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Camera Show Counter FAQ

Ok, it's not a frequently-asked questions page (FAQ), but it will probably answer many of your questions. Some people think that camera shows are actually fun places to find offbeat bargains. They live in Los Angeles. Based on the Detroit Photorama shows I have been to (maybe 10 over 10 years), maybe Detroit (or actually its suburbs) is a lot rougher than LA, where someone has written up a summary here.

1. Dramatis Personae

To save you the trouble of observing all of these people (so you can actually find the one obscure $2 part you are really looking for - and paid $5 to see - remind you of the lottery?), here are the typologies of people:

1. A couple of guys with Rubbermaid bins of parts cameras. And I really mean parts cameras. Parts, cameras, parts of cameras. Parts is parts. Don't worry. Nothing in that bin can be fixed.

2. A few more of the above with Rubbermaid bins full of crap - even using the most charitable definition of crap (for example, busted Canonets with battery acid everywhere). Funny-smelling sealed NiCad flash units seem to be a big item, as well as incredibly tangled cords.

3. Some optimists who believe that Pentax K lenses are worth as much as $100 for a 50/1.8. They usually tape xeroxes of the manufacturers' logos to the cheapo generic lens caps they attach. You would think that real Pentax caps were like 4-leaf clover, not 50-cent unsellable near-garbage on Ebay.

4. Some Chicago dealers who think that F4s are made of gold; $800 for one with the shutter speeds worn off? Come on. You probably figured out his bent when he handed you the business card made to look like a little hundred dollar bill.

5. Some oldsters with brass view camera lenses. Dagor, Protar, Unar, Heliar. De gustibus non disputandum est. Did I mention the same guys have vintage girly pics, too?

6. Your local dealers who couldn't sell M2s for $1,400 in their stores so they decided to take the show on the road. Well, if that's out of your price range, I have this sandpapered Summar with an aftermarket coating for $200.

7. People who have a plexiglas fetish. Sorry if you think human skin secretions (or breath) are going to melt that $900(!) plastic Fuji 645 folder. Oh, you want to see the Leica IIIc? Ha!

8. People with a shrinkwrap fetish. Because the best way to test a Metrastar meter is through polyethylene.

9. Fat guys in fishing/photo vests. Exhibitors or visitors? Hard to say.

10. One fat guy's wife. Someone's got to watch the whole table full of 50/4 EL-Nikkors.

11. Two younger guys hiding behind 5x7 enlargers and a bunch of miscellaneous darkroom equipment. Wow, the perfect impulse buy. The enlargers, I mean.

12. Very occasionally, a guy selling filters or other trinkets cheaply. You never see the same one twice. That's because it takes a very special type to pay $65 for a table to sell $13 worth of filters over two days. Hey, works for farmers... let's see... $10 million in equipment in land to make $10 grand a year... such a deal!

13. Someone who thinks that expired Vericolor from 1988 is all the rage. And prices it that way.

14. You.

2. Diabolus in Machinis Est

We know the real reason you came was to buy stuff. I hate to tell you that preview night (usually the Friday) before is where the good stuff went. That of course, is part of the self-supporting economy of camera shows: everyone buys from everyone else and then when everyone runs out of money or stuff to trade, they start selling. At the end of the show, the guys from New York show up with suitcases full of cash and take everything worth anything off these guys -- cheap.

Here are the items to buy and the items to avoid, at least the things that I have seen.

a. Avoid

Alpas. No one in the United States knows how to fix them. These are built like watches, and only the Swiss know how to fix them. And even the Swiss who knew how to fix them have all moved to Japan and changed their names to more Japanese-sounding ones.

Film at shows is usually outdated and not worth taking the risk. Film is not particularly expensive in real life, and if you use film that is way past its prime, bad on you.

Graflex Norita and other cameras with big cloth focal plane shutters. These tend to have shutter curtain bounce, which requires a CLA to correct. A Graflex Norita's price is about equal with the amount of money needed to bring it up to spec. Ditto for Rittrecks (Optika), Speed Graphics, big Graflex SLRs, etc.

Old Leicas. As sexy as they might be in person, remember that these often gum up and fail (or develop Vulcanite leprosy) when they are taken out of storage and put into service. When that happens, you're in for a $250 CLA, which will last about until the time you put it in storage for a year. The sole exception is if the camera store listed in #6 above is offering a 6-month warranty wit that $1,400 M2. They should, since they probably paid $200 for it.

Pro flash equipment. Flashes that sit around for a long time can precipitously fail. Metz flashes are a great example. And having Bogen fix one is a very, very expensive proposition. And as a corrollary, avoid anything with NiCD batteries. While it is not hard to find replacement cells for these, it is expensive to have them put in.

Pro MF gear used by pros. Remember, professional equipment is given a 5-year useful life for IRS purposes, and a lot of pros treat it that way. Not only is this expensive to buy at shows, it is also incredibly expensive to fix them.

b. Be Circumspect

Cables. These can have kinks which may affect their operation. A crapshoot at best.

Camera Bodies. Manual cameras with no meters are generally less of a problem.

(1) Meter operation is almost impossible to check. The artificial light of most shows is not what camera meters are designed to measure, so even if you bring your own meter, your ability to check meter calibration is challenged.

(2) Body focus is impossible to check indoors. You need to take the camera and a couple of randomly-selected lenses outdoors to check infinity focus on the focusing screen.

(3) Light seals - check these in the camera back and around the mirror. They should look like foam and not goo.

(4) Shutters on mechanical cameras should be run at 1 second to make sure the clockwork timer is running correctly. The 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and 1/15 speeds are functions of the mechanical drivetrain. The higher speeds on SLRs are usually not problematic, but there can be huge problems with Leicas. Do not buy any camera whose mechanical shutter runs slowly.

(5) Be aware that you cannot buy mercury batteries. Almost anything with a PX-something battery is a mercury-powered unit. Things with battery names starting with SR-something (silver) are safe. Here are some examples of workarounds:

PX13 / 625 - use a Wein cell; when that dies, reload the washer with Energizer 675 zinc-air hearing aid cells. PX625As do not cut it - they are the wrong voltage.

675 - use Energizer 675s. Weins 675s are the same thing, only 5x as much money. Skip the 675A.

LR44/SR44 - no problem - these are alkaline and silver, readily available. Silver lasts longer.

PX28 silver - still available, and most things that take these work fine with PX28L (lithium) or PX28A (alkaline)

If the mercury-powered camera has a small hole (vent) in the battery door, you can use zinc-air replacements (such as Energizer EPX675 hearing aid batteries), but if it does not, you are S-C-R-E-W-E-D. Converting a mercury camera for alkaline is not something that is cheap or particularly reliable.

Lenses. Unless a lens has a leaf shutter in it, it is pretty easy to check out a lens:

(1) Turn it to f/16 or f/22. See if there is oil on the blades. Oil is an immediate disqualifier for SLR lenses because drag on the blades leads to overexposure; it doesn't matter very much with rangefinder lenses.

(2) On SLR lenses, push the aperture actuator back and forth and see how quickly the aperture snaps open and shut. It should just about be instant. If it is slow, you will likely get overexposure, unless you have a camera with a closed-loop exposure system, like a Nikon FA.

(3) On all lenses, look through the back at a bright light source and see if you can see scratches (cleaning marks) on the front element of the lens. One or two marks should not be a problem on rangefinder lenses. modern Leica, Nikon RF, and all modern SLR lenses should be mark-free, since their coatings are super-hard.

(4) On all lenses, shine a mini-mag light from front to back and back to front. Light dust is not a problem, but if you see blotchiness, spiderwebs or what looks like internal scratching on the inner elements, you have fungus. If you see general haziness, it is probably vaporized oil from the focusing mechanism. If you have to do this to see cleaning marks (i.e., they don't show up in #3), they are so minor they will not affect anything.

(5) Check the filter ring for roundness and absense of bright spots. This is easy to forget.

Light meters. See my comments above. CdS meters from the old days are automatically off by one stop. Selenium ones, if working, are more likely to be accurate. More modern SPD meters (usually digital) are easier to shop. Ask to take it outside, and if you get the exposure as 1/ISO at f/16 on a sunny day (or f/8 on a dull day), you are close enough for most purposes.

c. Go Nuts

So what does that leave? Things you can buy without problems. The items in this category all have one thing in common: they're too simple to fail. This is where you find bargains up the ying-yang.

Enlarging lenses. If they are not scratched, have no oil inside, and are not hazy, they will be fine. Go right for the ones ending in -gon or -non; these are the 6-element lenses (Rodagon, Componon). Skip ones ending in -ar (Componar, Omegar). EL-Nikkors are a safe bet; buy the most expensive version you can afford. Go for an f/2.8 aperture in a 50; try to get f/4 in an 80. If you can get a lens with click stops, a preview lever, illuminated aperture numbers, or some combination thereof, so much the better.

Filters. If not scratched, these can be really, really cheap. Skip Tiffen; go right for solid glass. Choose the coated ones by looking at a reflection of a room light. If it is tinted pinkish, or yellowish, it is usually coated. Another way is to compare two filters by looking at a reflection of yourself head on. If you see your face (and don't turn to stone), the filter is probably not coated. If you see an outline, it generally is.

Hoods and shades. Usually in junk bins. Look for a metal one with the thread size for your camera. Don't pay attention to the brand; consider that Konica's rectangular 35mm and 24mm shades are superior in every way to shades made by manufacturers of other lenses with 55mm threads.

Series stuff. Most people haven't heard of series filters, but they can really save you if your camera has an oddball filter thread. Before you go to the show, look here and find the correct model numbers for your camera. Then look in someone's junk bin for that adapter. Series V can be made to fit teeny lenses and Rollei Bay I; Series VI can be adapted to lenses up to 46mm filter thread (and even 49mm teles). After that, you are in Series VII, which is really 55mm. Series filters themselves, if Wratten, are high quality and a very cheap way to experiment with filters. More hardcore optical enthusiasts will reach for coated Series VI filters from Hoya, Schneider, and Leitz. Walz made coated Series VI filters which are not too shabby, either.

Supplemental lenses. Same story as filters; look for ones marked "achromatic," which means that they have two lenses cemented together. The Sigma 52mm "Achromatic Macro Lens" is a great by and gives you +10 closeup capability.

Viewfinder eyepieces. These go for a song. The correct diopter for your camera and your eyesight can do wonders.

3. Negotiating (with Terrorists)

The simple problem is that people who are delusional about pricing will not listen to reason. They think that XYZ is a hot item. Maybe it was, 5 or 10 years ago, but not now. You cannot impress upon people who are locked in the 1970s that they are selling really high. With that in mind,

Bulk wins. Buying multiple items (2-3) usually helps. Your dealer might have paid a buck for something (say, some filters), and if he is getting a huge markup on that, he might not think he's totally getting screwed if he sells you the big ticket item for less.

Cash is king. Take a couple of hundred bucks, and no more. Having cash shows that you mean business. Not having enough cash sends a different signal - and not negative. Local checks for local dealers are usually not a problem. Dealers also like cash because it means that they won't get caught when they don't report it to the IRS.

Get his card. If you are deadlocked in negotiating price, ask for the guy's card. Tell him you'll get back to him. You might find that "leaving it" makes the price drop a bit. I do this at car dealers all the time. Amazing how the next day you find out his manager could do better. With camera shows, the "doing better" occurs within a minute or two.

Have a brother at home on the internet. It helps to be able to call Davidde and have him see where things like the ones you are examining are closing on Ebay. Offer less. Realize that you can get things elsewhere.

Sleep on it. Remember, just like buying a house or a car, getting excited gets you in trouble. Calm down. You can probably find it at your leisure and cheaper if you are willing to look.

Finally, your ace in the hole is that they have to take this stuff home. Or pawn it off to the boys from Manhattan, who are not paying retail markups. Used-camera dealing is no longer the margin business it once was.

4. Upshot

When you get out of these things, wash your hands, count your fingers, and make sure your wallet is still in your pocket!