Developing Your Vintage Camera Collection

Kodak Ektra Outfit with a set of six lenses

Taking a striking photograph requires an artful eye, supported by state-of-the-art technology, which is why those in pursuit of perfect photography are sure to be compelled by the field of vintage cameras. Sleek and stylish yet also precisely designed to capture the perfect frame, a collection of vintage cameras can demonstrate the remarkably rapid development of portable camera technology during the twentieth century.

Ready to focus your lens on your vintage camera collection? This article offers a brief overview of the vintage camera market. It shares some of the more popular vintage camera models and also provides some tips on how to assess a vintage camera. So, whether you are like Andy Warhol and are a fan of the vintage Polaroid camera or are more like Walker Evans and prefer a more technologically-tuned vintage Leica camera, read on for some valuable insights. 

Starting a Vintage Camera Collection

The vintage camera market offers abundant variety. Accordingly, before you start exploring auctions you should determine the following:

1. Price Point

The price of vintage cameras can vary widely, depending on the condition of the camera and its rarity. For example, prototype vintage cameras – those designed to pilot new camera models – tend to sell for more money because they are often few and far between on the market. Setting your budget before you begin bidding can help prevent overspending on your vintage camera.

2. Type/Style

Between the folding cameras popular in the late nineteenth century and the dawn of digital cameras in the late 1980s, which went on to saturate the camera market, different styles of vintage cameras were made over the course of the twentieth century to cater to everyone from beginners to professionals. These general types of vintage cameras include:

  • Single-lens reflex (SLR) Cameras

First patented in the 1860s but not a standard market model until a century later, the SLR camera can take crisp images with exceptional color thanks to its use of a complex combination of a mirror that moves with the shutter and a prism that refracts light to capture the image. DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are the modern digital equivalents, but the SLR is still respected for the quality images it can capture.

  • Rangefinder Cameras

Surpassed in popularity by the SLR vintage camera, rangefinder cameras were nevertheless still popular. These cameras came outfitted with an additional rangefinder that allowed the photographer to assess distance in their frames to capture precise, clear images. The Kodak 3A, which was introduced in 1916, was the first of the brand to feature a coupled rangefinder, which meant that the photographer would see two versions of the same image; they could then align these to get a reading on the depth of field.

  • Box Cameras

The relative of the earliest cameras designed in the mid-nineteenth century, the box camera, like the vintage Kodak brownie camera owned by Marilyn Monroe, assumes a box shape and typically had a basic viewfinder and lens. These cameras tend to be more rudimentary in their capabilities, and thus typically come at a lower price point.

Beyond these types, vintage cameras can also feature additional technologies, like different types of viewfinders, auto-focus technologies, automatic film advance mechanisms, and more.

3. Maker

Also important is knowing what vintage camera maker’s models you hope to acquire. Several names stand out as the most celebrated in the vintage camera market:

Kodak Vintage Cameras

Established by pioneering George Eastman in 1888, Kodak soon became one of the world’s most widely recognized brands. Their first box camera is often credited with broadening the appeal of photography to a wider demographic, as these cameras were both less expensive and easier to operate than those designed for professional use. Innovation was always at the forefront of Kodak models: from prototypes for spy cameras to the advent of 35 mm film cameras like the Ektra in the 1940s, vintage Kodak cameras still can wow collectors today. Choice finds on the market are those that come with a complete outfit, which can include additional sets of lenses, waist-level or angle viewfinders, or a carrying case.

Kodak Ektra Outfit with a set of six lenses

Lot 499: Kodak Ektra Outfit

Leitz Photographica Auction, Vienna, Austria (21 November 2020)

Estimated Price: €6,000-€7,000

Realized Price: €5,500

(first camera with automatic exposure)

Super Kodak 35 camera

Lot 169: Super Kodak 35 camera

Christie’s, London, UK (15 June 2004)

Estimated Price: £3,000-£5,000

Realized Price: not available

Kodak Matchbox Kamera Prototype

Lot 538: Kodak Matchbox Kamera Prototype

WestLicht, Vienna, Austria (29 May 2011)

Estimated Price: €3,500-€4,500

Realized Price: €10,200

(spy camera prototype)

Kodak Super Six-20 No.2582

Lot 137: Kodak Super Six-20 No. 2582

LP Foto Auktioner, Stockholm, Sweden (28 April 2012)

Estimated Price: kr10,000-kr12,000

Realized Price: kr9,000

(first camera with automatic exposure)


Hasselblad Vintage Cameras

Emerging in 1908 on the heels of Kodak, Hasselblad Fotografiska rapidly became one of Europe’s leading purveyors of state-of-the-art cameras. At the helm was the intrepid Victor Hasselblad who, as a young man, had the good fortune to serve as an apprentice to George Eastman (of Kodak fame). Hasselblad launched his own camera shop in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the late 1930s and debuted his own camera designs the decade following. For collectors of Hasselblad cameras, the 1600F is a favorite, as that was the first consumer camera from the brand to hit the market.

Hasselblad 1600F No.0170

Lot 528: Hasselblad 1600F No. 0170

LP Foto Auktioner, Stockholm, Sweden (8 December 2012)

Estimated Price: kr25,000-kr30,000

Realized Price: kr37,000

Hasselblad SWC/M No.RH 144364

Lot 516: Hasselblad SWC/M No. RH 144364

LP Foto Auktioner, Stockholm, Sweden (30 November 2019)

Estimated Price: k8,000-kr10,000

Realized Price: kr18,000

Hasselblad 500C/M no. UR1212914

Lot 367: Hasselblad 500C/M no. UR 1212914

Christie’s, London, UK (19 February 2002)

Estimated Price: £1,420-£2,130

Realized Price: not available


Leica Vintage Cameras

One of the oldest camera makers still producing models today, Leica was founded in 1869 first as Leitz (after the creator, Ernst Leitz); the brand held its original name until the late 1980s. Regardless of whether you call them vintage Leica or Leitz cameras, these models are renowned for their exceptional craftsmanship in the form of some of the most efficient vintage camera bodies on the market. Some of the most celebrated models are the Leica II and III, both of which appeared in the 1930s and introduced built-in rangefinders and more carefully tailored operational features. Also celebrated is the postwar Leica M3, which came onto the market in 1954 and expanded Leica’s capabilities into the realm of automatic film advance features.

Leica MP black paint no.2 *

Lot 103: Leica MP black paint no. 2*

Leitz Photographica Auction, Vienna, Austria (23 November 2019)

Estimated Price: €400,000-€500,000

Realized Price: €850,000

Leica M3 No.959422

Lot 373: Lecia M3 No. 959422

LP Foto Auktioner, Stockholm, Sweden (30 November 2019)

Estimated Price: kr50,000-kr60,000

Realized Price: kr460,000


Lot 77: Leica Camera Outfit

White’s Auctions, Middleboro, MA (30 June 2019)

Estimated Price: $3,000-$5,000

Realized Price: $4,400

Nikon Vintage Cameras

Created in the late 1910s, primarily as a lens manufacturer, Nikon grew over the course of the twentieth century to become one of the leading purveyors of both lenses and cameras. Their impressive SLR cameras dominated the market in the 1950s and created a league of loyal fans through their modular camera systems that afforded users a variety of compatible camera components that could be changed out depending on conditions and preferences. So trusted is Nikon camera technology that they became one of the main suppliers of cameras to NASA, with Nikon cameras being used on the 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission.

Nikon S2-E Black Paint

Lot 336: Nikon S2-E Black Paint

WestLicht, Vienna, Austria (4 December 2010)

Estimated Price: €160,000-€180,000

Realized Price: €168,000

Nikon prototype/experimental cameras

Lot 72: Nikon prototype/experimental cameras

Christie’s, London, UK (14 June 2005)

Estimated Price: £30,000-£50,000

Realized Price: not available

Nikon S2 Black Dial in black enamel finish with 50mm Nikkor-S.C f1,4

Lot 238: Nikon S2 Black Dial in black enamel finish with 50mm Nikkor-S.C.fi1,4

Tamarkin Rare Camera Auctions, Chicago, IL (16 November 2019)

Estimated Price: $5,000-$8,000

Realized Price: $5,000

Perfect Photographs Are Only a Shutter Away

These basics on the vintage camera market should serve as a strong foundation from which to launch your camera collection. Before investing in any vintage camera purchase, though, never buy a camera on maker name or model alone. Always make sure to read condition reports or inspect the camera itself, as these can be common signs of trouble ahead. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Scratches/Dents

Dents in the body of the camera or scratches noted on the lens can severely impact your camera’s ability to take quality pictures, so make sure these are absent or minimal.

  • Peeling/ Cracking

Be particularly attentive if the skin, or outer covering, of your camera’s body is also peeling, cracking, or otherwise damaged, as this might indicate poor care of the camera over the years (that might result in bigger issues in the future).

  • Blurry Focus or Shutter Slip-Ups

Make sure to assess both the lens and the shutter mechanisms so that they work smoothly and efficiently. Shutters that open incorrectly or stuck focus mechanisms can prove problematic for your photography.

  • Tricky Technology

Does your desired model require a battery? Many notable vintage camera models do not require battery power, but it is best to double-check and, if a battery is present, that you confirm you can still find such power today.

With these issues cleared, you can be confident that your vintage camera will be part of your collection for years to come.

Looking for more? Browse cameras for sale at auction now on Invaluable.

More from In Good Taste:

5 Vintage Cameras that Transport You to a Pre-Instagram Age

Group f/64: The Photographers Behind Art Imitating Life

The Art of Observation: What You Can Learn from Street Photographers