Collecting vintage cameras: See what develops

I first spotted vintage cameras while attending auctions as a kid. Old Brownies and other common cameras were often available for a song. They weren’t even truly collectible then. They were just old out-of-date cameras that failed to generate much interest among bidders. They could be purchased for next to nothing and quite often could be picked up in a box lot with other miscellaneous items for $1. Even back then many cameras had considerable values, but few of these turned up at the local auctions I attended.

Those who are familiar with vintage cameras know that if they spent an entire lifetime collecting nothing but cameras it still would not be possible to collect them all. We have all seen Brownies and vintage Kodaks while browsing in antique shops and malls, but few of us realize just how many different types of cameras there are. There are thousands of cameras of all different sizes, shapes, colors, designs, and uses. Just check out and you’ll likely see more different types than you’ve ever imagined. Don’t think that the offerings of eBay sellers is the sum total of what is out there, however; eBay is only the beginning.

The earliest cameras would not be considered cameras at all by today’s standards. In the Renaissance “cameras” were boxes with small holes used to project an image on a wall so that it could be traced for a sketch or drawing; no film was involved.

The first true cameras were produced in the 19th century. These are extremely difficult to locate because so few were made and they had a tendency to quickly become obsolete. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre developed the first practical camera. This camera produced a single picture, a daguerreotype, on a coated metal plate. The picture could only be seen when it was held at a certain angle. This may not seem very impressive in today’s high definition world, but it created quite a stir in its time. It was no longer necessary to depend on artists to produce portraits. It could now be accomplished with a mechanical device!

Camera improvements continued at a steady pace in the following years. By the Civil War era, photographers such as Matthew Brady could make use of glass plates. The plates were wet with chemicals just before each photo was shot. Thanks to this process we have photos of such personages as Abraham Lincoln. During this era it was necessary for the subjects of portraits to remain very still due to the long exposure times necessary. While taking a photo now is only a matter of a quick click, in the early days it took several seconds or even more to “take” the photograph. It’s not uncommon to see blurred subjects and even ghostly images of wagons “moving” through the photos. Anything that moved was either blurred or appears in the photo multiple times along the path of its movement. It was even possible for individuals to walk between the camera and the subject and not show up on the photo at all if they moved quickly enough!

Around 1881 the dry plate was introduced, ending the necessity of wetting the plate before use. A turning point in the development of photography came in 1888 when George Eastman marketed the first roll film. Eastman’s first Kodaks were sold already loaded with enough of the new roll film for 100 photos. When the roll was completed the entire camera was mailed in with $10 (quite a sum of money at the time) and the reloaded camera and the 2 1/2-inch circular prints mounted on heavy cardboard were returned to the photographer. Today some cameras have gone back to a similar arrangement. From these beginnings cameras steadily improved. One major improvement was size. Early cameras tended to be quite large, as the industry developed the cameras got smaller.

Collectors are not likely to run across examples of these early cameras, but there are thousands of varieties that are available.

Brownies, folding cameras, pocket cameras, 35mm cameras, and more are just waiting for collectors. There are dozens of classifications and many cameras can easily fit into several of them. Some of the most interesting examples are the novelty cameras. These cameras are disguised as hats, clown faces, robots, cigarette packs, soccer balls, books, soft drink cans, tires, and other objects. The prices for such novelty cameras range around $50-$75.

Prices for other cameras run anywhere from practically nothing to hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Most run-of-the-mill cameras will cost anywhere from $50 to $250. The good news for collectors is that there are hundreds of cameras available for less than $25, many for much less. Garage sales, flea markets, and auctions are all good sources for cameras, often at rock bottom prices. Anywhere that vintage cameras are considered “used” is a good place to look for bargains.

Putting a value on a particular camera is a tricky business for anyone who is not an expert. A camera valued at $350 may look much like one valued at $35. Before putting any serious amount of cash into a camera make sure it is worth the price. Camera price guides are an invaluable resource in this area.

When looking for a camera keep the following points in mind. The most important point has already been pointed out, don’t put money into a camera until you know what it is worth. Buying before doing your homework could lead to a serious mistake. Who wants to pay $50 for a camera that could be had for $15? Another important point is condition, make sure the camera is in good working order. Besides being functional make sure the camera is in good physical condition. Keep an eye out for scratches, dents, discoloration, and other defects. Make sure that leather or other material of folding cameras is undamaged. Any damage detracts from the value and the investment potential of the camera.

Some collectors like to assemble examples of different types of cameras. Others collect only one type. Whatever the collecting theme proper display, storage, and care of cameras is essential. Cameras are easily displayed on shelves or better yet in glass cases where they will be protected from dust. Wherever they are displayed cameras need to be protected from the curious. Admirers like to turn knobs and buttons, click shutters, and place fingers on lenses; all these are potential hazards. Display your cameras out of immediate reach or explain to admirers the fragility of your collection. As with most collectibles, direct sunlight should be avoided. It may have little effect on some cameras, but many will be damaged by the light and heat.

Make sure that your cameras are in a secure location. A camera that falls to the floor is in serious danger. Think about the safety of your cameras when deciding where to display them. When storing cameras make sure to pack them away carefully. Cameras are delicate instruments that can be damaged easily. A little extra time and effort on your part can insure the well being of your camera collection.