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The Camera Swap Survival Guide

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In photography circles, you run into two types of people. Those who love their gear and those who would just as soon forget about. I love making photographs, but I also love cameras and the other gear used in the process. Therefore, I love camera swaps and flea markets. The variety of tools available for our craft is astounding and frankly overwhelming. But I'm here to help. I've been going to swaps for 12 years. I've been ripped off more times than I care to admit, but after all this time, I'm finding more treasure than fool's gold. So today, I'll guide you through the jungle that is the camera swap.

What to Expect When You're Buying

In terms of products, you'll be able to find just about anything at a good camera swap, but the thing you should know about are the people who are stationed on the other side of the table. There are basically four types of booths at the typical camera swap. First, you have the sharks. These are people who make their living doing swaps or are people attached to camera stores. They know their stuff. Their prices will be slightly higher than your typical online auction sale, and many will offer short guarantees. Some may even have websites.

At my last swap, these seller's were nice enough to let me photograph their sign. Apparently, they aren't as nice to shoplifters.

Next, you have the pickers. These are people who specialize in estate sales. They buy a lot of different things. If they hit on a stash of camera gear or amass enough through multiple sales, they'll end up at a swap. If you spend a week learning as much as you can about your favorite cameras, then you will know more than most pickers. Pickers usually have lower prices than the sharks, but their cameras are usually untested and not backed up by guarantees. Pickers are also more likely to haggle with you, which is good.

The third group is made up of collectors. They're usually older are trying to get rid of what they've amassed over a lifetime. Their prices are unpredictable because they may just being trying to dump what they have, or they may have a lot of emotional attachment to their gear. They may also be extremely knowledgeable about the cameras they have, so they're a good resource even if you don't buy from them. They typically have smaller tables or booths. Don't expect a guarantee.

The last group is comprised of buyers. They may have some things for sale as well (putting them in the shark category), but they mainly try to buy up gear and resell it at a premium on the internet. If you're carrying a camera bag, they will try to get your attention to see if you have anything for sale. Some are reputable, some are not. The photography company, KEH, even had a person at the most recent swap I went to.

Selling and Trading

My main purpose at camera swaps is obtaining cameras. If you're looking to sell or trade, then just do your research on the value of your items. Trading is a good way to keep the deal fair, because most sellers will trade for equal value. They aren't always trying to make a profit with their trades, they may only be trying to diversify their inventory or they may have an important client that is looking for what you have.

If you're selling, just realize that the person buying has to make profit or it's not worth it to them. If your camera is consistently selling for $200 in online auctions, don't expect a person at a camera swap to spend that much. They have to make a little money. At the same time, don't sell to the first person who looks at your gear. Get multiple offers, then take your best offer back to the person who offered you the least and see if they'll be willing to up their price. If they were lowballing you, they'll usually feel bad about getting caught and give you a fair deal.

Be Like Santa: Make Your List

The worst thing you can do is go to a camera swap without some idea of what you'd like to buy. Make a list of items at least twice the size of your budget. Chances are you won't find everything you want, so you need to make sure you have plenty of items fully researched.

The second reason you make a list is to price check your items. Look on Ebay and filter your search to completed items. Look at the price of the things that actually sold (they appear green), find 10-20 items and average the price, that should be the rough value of the thing you're looking at.

Take into consideration other factors. If the seller is offering a guarantee, I let my offer rise 10%. If the item is really screwed up cosmetically, my offer falls up to 20% because I know most people judge the condition of the camera by it's appearance. The point is a list with clear goals and clear prices gives you a huge advantage.

I have pretty strange taste in cameras. I'm always looking to get another Rollei 35. I also wanted to get a good folder that shoots 6cm x 4.5cm. And finally, there's my obsession with 1970s compact cameras, and this is just page one!

Your Camera Scout Bag

There are several things you should always bring to a camera swap. The first, which may go without saying, is money. Most of the time credit/debit cards and checks are not accepted so you'll need cold, hard cash. Bringing cash is also an easy way to stay within your budget.

Next, you'll want a flash light. Something small and powerful. You'll use this to check for light leaks and to check lenses, both of which I'll get to later.

You'll want to bring something to carry your loot in. If you're selling, make sure it's a camera bag, so the seller knows that your gear is well taken care of. Nothing says "don't buy me" like a plastic grocery bag.

You may also want to bring some appropriate batteries to put in the cameras you want to test. If you're dealing with a picker and sometimes even a shark, they may not have batteries with them.

Finally, you'll want to bring some lens cleaning wipes or at least a micro fiber cloth. This will allow you to see if something is just dirt or if it's really damage. This is especially important with lenses. It's good to note that most sellers don't care if you ask to clean their cameras, haha.

Shuttering Shutter Speeds

When buying cameras, the most complicated thing to judge is whether the shutter is working properly or not. What I mean is you need to know before you buy a camera is the shutter speeds are correct. The easiest way to do this is to practice listening to shutter speeds. Find a camera that you know is exposing correctly, then run through the shutter speeds and listen to them. If you can tell the difference between 1/60 and 1/30, you're on your way. Once you've heard a 1/15 enough times, you'll know if it sounds right.

Old shutters like this are notorious for being off.

If the shutter speeds are off, you'll need to know if the shutter speeds can be adjusted. This will depend on what type of camera you're looking at. Do a search for "adjusting the shutter speeds on a _____" and see what you find. For some cameras it may cost $40 USD for others $400.

Check all the shutter speeds. You'll find some cameras that become sticky when you're using slower speeds. Consider what you'll be using the camera for. If it's mostly for daylight photography, then don't worry it. You should make sure the camera is priced appropriately, but just because it's not perfect doesn't mean it won't be fun to shoot.


"Before You Buy" Checklists

Each type of camera has it's own set of pitfalls and common problems. These lists are designed to help you look at all the common issues and find out if anything is going to make the camera or lens a pretty paper weight.


Recently there has been a big movement to use old lenses on newer cameras using adapters. These adapters are usually cheap. Micro 4/3 and other so-called "mirrorless" cameras are perfect candidates for this. Also, if you're buying a camera with a fixed lens, meaning that it cannot be removed, run through this checklist as well.

  • Check the Focusing Ring: Make sure it moves freely, but doesn't rattle around.
  • Check the Aperture Blades for Function: Most lenses have a button on the back that the camera uses to stop down the aperture. Make sure it stops down and, most importantly, opens back up instantly if it's a relatively modern SLR lens. Check this function on a variety of f/stop settings.
  • Check the Aperture Blades for Oil: All lenses have some type of lubricant in them, but if it's built up on the aperture blades that's a bad sign. This is most important for SLR lenses. If you see a little oil on a rangefinder lens, don't worry as much.
  • Check the Aperture Ring: Rotate the aperture ring to make sure it moves freely as well.
  • Check the Clarity of the Glass: Lenses can have haze or fog, sometimes caused by fungus. Shine your flashlight through the lens to check for it. If something looks off, use your cleaning cloth to wipe down the lens and try again. If it doesn't come off, move on. Fungus is really hard to remove and often just comes back.
  • Mount Compatibility: You don't want to buy a lens that doesn't fit your camera. Be sure it's the correct mount. Canon lenses don't fit Nikon cameras, the same is true for a lot of other brands.

All Cameras

  • Check the Shutter Speeds: Use the hearing test to check the shutter speeds. The mirror slap on SLRs will complicate this, but it will help if you can view the shutter while checking it as well.
  • Foam Seals: Check around the film door and the above the mirror on SLRs. If the foam is deteriorated, this can cause light leaks. If the foam above the mirror is gooey or gone, it can leave marks on the mirror or eventually crack it. Foam is pretty cheap to replace, but it should affect your offer.
  • Check the Shutter Itself: Through the back of the camera, cycle the shutter several times. Look for any bends, marks, dents or holes in the shutter. Any problems like this mean that camera is probably not worth your time.
  • Check the Meter: If there is a meter, you should check to make sure it's at least moving. If you have a lightmeter or different camera, you can check it against that. If the camera has a selenium meter, indicated by an array of bubbly or ridged glass, then chances are it will not work… ever. If you like the camera, then buy it anyway.
  • Check the Battery: If the camera has batteries, you'll want to make sure they are still available. Many older cameras use mercury batteries that are no longer made. If the batteries are strange, you can buy adapters, but factor this into your cost. Also check the battery compartment for white flakes indicating corrosion. If it's bad, it may mean that the electronics won't work.

Digital Cameras

You probably won't find many digital cameras at camera swaps. For the most part, the ones you do find will be completely undesirable or new enough that you won't need to worry about them working. They are also very easy to check for problems

  • Shoot a Photo: Bring a memory card and shoot images with the camera. If it doesn't make images, you probably shouldn't buy it.
  • Zoom in on the LCD: Look closely for dead pixels on the sensor. You can do this by looking for black spots or other out the ordinary spots on the LCD screen.
  • Check the Accessories: Make sure the camera comes with all the proper cables, batteries and especially battery chargers.


Check the prism and mirror by looking through the viewfinder, without a lens attached. If you see any specks or spots, it means a dirty prism or mirror. This will not affect images, but it can be annoying. Mirrors are easy to clean, but prisms are usually not.


Check the rangefinder alignment by focusing on something very far away (out a window if possible or at least across a big room. Then check to see where the lens if focused by looking at the distance marks on the focusing ring. It should indicate infinity. If it's not, then the rangefinder needs adjustment, which is usually not expensive.

Also check the viewfinder/rangefinder window by making sure when you look through the camera, it's bright, clear and clean. Any problems here will not affect images, but may make it harder to focus.

Folding Cameras

Use your flashlight to check the bellows for light leaks. Open the camera up fully, and stick one eye up to the back of the camera. Then shine your flashlight onto the outside of the bellows. Move it around and try all the angles. If you see any specs of light, that means the bellow are bad. If the holes are small, you can try to patch them, but if there are a lot of them or they are big, the bellows will need to be replaced. Replacement bellows are usually $50-100 and require a bit of knowledge to install yourself. You can also make your own. If the rest of the camera looks good, then just factor the bad bellows into your offer.

I've put a red circle around the pinhole of light coming in through the bellows. Also, if anyone tells you photographing the inside of damaged bellows is easy, you can gently inform them that they are wrong.

Obsolete Cameras

At every camera swap I've ever been to, I have seen TONS of obsolete cameras. Now, some may say film is obsolete, but my buying habits sure don't reflect that. Nonetheless, there are cameras out there that will be incredibly hard to use if you're not already set up for them. Stick to common film formats: 35mm, 120, 200 and 4x5. You'll see plenty of 127 cameras that look like both 35mm and 120 cameras, but don't be fooled. You'll also see giant, majestic folding cameras that may only cost $50, too bad it will cost $500 to get one negative out of it.

I feel that Polaroid cameras deserve a special mention. Polaroid has stopped make instant film, but a group called The Impossible Project has purchased some of their old equipment is making limited runs of certain kinds of film. In other words, you'll need to figure out what sort of instant film the camera sitting on that display table uses. They are currently making film for 600, SX-70, Spectra/Image and Type 100 cameras. Anything else, including most of those huge folding rangefinders, is next to impossible to find film for.

For some, these cool old cameras are just a great piece of photographic history. But be warned, if you want to shoot the camera, make sure it takes a common type of film.


Camera swaps are an awesome place to find cheap camera accessories. You'll find every filter you'd ever wanted to own, and just as many that ridiculous. At my last swap, I saw a filtered labeled "Mauve." I'm not sure what that might correct for, but I'm pretty sure I've never had a need for one.

If you don't know what the Cokin filter system is, then you're in for a treat. It was state of the art in the late 70s when it was invented. They still make them, so they must not be too horrible.

The great thing about most of these accessories is that they're not dependent on whether you're shooting film or digital. A Nikon wireless remote works on just about every Nikon SLR. Filters work on every lens as long as the size is right. Flashes can be used on everything.

You'll find bags and hard cases. You'll find tripods and heads. You'll find lightstands. Much of this old equipment is just as good as brand new stuff. Usually it's a little heavier, but most of us would rather spend half the price on something than worry if we could carry up a mountain on our back. Basically, if you're a digital-only photographer, there's still plenty of reasons to go to a camera swap.

Your Holy Grail

Let's say you know your cameras and there's a specific one that you desperately want. When you see one in good condition, just buy it. If it's something you know you'll love and are going to keep, forget the price tag and splurge on it. Haggle if you must, but go for it. For me, it's the Minolta Prod 20s. I've only since one at a camera swap, and I passed it by because it was $50 more than my budget. I sure wished I hadn't.

The Minolta Prod 20s is just a auto-focus point-and-shoot, but it sure is pretty. It was released in 1990 and apparently only 20,000 were made, a relatively small run for a camera. I told you I have weird taste.

Be Cautious, But Take a Few Chances

We're all looking to buy that 1930s Leica prototype camera buried in a bargain bin that has never been out of the box excect to be cleaned and re-lubricated. Unfortunately, that probably won't happen. There's also no way of knowing if a camera is going to last you two years or ten.

I wouldn't advise buying something you know is broken and can't be fixed. But if you're not sure about it's functionality and it's not too expensive, take a chance. I recently purchased a Polaroid SX-70 selling for between $75-150 in online auctions for just $35. It's a little beat up on the outside, but I got a low price because it was untested. If it works, it will be really fun to shoot and worth a lot! If it doesn't, I can still make my house payment.

The actual Polaroid SX-70 that I purchased. What a beast! The film from The Impossible Project is on its way. I'll post a comment when I find out if it works!

Camera swaps can be a lot of fun. I've been exposed so many different types of cameras and I've also met a lot of really passionate photographers. So next time you hear about one, be sure to go! If you have any camera swap advice or have landed any sweet deals, please share it in the comments.

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