Nov 24, 2014

How to Evaluate and Test a Legacy Camera

Buying Legacy Cameras

Ever wanted to dabble in film photography? Yes, buying an old camera can be daunting: Is it broken or about to break? Why doesn't it have many buttons? What's the lever for?

This article and the accompanying video will show you how to walk into a store, test a film camera like a seasoned buyer, check it with film for proper function, and set you on the road to happily shooting with one of the most rewarding and challenging media available -- FILM!

K1000The Pentax K1000

So you're ready to enter or re-enter the world of analog photography. Perhaps you've heard that it's harder than digital or you simply want a new adventure -- whatever your reasoning, buying a twenty-, forty-, or sixty-year-old camera has pitfalls, risks, and requires a bit of knowledge to make sure you buy a camera that works and is right for your photographic style. Whatever your reason or goal may be, stepping into analog photography will be one of the most challenging, rewarding, heartbreaking, frustrating, and enjoyable expansions to your photographic hobby or profession.

Getting Started

Before you visit a store or website, you should have a general idea of what type of camera you want. If you're starting our or are already a Pentax user, there's a lineage of Pentax film bodies that will suit your needs. To avoid falling in love with the wrong camera, here are some questions to answer before you research a film camera:

1- What mode do I shoot in most frequently? M, AV, TV, TAV, Program, or Green?

M- If you thrive in manual mode, then look for an older body. A Pentax Spotmatic, K1000, KM, KX, MX, or LX will be a good place to start researching. If you have an understanding of how film works and want a real challenge (and delight) try a pre-Spotmatic S/H body for a light, quiet, and battery-free option.

Av/A- Aperture Priority is, for most people, the ideal setting. The Pentax K2 is a great choice for Av shooters. The Spotmatic ESII is also worth considering. The ME, ME Super, and MG are also good aperture-priority bodies but they won't be as adaptable to unexpected photographic situations as a K2.

Tv/S- Pentax was never a big adherent to the Shutter Priority setting during the film age.

TAv- Time and Aperture Value is a digital camera phenomenon and won't be found in film bodies. If this is your mode of choice, an aperture priority body will suit you well.

P (program)- Program mode is found on Pentax's P, SF, Z, and MZ series and newer bodies. Many of these are multi-mode bodies with Program, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes.  The Super Program is the earliest Pentax to support all 4 basic shooting modes.

Green- Green mode is another feature of the digital age. If your most common mode is Green, try a program camera. For a real thrill, try an aperture-priority camera. You'll may find that the added step of selecting the aperture improves your photography unexpectedly.

After determining what type of body you're likely to be happy with, begin your purchase with research. Thanks to resources like Pentax Forums camera database / user reviews, YouTube, Camerapedia, and Wikipedia, researching legacy cameras is easier than ever before. And the information available is extremely thorough and complete in reputable sources. N.B., not all YouTube videos are reputable, so check the likes for a high like:dislike ratio and check for favorable comments.


Download the manual manual PDF (and a PDF reader) to your smart phone and you can check it in the store (if you lose your data connection) or on demand when you're using the camera.

Buying at Brick and Mortar Stores

Most brick and mortar stores have websites. As an added bonus to Pentax Forums users, if you purchase from B&H or Adorama, you're granted Pentax Forums Marketplace access. The Pentax Forums Marketplace is a great venue for purchasing a legacy camera as well as B&H and Adorama.

Before you buy from a physical store, be sure that you know it's a reputable store with trustworthy and reliable staff. is a fantastic resource for this. The Better Business Bureau (in the U.S.) is a good source, but people are faster to write a Yelp review than a letter to the BBB. Also, ask friends, people you know who know cameras, or a photography teacher.


Brick and mortar stores thrive off regular customers. Some may offer discounts to regulars or access to unshelved stock, so it's a good idea to start and maintain a good relationship with a local store, even if you only buy a couple rolls of film each month.

Buying Online

One of the safest places to buy online is Pentax Forums' Marketplace. Here you can purchase cared-for Pentax equipment from people you know and interact with. And, yes, using the Marketplace improves our shared photographic community.

Buying from eBay, Amazon, and other sites comes with added buyer risk. The best thing you can do is mitigate this. The reputable eBay sellers and web sites all provide buyer protection so that if a sale goes badly you can at least receive a refund.

For eBay especially, only buy from buyers who accept returns without question in the first two weeks or longer. You will need that time to make sure the camera works well. Also for eBay, check a seller's past feedback. If it's all positive or if there's no recent negative or neutral feedback indicating the seller has sold items with inaccurate descriptions, then you've done as much as you can to mitigate your risk. Every seller has a bum camera sometimes, and a good seller will take it back if you have an issue.

Read the descriptions carefully. Good sellers provide detailed descriptions and know their product. Also, read a seller's auction caveats. Good sellers keep it short and have terms fair to their buyers.

There are some things to avoid when buying from eBay. In addition to sellers with negative feedback indicating they sold flawed material and did not take it back, avoid sellers whose auctions say things like "I don't know much about cameras", "I bought this at an estate sale -- garage sale -- flea market -- boot sale", "This is a junk drawer find", "This camera is sold as-is", "No returns", and similar phrases. If a seller's terms are written to protect only them, then there may be good reason to avoid that seller or camera. If the seller's listing terms seem belligerent, snide, or arrogant, that's a red flag.

And remember, any time you have a question about your legacy Pentax camera, Pentax Forums is a great resource for obtaining answers, tips, and referrals for help. PentaxForums @PentaxForums News | Reviews | Forum

Support Pentax Forums Donate to Pentax Forums Support Pentax Forums