Snapping up antique camera bargains

By Geoff Harris

Anyone who attends flea markets or antique fairs on a regular basis will have noticed that there is a usually a dealer or two selling old cameras. While it’s tempting to assume that anything with bellows, shiny metal or the patina of age is a worth snapping up, not all old cameras are made equal. Here’s a quick guide to the basics of collecting film, and possibly, digital cameras.

If you just want something interesting-looking to put on a bookshelf or cabinet, or to decorate a bedroom, a folding Kodak Box Brownie with bellows is a good start. You should be able to pick one up for around £50-£100, depending on condition, and they look great. The archetypal ‘boxy’ Brownie is something of a design classic too, as is the 1950s Brownie 127, made from bakelite. I recently got a nice clean 127 from a car boot sale for a paltry £5.

Brownies aside, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for a really old-fashioned looking cameras and there are certain names in particular to look for. According to antique camera expert John Wade, “old wood and brass cameras seem to also be enjoying a jump in value, so watch for names like Sanderson and Thornton Pickard.” Before the explosion in 35mm SLR cameras in the 1960s and the rise of the Japanese makers, there were a lot of smaller players.

And then there is the L word. “Anything Leica will always hold its price, with cameras like the IIIG and M3 slowly creeping up in price,” John adds. Even non-photographers are likely to have heard of Leica, a historic German brand which counted some of the 20th century’s most influential documentary and war photographers as patrons. It’s now well-established as a luxury brand like Rolex or Louis Vuitton, selling high-priced limited editions to well-heeled punters (some of whom don’t know their aperture from their ISO).

Leica’s generally superb lenses also have a quasi-mystical reputation, with evocative names such as Summichron and Summilux. They are highly sought-after, since many can still be used on modern digital cameras via adaptors. You’re unlikely to snaffle a bargain Leica camera body or lens any more, but if you do come across branded gear at a reasonable price, it’s definitely worth checking out. Leica digital cameras also hold their value better than most competitors too, particularly the manual focus ‘rangefinder’ models.

Another brand to look out for, albeit harder to find, is Wrayflex. Wray was a plucky British company making SLRs after the war, and there is some good background on the company here .

“Wrayflex I and Ia cameras seem to be growing in value – what once went for £150-200 has started seeing sales of £350-400,” notes John. “Strangely, the Wrayflex II which is the rarest of the Wray cameras has remained at a static price for years, usually around £550-600.”

If you are happy to spend that amount of money, another good choice is a Rolleiflex TLR (this stands for twin-lens reflex as the camera uses two lenses). Rolleis are real style icons, and a lot of working photographers still run through film through them, particularly for portraiture and street work. “Rolleiflex TLRs continue to enjoy buoyant and slightly rising sales figures, although other non-Rollei twin lens reflexes don’t command quite what they once did,” says John. The Rolleiflex T makes a great introduction to medium format TLR film photography, and looks simply fantastic.

If you’d rather not spend that much, and simply want a well-built SLR you can still take good photographs with today, a lot of the older Japanese models are bulletproof – and reasonably plentiful. The Canon A-1 looks really cool in jet black and takes the full range of bayonet and breech-lock FD lenses, along with the FL lenses that preceded them. There is a certain amount of automation to help less experienced users, and the 50mm f/1.8 lens is well suited to street, documentary and travel photography.

Older Olympus OM series SLRs are also a lot of fun; the OM10s have gone up in value recently, particularly if they come with the quality 50mm f/1.8 lens, and the OM 1 and 2s are noticeably more valuable. A lot of older film SLRs are prized by modern photographers and video makers for their lenses; they have a retro charm and particular ‘look’ and as mentioned, can now be used on a wide range of modern digital cameras via adaptors.

So are old digital cameras worth anything? It depends on the model – anything with Leica on the front will still attract interest, but sadly, digital camera electronics date really quickly. There are a lot of specialist retailers who will give you a quote, however, such as MPB . Older mirrorless digital cameras (non SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses) can also often be converted to infrared for a couple of hundred quid, generating interesting and eye-catching pictures. When it comes to selling on any antique cameras, there are now more specialist auction houses, but they will charge a commission; you may get a better deal with some of the used dealers who advertise in Amateur Photographer magazine. Camera fairs are another good place to buy and sell, but few are taking place at the moment owing to the virus.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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