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.

The $6 Camera

For $5.99 plus tax I bought a highly used Canon Power Shot A70 out of the thrift store. Add to that a four pack of AA batteries for $1.25 plus tax and a borrowed flash memory card from the old Kodak DX3900 and we have a new shooter for $8.11 CDN.


Some (not very impressive) specs: 3.2 MP, 5.4-16.2mm (3X) f2.8-4.8 lens, separate eye-level finder that changes with the zoom, tiny LCD display on the back you can barely read the menu on even with glasses, and a few of the usual controls. All quite worn and weary from years of use. But it is a Canon.

Okay, full image size is 2048 x 1536, still about twice the size of the computer screen or 3X as big as the picture size I usually post. But is it any good? Well it was a bit reluctant to come back to life and a few of the controls are ‘iffy’ at times but I got it up and running on Automatic (it has the other typical shooting modes as well as scene modes and even movie). The biggest problem is a dark bluish line across the top of every image, obviously a failure of the sensor. Hey, this is a camera that dates from around 2003; that’s ancient on the digital camera timeline.

Duncan at the ready

It was a heavily overcast day and most of the pictures needed some post-processing to help the colour balance and exposure, neither of which was correct in any shot. Here’s how overcast it was:


How sharp is the lens? Fairly sharp. Not excellent, not very good, just fair. Good enough for who it’s for, so to speak.



I haven’t tried any of the other shooting modes yet because the picture opportunities are so limited right now. Neither do I see anything in this camera’s functions and features that make it particularly interesting. This was just an experiment in cheap shooting, so to speak.

But here we have an example of … well, digital zooming in the post-shoot I guess. First picture is full frame shrunk down to 640×480, the second is a 640×480 sampling of the full frame:

I will probably shoot some more with this if the sun shines again. I have to say its biggest failing is that the shutter release (push-focus-snap) is incredibly slow. Not “we measured the milliseconds in the lab” slow but “you can miss the shot if the subject is moving” slow. Also the viewfinder is blurred due to the rigors of age. Still nicer than trying to compose on an LCD that appears blank because of the sunlight. Downloading the pictures is an exercise in slowness too, as you have to establish a live link via USB cable and the data transfer is pretty sluggish.

If you’re going thrift camera shopping a couple of things to look out for: the type of memory card (it can be hard or expensive to get the non-SD cards), and the brand of camera. I passed on one that was a make I’d never heard of because it probably wasn’t any good when it was new. But the old standby brands (Canon, Kodak, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, Sony) are probably okay. Don’t expect to be able to memorize every model anyone ever made nor to find one specific camera you’re looking for. It’s more of a Zen thing.

And especially don’t spend too much money.