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Buying Second-hand Camera Equipment

Updated on March 9, 2011

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Buying Equipment

Some photographic dealers specialized in selling only first rate equipment that they have dismantled and rebuilt, or at least thoroughly inspected, in their own workshops. This equipment carries a guarantee, and the prospective buyer is allowed a week or more in which to try it put.

This is undoubtedly the safest way of buying second-hand photographic equipment, but it naturally costs more- there are no bargains in this market.

The beginner should always protect himself by asking the advice of an expert before buying; the following hints are intended for those who must rely on their own judgment. Cameras. If you know the make of camera you want to own, get a Focal Camera Guide about it if one is published. This will tell you the differences between the various models so that you will be able to recognize an early model from a later one. Remember that one model may be worth twice as much as another of the same make and superficial appearance. Body. The condition of the plating and covering of the camera body (particularly on sharp edges) will show if the camera has had a lot of use. Burrs on the slots of any of the screw heads are a sure sign that someone lacking in mechanical skill has had the camera to pieces. In that case the camera would probably be dear at any price.

The most important point to watch for in the body of the camera is the rigidity of the lens-mount and erecting mechanism in the working position. The front should open smoothly and click into position positively and without any forceful persuasion. If there is any trace of slackness or wobble anywhere in the erecting or focusing mechanism the camera should be rejected.


The bellows of a folding camera should be pulled out to their fullest extent and examined for signs of cracking, wear or repaired places. Even if there are no actual light leaks, the price of the camera should be reduced to cover the cost of new bellows. If everything looks satisfactory, the camera should then be taken into the darkroom and the bellows checked for actual light leaks. Even in apparently sound bellows there may be pinholes that would let enough light through to fog the negative.

To test the bellows, the back of the camera is opened and an electric torch, with the head removed, is inserted. The torch is switched on and the back of the camera covered with a black cloth. With the head of the torch removed, the bulb can be pressed close up to the corners and into the folds of the bellows so as to show up the smallest hole or any thin spots that might give trouble later. It is not a good idea to examine bellows in this way with an ordinary electric light bulb because the heat in such a confined space may scorch the material or turn it brittle.

The leather bellows of large multiple extension cameras can be successfully repaired if they have been accidentally pierced or torn, but if the trouble is due to general wear, patching is never worth while. The bellows of smaller, hand cameras should always be renewed if damaged or worn. New bellows are not expensive, but they should only be fitted by the maker of the camera or by firms specializing in this type of repair. Viewfinder. Check the accuracy of the view-finder by comparing the picture seen in the finder with the image on the focusing screen (if there is one) or a piece of tissue paper stretched between the film rollers. It is fairly common for the viewfinder to include less than the image on the screen, but it must never cover more, and the centers of both pictures should coincide when the camera is focused at infinity. This will not hold at closer distances. Rangefinder. Check the rangefinder calibration by ranging it on a series of objects from the closest distance that the lens will focus to about 30 feet away from the camera. The range-finder reading should correspond to the distance measured with a tape measure. There must be no slack when the control wheel is moved slightly backwards and forwards. Focusing Mechanism. Here again, there must be no trace of slack in the focusing mechanism of any camera that focuses by scale, although a certain amount of slack between the rack and pinion of a stand camera is not important. Check the accuracy of the focusing scale if possible by focusing an object with a focusing magnifier on either the focusing screen or a sheet of ground glass held across the negative opening in the back of the camera. Measure the distance of the object focused and compare it with the scale reading, with the lens at full aperture.

The focusing scale of any camera taking a negative smaller than 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches cannot be checked with sufficient accuracy this way. The best way for the ordinary photographer to check the focusing scale of a miniature camera is by actual trial as follows. Stand a row of books on a table in front of the camera so that the line makes an angle of 45° with the line of sight. Focus on the lettering on the spine of a book near the center of the row and make an exposure at full aperture. Do this for a series of camera-subject distances from the closest working distance to 10 feet or so.

When you examine the developed negative through a magnifying glass (or project it on the enlarger) you will see whether the focused book is consistently sharper than its neighbors, or if the book in front or behind is sharper. In this way you can see where the actual focused distance lies and decide either to re-set the scale, or make a suitable allowance when focusing. But the wisest course is to put the onus on the seller and refuse to accept the camera until the scale has been corrected.

Finally check the infinity position by taking a photograph of the horizon line or of objects silhouetted against the sky at least 200 feet away.


All that you can do here is to set and release the shutter at each of the marked settings, including T. and B. and delayed action. While you can make your own test of the accuracy of the marked speeds, it is more satisfactory to pay a few shillings to have the shutter tested by any of the photographic dealers who maintain a shutter testing service. These tests are made with the help of equipment beyond the means (and needs) of the ordinary photographer. Lens. The general condition of the lens can be judged by examining it with the back off the camera and the shutter held open at T.

Both back and front surfaces should have a high polish and be free from dust or grease. A single scratch is not a serious matter. But if the surface looks dull, it is probably covered with very fine scratches caused by rubbing it in the effort to get it clean. Scratches of this type ruin the performance of the lens, and although the surface can be repolished (preferably by the manufacturer) the trouble is a fairly clear indication that the camera has not been looked after and you would be wise to reject it.

Tiny air bubbles in the glass itself are not serious- in fact they are almost always present in high quality optical glass.

If the lens is fairly old and has cemented components it may have a slightly yellow tint. This is simply the effect of ageing on the Canada Balsam joining the glasses. You can ignore it for black and white photography. The tint might affect the rendering of color, but a lens old enough to have yellowed to such an extent would probably not be fully corrected for color work anyway.

Cemented lenses should be carefully examined to see if the balsam has "started", that is, if the two glass surfaces are no longer joined by the cement. Starting is usually indicated by small, star-shaped patterns.

Actual lens testing, a special technique, is the only practical way of determining the performance of a lens.

Iris Diaphragm

Test the iris diaphragm with the camera opened up as when examining the lens. The control should work smoothly and in all positions; the leaves of the diaphragm should form a hole of regular shape. Reject the camera if any of the leaves tend to stick and give an irregularly shaped hole.

Bright edges or rubbed areas on the leaves of the diaphragm may cause flare patches or light fog.

Synchronizer Timing

Anyone can check the synchronizer timing for electronic flash quite easily. Simply open the back of the camera, plug in the flash unit and fire the shutter with the diaphragm fully open. Look through the lens at a sheet of paper held in front of the camera and illuminated by the flash and watch the shape of the lens opening.

If the timing is correct, the eye will retain an impression of a circular patch of light the full diameter of the lens aperture. If the impression is of a smaller area with a regular but non-circular outline, the shutter is firing early or late. Remember that the shutter may only be synchronized for electronic flash at one particular speed.

The easiest way to test the timing for flash bulbs is to connect up the flash gun to the camera shutter in the normal way and take a close-up of the bulb itself. The resulting photograph will show whether the shutter has caught the flash before, after, or exactly at its peak.

Plate Holders

See that the draw slides go in and out smoothly and without forcing and that the velvet along the face of the light trap is intact and has not lost its resilience. Reject metal holders that have been bent or buckled as it is practically impossible to repair them so that they will work smoothly and be light-tight again.

Never buy a camera with only two or three plate holders. So few holders are interchangeable that it may prove difficult or impossible to get extra holders to fit the camera. There should be at least six holders to enable you to work without frequent visits to the darkroom to change plates.


First make sure that the enlarger is mechanically sound. The column should be rigidly fixed to the easel and the head should travel up and down smoothly. All controls-focusing, negative tilt, and rise and fall- should work freely but without any slack or backlash.

It is particularly important for the image to remain steady, while focusing, so test this with the enlarging light switched on in the darkroom. Move the focusing adjustment gently to and fro and watch the light on the easel. If the picture moves as you reverse the movement of the control, look for another enlarger; image movement of this type at the critical point of focusing is a perpetual nuisance.

While the enlarger light is switched on, check the evenness of the illumination on the baseboard. To do this, focus a negative sharply and then remove it together with the negative carrier. This will show the performance over the whole working area.

Watch the illumination as you slowly stop down the lens. It may look uniformly bright at first, but presently dark patches and corners may appear. You may be able to get rid of the unevenness by altering the lamp adjustment. Or the lamp may be of the wrong type. But if the unevenness persists after you have checked these points, do not buy the enlarger.

The advice about the general condition of the finish, lens, diaphragm, focusing mechanism, etc., of second-hand cameras applies equally here. In addition, examine the lower face of the condenser for scratches or chips- any defects here tend to affect the image, particularly when the lens is stopped down.

To check the performance of the lens, cover a piece of exposed film with scratches and focus it sharply with a magnifier on the enlarger baseboard with the lens at full aperture. With a good lens, it should be possible to get sharp definition of the scratches all over the baseboard.

Next expose a sheet of bromide paper on the easel, develop it and check that the scratches are equally sharp in the print. This will show whether the lens is free from chromatic aberration.

Flash Equipment

When buying second-hand flash equipment, remember that you may have to renew the battery in a short time. With the ordinary flash gun the cost of a new battery is nothing to worry about, but with a battery capacitor type, and more particularly with a battery operated electronic flash, the cost of a new battery can be quite expensive. Accessories. The only way to be sure that second-hand photographic accessories are worth buying is to try them. You can accept new equipment on the strength of the manufacturer's guarantee, but when you buy secondhand equipment you rarely have any right of redress if it gives trouble after you have paid for it.

Most dealers will allow you to take equipment away on trial against a deposit, and the classified advertisement departments of most photographic periodicals run a deposit system by which the money is not handed over to the seller unless the buyer is satisfied with the goods.


As a general rule, second-hand equipment in first class order is worth anything from one-half to three-quarters of the list price of the new item.

Nowadays with the advent of ebay and also some of these pieces becoming both unwanted or collectible the market will dictate the price. So bargains can be had, but don't be surprised if in extremely good condition (and also depending on rarity) will sell for more than what it was originally worth.

Even now "shop-soiled" equipment is sold at a reduction of 10-15 per cent or more.

Accessories made by a camera manufacturer to fit his own particular instrument usually cost more both new and second-hand than the equivalent proprietary items designed to fit any make.


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