Vintage cameras and lenses – where to buy?

I have been buying vintage analog cameras and lenses for a few years now, and so this article offers a few tips, on where to buy them based on my experiences. Now when you’re dealing with vintage camera equipment, you will quickly realize that there is a lot of inventory around the world. This isn’t so surprising considering how the photographic industry blossomed with the expanding consumer market from 1950 onward. Analog equipment can be old, mostly dating pre-1980s, some quite common, others quite rare. I say pre-1980s because that decade heralded cameras and lenses that were bulky, ugly, made of plastic, and had clumsy auto-focus mechanisms. I will cover what to look for in vintage lenses, and cameras at a later date.

Bricks-and-mortar stores

If you are new to the buying vintage photographic equipment, then the obvious place to start is a store that focuses on vintage gear, but honestly they are few and far in between, which may be the nature of dealing with analog. Sometimes photographic retailers who sell modern camera equipment may deal with some “used” gear, but you often won’t find a really good range of gear, as they tend to deal more with used digital gear. Some people of course will comment that specialized stores tend to have higher prices, but we are talking about vintage equipment here, which may be anywhere from 40-70 years old, so if you are serious about lenses it is worth paying for the expertise to properly assess them.

In Toronto a good place to start is F-Stop Photo Accessories, which has a good amount of online information on their inventory (but does not ship). You will find a good assortment of Japanese gear, with some German and Soviet-era gear as well. The store is tiny, so best to check out the website and email to make sure the items you’re interested in are in stock, then drop by to examine them. In places like the UK, Europe and even Japan there are likely more bricks-and-mortar stores that deal predominantly with vintage. For example Tokyo abounds with used camera stores, some of which have huge inventories.

Fairs / Camera shows

If you are fortunate to live somewhere that has a photographic club, they may also have swap-meets, or auctions. In Toronto there is the Photographic Historical Society of Canada, which typically has two fairs a year, which are a good place to pick up vintage gear. The first time I went in 2019 I managed to find an 8-element Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (C$250), a Helios 58mm Version 4 ($20), a Takumar 35mm f/3.5 ($60), and a Carl Zeiss Tessar and Biotar 58mm f/2 for $140. The benefit is always that you get to examine the lens/camera, and check the functionality. There is generally a huge amount of lenses and cameras, some quite inexpensive for the person wanting to get started in analog photography.

Online stores

What about purchasing from an online reseller? This is somewhat tricky, because you are buying a physical device. I typically don’t buy any vintage electronic things off the internet because you can never be 100% certain. Thankfully the type of vintage we are looking at here, especially as it pertains to lenses, rarely involves any electronics. However it still involve moving parts, i.e. the focusing ring, and the aperture, both of which have to move freely, and are obviously hard to test online. There are a number of differing options for buying online. There are (i) physical stores which have an online presence, (ii) online retailers with a dedicated website, and (iii) online retailers on platforms such as Etsy and eBay.

I have had a number of good experiences when shopping at online stores. The first one was with the Vintage & Classic Camera Co., on Hayling Island near Portsmouth (UK). I bought an Exakta Varex 11a, and the experience was extremely good. Listings are well described, with ample photographs and a condition reported (as a percentage). The second was a recent experience with West Yorkshire Cameras, arguably one of the premium retailers for vintage camera gear. I have also bought lenses from a number of resellers on Etsy and eBay. Etsy provides access to resellers from all over the globe, and vintage products have to be a minimum of 20 years. I have bought some Russian lenses from Aerarium (Ukraine), cameras from Coach Haus Vintage (Toronto, Canada) and Film Culture (Hamilton, Canada). If you are looking for Japanese vintage cameras, I can also recommend Japan Vintage Camera based in Tokyo, who have an Etsy store as well.

What makes a good store?

A good vintage camera reseller will be one who lives and breathes vintage cameras. Typically they might have an Instagram account, offer weekly updates of new inventory, and service/inspect the equipment before even advertising it. If there should be something wrong with an item when you receive it, the reseller should make it good (I mean things do get missed). A good online store will have listings which describe the lens/camera in detail while listing any defects, provide a good series of photographs showing the camera from different angles, and some sort of grading criteria. Ideally the store should also provide some basic information on shipping costs.

Regardless of the store, always be sure to Google them and check online reviews. Don’t be swayed by a cool website, if there is a lack of customer service you won’t want to shop there. Sometimes the company has a Google review, or perhaps a review on Trustpilot. If there are enough negative reviews, then it is safe to say there is likely some truth to them. For example a company that posts 70% bad reviews is one to avoid, regardless of the amount of inventory on their site, how quickly it is updated, or how aesthetically pleasing the website looks. I had an extremely poor experience with a British online reseller that has an extremely good website with weekly updates of inventory. I had purchased a series of vintage lenses in Nov.2020. After one month they had not shipped, after two also nothing. I conversed with the owner twice during the period and each time the items were going to be “shipped tomorrow”. To no avail, after 5 months, I finally submitted a refund request with Paypal, which was duly processed. I have since written a review, which wasn’t favourable, but then neither were 90% of the reviews for that particular reseller.

The website Light Box has a whole list of places to buy film cameras and lenses in the UK, including a section named “Caution advised”, outlining those to avoid. I have created a listing of various stores in the Vintage Lenses etc. page.

Stores by region

Geographical locations do play a role in where to purchase vintage camera equipment. For example during the early decades of the post-war camera boom, there were two core epicentres of camera design and manufacture: Europe (more specifically both East and West), and Japan. So if you are interested in cameras/lenses from these regions, then stores within those geographical locales might offer a better selection. For example there are quite a few vintage camera resellers on Etsy from Ukraine and Russia. This makes sense considering cameras like FED were made in factories in Kharkov, Ukraine. Interested in Pentax or any number of Japanese vintage lenses, then resellers from Japan make sense. There are a lot of good camera stores in places that have few links to manufacturing, but may have had a good consumer base, e.g. UK and the Netherlands. The trick of course is being able to navigate the sites. Many Japanese stores have online presence, but very few provide an English-language portal.

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