What’s it worth? How to estimate the value of old film cameras

Box cameras on a shelf
Some box cameras and other miscellaneous vintage cameras from my collection. About half are Kodaks. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I get a lot of indicators that people are curious about the value of their old cameras. I’m not an expert and I don’t like to give estimates, so instead here is how I go about figuring an estimate for myself.

I suspect many people looking for the value of an old camera are hoping they’ve found a high-dollar gem in their parents’ or grandparents’ attic. Sadly, however, most old cameras were inexpensively made and mass produced.

Background

I see two key indicators that value is on everyone’s mind:

First, I get direct communications in the form of both comments and contact emails.

Second, when I look at the search terms that bring people to my site, the words price, value, cost and worth appear frequently.

Thrift store cameras
Shelves of vintage cameras in a Denver thrift store showcase, looking for their forever homes. Several were in stunningly good condition. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Additionally, when researching this post I found virtually no others like it. I did, however, find a number of posts with titles like “Three ways to get rid of that old camera,” and “What to do with an old film camera when the love is gone.”

I occasionally mention values in my reviews, but I tend to generalize because I don’t like to give the impression that they are definitive or even all that accurate. I also worry that they won’t remain accurate, even more today than in the past — film cameras seem to be increasing in value the last 6-12 months.

For example, my Nikon FM2n review is among my most popular, but is more than two years old. At the time, I would have estimated the value of my FM2 around $100. Since then they appear to have gone up and I would guess it’s closer to $150-200 now.

Since most of my cameras come from thrift and antique stores, and flea markets, I frequently have to get rough value estimates on the fly to decide if the price is fair (or better).

What makes value

The market for older cameras is relatively small because film is getting harder to get and there just aren’t that many people who want to use it (though the numbers have been stabilizing or even improving).

One of two factors tends to be the only reason a camera is worth much: it was particularly good in its day, or it is particularly rare today. When both apply, that’s where you’ve found a hidden treasure (monetarily, anyway).

Quality is quality and will always command a premium. Quality comes in two flavors: name and reputation.

Name means your Leicas and Hasselblads and the like — a product built by a company that rarely takes a swing without hitting a home run.

Reputation applies to specific models that command a premium because they are widely known as exceptional — cult cameras. Think of the Canonet series of Canon rangefinders, the Olympus XA and Trip series, or the Yashica Electro series.

Most often I see rarity apply to variant cameras — the few made with a black finish, or one with a titanium housing. Limited editions, of course, are usually pretty rare.

The market is flooded, though, with relatively simple cameras which didn’t really have enough moving parts to break down over the years, such as your grandparents’ Brownies and other box cameras, or with cameras that are difficult or impossible to use now due to factors like the type of film they were designed for (such as 116 or 126 film).

This is simply a case of supply and demand — high supply and low demand.

Ultimately, the best measure of a camera’s value is what someone else will pay for it. If no one will buy it, though, is it really worth anything?

The key thing to remember is: don’t get your hopes up. The less you expect the more pleasantly surprised you might be.

How to estimate

To get a rough idea of the value of a given camera I usually start with research.

I look for reviews and historical data about a camera. Useful facts and figures include how long it was produced and by whom, how old it is, what variants and how many were made of each type. I also like to learn its reputation — does it have a well-regarded lens or some other unique feature, and is it sought-after by collectors.

Next it’s time to assess the condition. Does everything work? How does it look? Is it missing key pieces or accessories? Does it have special or rare extras?

Worth considering is that a non-working film camera is essentially worthless unless it’s either a) a Leica or similar, or b) truly collectible due to rarity or uniqueness. Even a real looker, if it’s a common enough camera, will be worth very little except perhaps as a shelf queen.

McKeown's Cameras cover
McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique & Classic Cameras, 2001-2002 Edition.

Once you know a bit more about the camera, it’s time to start looking for comparable items with prices.

You can combine research with value information by starting with the famous McKeown’s Price Guide to Classic and Antique Cameras. It’s expensive, yes, but it is kind of the gold standard. While the prices quoted have lost some accuracy in the 10-plus Internet-driven years since the last edition was published, there is simply no greater resource for production numbers and variation listings, etc. A new edition is reportedly in the works for 2016, and may include a searchable online companion edition.

Several other printed collectible camera price guides are available, such as the Hove International Blue Book, McBroom’s Camera Bluebook and the Antique Trader Cameras and Photographica Price Guide. None has been updated more recently than 2004, however, and the third is reportedly fairly light on actual cameras.

There are also dedicated websites:

  • CollectiBlend collects estimated values just for cameras and lenses, although I was unable to discern for sure how they arrive at their estimates — it appears they may come from eBay listings.
  • Jim Colwell’s Lens$db is regularly updated, but focuses only on lenses and appears to primarily cover lenses that are made for, or at least somewhat compatible with, Canon digital cameras.
  • UKCamera.com isn’t a complete listing, and the jumble can be painful to sort through at times, and prices vary between U.S. dollars, Euros and Pounds Sterling. Nevertheless, what prices I checked seemed usefully accurate.

A number of photography forum sites have classified sections, and there are dedicated classified listing sites that could be helpful, such as:

  • APUG classifieds — The ultimate analog photographic resource has the ultimate analog photographic classifieds (membership required).
  • Rangefinderforum classifieds — This is probably the best private classified for film cameras (membership required).
  • Photo.net classifieds — Use the links at the right to go through categories. Not a lot here most of the time, though (membership required).
  • FredMiranda.com classifieds — A lot of digital gear, but plenty of higher-end films gear, too (membership required).
  • DPReview For Sale threads — Again, lots of digital stuff but some good film stuff, too (membership required).
  • Craigslist — This is kind of a last resort for me. Most of the prices are either too high to sell at all, or intentionally set low to move the item fast.
  • Oodle — Less listings than Craigslist, but more have photos. Prices seem similar.

There are also online retailers, such as:

  • KEH.com — Has a quote wizard that will let you input the camera information and return an instant quote for the camera. Bear in mind that typically it will be about half of the retail value of the camera.
  • UsedPhotoPro.com — Roberts Camera in Indianapolis operates this used gear site which also offers quotes — although you submit your information and wait for them to get back to you. Adorama’s quotes work the same way.

You can search both sites’ used gear for sale to see the retail price, or visit the used listings from Adorama, B&H Photo and Video, Unique Photo and lots of smaller dealers.

And then, of course, there’s eBay.

How to use eBay for estimates

It’s a very large marketplace, so it’s hard to argue with the valuations you can come up with — if you use the site properly.

And while you can go through all the sites above, I often start with eBay and use those others if I either can’t find anything on the camera I’m estimating, or if I don’t feel comfortable with what I see on eBay. So here’s how I go through eBay to estimate a value.

My first stop is just to search for the camera I’m trying to estimate. At this point I’m not taking any notes, just getting a first-impression ballpark idea of what other sellers think this one is worth. I might make a mental note of just the prices listed as Buy It Now, especially if they seem consistent.

eBay Sold listings
The relatively-new “Sold listings” option in the left rail of eBay search pages is the best way to use the site for value estimates. (Screenshot)

Next I’ll look down the left sidebar and select “Completed listings,” glancing briefly at just the top few listings before selecting “Sold listings.” This is where the real fun is.

Completed listings includes both those that sold and all those that didn’t. My reason for dropping by is to get an idea of how the items are selling and see what kind of prices scared buyers off. If many of the items I see at the top of the Completed list don’t also show up on the Sold list, that can be an indicator that either the camera model isn’t that desirable, or that the market values are somewhat inflated, especially if the unsold listings aren’t priced much higher than some that did sell.

One I get to the Sold listings I’ll start making notes (mental or physical) of the average prices. If they are all over the place, it could indicate that the item is very desirable and will sell at any price. If they are very consistent, it indicates a stable market with a steady supply and steady demand.

Once I have an idea of the average prices, I’ll start clicking through listings getting a more detailed look at the condition and accessories of each one. If I see a consistent pattern in price differences based on certain missing things, or certain types of damage, specific accessories, and so on, I take that into account in my estimate.

At that point, just average the values of the sold listings that closely match the condition of your camera, and that’s your estimate.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. That average is your value. If it seems wildly inaccurate or impossible, I’ll try to back-check it with one of the other methods discussed above.

And that’s about it.

My favorite folding cameras
Some of my favorite folding cameras and other vintage photographic items. The Pentax 110 SLR is waiting to be reviewed… (Daniel J. Schneider)
  • Linda Sutton

    I have a “”BROWNIE STARFLEX OUTFIT (CAMERA) FROM THE FIFTIES, STILL IN ORIGINAL BOX, COULD YOU HELP ME FIND OUT IT VALUE…NEVER TAKEN OUT OF BOX: it belonged to my PARENTS, they purchased it when I was growing up in the 50’s-thank you for your time-l Sutton

    • Hi Linda, This whole article’s goal was to put down the advice I would give you. I don’t do estimates. Thanks!