It’s summertime, and here in New England that means people are having yard sales, garage sales, and barn sales. To a lot of people, the idea of shopping in other people’s driveways conjures thoughts of rusty wrenches, 20 year old toaster ovens, and Aunt Betsy’s lightly used crochet kit. And while it’s true that in many cases most of what’s on sale is junk, there are times when a little work, luck, and personality can net an unbelievable catch at an absurdly low price. In a hobby such as photography, there is an exceptional glut of old machines whose owners have forgotten the joys of the medium, and are looking to free up “valuable” closet space.
Yes, photographic treasures do occasionally exist in the attics and basements of our neighbors. From the ubiquitous Japanese machines of the 1970’s, to relatively modern DSLRs that simply aren’t getting the use they once did, the value in a yard sale camera is hard to beat. Here are five top tips on how a thoughtful, prepared shopper can pry these gems from the sometimes-reluctant hands of their former owners.
Top Tip 1 : Do your homework.
One of the best ways to ensure that you’ll walk away a winner on sale day is to scout the weekend’s sales beforehand. Starting Thursday or Friday night, sit down with a cup of tea, coffee, or vodka (whatever gets you going), and fire off a quick search online.
Sites like Craigslist or local yard sale Facebook pages are a good place to start, but don’t just drive to every yard sale that advertises, “Tons of stuff! Twenty families worth of junk!” Instead, narrow your search specifically to include photographic keywords. Because so often the cameras for sale are being sold by people who aren’t familiar with them, use generic words like “camera”, “vintage”, and “film”, while avoiding more technical nomenclature.
Most sellers aren’t going to know an SLR from a point-and-shoot, or the difference between dead, Uncle Larry’s Elmarit and Noctilux. If the listing doesn’t specifically mention cameras, move on to the next.
Top Tip 2 : Be the early bird.
To score anything of value at a yard sale you’re going to have to get up early. That’s not to say that you won’t find a good camera if you’re not a morning person. If you can’t stand alarm clocks but still want to shop yard sales, that’s okay. Sleep in. Take your time. You might just get lucky. But even if you don’t, the ultimate goal is to have a fun weekend, so if you’re not a morning person, relax. But if you’re serious about finding an amazing camera at virtually no cost, you’re going to have to sacrifice some shuteye, as the chances of scoring something valuable drop drastically the longer you wait.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys your “me” time, the solitude of the early morning is amazing. Get up an hour before the sale, grab a coffee, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the open road. If you’re more a social beast, grab a like-minded friend, crank the tunes and bebop around town with your best pal. In either case, it’s summertime, so roll down the windows and enjoy the day.
Top Tip 3 : Be prepared.
Surely one of the most important skills in photography is knowing how to prepare for the situation in hand. It’s no different in shopping. Remember to write down the addresses of the sales you want to hit. Arrive as early as possible to the first sale, and if you’re planning to visit multiple sales use GPS or make sure to map out the most logical route to the next. Know what you’re looking for, search quickly, and if there’s nothing there for you move on to the next.
Most importantly, figure out your budget and bring ample cash. If you stumble upon a black body Leica M3 whose owner is asking $40.00 and you’ve only brought $20.00, you’re going to be pretty upset as the poindexter behind you walks away with your German masterpiece. If you’d be happy spending $100.00, bring $100.00. You don’t want to come up short and if you don’t end up spending it you’ll have lost nothing.
On the morning of this writing I personally missed an opportunity at a bag full of Nikkor lenses because I’d failed to bring enough cash. By the time I’d driven to the ATM and returned, the lenses were gone.
Top Tip 4 : Be friendly.
Nakedly self-serving Top Tips aside, it always pays to be friendly. Approach with a smile and a wave, even if the seller looks tired and grumpy. Say “hello”. Compliment them on their home, or compliment their haircut, or their dog, or their dog’s haircut.
Nakedly self-serving Top Tips in mind, you may even get something out of being friendly. Ask if the camera belonged to them. Ask them when the last time was that they used it. Ask them if they have any other cameras hidden away that they forgot to bring out. You may learn something about the condition of the camera in your hand, or that they have a Hasselblad in the attic.
Being friendly costs nothing, and you may even make a difference in the seller’s life. A pleasant conversation about cameras may rekindling a love of photography they’d sadly forgotten, or let them relive a moment of joy from years past. Whatever happens, be friendly. Chat with the sellers, chat with other shoppers, chat with squirrels and that happen to be strolling by. It’ll make you feel good, it’ll make them feel good, and it’ll leave everyone with a smile.
Top Tip 5 : Know your stuff.
The final “Top Tip” is to be knowledgeable about the things on which you’re spending your money. Buying a $90.00 Nikkormat with a 58mm ƒ/1.2 Noct-Nikkor is a wonderful thing, but not if you get home and discover the lens has cracked rear element and a fungal infection worse than a millipede with athlete’s foot. Don’t be scared to check the machine’s functionality in front of the seller. If they seem put off, ask permission.
Check the lens for fungus by removing it from the body and holding it to the sun at wide-open aperture. Stop down the aperture and actuate the mechanisms to check for sticky blades, and examine them by sight for seeping oil. Check the camera body for general signs of abuse, such as dents, scratches, and obvious missing parts. Open the film back and actuate the shutter at various speeds, including Bulb if available, ensuring the shutter curtain opens and closes as it should. Check any battery compartments for corrosion, and actuate all levers and dials, checking for proper operation.
It may kill some of the risk and excitement, but if you’re extremely keen on consumer protection, bring a bag of commonly used batteries with you so that you can fully test prospective machines and their light meters. If you’re shopping for Polaroid cameras, it’s wise to bring a used up film cartridge along, as the batteries for those cameras are located in their film cartridge. Inserting an empty cartridge should make the camera jump to life with the familiar whirring noise. If so, typically, all is well. A 600 and an SX-70 film cartridge should cover the most common instant Polaroids.
Know the value of cameras you may be interested in so you can offer a fair price or accurately counter an unfair price. Use your knowledge and be up front about it. If a good camera body has a bad lens, explain it to the seller and offer a price you think is fair. If you’re being honest and straightforward any reasonable seller will meet you in the middle.
Well, those are the tips. It’s not rocket science, and the most important thing here is to enjoy yourself. It’s no good if you’re stressed out trying to hit seven sales in an hour, or if you get into a screaming bout haggling with a seller. Take your time, smile, relax; enjoy the hunt and the warm, summer air. With a little planning, a little charm, and a little luck, you’ll be on your way to an incredible camera collection at a fraction of the retail price. You never know what’s out there waiting, so go explore. You may just make a new friend while you’re at it.
If you’ve ever scored an unbelievable photographic bargain at a yard sale, tell me about it in the comments!