When selling cameras and accessories by auction, the buyer must rely on the seller's description. Many after-auction conflicts are based on differing opinions about the condition of equipment. Buyers can avoid useless returns or the need to haggle by evaluating sellers' descriptions and asking questions to supplement published information, knowing what to look for. Sellers can minimize negative feedback and requests for external arbitration by carefully evaluating equipment condition and describing it clearly. Lenses and shutters are especially problematic because, even some experienced photographers may not have had experience with some kinds of lens and shutter problems. Younger photographers may not have experience with older kinds of equipment. Here is some help that was originally written for old Kodaks, but is generally applicable to most lens and to between-the-lens shutters that are not coupled to film winding mechanisms. This holds true for most Graphic press, view and Graphic XL cameras; Graflex reflex cameras have barrel lenses and focal plane shutters that have very different controls.

Note: While I hope this page serves an educational function, it also serves a certification function. Auction sellers, if I refer you to this page for evaluation of lens and shutter condition and you certify that your lens is free from defects and that your shutter has certain reliability and accuracy, I consider that you have reviewed this material and that review is part of our transaction--your initial description, my questions, this review, and your answers.

This page is written for sellers that have significant experience with cameras; here is a similar page for those with less experience.  


How to Evaluate Lens and Shutter Condition

Sellers, carefully clean your lens before looking for problems and photographing it for your auction. You can't accurately evaluate the condition of a dirty lens and shots of dirty lenses make a bad impression on potential buyers and at a minimum invite unnecessary questions. You will need a bright light source and some kind of magnification to reliably evaluate the condition of lens surfaces. A jeweler's loupe, photographer's loupe or a common magnifying glass all will work. Buyers can use these same techniques to examine equipment on arrival to see that it measures up to sellers' descriptions.

Potential optical problems include:

  • Scratches on glass surfaces, typically on the external surfaces of the front and back lens elements. Examination of these surfaces, after careful cleaning, under a bright light viewing the lens at different angles is the best way to see scratches. Describe what you see in your evaluation. Types of conditions:
    • Scratches where both the coating and glass are scratched. Size and position are important factors to mention. On which lens elements are the flaws located?
    • Coating problems. Sometimes overambitious cleaning will mar the coating, but not the glass. Again, size and position are important, but also the percentage of the surface of the element that is affected.
    • Bubbles in lens elements look dramatic, but have little or no effect on image results. Bubbles were common in Kodak glass in the '30s-50s. If a lens passed Kodak quality control it was probably OK.
  • Other lens problems are better seen by looking into an illuminated lens using a light source shown to the right. You should open the shutter and set the lens to full aperture. Set the shutter on T or B.
  • Old lenses sometimes are attacked by fungus. This will tend to appear as a cloudiness or a frost-like pattern on glass surfaces. Sometimes it will have a crystalline appearance. This can be on the exposed surfaces--front or back of lens--or on the inner surfaces. This is a serious problem if it has spread too far and etched the coating and/or glass.
  • Lenses are usually made from multiple pieces of glass, with some pieces cemented together. When the adhesive fails, separation occurs. In some lenses this will appear as cloudiness, generally around the perimeter of the glass where the adhesive has failed. In modern, multicoated lenses, this will generally appear as a reflective area in an otherwise transparent element. The best way to see this is to move a lens under a fixed light source; the problem will be very apparent at certain angles; be sure check the both front and back lens elements. Look for for separation by viewing through all of the lens elements, but also through the ones closest to you toward the interior of the lens barrel, for example, as the picture to the right is oriented. The damage shown here looks like two pieces of wet glass held together by surface tension, but where air pockets have gotten trapped between them.
  • Many of these conditions can be repaired, but only at substantial cost because complex operations similar to those used in lens manufacture have to be replicated. Lenses can be polished and recoated to fix scratches and fungal damage. Separated elements can be cleaned and relaminated. For the lens to perform at or near its original specifications, care, expertise and special equipment are required. This comes at between $125-200 per lens group, so such repairs are usually only practical for expensive lenses.
  • Scratches, fungus damage and separation affect value to collectors and photographers, pretty much in proportion to the seriousness of the flaws.
  • Effects of these flaws on lens performance is a subject of active debate. Flaws near the perimeter of the lens will generally affect performance only when the lens is set to or near its maximium aperture. Most of these flaws cause light defraction--a scattering of the light rays--and reduce contrast. The seriousness of this varies pretty directly with the amount of the surface affected. Protecting the lens from light other than that reflected by the field of view can reduce refraction, so using effective hoods and multicoated filters is especially useful with flawed lenses.

  Lens with a fungal infection

  A multicoated lens with serious separation problems

  Recementing operation at S. K. Grimes  

  • Many old Kodaks cameras have lenses that are focused with a rotating front lens element, with a protruding pin that limits rotation. This rotation is normal and isn't a fault. Lenses for Graphics or other press or view cameras generally do not have front cell focusing and have a fixed front lens element, though they have similar kinds of lenses and shutters.

  • Shutters may be dirty or broken. Most shutters on old Kodaks and Graphics have to be manually 'cocked' before they will open. Most shutters have a lever on the top in location , which, when moved in the direction shown, will cock the shutter; Graphic XL lenses have the cocking lever on the bottom. The shutter release on most Kodaks and Graphics is the lever in location and should be pressed in the direction shown to trip and open the shutter. These levers may look different or be in slightly different places, but they generally operate in the same way. Some cameras will have a body release, usually a button on the top of the camera, that is linked to the shutter release lever. It is possible that the shutter itself may work, even if the body release does not.
  • While you cannot check the accuracy of a shutter without special equipment, you can see if all of the speeds work. By looking into the lens while you are tripping the shutter, you will see the shutter blades open and close. As you operate the shutter over its range, you should be able to notice that as the shutter speeds get longer, the shutter stays open increasingly longer. If you can see a pattern of increasingly longer durations the shutter is probably operating correctly, though not necessarily that each speed is accurate.
  • Oil from the shutter mechanism may have found its way onto the shutter blades and must be removed or it may foul the lens. Leave this for the auction winner or a technician, but it should be mentioned to the bidders.

Cleaning a Lens

Most old cameras will have accumulated dust and maybe grime. Unless you have experience with cameras, you may do more harm than good in cleaning other than a light dusting. A vacuum cleaner with a clean dusting attachment is good. To evaluate the lens, however, you will need to clean the exposed external surfaces. This at least means the front of the front lens group and the back of the back lens group. In many cases, with lenses on press and view cameras, the groups can easily be removed from the shutter body so that the rear of the front group and the front of the rear group can also be cleaned.

  • With a soft clean brush, remove as much loose dust as possible. (An unused cosmetics brush works well)
  • Cleaning with liquids should be a rinsing not a scouring operation. You are using the liquid to dissolve oils on the surface of the glass. Rubbing is abrasive and can easily scratch the relatively soft coatings on early lenses.Moisten a small piece of tissue (white, unscented toilet tissue or facial tissue) or optical tissue with lens cleaner or Windex and swab the lens surface. Let the cleaner dissolve oils on the surface, then absorb the excess moisture with a dry corner of the tissue. Repeat this operation with new tissue/lens cleaner until you see no traces of oily film on the lens surface. Then wipe it dry with a piece of optical tissue, which has less lint than facial or toilet tissue. .A lens with accumulated oil/grease may require 6-8 repetitions. With folding cameras cleaning the rear lens element is easy with the front closed and the back open.
  • Never try to clean a lens with dry tissue.
  • After you have shaken out any dust, brush away any tissue lint with the soft brush or blow it away with the kind of syringe used to clean out babies ears. An unused syringe, please.
    If you have a Kodak lens made before 1948, it probably has a very soft coating on inner surfaces and should only be cleaned by a qualified technician familiar with such lenses. Such cautions may apply to other lenses manufactured by other companies in the late '30s and throughout the '40s.    

  To check the operation of a focal plane (rear) shutter on a Speed Graphic, see this page

  Further information about identification, evaluation and operation of Graphics and Graflexes can be found at:


11/23/2006 0:19