We’re living in an era when nearly everyone has a camera with them at all times. Every smartphone is equipped with one, and people can’t help but take pictures of their children, their meals, or that dog I saw, and post it to social media for all to see.
Younger generations won’t be able to recall a time when one had to be frugal with their photographic choices. Once upon a time, a person couldn’t take a photo of their Chicago style deep dish pizza from every possible angle, intending to simply choose the best one and delete the rest. Well, they could, but it would be a waste of money and resources.
Though modern digital technology has certainly made photography more accessible to the masses, there was something special about analog. There is proof of this in contemporary photo apps that offer the user filters made specifically to look like vintage film. Filters with names like “toy camera,” “Diana,” and “lomographic,” hearken back to vintage photography.
So while analog photography may becoming a thing of the past, its effects are not.
And there are definite benefits to hopping on the analog camera bandwagon.
The entire process, from shutter-snap to development (if you choose to do it yourself), can be done without electricity. That means should the nation succumb to a zombie apocalypse, you will be the one creating the photographic evidence that future generations—once society is rebuilt atop the bones of those who fell to the undead—will use to compose songs. They will celebrate both your bravery and photographic prowess. The tunes will be jaunty but reverent.
The technology is nothing short of magic.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more passionate about analog photography than David Schwartz, the curator of the Heritage Camera Museum. For him, what started almost 50 years ago as a small, personal collection of photographic ephemera and a job at a camera shop has evolved into a full-blown non-profit, with a mission of preserving the history of photography.
“We’re the only camera museum in the U.S. that’s open to the public,” he said. Among the 6,000 cameras in his facility are some formerly owned by Leni Riefenstahl and Jacques Cousteau, as well as KGB spy cameras, and the largest collection of Brownie cameras.
Because of the proliferation of digital media, a wide variety of film cameras, not unlike those on display at the museum, can now frequently be found at estate sales.
Here, we’ll take a look at just a few of the different styles of camera you can find and still enjoy through use or simply display, at estate sales. This list is, of course, not exhaustive. That would be nearly impossible. But hopefully I’ll fit in all the magic words that invoke the same nostalgic feeling as those Paul Simon sings about in his song “Kodachrome.”
But first, let’s talk very briefly about film. If you’re just getting into analog photography, you’re going to want to know about this. Because it’s easy to get enchanted by a camera—its design, its history, the possibilities. But most older film cameras utilize film that’s no longer produced.
When it comes to your current film options, here are the basics:
These are your standard film formats—the ones that have yet to be discontinued.
- 35mm film (also known as 135)
- 120, or medium format film
- large format film, categorized by measurements like 4 x 5 or 8 x 10
You should, with relative ease, be able to acquire these formats. But when it comes to large format, Schwartz warns, “It’s a little pricey. And you have to do it yourself, basically.”
If you come across a camera that accepts a different sort of film, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get it up and running again. Many of the films are incredibly similar. Schwartz says 35mm film is almost identical to 823, except the latter has a paper backing. The differences are just enough to make retrofitting the film incredibly difficult. “120 and 620 are exactly the same, except for spool size,” he said. “But to re-roll it is almost near impossible.”
That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But you probably shouldn’t count on it.
Now, onto the cameras.
Real talk: You’re not likely to find an original Daguerreotype camera at an estate sale. Those that are out in the wild right now are in museums, or being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. But I would be remiss not to mention this beautiful and well-known style of camera, because while the camera itself is not easily found, you may come across the Daguerreotype photographs themselves—an image set upon a fragile silver-coated copper plate. Photographs you see from the early 1800s—portraits of presidents and the wealthy elite—were most likely taken by a daguerreotype camera.
Dating back as far as the 1800s, box cameras
were one of the earliest accessible designs. They were also the most simple: a sealed box with a fixed focus lens on one end and film at the other. Early box cameras were made of wood; later designs were made of cardboard, plastic (including Bakelite), or metal. They evolved over several decades, which means there’s a good number of them still out there.
It was the box camera that first introduced the public to rolls of film as early as 1880, which popularized the idea of a “snapshot.” Prior to Eastman Kodak’s introduction of film rolls, box cameras utilized single plate exposures or drop plate exposures, both of which required negatives be removed after each exposure. Suddenly, photography was accessible to the masses: the novice photographer could take the photos, mail off the exposed film, and have fully-developed images returned to them.
Box cameras were made by various companies throughout the decades they were produced, so they’re relatively easy to find. Eastman Kodak produced one of the longest series of box cameras, the Brownie, which got its name from its inventor, Frank A. Brownell.
And, unlike some other newer—but still vintage—cameras, some box cameras can still be used.
“A few of them take 120, but most of them take 127, or other oddball sizes,” Schwartz said. “Eastman was the father of planned obsolescence—always coming up with a new size or something different.”
This line of medium-format, twin reflex camera was introduced to the photographic world in 1929. The reflex lens means the photographer looks through the lens to view the reflected image of an object. But unlike the more common single-lens cameras, twin-lens cameras like the Rolleiflex
are held at waist or chest-level to look through the finder.
The twin-lens also means mirrored directions, so the novice photographer might have a little trouble moving from left to right...or is it right to left? And the cameras take 6 x 6 cm square images, nearly 3 times larger than your standard 35mm camera.
The metal and glass construction and leather covering makes this camera durable and enjoyable to use.
A camera so powerful, it put a man on the moon. Or, at least, so powerful it took pictures of a man on the moon.
As a company, Hasselblad has been around since the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that their cameras came into their own with their 500C design.
The Swedish company ushered itself into the digital era by introducing an attachment that would allow the 1950s cameras to take digital images. The price of those attachments can be as breathtaking as the photographs they take, though.
These plastic cameras were a novelty when they originally hit the market. The camera sometimes had trouble advancing its film, and light frequently leaked through its plastic body. But photographers fell in love with these “defects” and the results they had on their film.
And now, as mentioned before, these “defects” are recreated on photo editing apps like Instagram and Camera+, so anyone can have their digital photos imperfected. All thanks to a camera that basically amounts to a child’s toy.
The original Diana has since been discontinued, though it’s now reproduced as the Diana F+ by a company called Lomography. But purists will argue there’s nothing like the real thing.
I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone unfamiliar with the Polaroid camera
. From those of us who owned one and knew the magic of taking a photo and then waiting impatiently for the picture to develop, to those who maybe were only introduced when Andre 3000 made the musical request to “shake it like a Polaroid picture” in Outkast’s “Hey-Ya.”
But don’t really shake your Polaroids. It doesn’t help.
In 1948, Edwin Land filled the desire for instant gratification photography that most of America didn’t yet know it had. His Polaroid Land Model 95 camera, a gorgeous metal humber with folding bellows used two separate positive and negative rolls of film, which allowed the photograph to be developed inside the camera.
Land and Polaroid went on to improve the film development process, which is now done with a chemical-filled envelope that exposes and develops the image.
Polaroid ceased production of analog film products in 2008, but a group called the Impossible Project continues to make film usable in certain models of the original cameras.
New Polaroid cameras have recently been released, using different, incompatible film techniques. The Fujifilm Instax line of cameras, created in 1998 and still on the market today, though Schwartz warns that the pop-culture interest in instant photography that swept the nation just a few short years ago, is waning.
I never had a Kodak Instamatic camera
, but it is nevertheless engrained in my memory, because it was a consolation prize on a game show that was popular when I was growing up.
I don’t remember which show—I watched a lot of them. (Hey, remember Bumper Stumpers?) But I remember the enthusiasm of the announcer as he said those four words—“a Kodak Instamatic camera!”—and the genuine enthusiasm of the contestants, who would surely be consoled if they went home without the grand prize.
Clearly the camera was something special. These easy-to-load 120 and 126 cameras saw huge popularity after their 1963 debut, selling over 50 million units in its first seven years. The company also sold disposable flashcubes (“Magicubes”) which could be triggered four times before the cube would need to be replaced.
As with many vintage collectibles, one must be vigilant to avoid contemporary reproductions. Schwartz warns there are a number of companies, particularly in China, that are producing cameras that are difficult to distinguish from the originals. “They’re antiqued and everything,” he said. That’s not to say the reproductions aren’t worth owning, if you’re interested. But you should know what you’re buying.
Whether you’re shopping for cameras to use, or simply to display them as the important pieces of history they are, you’re likely to find something special at your local estate sales. I recently came across an in-box Kodamatic Pleaser II in all its retro glory. I furiously researched online to see if there was film available. It wasn’t. And there was no indication that I could jury rig some other film to make it work. So I set it down and left it behind.
I think of that camera often, and with regret.
Schwartz encourages new collectors to buy up any cameras they can find. “Sooner or later, even the cheapest camera will get thrown away, and then become rare,” he said. “If you have the space for it—keep it.”