A couple months ago, I found a beautiful vintage camera at a thrift store. I had no idea how to even open it, or if film was still available…and the $50 price tag was just outside of my impulse buy zone. I copied down all the info I could and went home to research, and by research I mean that I asked twitter for permission.
Dieter has seen this play out before, so of course he immediately told me to buy the damn thing and get it over with, but I wanted to make a rational decision here. Yes, I could get film, but the price was a little high, especially for something that may or may not even work. But once dear friend and smart gadget nerd Greg told me to go for it, I apparently bolted out the door immediately to go snag it.
Once it was mine and the acquisition adrenaline wore off, then I started really appraising my new toy. My Land camera turned out to have a few flaws, but thankfully nothing that seems to impact operation. If you find yourself in the same adrenaline-fueled situation, here’s a handy list of what you should check:
Inspect the bellows
Turn the camera upside down and flip the little switchy thing on the right side to open the back. Inside, the first thing you should notice is the nice, neat folds for the bellows. If there’s a metal cartridge thing in the way, remove it but don’t throw it away. If the bellows are rumpled in any way, most experts recommend passing on the camera since they’re a real pain in the humps to fix. However, mine are moderately crushed and will probably get worse with time, but they aren’t a problem so far.
Check for roller corrosion
Check the silver roller on the inside of the back. When pulling out prints, this roller squeezes chemicals over the paper and can get corroded.
Extend the bellows
Now look at the front of the camera and find the white arrow pointing up. From this angle it’ll be right below the red shutter button. Push this piece up to release the bellows and gently slide them out until you hear a click. This piece is also labeled with the number 1, and is your focus mechanism. Move it left and right with your index fingers to adjust the bellows and focus.
Check for light leaks
With the back open, point the bellows towards a light source and look inside for light leaks. If you see holes but the bellows are otherwise sound, then this is an easy fix.
Meet the viewfinder
Now finally, look through the viewfinder! It’ll be dimmer than a modern camera, but that’s ok. There are actually two viewfinders, the big square one for framing and a small circle for focus. Look through the circle and move the focus levers back and forth to align your subject.
Test the battery
Land cameras have an “electronic eye” to calculate automatic exposure, so that means there’s a battery in there somewhere! Pull up on the left side of the back of the camera and you’ll probably find a big corroded mess. This is easy to clean as long as the connector and wires are still sound. Land cameras take funky batteries, but you can get the No. 531 used in the 100 from Amazon, or you can modify it to use AA batteries.
Fire the shutter
This step will probably fail on thrift store cameras, but it’s worth a shot. To test the shutter, push down the white #3 lever to cock it, look through the circle viewfinder and move the #1 levers to focus, then look through the square viewfinder and press the red #2 button to fire the shutter. No, these instructions don’t follow the clearly numbered sequence, but trust me, it’s a better habit to get into. Anyway, if you hear one click that means the shutter mechanics are probably ok but the battery is dead, if you hear two clicks then you lucked into finding a working battery, and if you hear no clicks, then…well, there’s probably something broken and unless you’re a genius tinker type, I don’t recommend buying the camera.
If your camera passes these tests and is $50 or less, then buy it. It’s still an unproven gadget until you pull out a successful image, but this should be good enough verification to give it a shot. If you want to skip the uncertainty and throw down for a known working camera, you can try ebay (although most are untested) or buy a fully reconditioned and/or upgraded camera from the up and coming landcameras.com.
In my next post, I’ll walk you through your first image and share what I learned while shooting my first pack. I suggest starting with Fuji FP-3000B black and white film (I buy from B&H or Amazon) since it works well in most indoor light situations, but you can also buy Fuji FP-100C color film if you know you’ll be shooting with plenty of light (for scale, FP-3000B is 3000 speed film, and FP-100C is 100 speed film). You can also get film from The Impossible Project and other sources, but save the special film for when you know what you’re doing.