May 2013

Buying Second-hand Camera Gear

Since last summer I’ve been seriously looking around for buying a full-frame camera — but I had no clue that it would end up being an Olympus, and even less that it would be analogue. Nonetheless, I’m now the happy owner of two OM-1s and a bunch of good lenses to go along. But buying from online auction sites turned out to yield a few bumps along the way as mentioned in this rather technical post.

First of all, I have fallen in love with the old Olympus OM cameras mainly because of their good looks, small size, decent second-hand price, and last but least, their huge huge viewfinder! And I decided to get an OM-1 over an OM-2 (or even later models) as the former is an all-mechanical camera and hence will work even if one day the electronics fail (only the light meter will be dead) or I can’t find new batteries. Finally, I thought getting two bodies would be a good idea since you are more or less stuck with 36 frames with the same colour and ISO/ASA sensitivity once you’ve loaded a film.

Now, since this was a first time for buying old second-hand camera gear I had to learn a few things as it went along. First, of course, is how much it is worth — dba.dk, and later ebay.fr, made it clear that some people treasure their old loved-ones quite a lot, and not being sure if this meant that the cheaper ones were not working correctly, I discovered that PayPal is offering a pretty good return policy if a bought item turns out to not be in the described condition; picking only sellers accepting this payment method turned out to be a good idea and is highly recommended.

To be able to apply PayPal’s return policy though, I wanted to be sure that my understanding of a working camera matched with the seller’s. Initially I had very little idea of what this meant for an old analogue camera, but after looking around on online forums I came up with the following items regarding the body:

  1. whether it has been used recently
  2. it must be in a decent overall condition without bumps and too many scratches
  3. the inside film compartment must be cleanish and the shutter curtain untouched
  4. the built-in light meter must be correctly working

which were basically the criteria on which I bought two cameras: a silver model with a 50mm f/1.8 lens and a black model with a 35-70mm f/3.5 lens.

Having until that point only used the camera borrowed from my father, the arrival of my new toys taught me a few more things to look for in a body:

  1. there are 14 different focusing screens for the OM-1, two of which are interesting
  2. there must be a good connection to the battery (a small plastic tap can be broken)
  3. it may have been modified to take modern batteries
  4. checking the light meter is not simply a question of testing whether the indicator moves or not: its movement is caused by a combination of mechanics and electronics, and hence it may move even if it is broken or without a battery being installed

As far as I can tell the last point above was also unknown to the seller of the silver camera: it clearly gave wrong measurements, both according to my intuition (an overcast daylight scene does not require an exposure of 1sec at f/1.8 and ASA 100) and relative to my father’s OM-1 which seemed to work ok based on previously developed negatives. Long story short, I sent back the camera, and while it ended up a bit ugly with a seller who still believes that the meter is working, PayPal offered a full refund minus the return shipping cost.

However, since I still wanted a second body I included eBay inky search, and now also asking about the focusing screen (the silver camera also had an inferior one without split) and preferring a black model (they seem more discreet and screaming “old camera” a little less loudly).

Initially I loafed the last-second bidders who “stole” a few auctions from me by bidding higher just three seconds before the end of the auctions, but reading How to Win at eBay convinced me that what they are doing actually makes sense. Adapting this strategy secured me a good deal with another black OM-1 body shipping together with five lenses. Waiting for these to arrive I had also become aware of a few other things to look for, now also concerning lenses:

  1. the foam used as light seals and mirror bumper in a body may have dissolved
  2. a body’s shutter timing can be off, giving wrong exposures
  3. a body’s light metering can be off, giving wrong exposures
  4. the shutter ring on a body must be firm yet run smoothly
  5. both bodies and lenses should be free from fungus
  6. the focus and aperture ring on a lens must be firm yet run smoothly
  7. lens diaphragm blades must open and close smoothly at all aperture settings
  8. lenses may have dust in them

Luckily, the two prime lenses I had bought on eBay while waiting for the second body to arrive turned out to satisfy in all aspects without me yet knowing to inquire about them; this lesson only came when I finally received the five lenses: two lenses were hit by fungus (one badly, one less) and one lens had slow-opening diaphragm blades. Thankfully, the seller was kind enough to offer a partial refund, meaning it was still a good deal on the body and the remaining lenses. On top of the previous story I was very happy to have my faith in online particuliar-a-particuliar sales restored.

So in summary this adventure brought home the follows new toys:

for a total price of around 2025 DKK (or 270 €) plus shipping. It’s not nothing of course, but looking through the viewfinder of an OM-1 simply is nothing short of amazing!