A camera partially covered by brown packing paper inside a cardboard box.

Confessions of a Failed Camera Flipper

For the longest time, I owned only one camera. When I bought a new camera, I just donated or gave my old camera away, and I usually hung on to a camera for years. In fact, I wasn’t really aware that many photographers bought and sold gear fairly regularly, or that used cameras were much of a thing. I had been to a couple of camera shops that sold used cameras and binoculars, and while I bought a lovely pair of used binoculars in my second year after college, I completely ignored the used camera section of the store. I often shopped at thrift stores, traded and bought used books, played a used-to-me flute in high school band and eventually donated it, and drove used cars, but again, buying or selling used cameras was completely an unexamined thing in my eyes.

Then, after having the same single camera for 12 years, getting more deliberate about photography, and frankly, catching Gear Acquisition Syndrome during Covid in 2020, I started looking for a second camera. I was looking for a cheap updated digital camera, and perhaps a little point and shoot film camera. I read a bevy of blogs suggesting what cameras were out there and what I might be interested in. I looked at buyers’ guides and then fell into the rabbit hole of YouTube photography gear channels, both from those people espousing the virtues of expensive new camera equipment, and those folks bragging about their $2 thrift store find of a camera that was supposedly worth $2000. And then, thankfully, I returned to the sanity and beauty of 35mmc, Casual Photophile, and Emulsive.org and eventually found the sane and reliable camera peeps on YouTube. I would go back and forth between online auction sites and then read reviews of the cameras I saw, and it helped me to narrow down what I was looking for in a camera and what was out there.

Armed with a little bit of knowledge, I bought a handful of cheap film cameras, and learned from my successes, naivete, and mistakes. At some point, a bit delusional about my online purchases and just thinking it would be a fun little diversion, I decided that maybe I could buy and sell used cameras. I didn’t think I would make millions, but felt it could be a fun little side hobby, in addition to actual photography. At this point, I had a fairly broad, if shallow, overview of cameras, and what was popular, what was out of my league, and what was in my limited skillset for fixing, and where to find info on camera models with relative values and costs. I knew how to clean, how to do general testing, how to replace light seals, and how to complete some very basic fixes. I narrowed my focus to small point and shoot film cameras. I figured I could buy cheap cameras, test and and clean them, throw in a minor repair if needed, and then sell them individually with a roll of film included. I expected that there would be some dud cameras in the lots, but knew I could play and learn something in the process.

My first failure was buying a camera that I decided to keep for myself. My next failure was buying a bargain $5 lot of 3 cameras and all three were beyond dead, even for those with skills way beyond mine. In my next experiment, I bought a box of Holgas with some rolls of expired 120 film, deciding I had finally come up with a real resale opportunity. Out of the nine cameras, two were in working order, and I was able to fix a couple Holgas with cobbled together parts from the others. I sold one Holga, kept one, gave a couple away, and comforted myself with the fact that the expired 120 film was probably worth the price of the box of Holgas alone. Armed with my box of Holga lessons, I went back to online sites and bought two more boxes of cameras. In those two lots, there was a total of about 15 cameras, some digital and some film, and found that six were in working order. Considering my odds, and doing some quick calculations, I considered it a win. I cleaned each of the cameras, tested them with film, and while I waited for the film to get developed, I took lots of photos of each camera from various angles, with a roll of film, a little camera bag, and a camera strap. I had oodles of odds and ends in camera parts and accessories, and guessed people might appreciate a complete kit, especially if they were buying their first film camera or giving a gift.

Once all the film came back and I knew the cameras were really working, I uploaded the photos and typed out neat descriptions of each of the cameras while those “my camera collection” videos on YouTube played in the background on my computer. You probably know those videos I am talking about. I find them comforting, especially when people share memories of their particular favorite camera, the adventures they’ve taken them on, or how a relative or neighbor gave them that camera, or when they describe unique features to a quirky little model.

So, I had uploaded five cameras on the auction site, and I sifted through the broken stuff to see what I could scavenge or save. I filled a small box with the broken or irreparable bits to take for electronics recycling later that week. The sixth working camera, a little digital point and shoot, I decided to keep for myself, as an everyday walk around camera that fit easily in my palm or pocket. I sat back and waited, just knowing that my email box would be full of alerts of the quickly sold cameras. I got a couple of small boxes ready and made sure I had plenty of reused packing materials and put all the cameras and boxes in the corner of my room under the desk. The next morning, I was surprised to see that none of the cameras had sold. A week went by, and then two. I pulled the cameras out and decided oh, that one is kind of cute, perhaps I’ll keep it. By the end of the summer, I had decided to keep all the cameras after lowering the prices. My prices weren’t out of range, but the longer I held them, I decided those cameras were too adorable to sell.

Frankly, I was excited about the camera additions to my collection. I chalked it up to experience and giggled at my failed plan. Still, though, the idea of being a camera reseller didn’t quite die as the summer heat turned to the first chill of fall. In late November of last year, after the failed summer of camera flipping, I did sell a lens and another digital camera. This time, I went with the big used camera stores, and found it easy and convenient to get quotes and then ship off the camera gear. I actually made a little money on both of those, knowing I could possibly have made more money if I had sold them directly, but I found it easier to just part with the gear, without having to store it and avoiding potential returns.

This summer (it could be a seasonal sickness) the camera reseller syndrome bit me again. I saw a couple of old DSLRS with lenses for sale on the used gear section of my local camera shop’s website. I called, figuring it was probably too good to be true in terms of models and prices, but sure enough, the two cameras and lenses were still available. The friendly camera shop staff member said they would set them aside for me. I went into the store the next day, and bought them both after checking them out. I got home and immediately decided to sell one of the cameras, because it was really only the lens that I wanted. I sold the camera and two lenses that I could replace with the new used lens. In that case, I did make a little bit of money on that deal, and improved my lens capability. Excited to sell some more gear, I decided to go with the big used camera stores again, and listed a couple of cameras, lenses, and accessories and got a quote. It seemed reasonable and I packed up the gear and dropped it off at the overnight drop box outside of the bank down the street. A few days later, I got notice of the receipt of the box and waited to get their estimate after examining my gear. Even while underestimating the condition of my cameras, I got a much lower estimate than the quote. I called the next day and just asked for my stuff back, no hard feelings. The guy on the other end of the phone was super nice and I said I was still really grateful that they would return the gear to me, especially with free shipping. I am expecting the box of my latest failure as a camera flipper any day.

I am probably a bit late to the game of being a camera flipper. I don’t have the repair knowledge to do sophisticated restoration. I can clean a dirty camera and even remove some haze and fungus on a lens if I want to perform a little surgery, and do some general kinds of fix it stuff, but I don’t have the parts or patience or knowledge to do deep repairs. Like everyone else, it’s easy to look up camera models and price them accordingly, so the chance of finding a diamond in the dirt camera-wise is rare, but the search is oh, so alluring. I also realized while I like a little bit of tinkering, I would rather play with cameras by taking them out for walks, hikes, runs, and photo outings.

It was good to try camera flipping for a year. The experiment and experience, even with all the supposed failures, were worth it. I realize that at times I really just wanted the cute cheap camera, and my reselling guise was an excuse to get it in the first place. It can be enjoyable to collect, clean, diagnose, and futz around. I discovered a lot more about camera repair than I would have otherwise. I’ll continue to buy and sell old gear, moving on from something or moving on to something different, but I am no longer going to buy with the shear intention of selling for profit.

While I am not immune to Gear Acquisition Syndrome, I do think that I am now vaccinated for Camera Flipper Flu.

Oh, wait, you have a box of cameras for $25?


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19 thoughts on “Confessions of a Failed Camera Flipper”

  1. Kary,
    Experience has taught me, that selling/buying/flipping any hobby related stuff can be considered succesfull, if you only lose very LITTLE money in the process. Mostly you will lose some, but can accuire some nice gear in the process. I guess the idea of selling is to make a profit, so everybody can not win. The one exception, as you rightly figured out, is to buy broken stuff cheap and fix it for sale at a (much) higher price. Naturally, you will have to be able to fix stuff, in the first place, and get your bottles of elbow grease for free.

    1. Jukka, yes, I think I realized that mostly I just enjoying buying a few more cameras, and couldn’t admit it to myself, until those cameras didn’t sell. You’re so right, and it takes a lot of skill, and then there are those “bottles of elbow grease”, and what a lovely way to say that! I remember someone saying that if you buy something and sell it at a loss, it’s like the rental fee, and that you still got to use the gear, and I like that idea. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. Ha been there too. Spent over a year running to the post office every other day, still feel faint at the thought of having to take photos of gear. After taxes I made very little but at least I have a couple of lenses that were free. Gave the remaining boxes of dead cameras to a friend who wanted to get into repair and breathed a sigh of relief.

    1. Agata, yes, it’s a big sigh of relief! And isn’t it funny how fun it is to take pictures, but so not fun to take pictures of gear to sell! 😉 Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. I have used the analogy of the crazy cat lady or man who can’t say no to adopting another cat.

    Krazy Kamera Kids can’t say no to old cameras, lenses, parts of either, and expired film (odds of success are better than with expired pixels), especially when adopting instead of purchasing.

    Some camera donors feel awful considering the possibility of things ending up in a landfill, and they are absolved of such sin (however that works) when someone else takes possession. I have been gifted things from as near asy hometown (10 large cartons spanning 4 generations of the photographers family), Boston and Australia.

    I literally ran out of space in the house and have had to resort to donating and secretly slipping extra items into boxes when I ship something. One person was angry (?!?). The postage wasn’t increased. Most recipients are happy as long you aren’t sending them trash. It usually takes more time and effort to flip them than simply give them away :@(.

    I sold a couple things to pay for other things, but navigating the basement is still sometimes hazardous.

    There are actually some 35mm cameras that are keepers, but the coolest thing is an 8″x10″ (10×8 for you UK folks) camera used by the donor’s grandfather on an archaeology dig from 1900-1901. I found one of his papers, but no photos of the camera.

    The original lens was lost, but a box arrived from Oz with some better 30’s lenses. The bellows is actually usable, but will be replaced when money is a reality.

    I think we get ‘stuck’ with keepers for a variety of reasons, but I don’t want to dwell on that problem.

    Camera Hoarder?

    1. Murray, yes, we crazy camera kids just love cameras!!! I’ve never met a camera I didn’t like, so far. I like your idea of slipping extras in the packages. Funny to think someone didn’t want the extra free stuff, especially when you didn’t increase the postage. I think you’re right, giving away is a lovely option and one I could more of and will! 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!!

  4. This stirs old memories 🙂 . Back in the 90s I tried to do the same thing, albeit on a very small scale. Buying relatively working photo equipment from charity shops and whatnot, trying to sell it. Some 200 quid and a few months later, I realized I was just wasting my time and money. This game was not for me, alas. Too involved in photography, I was having heartaches every time someone bought something. I then decided to keep everything for me and this is how I discovered the terrible GAS thing. Mind, it still ravishes me after all these years, but I learned to resist, to a certain extent.

    Your experience therefore is something I totally relate to. Thank you for your very funny manner of writing!

    1. Julian, I’m glad you could relate. I thought it was fun to make light of it, figuring there might be others who had similar feelings. There are fun points to being a photographer, a camera repair person and reseller, and a camera collector, so I’ll skip the repair/resell and keep to using the cameras I enjoy! 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying your camera and photography! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. By chance, your article showed up on the day I sent two cameras off to buyers from eBay. I sold both at a loss, but that was to be expected. I bought one at a camera store (generally a guarantee that you’re paying a premium price) and the other was a gamble on a camera that—if it worked—would have been worth several times what I paid for it. It didn’t, so I sold it and accepted the loss.

    One piece of valuable advice came to me from a TV show about buying and selling cars: You make the money when you buy, not when you sell. In short, if you spend too much when you buy a camera (or anything else), you won’t make money when you sell it. Buy at a low price, and you’ll almost always at a minimum cover your costs when you sell.

    That’s why I usually click on “Lowest Prices First” when I’m looking for a camera on eBay. I’ve had good luck buying cameras that the seller thought had a problem when they in fact don’t. Sometimes they do, and the gamble doesn’t pay off (like the Yashica T4 I sent off today).

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m glad to see that someone else is working through the same issues!

    1. Eric, you have good points, all, and good advice that making money comes down to how much you buy it for in the first place!! Yes, I quite agree. I do look at lowest prices first, but you’re right, that sometimes the problems can be fixed or aren’t problems at all. It is fun to hear of your adventures, too, in all of this camera buying and selling. Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope your next purchase and sale are quite magical!!

    1. This is also my problem, Peggy! I managed to get quite a few cheap ones from people who didn’t realise what they were worth and just wanted to get rid of them. Now I’ve got so many I haven’t even had a chance to try them all out yet, but once I do, I decide I like them so much I keep them for myself. Only exception is a Cosina rangefinder, which I very much disliked using, but have been too time poor (AKA lazy) to try to sell yet. Now I have a whole cupboard full of cameras, plus a few more on another shelf that don’t work…

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