Purchasing your 1st Medium Format Camera
When I decided to purchase my first medium format camera, I quickly became overwhelmed by the extraordinary myriad of options and opinions on the internet. And being a newcomer to the world of 120 film cameras, didn’t know where to start. And although I am clearly throwing my opinions into the chaotic void of the world wide web, I hope to help provide some guide posts that may make your journey into medium format a little easier so that soon you can be out taking amazing photographs.
TO NARROW YOUR SEARCH START BY MAKING A FEW BASIC DECISIONS
New or Used?
There are a few small indie camera manufacturers that still sell new medium format cameras. The Holga 120CFN, a simple plastic camera originating from 1980s China, has recently been revived and costs around $40. Several more cameras have been revived by Lomography () such as the Diana F+ (similar to Holga and priced around $50), the Lubitel 166+ (a Russian TLR priced at $350), and the LC-A 120 Film Camera (priced between $430-$500). As I have yet to purchase a any of the aforementioned cameras, I cannot make a valid recommendation. If you are seeking unique yet lower quality, vintage looking results then these cool looking, easy to use, cult cameras are a perfect option. However, if you are already an experienced photographer, or are interested in learning how to manually operate and focus a camera to achieve high quality photographs, skip looking at new cameras and start searching the vast used camera market.
Where to Shop?
When buying a used camera, it is optimal to shop hands on, inspecting and testing before buying. There are several options for buying used film cameras in person:
Although local camera stores are starting to go the way of bookstores and film cameras, a local camera shop is a great way to start your search. I travel for a living and I always try to pop into a camera store when I get to a new place. Most shops today don’t bother with used film equipment, but every once and awhile I find a hidden gem filled with a large variety of old gear. Purchasing a camera from a shop will likely be more expensive than many of these other options, yet you are benefiting from a person with expertise and hopefully, honesty, having looked over the camera and ensuring you a working product.
Dallas Center for Photography, offers fantastic darkroom and photography classes and workshops as well as a quarterly swap meet to exchange and sell used camera gear. Click on the photo to visit the site.
Students often purchase a film camera for a photography class and then sell it after the semester is over. Look for bulletin boards around your local college or specialized photography schools. My local photography center holds a swap meet four times a year where people from all over our state come to trade and sell used gear, offering the perfect opportunity to inspect hands on and speak with the previous owner prior to purchasing. Also try joining a local photography group or meetup, many serious digital hobbyists and professionals still have some great film camera in their closets at home. Often after a fellow photographer has found out that I still shoot film they have offered to sell me a film camera they no longer use, these are the best finds as they have usually been loved and cared for and are still in perfect working condition.
Yard Sales, Estate Sales, Flea Markets or Antique Shops:
It requires patience to look through thousands of various items in hopes of finding an old camera, but a rare find can be worth the effort.
Local Camera Store:
Local Camera Clubs or Schools:
If you enjoy yard sales and antique hunting, this can be a great way to find a camera. When I first started my search for a medium format camera, I had dreams of finding an unsuspecting person selling their relative’s Hasselblad or Rolleiflex at a yard sale for next to nothing. This has been known to happen, but I am neither a huge fan of yard sales, nor am I patient, and quickly realized this was not the option for me. Running across this sort of hidden gem takes an incredible amount of perseverance and legwork. I do, however, have friends that make a weekly Saturday morning yard sale circuit and have found some unbelievable deals on high quality medium format cameras. I also know people who have found an antique store selling a fully functioning 40-year-old TLR for $25 as an ornamental object. Aside from requiring extreme patience and legwork, a disadvantage to these shopping methods is that even though you can inspect the camera yourself, you are often still taking a gamble on its true functionality and condition.
This mixture between internet and hands on buying could be an option. If you live in a large city or are very patient, a good quality, reasonably priced camera may come your way. I do live in a large city and yet I found myself quickly rejecting craigslist, as there were very few sellers, and all were extremely overpriced.
If a hands-on purchase is ideal, then buying off of the internet may seem like too much unnecessary risk. However, as someone who craves instant gratification, this is the route I ultimately took for my first purchase. Unless you live in Hong Kong, purchasing a used, functioning, reasonably priced medium format camera in person turns out to be a daunting task that may take weeks or months to succeed at, while opening your browser and typing in “medium format camera for sale” immediately produces a tidal wave of results.
eBay is where I made my first medium format camera purchase and have bought many more there since then. From clicking the ‘buy now’ button to holding the camera was only a mere matter of days. However, buying from eBay is fraught with risk, so here is my advice to mitigate this risk and make a successful purchase:
Tips for Buying on eBay
Have a few camera models in mind prior to logging on to ebay, because there will be so many options that you easily get astray from your initial goal.
Seller location is important. There are great deals to be had from Japan, as the Japanese tend to take immaculate care of their equipment. Also, some fantastic quality lower priced cameras were manufactured in Japan such as Minolta, Yasicha, and Mamiya. However, there are more risks associated with international shipping and language barriers, be aware of this when making the decision to buy from another country and factor in the added price for shipping and customs fees. Try to stay away from sellers in off the beaten path places, unless looking for a Russian or Czech camera, which are actually pretty cool but (not really recommended for a first purchase).
Never buy from someone who has < 90% positive feedback, make that 95%. Read the negative feedback on the seller before clicking ‘buy new’ or ‘bid.’
After entering your initial item search, go to the side bar and click ‘sold items’ to get an idea of what other people have previously paid for this camera.
High Quality Photos
Look for high quality photos of the item that include clear images of the camera’s lenses.
Don't Judge a Book by its Cover/ Do Judge a Book by its Cover
Don’t judge a book by its cover/Do judge a book by its cover: A few cosmetic dings or scratches to the body of a camera may lower the price a bit on a perfectly working camera with a flawless lens, go for it! On the other hand, if there is rust or fungus/ mold on the body oFf a camera, move on, the lenses are likely hazed and the focusing won’t be smooth.
This sounds obvious but make sure you READ the item description CAREFULLY. Many people will put words like ‘Leica’ and ‘Rolleiflex’ in the title to trick people into buying a no-name brand for a higher price. Also make sure that it says the camera uses 120 film, as I’ve often realized at the last moment it was a 35mm camera that looked medium format and other such anomalies.
Contact the seller and ask questions such as: Have you used the camera? Where did you get the camera? Was it previously owned by a professional? Is focusing smooth? Are shutter speeds accurate? Is there haze or fungus on the lens? Please send me more photos, etc.
Don't get wrapped up in a bidding war.
Try not to get too caught up in a heated bidding war during an auction. Be patient, other cameras will come along, and you may regret paying too much for the one you are fighting for.
Three Categories of Camera Prices on eBay
Non functioning, parts only, or poor condition
These will be very cheap compared to others of that model. Most of the time the seller clearly marks “Parts Only” or “Not Operational”, However I have seen examples where this information was buried in the fine print. Unless you are an expert in film camera repair, or simply want something decorative, move on…
Unknown function but seemingly decent condition
The seller may have made one of these previously mentioned rare finds at a yard sale but is not a photographer and has not tested the camera. Or the seller is a photographer and they vaguely remember the camera working 30 years ago, but have not tested it recently. I choose to go with this option if the item's photos are good and the seller communicates well. The key here is that the camera must be priced with the unknown operational status in mind. Use care because often a seller who doesn't know about film cameras will do a quick search for the going price of their model and price the camera in the more expensive known operational range. For a camera in this category never pay more than half the cost of one that has been recently tested or CLA’d (cleaned, lubricated, adjusted). When buying a camera in the unknown category, you are the one taking the risk, it’s a great reward if the camera works, However, it can cost more than the price of a working camera to get a broken one repaired. I only buy cameras in this category when I am totally willing to eat the price of purchase. When looking for a high end medium format camera like a Hasselblad or Rolleiflex, I only choose from the third category.
Known to work/proven to work
These cameras are being sold by photographers who have recently used the camera, or experienced repair shops. Often the seller will even post scans of negatives taken with the camera (ask for these if they don’t) and offer a return policy if the camera does not work when it gets to you. These items will cost the most and, of course, incur the least amount of risk. If you have a little extra money to spend, I recommend this category especially as a first-time buyer. Nothing feels worse than the letdown of receiving a broken item.
KEH, B&H, and Amazon, in that order, are all good places to find used cameras. Your purchasing risk drops way off compared to eBay, and the correlated price increase is to be expected. With KEH and B&H the description of the item's condition will be accurate, and they will either accept returns or will clearly state so if they don't. I have stuck with eBay so far, as through luck and diligence, I have yet to have a bad experience, and the prices on these sites are often out of my price range. But if money is no obstacle, make your way to an online retailer before trying eBay!
This is the internet equivalent to buying from a local camera club or swap meet. I would love to purchase from an online forum, unfortunately, every time I see a good deal on a great camera, I look at the date and it turns out the sale was made 12 years ago. Google will bring up forum results from ages past, and unless you are active on the forum it is likely you will miss any chance at that mint condition TLR being sold by the guy whose wife is insisting he thins out the collection a bit prior to buying his next toy.