When I first started my Leica journey, I purchased a Leica M10 and 35mm Summicron from Ken Hansen. The email exchange went something along the lines of:
Me: Ken, you don’t know who I am but I am looking for an M10.
Ken: No problem. Silver or black?
Me: Don’t care.
Ken: Good I have what you want. Price is $XXXX
Me: I’ll take it.
I am almost certainly mistaken, but I remember him sending me an invoice by email but shipping it to me before I even paid. That is how I got my first Leica.
I probably paid a little more than I could if I found someone on Craigslist or one of the online forums but that small fee paid for my time, headache, and lowered the risk associated with the purchase to essentially zero.
I worked with Ken a few more times over the years. Working with Ken reminded me of my childhood in New York where there was always a kid in the class who got the ColecoVision or Intellivision before the rest of us, had the VCR before anyone else, got the microwave before the rest of us, got the CD player so we could listen to Moving Pictures by Rush, and then, in high school, somehow managed to get the Billy Joel tickets without waiting in line because his dad always “knew a guy.” On Long Island in the 1980’s, BIlly Joel tickets were better than money. Growing up I never “knew a guy.” Now I did. I felt like a player. Life was good.
Unfortunately, Ken Hansen passed away a few years ago, and shopping for Leica gear became a gigantic pain.
Sport shopping the used camera forums day after day is dreadful when I have to do it. Hearing about scams in the Leica Classifieds and other Facebook forums is soul-crushing. Even Japanese sellers can’t be trusted with their “EX++++ but small fungus” nonsense (1). Checking the mega used camera sites and used departments every day is also painful given how slow those sites load and there are no back in stock alerts (2). eBay also seems to have changed over the years which is not surprising given the onerous fees charged to sell camera equipment and rules that are too heavily weighted against sellers. I know a few sellers (including myself) who no longer sell on eBay if it can be avoided. eBay seems to have become the stomping ground of people who raided grandpas attic and denizens who troll estate sales who don’t know what they are selling and are trying to make a quick buck.
Without Ken, Leica shopping was a headache until I tapped into other ways of acquiring gear. I learned that there is an ecosystem of fine photographic equipment (e.g. not just Leica) that is bought and sold that you never see because it never gets posted online. I jokingly refer to this ecosystem as “The Underworld.” Given the connotations that might be implied by the use of the word underworld, I assure you that there is nothing shady or illegal going on here. As you will see, I have tremendous respect for camera brokers and dealers who go to lengths to offer you assistance, mitigate risk, answer questions, and do whatever they can so you don’t have to worry about acquiring new and used photo gear.
My introduction to the underworld and “The Clients”
Although I had some success buying equipment on the camera forums and eBay I also had some painful misses. At some point, I decided my time and stress level are more important than saving a few dollars. I started dealing only with established vendors and reputable dealers. Almost immediately, I started to hear about “clients.” Everyone I was buying from had these “clients.” For example:
Me: can you tell me about the camera? Do you know who owned it previously? Any issues?
Vendor: It is from a client of mine that I work with in Montana. Everything he has is solid. He collects cameras and I can’t see that he ever shoots them. I sold it to him years ago.
All of the equipment that is bought and sold between brokers, dealers, and clients is the underworld and I stumbled my way into it.
As I built trust within the underworld, a nagging suspicion of mine was confirmed. What most of us see on websites and camera forums is often already picked over by their good clients. If you missed the importance of that last statement, it bears repeating. You may be getting last dibs if you are shopping only on eBay or online. Clients come first. I know because I am a client of a few of them. In some cases, I have access to items you may never see.
This is not the camera mafia and you don’t need to be a high roller
To someone growing up in New York in the 1980s, words like underworld, clients, collectors, and the phrase “I know a guy” suggest some sort of impression of a mafia-type business. If that is what you are thinking, please dispel those thoughts. I reiterate that what I am describing is entirely above board. Many of the people buying and selling in what I call the underground have brick and mortar stores, have been in the industry for decades, and do this as a primary business. Do not misinterpret my stupid term “the underworld” in any way as negative.
It is also important to note that I am not a high roller. I buy some expensive stuff from time to time but most of what I buy is just generic, run of the mill, equipment that any camera nerd will eventually need or want at some point. I am not a collector. As an example, recently I purchased a Nikon FM3A and a Hasselblad focusing screen from the underground. The transaction was done over text and went something like this.
Me: I am looking for a Nikon FM3A
Him: I have one coming in this week from a “client” we work with
Him: Little bit beat up. Is that Ok?
Me: Send me a picture.
Him: (sends picture)
Me: Works. invoice me.
Rules of the Underground
This section is probably not necessary but given that people seem to have lost their respect for one another in the age of social media, these are my four rules of shopping in the underground.
- Don’t be an idiot or an a-hole: In fact, pretend you are working with someone in the actual Mafia who would break your fingers if you wasted their time or did something shady. Above all, be respectful of their expertise and time. Leave your “lived experience” at the door. This is not the time or place.
- Be ready to buy: if you ask for something and they have it, buy it. Don’t waste their time. Don’t contact 5 people at once and see what sticks. Don’t expect them to answer the email or text if you get a reputation as window shopper.
- Understand you are paying for a service. Expect prices to be competitive but don’t expect the lowest price ever paid. You are paying for a service. You are paying a person to 1) find you good stuff 2) accurately assess the condition and explain that to you in a generally accepted language that doesn’t need translation 3) and mitigate your risk of purchasing gear. I encourage you to pay the extra money and bask in the glow of your comfort knowing you bought exactly what you are paying for and you helped someone feed their family along the way.
- This is not the place to haggle: These people are professionals. You are not. I am not. They know what things cost. Items are priced such that if you don’t buy them, someone else will. You need them more than they need you. You just don’t know it yet. Haggle in the forums. This is not the place.
If you fail to follow these rules you will be treated with unanswered emails and texts. In the underground, the customer is not always right.
Getting started with the underground
Working your way into the underground generally happens by word of mouth. As you can imagine, therefore, I am not in a position to list everyone I know or talked to for this article because they have their “clients” and (I assume) fear being bombarded with unvetted people who don’t understand or appreciate the four rules of shopping in the underground. Nonetheless, here are a few options to get you started:
Popflash Photo: This one might be a little less underground given that you will surely have heard of Popflash if you ever found yourself on the Rangefinder Forum. I haven’t found too much personal value in the discussion on that forum but you will see a banner ad for Popflash Photo. You might be thinking “I haven’t seen a banner ad on the web like that since 2002” and you would be correct. You haven’t. You might also be thinking “Do I wan’t to do business with a company who still plays the banner ad game?” I encourage you that is a stupid thought. I can’t see that a banner advertisement works all that well in 2022 but I also encourage you to consider the banner ad a signal of their support to the photographic and rangefinder community as much as it is a way to generate business. Popflash is a Leica Authorized dealer who has been in the retail game since 1969 when they started as Tony Rose Camera and Video. Tony was a Navy photographer in Vietnam which is more street cred than I will ever have. He is also still working and running the business. Although Popflash is a dealer for a number of brands (Ricoh, Pentax, Fuji, Light Lens Lab), a main interest of mine in Popflash is their consignment business. Lots of consignment items. Importantly, Popflash also has deep relationships in the photo world and will help you source things on your wish list. Recently, Popflash upped their instagram game with video stories showing exactly what they are selling. IMHO they are killing the IG game.
Japan Camera Hunter: if you like cameras that go clicky clacky or you shoot film, you either live under a rock or have heard of Japan Camera Hunter. JCH is the most transparent on-ramp to the underground. He charges a set rate above the cost of the camera. What you get with Bellamy is an expert who will make sure you get exactly what you think you are getting. He also doesn’t deal in junk. I emailed Bellamy (who always responds within 24 hours) a few times and he responded that he couldn’t or wouldn’t get what I was asking for because he didn’t trust that he could get me something reliable. I get the feeling that he doesn’t sell things that customers will be even remotely unhappy with. He doesn’t want to deal with the headache. My impression is that if he can’t or won’t find it for you, that means something. You probably think twice before you go and buy it on your own from Japan on eBay. We finally matched when I got my Nikon F6 for a recent project for Monster Energy, Betty Designs, and Open Bikes. My experience with Bellamy was excellent. After a few emails, I had my camera and knew with absolute certainty that someone knowledgeable on the other end had my back. It was worth every penny to know that the camera I brought to a high pressure, unrepeatable, once in a lifetime, shoot when several companies took a risk and allowed me to play film and cameras for a day was going to perform as needed. To contact Bellamy, use the contact form on his website at Japan Camara Hunter.
Camera West: My current Ken Hansen incarnation might be Ben from Camera West (3). I am reluctant to tell you about him because I want my text message answered first. Nonetheless, at the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, you should find a way to introduce yourself to him. You have probably been on the Camera West or Leica Store San Francisco website. They also have an eBay site which seems to be their scratch and dent pile that they don’t want to tarnish their main websites. What you don’t know is that they have “clients” and, as can be expected, what you see on the internet and in their fantastic weekly newsletter might just have been picked over by their clients first. Ben is also a wealth of information. If he doesn’t know something, expect him to find the answer. When he is not on a bike tour you can contact him at Camera West.
Tamarkin Camera: I grew up geek. 1994 Weezer and Meat Puppets era geek. People like me don’t just go and call all the hot girls and start asking questions willy nilly because we learned through hard-earned experience that the hot girls don’t respond back. In the Leica world, one of the hot girls (4) is Tamarkin. I almost guarantee you know the name and have checked out the list of used equipment on the Tamarkin website. Anyway, I never thought to reach out because I figured that Tamarkin must only deal with the super collectors, hard-core Leica people, and people who go to LHSA meetings. If you are anything like me, I encourage you to stop the nonsense and listen to either the Barnack Hour on YouTube, or this episode of The Classic Lenses Podcast. After listening to Dan Tamarkin for 5 seconds, any fears or misconceptions you might have about a stuffy, old, Leica insider will evaporate. I reached out recently when I was considering a Leica SL2-S and Tamarkin responded back almost immediately. Moreover, I was asking a bit of an obscure question and they did some research and found the answer (5). Whoa, I thought. Captain Weezer nerd over here (e.g. ME) misread the situation. Tamarkin is an authorized Leica dealer (Tamarkin is essentially Leica Chicago) who sells new and used equipment. Everything they sell, they own (e.g. they are not just a broker acting as a middle man in a transaction). As you can expect, after 50 years in the game, Tamarkin has dedicated clients they work with and at least some of what they sell doesn’t make it to the website. You are strongly encouraged to make contact at either dan[at]tamarkin.com or info[at]tamarkin.com.
Tim Lei (Tim’s photo Ltd.): Unlike the others on this list, it is possible you never heard of Tim Lei. I had only seen his name once or twice and have not (yet) done business with him. He was recommended to me by a few personal contacts for this article. Tim is included in this list as an example of what I would consider a traditional gear broker who sells equipment and will also locate items upon request from his clients. You are bound to see his name on Facebook, Fred Miranda, and GetDPI but he also has a list of clients who get updates before he lists items on the public markets. Moreover, he has contacts, including contacts in Asia, who he trusts to inspect equipment for his clients. If you come across a link to Tims’s website and it doesn’t work, ignore that. Tim is so busy these days, and gear comes and goes so fast, he is no longer maintaining that website. Tim deals in many types of fine photographic equipment in addition to Leica. You can contact Tim at timsphotoltd[at]gmail.com.
Cardinal Camera: It is probably not surprising that you will find multigenerational businesses in the underground and (along with Tamarkin) Cardinal Camera is another. Starting in 1937 Cardinal Camera is in its FOURTH generation. I am predicting a 5th. Tyler Seelig is the great-grandson and is hammering the used game for Cardinal. One way to dip your toes and get a feel for Cardinal is to follow Cardinal Camera Used on Instagram. The trick is to click the stories daily. You will be impressed by the volume, variety, and 2 second response time to DM’s about postings. There are lots of items other than Leica. The variety comes from their clients who sell to him. Remember: in the underground, it is all about the client list. Once items hit Instagram it is fair game/first come first serve but, as you can expect, you are not seeing everything on Instagram. Clients get first dibs and, after almost 100 years, they have a client list so many items never find their way to Instagram or their eBay store at TSS Photography. In my experience, communication is always phenomenal and intelligent. Tyler, keeps a list and you already know about “The List.” To reach Tyler you can DM him or email tsscamerasales[(at)]gmail.com
Vico (Ken Hansen’s son-in-law): Previously, we discussed that Ken Hansen passed away. His son-in-law, Vico, however, took over his business. Vico is responsive and you can expect an email response within 24 hours. You can contact Vico using Ken’s old email address at email@example.com
1. There was a time about a decade ago where you could buy pretty much buy anything from Japan and even though it might be a little more expensive than you could find locally, the quality was better than advertised, there were no import duties, and somehow things would get to my door faster than if I ordered them from the next state. These days, my luck with Japan is pretty awful and I am not alone. In an email exchange with Bellamy (e.g. Japan Camera Hunter) he said that my impression is not unfounded. There are more and more fly-by-night camera sellers on eBay now whereas in the past it was dominated by reputable stores and sellers. Japan is riding on the coattails of how good things were in the ’00s. Buyer beware. Personally, I won’t buy from Japan unless it is through JCH. Even though many Japanese sellers will offer you a refund, the refund process is a pain, it is expensive (you pay for return shipping) and good luck trying to recover your import duties. Been there. Done that. Not going to do it again.
2. Dear large, used, camera equipment sellers, please allow us to sign up for alerts so when things come back in stock we get a text or email. I love you but please save us from checking the website every day. You know who you are.
3. I am not sure he has a last name. Madonna. Prince. Rhianna. Beck. Bono. Enya. Yanni. Flea. Liberace. Ben.
4. The hottest?
5. Dear Leica, if you add Profoto support I can buy an SL series camera from Tamarkin.