. If a friend has something they don’t use, they’re generally more than willing to give it up for cash – and I like buying from friends if I know they took good care of something. It can be a win-win! It’s not worth losing a friend over, though. If they find out something is worth twice what you paid them for it, they may not be too happy.

So, there you have it, my rundown of a few 35mm film cameras, and some of my reasoning on how to choose a good used camera. I’ve focused on 35mm SLR cameras, but there are others as well that are fine cameras. I just like SLRs because that’s what I’ve used most.

Let me know what you think. Do you have a favorite film camera? How do you select a good camera?