Collecting Cheap Cameras?

After playing with my inexpensively acquired Canon PowerShot A70, I got to wondering about the viability of cheap digital cameras and how they might fare as collectors’ items. Thus I did a bit trolling on Amazon and came up with a little information, some of which is presented here.

First of all, there is a huge number of brand new low-dollar not-really-brand-name and not-named-at-all offerings starting at about $12. With prices like that and specifications that can only be called “suspect” you can readily understand why you probably shouldn’t put your trust or dollars in something called “YTGOOD” or “Cobra” or “TEXXIS”. Many of these cameras are cookie-cutter copies of one another, and there’s no reason to expect any of them to work at all, much less work well.

However, a few old familiar names popped up too.


Argus. The name that brought us the venerable C3 35mm camera that every film photographer must have had at some point in their lives. Of course the company that built those cameras went bankrupt and obviously the name got passed along. The name, but not the quality. No matter how much lipstick you put on a pig it will never look like a horse.


Bell & Howell. In the days of film this name was best known for projectors found in schools, movie cameras, and a few clunky still cameras. Industrial strength and styling, and tractor-like quality – in a world that wanted sports cars. I had a few myself and they were not overly impressive in operation or image quality. Here we see the fine old name hung on more of those cookie-cutter cameras. They kept the worst aspects, and threw out the best.


Polaroid. Edwin Land must be spinning in his grave. The first self-developing cameras were quality units that worked. As years went by efforts to maximize profits saw metal bodies and glass lenses replaced with plastic everything, to the detriment of quality in both cameras and images. (Side note: while the instant camera market was clearly dying, Kodak saw fit to introduce their own. That was a not-smart move that didn’t help them at all.) Again we have a familiar name attached to regurgitated industrial rubbish. Besides, I can’t help but read that second model name as “Sociopathic”.


Vivitar. A company that used to make top-quality and reasonably priced photographic accessories such as lenses, filters, and electronic flash units. I’m sure I have one of their flashes in a box around here, and it probably still works. I know my 135mm M42 lens with their brand on it does! But alas, here is another great house that has sunk to the level of street beggar.

Should you buy any of these? In my opinion, no. The fact is even when they don’t look identical the specifications are so bland that there’s nothing really interesting about them. Largely these are the basic “Instamatics” of the digital world. Some may claim to be waterproof, some of the weirder ones come in odd shapes or colours, but on the whole they are quite frankly cheap plastic crap. Not even Diana F quality.

What should you look for instead? A name brand like Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, or Pentax. But beware of the odd image storage methods like xD cards, Sony¬† sticks, and Compact Flash as they can be difficult or expensive to obtain if not included with the camera. Even then you are up against the “Plain Jane” aspect for most of these cameras: the same X MP and Y zoom capacity without much else to say for themselves. Also, trolling through Amazon shows a large number of such cameras available for what we can only call ridiculous prices, as they meet and in some cases exceed the cost of brand new offerings that are better cameras. Look around a lot, and be careful with your money.

Here’s an example of something I would buy, albeit I’d prefer a lower price than the $106 it’s being offered for:


I wouldn’t expect it to be a great IQ performer, but the unique design configuration makes it collectible. The one used camera I did buy off Amazon, the Fuji F80 EXR, is unusual and collectible because of the different way it operates – the EXR function.


I don’t think I’ll be getting back into camera collecting. At least not per se, but I seem to be acquiring them anyway as I try to fulfill my photographic wishes.

What would I buy to fulfill those wishes if I could? I’m not keen on mirrorless cameras, as some experiments with the DSLR I have show how easy it is to get sensors dirty on anything with a removable lens and mirrorless doesn’t have the extra ‘protection’ of the flip-up mirror, nevertheless some of the things I’m interested in come only that way.

Assuming money were no object, the ‘Holy Grail’ would be a Fujifilm X-Pro3. I seriously would like to try one of those because it is so ‘film-like’ in design and function. Using the EXR has really piqued my curiosity about Fuji’s X series.

Otherwise, for my own purposes it would be nice to try a high-MP (at least 24 to have a 1/3 advantage over my current Canon) camera just to see the difference. I know it wouldn’t be much, but just how much it would be intrigues me.

I’d like to have a full-frame sensor for the same reason; not that I expect either to make any spectacular difference in the pictures I take, but to see the subtle effects I expect to find.

Another addition would be something with a flip-up LCD (despite my constantly iterated objections to them) so I could do waist-level view pictures. None of these are great reasons to shell out hundreds of dollars for a camera.

Especially not when you can have fun for a few dollars with a little patience and searching.

My Photography – Part Three


I was thinking about how to categorize the types of pictures I take, and realized that although some fall under distinct headings others cross the lines a bit. No matter; it gives me an opportunity for segue from one to another.

The majority of pictures I take to this day remain “grab shots”. They are not art, nor intended to be anything other that a quick “look at what I saw today” pic to share with my friends. Since most of my friends’ shared interests are old cars, there tends to be a lot of pictures of old cars. Some rusty and derelict, others roadworthy and running. Typically something like this:


This was taken with my “goes with me” camera, the Kodak V1003. But sometimes when I’m out and about I find something a little more extraordinary and under circumstances that allow a bit more artistic effort, like this 1930s Chevy taken with the Kodak P850:


The resolution on this is 2592 x 1944 (in the original) which makes it a little dicey for an enlarged print. Besides, my wife would not appreciate seeing this on the wall anywhere.

The second most prolific category of my pictures would probably be best described as “documentation”. I tend to document things I do like building buildings or harvesting firewood. Again these are not the most artistic of shots and are not meant to be. They perhaps could be, if I put more effort into it. So far I haven’t. An example here taken with the V1003:


Sometimes what I document is one of my other hobbies, which usually amounts to “look at what I found” but also can yield results like this:


(I modified a ‘dollar store’ toy car and photographed it on blue metallic paper reflecting the sky. A bit surreal, is it not?)

Where are we at? Category number three I think. That would be wildlife. Sometimes domestic, because we have two dogs and three cats and they do strange things. More often it’s real wildlife because we live out in the middle of nowhere and bears, deer, moose, et cetera wander through whenever they feel like it. This gives me more of a chance to produce some truly artistic images:


Wait, that’s my cat Hannibal. He’s not wild. Let’s try again!


Yes, eagles stop by too. Both taken with the Nikon P610; you can see why I like its long zoom capacity. I think this is one of my all-time best photos.

Another great one is this scenery shot, taken quite some time ago with the Kodak DX3900:


I regret that this sunset exists only in a low-resolution mode as the sky has never looked like that since, although there have been many beautiful sunsets on the lake.

Another low-res shot that I may one day redo with the P610, providing the building is still standing, is this one: the Church of Nowhere;


The final category (yes, I’ve lost count) would be “abstract”. Sometimes I do real-world abstracts like this (P610 shot):


And sometimes I go full-blown crazy like this one I call “Hunter S. Thompson”:


Pretty far from a “grab shot”, as it entailed painting some small wooden cubes, placement of metallic paper, and some post-processing with a default distortion filter. I like doing really crazy things like this but I guess a lot of people don’t like looking at them. I would do more if I could, regardless of whether or not anyone wants me to.

When it comes to post-processing, I usually don’t. I know some photographers who use it extensively and to good results; it’s just not my style for the most part. If I do anything outside the camera it’s a little framing crop or some contrast tweaking to get results that look like what I remember seeing when I took the shot. Every once in a while I let loose, as in a certain ongoing series of pictures that go together as part of a story. Here’s one example on the extreme side from that series:


Somewhat garish I’d say, and I’m the one who did it. A more effective ‘processed shot’ would be this one of ravens, which involved cropping to eliminate background clutter and enhance composition, and tonal change to give it the right ‘feel’:


Well this entry has gone on for quite some length and probably should have had a warning about that at the top but … It is only a glimpse into what I have done. I hope to do more in the future, if circumstances allow. Not for any reason beyond my own amusement, you understand. And perhaps to compensate myself for the thousands of images lost in the Great Disaster of ’18. It was sad and surprising to see how many pictures had vanished. Not all masterpieces by far, but in some cases experimental and in all cases historically important to me. My future is certainly now shorter than my past, but it’s the only time frame any of us have to live in.


My Photography – Part Two


I’ve had a lot of them, as I’ve mentioned before. The Great Disaster of ’18 ended this, as well as causing several other problems. What should have been … well you can waste your life thinking “if only”.

Now I could just copy and paste my list of all those cameras I’ve owned, but the average reader’s mind would go numb before even the halfway point, and it would probably take days to recover. The first part of this series mentions and shows some of my “main machines” over the years. This part is just a bit of nostalgic musing. I’ll keep it down to a few of the more significant bits of photographic history I’ve had.

Starting at the beginning of the alphabet we have a few oddballs and some major players like Agfa, Ansco (and sometimes Agfa-Ansco), and Argus. To pick some from these brands I’d have to mention the Ansco Autoset that I got for $15. It was brand new, even though it was years old. It had sat on the dealer’s shelf unsold all that time. Surprisingly it didn’t get jammed. Even more surprising was that I later found an underwater housing for it! I did not, however, try the two together. Another interesting Ansco was the No. 2 Buster Brown. Although a very simple box camera, it was named for the cartoon character of the early 20th century who was featured in the promotions. And now for illustrative purposes and Ansco Panda (their answer to Kodak’s Brownies):


Under the letter ‘B’ I’ll just note that there were a few Bell & Howell branded cameras (always made by someone else). I find this amusing because I recently came across some digital Bell & Howell branded cameras. You can bet the quality is like: lousy.

Do I even have to mention Diana F? Surely everyone knows about them! They were the icon of cheap ‘real’ cameras of the day. Practically anything else was better quality, even when sold under a different name.

I previously mentioned the Exacta I had. In fact there were three, plus an Exa. That was a cute little thing with a ‘guillotine’ shutter that used Exacta lenses and accessories but was smaller, lighter, and only had four shutter speeds. Very quiet, they were known as “the mouse”. I quite liked that camera.

Now I have to say something about the Herbert George Company. They manufactured hundreds of different cameras under various names, usually Imperial. Well I had a lot of them! They came in lots of different styles and colours and sometimes ‘official’ editions like for the Scouts. They were all pretty poor quality when you get right down to it. But they make a nice display:


Yes I saved some of them, junk though they be. Why? Because of the mid-century modern colour and style and the fact they didn’t weigh much so shipping was … well, expensive in fact. That was one of the major problems with saving anything.

For sheer lousy camera fun we have the Hit. A 16mm roll film “real camera” sold out of the backs of magazines for many years. I had about half a dozen of these in their various guises. It was no problem to slip one in the luggage and smuggle it out.


We now skip a few minor makes like Keystone and find ourselves among the Kodaks. Oh boy. One hundred and forty-four Kodaks. A gross of Kodaks. A dozen dozen. Many of them were cheap Brownies or Instamatics. I even had some of their near-the-end disc and instant cameras. Some were “high end” editions like the Signet 35 or the Kodak Stereo. But for esoteric fun nothing beats the green Petite (and its blue art-deco fronted brother that I also saved) or this brightly-hued Rainbow Hawkeye:


Yes I managed to salvage that as well. I say nothing beats it but … wait ’til the end of this article.

Skip ahead to the letter P, which stands for (among others) Polaroid. Yes, I had a few of the original instant print cameras. In fact I had the first model they produced, the 95:


I regret not saving this one. Okay, I regret not saving all of them and all of my Dad’s as well. The logistics were just … impossible.

We can wander down the alphabet to the letter ‘U’ and find the Universal Camera Company, most famous for it’s “non-Kodak” film sizes and the Mercury I and Mercury II model cameras. I had one of each, and also this little bugger which I brought back with me:


The Univex AF (which does not stand for ‘auto focus’) that took size ’00’ film. Believe it or not I actually had a roll of film for it and shot it! It didn’t come out well, due to the age of the film, the quality of the camera, and having to “roll-dip” the film in a tray for processing.

At the end of the Alphabet we have the letter ‘Z’ and that means Zeiss Ikon. Yep; had some. Including two Box Tengors, which are the ‘cream’ of box cameras. And this odd movie camera they made:


So here we are, after examining just a few of the 450. No doubt some people would find the ones I skipped interesting, or at least some of them. And then there’s all the ones my Dad had collected, which were frankly more up-scale (think quantities of Canon, Rollei, Nikon, etc). Let’s just say that someone, somewhere got some real bargains.

Now we are at the end of this posting, so it’s time to reveal the star of my collection. Here it is:


Looks rather dull, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s just a plain box camera that doesn’t even have a viewfinder. It’s a Kodak Brownie. Not very interesting? No, unless you know this is the very first model Brownie and it was only produced for a few months because the slip-off back did. It was redesigned with a hinged back after a very short production run. According to A Century of Cameras there are only six of these known to exist. That doesn’t include this one. And yes, I have shot pictures with it despite not being able to get size 117 film.

That concludes our all-too-brief look at my now mostly lost camera collection. The next installments will focus (pun intended) on images more so than cameras.

My photography – Part One

The history of my involvement with photography may not be mandatory, but it seems obligatory. You simply can’t start any missive about your relation to a subject without some background. It tends toward the dull and yet slightly egomoniacal. Nevertheless …

I was born into a family of keen amateur photographers. That is to say three uncles and my own father were keen on it. One of the uncles managed to make a career of photo-journalism. It helped that he was quite the raconteur too. But my Dad was the major influence on me (no surprise there, eh?)

Thus we come to my first camera: the Kodak Petite folder from the 1930s:


I still have it, having saved it from the Great Disaster of ’18. It was also my Dad’s first camera, so with that much family history and sentiment I could hardly leave it behind. It’s not in such good shape anymore, as the synthetic bellows did not stand up to the years of mere existence. Getting it pulled out for this photo was … a bit tricky and slightly nerve-racking. It takes 127 roll film, which no longer exists. It is also “Autographic”, meaning if you have the right film you can slide a little door open in the back and use the often-lost (although not here) stylus to scratch a few words through the paper which is then exposed to light and leave the writing permanently on the film. You could use it in either horizontal or vertical formats, focus is by guess and by golly, and exposure comes down to Instant or Bulb at US Stops 1-2-3-4. Light meter? Whazzat? Nevertheless a lot of film went through this camera.

This started something of a competition when my Uncle Roger saw what I was using and decided I needed a better camera. Enter the Kodak Brownie Starmite. Better? That’s debatable. My Dad debated it, and the next thing you know I was collecting cameras. We would go ’round to yard sales and flea markets and see what we could find. What we could find eventually numbered hundreds, perhaps a thousand between us with my own share being 450: I still have the database file of them although I regret not being able to keep the lot. It just wasn’t possible.

If this seems strange it might help to know my entire life has been strange. I grew up in an abode that was a combination of museum and warehouse. My first job was clerking in an antique store my Dad owned jointly with a friend. While most kids were reading Superman I was learning how to tell a real antique from a reproduction. And collecting cameras.

In terms of my pursuing photography, I did. Practically every camera I got I tried to take pictures with, including those that were already beyond the point of available film. It is a bit of work to tape over the red film number window, load a single sheet of custom-cut film in the back, go take a snap, and bring the whole thing back just to see how that one shot turned out. Kind of the diametric to a Polaroid you might say. My interest in the cameras and the processing revealed my future engineering interests. Artistic expression was not a major point to it, but occasionally I put some effort in. I even managed to get a few photos published, but not for any great remuneration or recognition. That didn’t matter then, nor does it now; I do it for fun and always have.

Even so the quality of my ‘main’ camera inevitably stepped up. I switched to use 35mm courtesy of Uncle Roger again, who sold me a Fujica Classic IV on time payment. I got two lessens there, you might say; one photographic and one fiscal. The Fujica offered the same guess focusing as the old Petite, but complicated matters with more shutter speeds and more lens openings. This in an age when light meters were selenium cell devices usually separate from the cameras themselves. Don’t laugh; in the right hands its more accurate, even if also more cumbersome.

But rangefinders aren’t the apex of photography (yes, I had the obligatory Argus C3 as well as a C2). Eventually I got my hands on an Exacta V (habitually pronounced “vee” but in fact it’s a Roman 5). Never heard of it? Exacta was the manufacturer of top-line SLR equipment back in the day – before Canon and Nikon began ripping off Contax and Leica rangefinder editions. There were so many lenses and other accessories available – and the quality was top notch. The Exacta bodies had some features I quite like, such as a trapazoidal shape that fits the hands better and a front shutter release which greatly reduces camera shake (squeezing instead of pushing down). Oh yes, they’re ‘lefty’ machines too! The crank and shutter release are on the “wrong” side. The shutter is an amazing thing in itself, in that it was capable of 1/1000 second (by focal plane trickery) down to – are you ready for this? – 12 seconds. That’s not “you hold the cable release that long on Bulb”; the complex mechanism wound up a separate spring and held the shutter open itself. There was even self-timer built in for speeds to 6 seconds. Got that in your digital, have you? True, the average person would never use this. But there it was for those who would.

Alas Exactas got old and out-of-date. No built-in exposure meter, and the company falling by the wayside as Japan overtook the market. Time to upgrade again. Enter the Pentax Spotmatic:


I still have this, as it was still my main camera when I made the big move across continent and borders. 35mm film was still very much the prime format. I had another couple of bodies I picked up for it, like an H2 and a Yashica, as well as a ton of accessories which never made the move. You can’t get batteries for this anymore, so the meter is useless, but being mechanical it can still take pictures. If you can find film and processing (not around here).

Well the digital age soon crept in and I had to get one. I still have my first digital, a Kodak DX3900, somewhere around here. It’s so old that the type of memory it uses is not compatible with anything but that camera! It still works, though. Or did the last time I played with it. Not terribly impressive specs, but it was the first step to the future.

The next step was this Kodak P850:


The main reason I chose it was because at the time it had excellent resolution (5 MP) and a fantastic 12X zoom. I do a lot of nature shooting (and other spotting) so the telephoto function is important to me. It also did not cost massive amounts of money such as a DSLR at the time, and it has three user-defined preset functions. I have to say that this is the camera that finally got me making a serious effort towards artistic shots. The advantage of digital being you can shoot a lot and manipulate a lot and maybe get some good pictures out of what would otherwise have been wasted frames of film (more on this in future postings). It still works but I hardly use it anymore. Maybe I should, just for fun.

A few years ago I went full-overboard (for me) and bought this:


Nikon P610. 16 megapixels and a 60X zoom! You might think the performance of such an extreme lens is lousy, but it really isn’t. Sure, some fine-crafted purpose-built telephoto is going to outdo it. But not for the money. And it won’t be as handy as being able to carry around one unit that can go from taking macro close-ups of flowers to a bird on a branch a long ways away. This is my go-to camera for most shots, but strangely enough I have another Kodak 10 MP 3X zoom cheap thing I keep in the vehicle just so I’ll have something better than my phone cam if I see something.

I have looked at replacements for the P610 and found they offer not much improvement. Oh a little bit more zoom, a few million more pixels (mostly the shots get scaled down for Internet purposes anyway) and a lot of bells and whistles I have no use for. At this point I don’t see anything out there that will do what I want any better than what I’ve got. But you never know about the future. See my musings about my ‘ideal’ camera here:¬†Digital (Camera) Dreams

This has already expanded into a longer posting than I expected it to be, which means you, poor reader, will be subjected to even more of my blithering on about photography. If you choose to.