How to Buy Vintage Cameras You’ll Love at Flea Markets

It’s nice to find deals at flea markets. If you browse Reddit, you probably encounter users who score really big at flea markets. Of course, there are lots of folks who don’t know what they’re selling and instead just want to get rid of the junk they’ve accumulated. Vintage cameras are surely worth looking at. Not only are they often gorgeous, but they can also provide a rewarding experience. We’ve been going to flea markets for years and exploring a bunch of vintage cameras. Here’s what we’ve learned along the way and what you should keep in mind.

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Try the Camera, and Ask Yourself These Questions

First off, hold and try the camera. Be gentle with it, but also use it the way you normally would. Pick it up, feel it, squeeze it, and be sure to try the film advance if it has one. Open it up and inspect the various areas. Anyone that has nothing to hide will let you do that. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How is the take-up spool? Does it feel weak?
  • How is the viewfinder? Is it clean?
  • How is the film-loading area? Can you imagine how film would go through it?
  • Does it need a battery? Are you sure? Are you really, really sure? Fun fact: a lot of Polaroid cameras need a battery.
  • Is the battery compartment in good, working condition? Or is it corroded because someone left a battery in there for years?
  • Take the lens off if you can. How does it look inside?
  • How is the shutter?
  • Does it work at various shutter speeds?
  • Is the aperture working?
  • How is the light meter? If it’s not working, how easy is it to fix? How expensive is the repair job? 

The Problem with Autofocus Cameras

Generally speaking, autofocus cameras can have a ton of problems. Early autofocus cameras required batteries, had faulty shutters, and didn’t have weather resistance. That means they eventually wore down and ended up in a dumpster. Mechanical cameras have this problem less frequently. Manual focus means you need to work a bit more, but you’re better off. 

Specifically, we tend to reach for cameras that have mechanical shutters. This means the shutter works mechanically and doesn’t require batteries. The sweet spot is getting a mechanical camera that only needs a battery to power the light meter. 

Of course, this isn’t the case with all autofocus cameras. But generally speaking, it’s the best rule to go by. 

Can You Get It Repaired?

Lots of flea market sales folks tell you you can buy the camera from them and then get it repaired. Often, this isn’t the case. Canon isn’t going to source a part for you to replace the film advance on your QL17. So instead, you need to get it 3D printed or a repair person will need to buy another one for the part and charge you for it. 

Generally speaking, if you have to repair the camera or the lens, don’t get it.

Think About How You’d Use the Vintage Camera

You most likely have a digital camera at home. But how would you use your vintage camera? You’ll need to load it with film, but would you use it often? What’s the point of buying it? Think about how you’d use the vintage camera and consider whether or not you just have gear lust or you’ll actually use it. There’s nothing worse than a vintage camera sitting on a shelf and doing nothing.

Digital Vintage Cameras Are Often Not Worth It

Seriously, vintage digital cameras are really not worth it most of the time. I’ve walked by camera stands where guys were selling Olympus E1 DSLRs with missing battery covers, no body-cap, and more problems. Then they’d want to charge me over $100. Quite honestly, vintage digital isn’t worth it unless it’s Leica. Most companies wouldn’t service those cameras anyway.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.