People tend to look at me funny when I tell them I collect cameras, and I can't really blame them. After all, I've been living on this earth for well over 40 years and never gave a thought to vintage cameras until just a few years ago. Now I wonder how I could have missed them! Then again, I guess I never really had any exposure to most of them. My knowledge was limited to the common cameras that were available in my time - the Kodak Instamatics, the Polaroid SX-70s. Of course, I had seen TV shows with old-time photographers hidden under a cloth, exploding flash powder in hand, and black & white movies with press photographers popping out spent bulbs, but still never gave it any thought. Eventually, of course, I did begin to discover all of the amazing variations out there, and have become captivated by them. Similarly, the people who give me looks when I tell them I collect cameras usually go from being perplexed to being fascinated once they've actually seen some of them.
I began collecting in 2007. At that time, I was posting my own photos on Flickr and I discovered the "Through The Viewfinder" group there, where people use modern cameras to literally shoot through the viewfinders of vintage cameras. Once I saw those old cameras and started discovering the incredible variety of styles and designs, I was hooked. I just think it's so cool that the same basic device can range in design from a box with a hole in it to a precision-machined case filled with intricate mechanisms.
Tips on collecting: First, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with all the different types of cameras that are out there.They come in many forms, and so there are several sub-categories which could serve as the focus of your collection. There are box cameras, folding cameras, rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, toy cameras, subminiatures, and the list goes on. Also, many people collect cameras that are only made by a single manufacturer. It does help to have a specific focus for your collection, since it allows you to ignore anything that doesn't fit. Some collectors (myself included) will buy any camera that appeals to them, regardless of what type of camera it is or who made it. That's fine, but since there is a vast variety of vintage cameras out there, you can see just how much of an advantage it can be to collect with a specific emphasis.
By the time you've become acquainted with the huge variety of cameras that are out there, you're sure to have several on your wish list. Now you need to know where to get them.Vintage cameras can be found at antique stores, estate sales, auctions, online (Ebay, Etsy, etc.), and of course, at KEH.com.
When searching for cameras on online auctions there are a few things to watch out for. First, it's generally a good idea to ignore the word "rare". Certainly, some cameras are indeed rare, but more often than not, that word is applied to cameras that are about as rare as a raindrop. Secondly, be aware that the average person has no idea what any given vintage camera is worth. People tend to think that if something is old, it must be valuable. Most of the time, that is not the case. I constantly see people asking ridiculously high prices for cameras that may be worth $5. So how do you know how much a camera should cost? Do your research! One of the best resources is McKeown's Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras (find a used version here). It has photos, descriptions, and values for tens of thousands of cameras, and is known as "the bible of camera collecting". The book doesn't come cheap, but it is worth the price. There are other camera price guides as well, though none as comprehensive as McKeown's. (Editors note: KEH also uses McKeown's as one of its research and pricing sources. Other factors that go into the flux of collectible pricing is economic factors, and supply and demand. The newest McKeown's guide is also 5-6 years old now). The values in price guides are usually pretty accurate as a guideline, but in the end, it really just comes down to what the buyer is willing to pay for a camera.
So what role does condition play? Well, some collectors are mostly interested in how the cameras look, so cosmetic condition is more important to them than if the camera works. Others however, insist that a camera be fully functional. It really depends on the individual as to what is most important, as there is no exact guidelines to follow when collecting. As pricing goes however, a camera in working order and with good cosmetic condition (and all of it's original pieces) will always fetch a higher price. Also with anything you might collect, original boxes, paperwork, and accessories add to the value. Exactly how much it adds to the value depends on the individual camera. For example, an old Kodak Brownie box camera may have an original box with colorful characters on it, and that box is quite valuable just by itself. On the other hand, I have an old Brownie box camera from a few years later, and the original box for that camera is just a plain tan color with the name of the camera in plain black type. That box adds almost nothing to the value of the camera.
About the writer/collector: John is a mechanical designer from New Jersey. There are currently around 200 cameras in his collection, and it is continuing to grow. To see more of John's personal camera collection, click here.