Juho Leppänen

Passionately determined to save every analog camera in his path, Juho dreams of a future where his children will have the opportunity to shoot film just as he did.

December 29, 2020.

The journey to 100 000 cameras in 10 years

Hi! If you don’t know me already, I’m Juho, and here I want to tell you my side of story of how we went from being just me selling old cameras from my bedroom to selling tens of thousands of cameras every year and using the spare resources it generates to run the Camera Rescue project, which aims to preserve analog photography (and especially the cameras it needs) for future generations. But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s rewind to 2010.

The guy on the left in the picture above is a 22-year-old me and that guy on the right is a 21-year-old Jussi. Back in 2010 film photography was nothing it is today – it was stagnant and there was no enthusiasm. Digital camera sales reached an all-time high in 2011 and everyone was raving about the latest digital gear. It seemed both professionals and hobbyists had decided that there was no going back to film ever again, and the prices of film gear had plummeted in the last 5 years. All the second-hand camera shops left in Finland had gone bankrupt or retired amidst the digital revolution of photography. And for some reason in that stormy environment, I decided it would be a brilliant idea to start a company buying and selling film cameras.

Throughout High School I had been flipping cameras, buying and selling them as a hobby, mostly so that I could try out cameras way above my budget. Back then the majority of film gear was still in decent condition, unlike today, and adapting old lenses to Canon DSLRs was trendy. After having just moved from Helsinki to Tampere after a woman, that same woman, who in the meantime had become my wife, notified me that all those old cameras and developing machines in our living room were not to her liking. I realized there was too much to do for just one person so I called up Jussi, my only friend in town. As our friendship had started when we were 2 and 3 years old we instantly knew how to divide tasks after my “Can you help me, please?” -call. We put our almost non-existent savings together and soon we had a little company running with its own little two-room hole-in-the-wall location in a soon-to-be-demolished building. We found some old bookshelves and set up a product photography tent and started spreading the word that we are buying and selling cameras. That was the humble start of it all, but it seemed to gather attention quickly as half a year later we already got third place in an entrepreneur competition and some newspaper coverage (photo above).

Getting Started

As we fought our way through the first full year of business, box by box, as seen in the picture above with Jussi shipping boxes, we were soon running out of space. Our slightly tatty place happened to be in the same building as an old, vacant car wash. At 250m2 (2600sqft) it seemed massive and was horribly messy. So, naturally, we signed the lease and started working on putting it in order, making it look less like… Well, a carwash and more like a Kamerastore. In the picture below we are painting the walls and you can see one of our friends’ trusty old Soccer-mom-mobile parked in the back there, hiding from the -20C (-4F) outside, so we could be sure it would start again. 

With the car parked inside our new office and yet only taking up a small corner of it, you might get a sense of scale from the perspective of a business that was just recently operated from my living room. Eventually, after we had steam washed the place, painted the walls and put up some new walls, laid some new flooring down, and found subtenants, it started to look like the perfect space for our business to grow in – so in 2012 we moved in.

 

Early on, a lot of special gear was sold to far-away countries through eBay – no one in Finland needed, or was willing to pay for, a Rolleiflex Bay IV Rolleipol filter – and a few of the deals we got were so odd and our insured shipping rates were so terrible that it was cheaper for me to fly to Hong Kong and take a super rare Leica M 35mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPHERICAL to its new home by hand than to ship it. Granted, it was partly cheaper because I did my 22 and 36-hour layovers on the airport floor in Moscow, but then again I got to do some night photography in Hong Kong that we printed big and hung on the walls of our office (you can see one of them on the wall behind Jussi packing boxes two pictures up). 

Kamerastore grows

The year of 2013 was a year of new people, literally. First, my daughter was born, and I stayed home with her for the second 6 months of her life but in the same span of time, Kasperi, Joel, Nuno, Tapio, and Marcus came to help the core team of Antti and Jussi run Kamerastore. Everyone had their role, for example, Tapio had an electronics engineer background but loved large format – he showed me how to use it on one of the 18 Sinar bodies we had lying around at the time. Finland was full of them from the professional days but no one wanted them at the time. 

This year set the foundation for a lot of the years to come, with 5 of the people mentioned still with us, one retired and another running his own photo studio. It had also become clear that the one-man lifestyle business had become a small company by 2013. We had a physical location and shelves full of cameras, and we ended up staying for 4 years in our converted carwash – the longest we have ever stayed in a single location.  Below you can see our team photo from the summer of 2013. 

Foreshadowing what would become so important for our mission in the future, we now had regular dealings with a local repair shop (the last one in town). The need was not yet pressing enough to have our own repair team as both a larger proportion of cameras were good-to-go in 2013 than today, and we (or anyone else for the matter that did camera flipping) didn’t yet have proper testing machines to prove otherwise. Plenty of inaccurate cameras might have slipped through, just as they do with various more or less serious dealers on the internet today – the only difference being that the general condition of cameras is now much worse than it was then. Bit by bit we learned how to use the machines to test cameras and operation was not just resale but also rescue. 

The Film Revival Starts to show Signs of itself

In 2014 we started seeing the film revival in Europe. The first signs came when I realized that while most film cameras sold between 2010 and 2013 had gone off to collectors and put on shelves, people were now starting to buy cameras for use. For actual users, reliability and consistency in the camera and images is super important. So the more we sold for use, the more testing we would have to do. At the same time, we were selling more cameras, and while 10-30% returns in a small business is fine as that’s only a few a week, it would be a huge amount of extra work when you’re selling hundreds a week. At the same time, it had, at that point, been at least 10 years since most film cameras had been serviced, and we were starting to notice it. Therefore we started to figure out a whole workflow to do testing precisely and efficiently, but it was only applied to top-end items. In the photo below you see our Kyoritsu on the left – “Mertsi” – made in 1977 it was a true film-era machine that started shifting Kamerastore towards what it is today with selling only tested equipment and less than 0.5% returns. 

Testing is not just a part of our history, but also a large part of our future as we move into a new decade. More on that later!

With our growth, the film market also grew steadily. In 2015 we had this image to advertise a Mamiya RZ67 kit – 299€ for the whole kit! For those of you who have just gotten into film and longed for this kit recently, feel free to cry just about now. Mamiya was huge in Finland in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and so the supply of it in 2015 far outstripped the demand. Luckily, as Kamerastore was growing larger and were starting to hire repair technicians, this Mamiya phase in Finnish history meant that there were a few highly skilled masters of that brand. 

Anyway, by 2015 I had realized that we were actually quite a big fish in our little pond. This realization partly came when Kamerastore attended the photo fair in Helsinki and I noticed our booth was the largest one in the whole fair. Though a lot of this was due to our Outlet, which is now more internationally known as the Camera Rescue Online Outlet boxes we started selling during the summer of 2020, I realized that most of the Finnish photography community had noticed us and knew what Kamerastore was. At the same time, I thought we were getting close to the imaginary ceiling of the Finnish market. 

The Failed Web-platform

On the other hand, I remember thinking that we were not a big fish for Europe and didn’t really have anything to offer – what could a bunch of 20 year-olds offer big Europe from little Finland? Surely, I thought, there must be bigger and better shops in most countries in Europe. Therefore, instead of trying to expand our camera selling business to Europe, we did what most Finnish companies seem to do – invest in creating a tech product. Ours was a web platform, through the company Cameraventures, that we first tested out by connecting other Finnish second-hand camera resellers. That’s why I, in late 2015, left Kamerastore and headed over to this new webshop company. It turned out to be a mistake.

Firstly, we did have a special formula – we just didn’t realize it. Our quality control and online-first attitude was not a thing that established shops in Europe wanted to transform into and therefore the webshop idea had no customers. Secondly, there weren’t that many shops focusing on a circular economy, buying, restoring, and selling second-hand items. For most camera shops second hand was a side hustle that gave high profits but included a lot of work because of the inaccuracy of how they did it. While I mapped the situation in Europe, I noticed that we were the biggest in the Nordics and one of only a few big ones in the whole of Europe. Finally, it turned out that maintaining this kind of service, with several sellers under different legislations, logistics, and currencies, under one webpage was a nightmare. 

With my second child being born, I spent the first half of 2016 at home with him. When I got back to work, I started working on Cameraventures. Though it was doomed to be a failure, despite our small team putting a lot of time and passion into it, it was not a complete waste of time. We did not reach our stated goal with it but we did create something very valuable – a massive online survey that took the pulse on the 2017 film community. It showed to us and the world that, not only had the film community grown in the past few years, it had become a worldwide market with much more people and diversity than we thought. In many ways, it set the tone for the coming three years, as I with the help of Misa, by the start of 2018 started the new project, Camera Rescue which had the stated goal of rescuing 100 000 cameras by the end of 2020. 

Building the future of film

I started focusing on the future of film by traveling to analog hotspots like LP Foto in Stockholm, Sweden, One of Many Cameras in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Foqus Store in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was also part of what would be a turning point in the analog resurgence at Photokina 2016, where I met for example Nico Llasera for the first time – now an instrumental member of the Camera Rescue Crew. All in all, I talked to over 400 photographers that year – interviewing some for jobs and some just to understand where film photography was heading. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the Kamerastore team had not been idle: The team built up a whole lab, partly because we wanted to enable our own staff to shoot as much as they wanted to and could, but also to serve the local market in Tampere. Furthermore, a Helsinki repair shop dating back to the 1970s had merged with Kamerastore, bringing with it sorely needed repair know-how and starting the process of building the next generations of Cameramakers – our in-house repair team that both repairs our cameras and trains new people in camera repair.

At this point, I was convinced, from my research around the world, that the world sorely needed to retain the know-how of mechanical camera repair for the generations to come. We established Cameramakers with old Master Hessu who had agreed to teach repair for two years. Furthermore, we developed an apprenticeship program with a local vocational school here in Tampere and everything looked peachy. 

Then Master Hessu suddenly died – he left work on a Friday and never came back. At the same time our first technician, Tapsa, retired. The apprentices in Tampere dropped out and the curriculum we had planned with the vocational school was at a dead end. An attempt at regrouping in Helsinki was delayed and interrupted by a sewage leakage from the hotel above, and a half a year later by the landlord kicking us out from the new place because the Kaurismäki brothers wanted to build a bar in the space. It wasn’t a good time, to say the least!

Then enters Master Jukka, pictured above. He had been a professional camera repair technician for longer than anyone in the team had been alive, and with Mika who had done a decade of repair for Canon and Nikon, we could rebuild Cameramakers. 

The Camera Rescue Center

Early in 2018, we decided it was best to move the Cameramakers HQ from Helsinki to the Camera Rescue Center in Tampere, under the same roof as the rest of the team. There was just one small problem: How do you both train someone in camera repair and have them all, both master and apprentice, make a living? We could have them do customer repair, but we decided that would not be an option for apprentices because of the poor service it would be to let some rookie screw with customers’ cameras. Therefore, we decided that a good way of letting them both learn and make a living was by checking cameras for Kamerastore. 

At the time, roughly 40 cameras came in every day and they all needed checking. By helping with that load, they would also learn the basics of repair since finding the faults of a camera is the first step to repairing it. This step also taught us an important lesson about the state of cameras in the world: It was more likely for a film camera in the late 2010s to be out of factory-specs than within them. Or in other words, it was more likely for a camera to be broken than to work – perhaps something to keep in mind the next time you see a ‘deal’ on eBay or classifieds.

In late 2017 a stream of visitors came. People like Jordan (@cameraville) and Roman (@r0man0ff) would end up working here, but were for now just engaged in short term projects. Also visiting was Bellamy from Japan Camera Hunter and Vincent from On Film Only – both participating in the live stream where we talked about the Save Analog Cameras campaign (the large survey I mentioned earlier). In the same live stream, we announced our, frankly, far-fetched goal of 100 000 cameras by 2020, which was meant to align with the 100th year of independence for Finland. At that point we had processed roughly 35 000 cameras in 7 years, and we would need to process the rest in only 3 and a bit years.

When we published our goal the idea was for it to be achieved mostly through the coordination of a global rescue mission by developing an app. The app development didn’t go as planned, to say the least, and that idea was eventually scrapped. However, in 2018 I spent a lot of time spreading the message that film cameras need rescue-ing, while the rest of the team inside the new Rescue Center flourished. At the same time, we were touring Europe in our old trusty van and by airplane. Joel and Kasperi did a tour of Sweden and Norway, Jordan of Hungary, Serbian and Ukraine, Jussi of the UK and Austria while I was visiting Spain and the US – all to look for gear and contacts.

Our massive outreach throughout 2018 culminated at Photokina 2018 (which was to be the last one) where we rented an insanely expensive 4m2 booth (for about 4000€ (!!), which might be the reason fairs are dying out) and filled it with the most logical thing for the outreach-year of 2018: An interview booth where Camera Rescue TV did about 20 interviews of almost all the likely players in the analogue industry, which can be found on YouTube

From 2016 to 2018 the mood at the fair had changed. I saw a couple of film cameras in 2016 but in 2018 it had changed completely and maybe a quarter of young people were wearing a film camera in 2018. Analog booths like Fotoimpex and Cinestill were crowded all through the fair and we even ran out of flyers to hand out for Kamerastore. Meanwhile, the photo industry at large seemed confused by the whole concept of analog: “What, film cameras are still a thing?”. 

Planning for the analog future

In late 2018 our whole team, both from Helsinki and Europe at large gathered in Tampere to make a new vision for the future. Our story up until that point had been summarised in a cinematic 12 minute documentary, but our future was not certain. We could continue in the direction we were headed – being a reseller of any camera gear; we could be content with being such a big player in the Finnish market; or we could focus on building an analog future. This was a massive change in direction and attitude from ‘being the best second-hand camera marketplace’ – a shop first attitude – to one that was more idealistic and that included so much more than selling cameras. 

One of the first things that happened after our direction was forged, was recruiting three more people – two of them aiming to become Cameramakers. This was to mark the start of a new future where digital sales declined and more focus was put on recruiting and accommodating checking and repair, more focus on informing and rescuing, and more focus on a new for-now secret project that might, in the long run, change the second-hand film camera market completely and thus secure an analog future. 

The Camera Rescue project and Kamerastore were meant to be separate units with separate goals, but the past three years have blurred the line considerably. We no longer have separate missions, but ones that go hand-in-hand. Kamerastore has sold about 40 000 items this year, to about 10 000 locations. Material from the Outlet, where we sell camera equipment that isn’t economical or possible for us to repair, sold through Kamerastore has sustained the Camera Rescue project after the projects that were meant to fund us hit a wall in early 2019. The store has also made it possible for a new generation of Cameramakers to learn the trade under supervision from Masters while also earning a living – retaining the knowledge of the old Masters through new students is sure to have long-lasting consequences. 

 

 

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Henkilön The Camera Rescue Project (@camerarescue) jakama julkaisu

We are now at the end of 2020, the initial deadline for our 100 000 camera goal. We will reach 94 000 in processing by New Years, which is a huge amount considering that almost all of them are processed by our own team and not by the community as planned initially with the app. By this rate, we will hit our goal in February, just before we move into the new premises. 

The sixth location for the operation will be completely different to the previous ones, building on a few principles that we have learned along the way. Firstly, most of it is in one hall and it is much more like a material processing factory than a shop or an office. Secondly, the testing machine lineup will be located at the heart of the main hall – so everyone can at any point test cameras and lenses efficiently. And thirdly it has over 12 vacant technicians posts to be filled in the coming years by apprentices.

 

 

Näytä tämä julkaisu Instagramissa.

 

Henkilön The Camera Rescue Project (@camerarescue) jakama julkaisu

So to sum up, the ten years behind us was much like seeing a child grow up. The first years they are cuddly, cute, and all over the place with very little know-how of what they are actually doing. By the time they are 5, a human suddenly starts to appear and some structure is gained and the kid can manage most things they need to on their own. But then the kid enters school and starts to learn from teachers, learns new languages and the whole world starts to open up to possibilities. I sure am excited to see what the teenage years of this operation will look like.


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