How do I test a film camera I’m about to purchase?

This is the first post of many, helping you navigate confusing but awesome world of film photography.

So, you are standing in this thrift shop, looking at a cool looking camera with a seductive price tag. Is this going to be your next creative tool or a silent reminder of impulse buying habit?

Here are four easy steps to make sure your purchase is worth it.

Focus

Every camera has a focusing mechanism. We will discuss different types in later posts but in vast majority of cases it’s a ring around the lens marked 0.5, 1, 2, etc with the last marking being ∞ (infinity). Numbers may vary but infinity is always the last one. Try rotating the focus ring. If it rotates easily and smoothly from min to max value, that’s great! If the camera is an SLR or a rangefinder, look in the viewfinder while rotating focus ring. If something changes there – either two images moving towards each other (in case of a rangefinder) or everything getting more or less blurry (SLR) – you’re good. For 99% of the cases this is enough to test focus.

Aperture

Every camera has an aperture mechanism, which controls exposure and depth of field. In most cases it’s a ring close to the focusing one. It is market 2.8, 4, 5.6, etc. Typically the last number is 16. Rotate this ring. It should move freely or stop at key settings – 2.8, 4, etc. In some cameras you can see aperture blades open and close when you look into the lens and rotate the ring. As long as it moves from minimal to maximal value, it’s most likely working.

Film Advance

Unless it’s a large format camera there should be some sort of film advance mechanism. On older or bigger cameras it’s a knob that rotates clockwise. On newer (can be 1950s) it’s a lever under the thumb on the right. On many point and shoots it’s a horizontal wheel. In most cases rotating the knob or advancing the lever engages the shutter, allowing you to take a photo. Turn the knob until it stops or advance the lever and allow it to return. Vast majority of broken cameras I’ve seen have a broken film/shutter mechanism. If you can’t advance it and can’t take a photo by pressing the shutter button, the camera is most likely broken. There are lots of exceptions I’ll mention in later posts, but it’s good to assume that if you cant advance film on a camera you’re not familiar with, it’s likely broken

Shutter

Most important and most likely to malfunction is a shutter. There are different types of shutters and different things may be wrong with them but if the shutter doesn’t work, the camera is broken. Shutter is tested in two parts: one is whether it’s working at all, another one is shutter speeds. Testing whether it’s working is easy. Press the shutter release button, the one you use to take a photo. If you hear a distinct click – shutter is at least not dead. Some older cameras (like Kodak 35) have shutter release that’s not easy to find. Some cameras require film to be loaded so you could advance film and cock the shutter. Some cameras need a battery. But if it clicks – you’re in luck.

Testing shutter speeds is similar to testing aperture. Find shutter control. On some cameras it’s a dial, on some it’s a ring similar to aperture, on some it’s a lever. It’s marked B, 1, 2, … up to 500 or 1000, in some cases it will be 1/100, 1/250, etc. If one of the values is B and others are numbers – it’s a shutter speed setting. Make sure you can change the setting by moving the control. Set it to some higher number, like 100 or 1/100, advance film, try to press the shutter button. If it clicks – great! The camera is 90% likely working fine. There may be issues with slower speeds, issues with shutter blades, but they are less common than shutter not working at all. I’ll cover them in later posts.

Summary

Remember these 4 things to test the camera: Focus, Aperture, Film advance, Shutter. You can abbreviate them as FAFS to remember better. Following FAFS will give you an idea whether the camera you’re holding is likely dead or likely working.

I’ll share more information about testing and servicing vintage cameras in later posts. For now feel free to look at already tested cameras for sale in the SHOP.

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