How to shop for film cameras and not get shafted

So, you’ve read my post on selecting a film camera and decided what you want, now it’s time to buy. Should be simple enough, right? Wrong. When shopping for analogue cameras or any sort of vintage photographic equipment, there are various pitfalls around every corner. But fear not, with a little bit of guidance and strategy, you’ll be loading up your brand new (old) camera in no time!

Firstly, I think it’s important to understand that you have options when buying any vintage kit. Without going into too many specifics, we can nail down two common places where one can purchase a film camera - Online (specifically eBay, Instagram, Depop) and physically in store (be it camera-specific or otherwise). Each option has its positives and drawbacks and is highly situational, but in breaking them down I hope you can make an informed decision about where to head first. This week I’m focusing on purchasing online, particularly on eBay.

Most people I know, myself included, have bought most if not all of their kit online and there’s good reason for that! In general terms, you can expect to pay less as there’s less cost associated with making a listing on an online marketplace, and plus, sellers in-store are aware of the premium of being able to closely inspect the condition of the product and charge for the privilege. Other benefits include the superior choice and option to import goods from abroad. Depending on where you’re situated, this will vary tremendously. For instance, in my home country of Bulgaria, it’s essentially a given that you’d have to shop online and import if you’re after anything non-soviet for an acceptable price. Conversely, if you live in Japan or Hong Kong, I’m insanely jealous, as access to near mint film cameras at ridiculously low prices seems to be abundant (I’m really jealous).

Naturally, these benefits come with a few drawbacks. Shipping charges, import fees, tricky returns, uncertainty around the condition and working order of the items and largely fluctuating prices (particularly on eBay). Depending on your risk tolerance and experience in shopping used online these might seem rather daunting, but worry not, for with a little bit of patience and reading you can avoid 90% of uncertainty and associated faff. Below I’ve broken down each problem and proposed my solution to it:

1.Shipping charges, import fees.

As you’d expect, this one is highly location-dependant. Different countries have different laws around import and export and as we’re dealing with borderline antiques, different levels of supply and demand. Here in the UK, chances are you can find at least a few listings for whatever you’re looking for locally at any given time. Unless it’s a massive lot, shipping tends to be quick and not cost too much, and returns in the event something isn’t right aren’t too much bother. The only reason you’d import is if you’re after something in really pristine condition and/or something rare. My only advice is, if that’s the case I’d step away from eBay, and look at some of the reputable camera stores that deal in vintage cameras across the country. Places like The Latent Image or West Yorkshire Cameras. Even if they don’t have what you’re after, drop them a line and see if they can source it. I can’t speak for the precise price difference between that option and shipping from Japan, but personally, I’d rather that premium go to a small local business and not the taxman.

Finally, if you are going to be importing anything, make sure you do your reading and you’re aware of exactly how much you’re having to pay on top of the purchase price - it’s really easy to find a camera you’re after for £200 under what you’d be paying locally and in better condition on the other side of the planet, decide you can stomach the £50 shipping and then get slapped with VAT and import fees, eventually making the purchase pricier than just buying the more expensive local listing. 

2.How to buy a 30+year-old camera online and not get shafted

Probably the biggest concern I’ve heard revolving around buying used online has to do with condition. When dealing with precision tools this old, how good (or bad) they look doesn’t necessarily correlate with what images they can produce (if any). Let me go out and say straight away - there isn’t a way to be 100% certain of anything unless you’re buying physically. Some sellers are incompetent, some are shady and even those that are neither can’t guarantee a parcel won’t get dropped, which could be enough to damage a precision instrument, which a camera certainly is. That being said, in my four years of shopping for vintage camera kit online and helping friends do the same, I’ve never been screwed. The worst that’s happened is two weeks ago I had a filter turn up in the wrong size, and needless to say, I got a refund for that and received the correct one shortly after. 

So how do you avoid disappointment? In short, do your due diligence. Firstly, make sure you’re buying from a reputable seller. What are their ratings like? Are they a specialist or just someone that’s selling on a camera they found in their attic? Have they been descriptive and straightforward in their photos and descriptions? Essentially, do you feel like they can be trusted? If so, great! 

(Mind, just because someone isn’t a specialist, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider them, some of the biggest steals I’ve had have come from people that don’t really know what they have, but do be wary of purchasing anything “Untested” - think about what you’re buying - is the camera traditionally very reliable? Is it fully mechanical? How old is it? To give an example, I bought my Canon AE-1 untested for £70 with a lens. It looked good externally and the lady selling it was very quick to answer all my questions even though it was clear she was no photographer. I knew it was unlikely considering the external condition of the camera that it had seen much abuse, and as they’re quite reliable generally, I pulled the trigger on it. I had also agreed prior that I’d be testing it and keeping it so long as everything works as intended, and returning it if not.)

Next, manage your expectations. Study the photos closely, read the description a few times. If you’re missing any information, ask. Remember it’s a buyer’s market and don’t ever impulse buy anything. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the right price right now doesn’t mean there won’t be one that crops up next week. (Pro tip: Use eBay’s search alerts to get notified of any new listings.) Think about why you’re buying the camera - if you just need a simple SLR to see if analogue will stick as a hobby, make sure you’re getting something that won’t give you trouble, but also remember that you don’t need to take on a bunch of risk with anything too fancy - you can always sell your purchase on and upgrade down the line. Likewise, if you’re shopping for a system that you intend to stick with for the foreseeable future, maybe waiting for the perfect listing and spending a little more to make sure you have the most longevity possible is worth it. In that kind of situation, I’d even invite you to consider eating the import fees and expensive shipping if it means you’re getting something pristine, or going for the pricier local option and buying from a reputable store, rather than eBay. 

3. What’s the right price?

This question applies the most to eBay, but let me be the first to say, I’ll always haggle when buying vintage. You must remember you’re buying a product on the market principle. There are acceptable margins for what each item should cost, but it’s never a fixed price. Again, I’ll use the example of the Olympus MJU II, which can be found for upwards of £350 nowadays and would probably run you about a third of that if even, five years ago. What I like to do is set my search criteria on eBay to show me finished listings and see how much similar items have been selling for in the last few weeks. Try and establish the top and bottom dollar options and see where your budget fits into that. If you find you’re willing to spend more than most, congrats, you’ve got room to manoeuvre and chances are you can snipe a deal quite quickly. Conversely, if you’re finding only a few listings ended within your price range, don’t get discouraged - I’ll share my little golden nugget for how to own auctions below…

The number one rule of eBay or How not to waste money in auctions.

We need to understand that eBay makes their money on commission. As a result, it’s in their best interest that every item that’s listed on the platform sell for as much money as possible. It’s therefore not surprising that the way they’ve designed their marketplace conveniently funnels buyers into a bidding pattern that encourages higher pricing, due to auction fever. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s essentially a phenomenon where people get so caught up in the bidding that they spend more on an item than they set out to, and worst-case scenario, more than it’s worth in the first place. The brilliance of eBay is that they’ve managed to obscure this tendency behind a tool that’s seemingly there to prevent it. If you’ve shopped with them before, chances are you’ve noticed that when you bid on an item, the bid only goes up a fraction of whatever you put in as your “maximum bid”. The reason for that is that eBay will automatically bid up for you until your maximum, so long as there’s another bidder competing against you. To explain this better, I’ve offered an example below:

Bidder A sees an item at its starting bid of £10. They know that this item tends to sell for about £150 and that they’d like to purchase it at £125, so they plug the latter number in. The listing then goes up to £11, they close eBay and forget all about it.

Bidder B comes along and sees that same item. They’ve got a bit more money to spend, so they go and put in a maximum bid of £150, thinking the platform will tick up to that slowly. The item updates and is currently sitting at £126 with two bidders and five days to go still.

Beyond that point, it’s really a crapshoot what would happen, but suffice it to say that if there are 15 bidders going after the same item in this manner, there’s a high chance it will sell at above the median price for said item, and whoever wins out will almost certainly get shafted and overpay. eBay win out because they get the biggest commission possible, and the person that wanted to cleverly get it at £125 gets frustrated and probably goes on to overbid on their next attempt, driving the median price for that item up in the process.

So how do we prevent this? Simple. If you see an auction you’d like to bid on, go through the following:

1. How many bidders are there? If you see a large number here and the bids are already quite high up with a while to go on the listing, I’d encourage you to stay away - it’s harder to snipe against more people and as mentioned in the example above, the majority of them won’t be bidding “correctly”.

2. Decide how much you’re willing to spend - your absolute top amount. This is less to do with the prior market research (though that should factor into it) and more to do with what you’re comfortable with. Remember, with this method, it’s unlikely you’ll have to actually part with all this money, but in the event you do, it needs to be an amount you’re okay with. As an example, I wanted to get a set of Nuraphones two months ago and decided I don’t want to spend more than £150, so that’s how much I bid on a pair. Using the method I’m describing I got them for £110 - significantly lower than what most sell for.

3.Once you have that figure, do the following. If the listing is on its starting bid, consider bidding just one pound over it. The reason you might want to do that is that some sellers get skittish and cancel their listings when they’re on the last day with no bids. This is highly frustrating and speaks to them not fully understanding how eBay works either. If you’ve got a bid for the minimal amount on it, the listing cannot be cancelled.

If the listing already has a bid or two on it, “watch” the item, even set an alarm for five or ten minutes prior to the end time. 

4.When the listing is about to end. Sit down in front of your computer or on your phone with eBay open, and get ready to bid. If you’ve never done this before, aim to get your bid in the last twenty or thirty seconds. If you’re a bit more confident, go for the last ten. Bid your absolute maximum comfortable price, and wait. One of three things will happen next, which are all mostly due to chance:

- You win the item at one pound over the second-place bidder, at a sum somewhat lower than your max. (best case scenario)

- You win at exactly your max bid, in which case you’re comfortable because you haven’t overspent. (Least likely option, as this means the second-place bidder bid exactly one pound less than you).

- You lose the item because the first-place bidder had a higher comfortable price than yours. In this case, you might lose by as little as a pound, all depending on how many people you were bidding against and how far off they were. (In this eventuality, remember - you put in the maximum amount you’d comfortably pay for the item, so resist the urge to feel bad - the price wasn’t right on this listing. Regroup, and go for another!).

With this method, more often than not I’ve gotten a steal on whatever I’m after, and if I’ve lost, I’ve managed to get the item at a comfy price usually on the very next listing I bid on. The way I like to think of it is that whenever someone beats you they go out of the running for that specific item, and there aren’t that many people bidding on the exact same vintage camera at the same time. So long as you persist (and your max comfortable price isn’t way off the market value of the item you’re bidding on) you’ll get it eventually, and at a cheaper price than expected!

So, now you know how to “hack” eBay listings to gain the biggest possible advantage and swipe up the kit you want for the lowest possible (acceptable) price. Use this knowledge wisely, and apply it without compromise. If you’re still feeling daunted, feel free to drop me a line via email or DM me on Instagram. Also, if you’ve learned something or just enjoyed reading my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon or by purchasing my artwork via my website. If you’re not quite convinced yet, keep in the loop by subscribing to my mailing list or just following me on social. I promise I’ve got more great content coming!

Have a wonderful day!

Using Format