In the last 5 years the value of used film cameras has gone through the roof. Demand has increased, supply hasn’t, and the price you need to pay for a lot of popular film cameras is now reflecting that. But for every day that passes, all these cameras are getting older, less reliable and harder, if not impossible, to service – a fact that sometimes seems a little lost in all the excitement!
To be fair, in some ways, the increase in the value of film cameras feels like a good thing. It’s encouraging with regard to the health of the film photography community, but it’s also quite satisfying to see some value being reattributed to a lot of very viable photographic tools. In a world that’s more often so keen to dispose and buy new, all this old kit being given new lease of life can’t be all bad. Unfortunately, in an increasing amount of cases, it feels to me that the increase in value has spiralled out of control, and maybe that the buyers of some of these more popular cameras are beginning to lose a little bit of perspective.
The goal of this post is not to discourage people from buying film cameras. Instead, I just want to shine a bit of light on the reality of the used film camera marketplace, perhaps give readers the opportunity to reflect on whether or not they are making the right purchasing choice, or if instead they might be falling foul of a touch of gear acquisition syndrome. In short, if you’re thinking about spending what feels like a lot of money on a film camera, then read this first!
I’ve been into photography to some degree since I was a kid, but I really fell into the deep end when I started working in camera retail in the mid-2000s. Back then, there were a lot of film cameras that had dropped in value so much that we couldn’t have given them away. I’m almost ashamed to say that my view of almost all 35mm compact film cameras back then was that they were little more than clutter. The ones that did come into the shop either went in the bin, or at best went in the junk box with the second hand camera straps, random power winders, and the 3rd party manual focus zoom lenses. This was when the value of film cameras was at its lowest, and I’d argue, it was also the peak of throwaway culture. Film was tired, digital was booming, and new was better. So film equipment was cheap.
Looking back, it now seems crazy to think that even the likes of the now very popular Olympus mju-ii sold for £15-20. I don’t remember even being aware of the Yashica T series, but I can’t imagine even the T4/T5 went for as much as the mju-ii did. I do remember, my first introduction to Contax compact cameras though. A fairly elderly gentleman brought in his Contax T3 to show me after I’d told him with some authority that there was little-to-zero value in point & shoot cameras. He put me in my place when he proudly told me his camera was still worth a couple of hundred quid. I was shocked when I searched eBay and found out he was right!
Of course 10-15 years on, times have changed. We had the economic crash, people have started reminiscing about old times when the world was happier, before social media, when the things we owned were real things; things that you could touch and interact with physically. Vinyl and film photography (and beards…?) have become popular again, and throwaway culture is at least beginning to show signs of waning.
But unlike the weird and wonderful world of Hi-Fi that held on to many of its greatest manufacturers of turntables, the photography industry lost the huge majority of its film camera manufacturers. The market shrank so small that it wasn’t worth their while to continue, so film camera manufacture all but ceased.
By the time the market for the things started to grow again it was too late, so all that was left for the regrowing community of film photographers was the used film camera marketplace. This lack of new-to-market film cameras has since had a huge impact on the value of used ones. Nowadays, the Olympus mju-ii is rarely seen for less than £100. The Yashica T4 often goes for more than £300, and then there’s the likes of the Contax T3 and T2 that are now approaching, or even sometimes exceeding £1000.
I’m focusing on compact cameras here as they’re arguably the most ridiculous, but this value increase has been seen almost across the board. In the last 5 years Leica rangefinders have doubled in most cases, with the value of the M2 as much as tripling. The Hasselblad Xpan is another extreme; its used-value doubled in just over a year(!!) not so long ago. This list goes on, and whilst the cameras I have highlighted are the extremes, even the much more mundane cameras are seeing an increase in value
In fact, it’s fair to say that many of the old cameras that I once threw away would likely now find themselves on the shelf with a price tag that would have made me laugh 10-15 years ago. My local London Camera Exchange regularly has fairly low end 35mm compact cameras taking up space in their second hand cabinets. Gareth, the manager, tells me demand is strong too. Not long ago he would turn them away when people bought them in to exchange. He can’t get enough of them now!
Increased risk of purchase
As I said at the beginning of the post, in a lot of cases, this increase in value isn’t all bad – it is quite literally saving perfectly serviceable cameras from the bin. But of course, as the value of these cameras has increased, time has also passed. And with the passing of time, all these cameras are getting older. And, as I also said at the beginning of the post, for every day they are getting older, they are also getting less reliable and harder, if not impossible to service.
Parts are running out, the manufacturers who to still service their old cameras are few and far between, leaving the repair jobs to a mostly ageing population of service engineers. Yet even the unrepairable nature of some cameras hasn’t been reflected in their used value. Many cameras that could brick at the drop of a hat are still increasing in value, and probably will continue to do so as they get more and more rare.
Now, I don’t often offer explicit advice on this website. I don’t like telling people how to think, assuming how they might think or even what they might know. But given that the usual theme of this website implies that I encourage people to spend their hard earned cash on cameras, I felt it about time I put my name to a few words of around some of the more brutal realities buying used film cameras.
My advice is as follows:
Think about the concept of value!
First things first, I think it’s important to reflect on the concept of something’s value. The value of anything is based on supply, demand and what people are willing to pay. There’s a fine balance when it comes to new-to-market products, but in a market place largely made up of second hand equipment where demand increases, and supply doesn’t, the value of something can increase beyond its relative worth.
Much of what I’ve written above was to highlight the point that what people are willing to pay for film cameras has increased a lot over the last few years. But, importantly, just because people are willing to pay more for something doesn’t mean that thing is worthy of that price tag. This is true of a lot of film cameras now, especially the high end point & shoot cameras!
Have you thought about the risk?
Have you considered how much money you have to lose if things go wrong? There is every possibility that when you buy a film camera it might fail soon after you buy it, with little or no come back. Can you afford to lose all of the money you are spending? If you can, fine, but either way, it is worth thinking about, and perhaps even researching how repairable the camera you are looking to buy is, or isn’t, if it goes wrong. You might find yourself surprised just how many film cameras, especially the electronic ones, are essentially irreparable.
I once became obsessed with having a well functioning Ricoh GR1v – have a read about how much that madness cost me. A lot of the most valuable film cameras are also some of the most risky purchases. This mad craze for autoexposure/autofocus compact film cameras seems crackers when you consider that these cameras have the highest risk of catastrophic failure, and for the most part are irreparable when they do fail. In the end, I lost all of the money I invested into that camera! It makes fairly amusing reading in hindsight, but would you find it amusing if it happened to you?
Not all repair companies are good!
Speaking from the point of view of someone who has been through aforementioned painful Ricoh GR1v experience, I can tell you that even if a company tells you it can repair a camera, it doesn’t mean they will, or indeed that they can do a good job. If you’ve read my post about my Ricoh disaster, you’ll know that the repair company in question replaced parts with the parts from a GR1s meaning the camera didn’t function as it should. It had to go back a number of times to be rectified, and when it came back fully functioning, it still didn’t last long before it failed again.
Servicing a camera doesn’t mean it will last!
You shouldn’t pin all your hopes on a repaired camera working forever either! The repair company who fixed my Ricoh wouldn’t even guarantee the repair for more than a month. Their view was that even the new-old-stock spare parts were old so they didn’t know how long they would last. If that’s the case for new parts, how long will pre-worn parts from other dead cameras last?
I wouldn’t trust that particular company again, but even cameras repaired by much more trustworthy repair companies aren’t impervious to further failures. Not long ago I had my Pentax SV serviced by a now-retired repairer who seemed to have done a good job. I leant the camera to a mate 6 months later and this was the result – the shutter is sticking:
It didn’t cost me much to have the camera repaired, but I no longer have the chance to send it back to him and have him take another look. My only option is to send it to someone else and pay again. That SV cost me about £20, that could add up to around £150 once I’ve had it serviced twice. It’s a great camera, but it’s not worth that much to me, so I’m faced with the only option of selling it cheap to someone else who’s willing to pay to have it repaired again. I’ve bought and sold a lot of cameras over the years, and this isn’t the first or last time this has or will happen to me. This hobby has become a money pit, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon!
One point I feel obliged to note here – if you get to the stage that a camera doesn’t appear to be worth repairing, and/or doesn’t seem to have any value to sell on. Still try and sell it for parts. If that fails, find a repair company to donate it to. It might not be useful to you, but something in it might be useful to a repair company. Even the little screws inside it have value to someone looking to piece a camera back together.
Are you buying the camera for the right reasons?
Happy to take the risk still? Well, before you do, let me share some thoughts I have around gear acquisition syndrome. For many of the reasons I will come to, it’s very easy to get swept up in the excitement around some of the cameras that have recently rocketed in value. The funny thing about demand, is that it also translates into validation. If other people are willing to pay an amount for an object, then surely it must be worth spending that money on? Not only that, but if all these people are buying this thing for this amount of money, well they can’t be all wrong, can they? Moreover, what do they know that you don’t? This sort of mentality isn’t something often even consciously thought about, but it happens to all of us!
As such, I think it’s important to reflect on whether or not you are buying a camera for the right reasons. Will it genuinely have a positive impact on your photography? Or do you want it because it looks pretty, or because you’re intrigued by it? I’d never discourage someone for a purchase based on any of their own personal justifications, I buy cameras for all sorts of reasons. The point is though, being honest with yourself about your reason you want to buy a camera is often advantageous in the process of making the best decision.
Here’s a few more thoughts for you to ruminate on:
Just because it’s a lot of money doesn’t mean it’s right for you!
Read any review I’ve written on this website and you’ll find I picked holes in the camera I was writing about. I can pick holes in any camera, not just because I’m picky, but genuinely because every camera ever made has flaws. Even the expensive ones! This is especially true given how subjective it all is. How well a camera works for any given photographer has never, and will never, be entirely dictated by its value.
Some of the most expensive cameras I’ve used haven’t suited me, and some of the least expensive have suited me a lot better and resulted in photos that are little different in terms of their objective qualities.
Do you really need all those features?
Additionally, it’s worth reflecting on the fact you might just not need some of the objective “advantages” an expensive cameras brings to the table. For example, a high end professional-spec camera might seem to be the “best”, but do you really need high frame rates and compatibility with some esoteric flash system – not to mention the added weight and bulk!? In the case of the expensive compact cameras, the question you might want to ask yourself is whether or not you will actually use the aperture priority mode. I rarely used it when I was shooting with those cameras – this is a big part of the reason I don’t bother with them now (that and the stupid prices).
It’s better to learn than to spend money!
As I said at the end of my post advising newbies coming into film photography on which camera to buy here, it’s better to learn your way around a problem than buy your way around it! A new camera with more features might seem like it provides a solution to a problem, but the solution might be within the camera you already have. Have a read about my experience with an Olympus AF-10 Super – a simple modification to its function combined with an understanding about how it worked and my photographic experience and knowhow, made it the near perfect compact camera for my needs.
Just because some camera review website said its good, it doesn’t mean it is!
I try to be balanced in my reviews, but like a lot of cameras reviewers I do get wrapped up in the joys of a camera and occasionally wax hyperbolic. I like to think I don’t get too carried away, not like some reviewers do… but either way, as I’ve said, it’s all subjective anyway! In short, take what you read on websites like this one with a pinch of salt!
Just because it’s used by some famous person doesn’t mean it’s right for you!
Finally, I think it’s important to note that value and desirability are often dictated by fashion. The most obvious example of all this in the world of film photography is the Contax T2. It’s a good camera, but it’s not perfect. Yet, partly because some famous American off of Instagram has one, the value of them has gone through the roof. The Yashica T4 is another; famously used by Terry Richardson, the value of them also went through the roof. Yet as Mike proves here, the photos it produces are really no different from a Canon with near identical, if not slightly more useful features, that can sometimes be bought for as little as 1/100th of the price!! Have you really thought hard about what other camera out there might do as good a job as the fashionable one you crave?
So don’t buy a film camera then…?
I’m sure all this sounds very negative, maybe even like I’m trying to discourage the purchasing of some of the more expensive film cameras? Of course that’s not the case! It would be very easy for me to recommend that no one buys an expensive electrical camera, and that the only sensible film camera purchases are ones that can be guaranteed to be repaired. But that sort of recommendation is just impractical, and frankly, likely to be ignored – I don’t even follow that advice myself, so it would be pretty bloody rich for me to peddle it as if I do!
That said, I must admit, there is a part of me that wants to shout from the roof tops about how bad an idea it is to buy a Ricoh GR1v for how fragile they are now. Or to dig out every Contax T2 buyer and goad them for buying such a ridiculously expensive fashion statement. The reality is though, it’s perfectly plausible that a Contax T2 is the perfect camera for any specific individual, or that someone might find a Ricoh GR1v that actually still works, and will do for at least another… maybe, 8 or so minutes… Seriously, they really are a terrible choice these days!
Just be certain it’s the right choice!
Joking aside, the point of this post is not to put people off buying the camera of their dreams, at whatever price they are willing to pay and despite any amount of risk. My goal is simply to encourage a bit of realistic thinking. Is that camera your thinking of buying really worth all that money to your photography? Are you really certain it’s the right camera for you? Are you buying it for the right reasons? And have you thought about the risks, and what will happen if it breaks? If the answer to all of that is an assured yes, then crack on my friend, I hope you enjoy your new purchase, and I wish you every bit of luck with it!
But, if you’re unsure, even just a little bit, then maybe you should just sleep on it one more time!
If you have shared your thoughts on this subject, or know of any relevant content elsewhere online, I would like to compile a few links for more reading, so please share them in the comments. Here is what I have found so far:
Some more thoughts on the compact camera price bubble over on Kosmofoto here
Some findings around a relevent survey done by a Finnish organisation now called Camera Rescue a few years back here
An interesting post comparing a Hasselblad Xpan to a very crap fixed lens point and shoot here
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