IN an age of whizz-bang Japanese cameras and digital photography, the names Leica, Hasselblad and Zeiss seem like relics from a past era. But to camera aficionados around the world, they are to photography what Rolls-Royce is to cars. Leicas in particular are highly prized. Made by German group Ernst Leitz, the 35 mm version revolutionised photography when it first appeared in 1925. Now Leica collecting is considered a well developed and specialised market. Not only is there more information on the brand than any other camera, but the craftsmanship of its pieces is universally admired. 'A Canon will take pictures as well as a Leica but it's the difference between owning a Rolls-Royce and a Ford,' said Mike Pritchard, an associate director at London-based auction house Christie's. 'There's a cachet about it. Most people would prefer to own a Rolls-Royce.' He should know. As head of the camera department at Christie's for the past decade, Mr Pritchard, through regular sales, has helped nurture interest in old, second-hand cameras as collectible items. When he took over in 1986, camera sales were generating $2.4 million in turnover for Christie's each year. Last year the figure climbed to almost $16 million after the auction house, which auctions more cameras than anyone else, sold 4,000 lots at nine separate sales. While Christie's auctions had yet to make it to Asia, cameras were part of the autumn auctions held last week in Beijing, where an early Leica fetched the top price of $35,000. Mr Pritchard said Asia suffered no shortage of serious collectors. 'We have a lot of buyers in Hong Kong,' he said. 'The Far East market is very important to us in terms of value. The number of lots bought is small but they tend to be more valuable.' Until a James Bond-esque Enjalbert camera made in the shape of a pistol blasted its away into the record books by fetching a hammer price of GBP50,000 (about $607,500) this year, one of the two previous records was set by a Hong Kong collector. That anonymous collector bought a Leica gold Luxus for just less than $500,000. A similar price was paid by another bidder for a camera made in 1901 for the Sultan of Morocco. Hong Kong collectors even have their own club, the Antique Camera Club, which boasts about 100 members. Its chairman, David Chan, deals in antique cameras from his shop in Kowloon, and has been in the business for 30 years. Mr Chan, who claims to have Hong Kong's biggest range of old cameras, attributes the interest in such cameras to the computerisation swamping the modern industry. That has sparked nostalgia for original, well crafted mechanical cameras - the sort where the photographer rather than the computer has total control. Prices for these cameras, particularly pieces made in the mid-to-late 70s, had been moving up quickly, Mr Pritchard said. Today's more modern equipment is unlikely to carry similar value in the future. But the majority of older cameras have appreciated little in recent years. According to the Hove International Blue Book, which contains a guide to market values, only those of the finest quality are achieving notable increases. So anyone collecting in the hope of quick profits may be disappointed: cameras are in a relatively stable price field. 'Unless you've got a good eye for things that will appreciate, buy for the right reasons rather than for investment,' Mr Pritchard said. 'Don't think about money. Buy things you are going to enjoy having for a few years. Buy something you like and perhaps in future they'll be worth something.' The attraction of cameras over other collectibles is that you can build up a collection without sending yourself bankrupt in the process. Mr Chan sells second-hand Leicas in good condition for $2,500 although he says serious collectors might consider starting at the $6,000 level. That is considerably cheaper than the early Canons and Leicas worth $100,000 in his store. In Asia, the focus tends to be on black and chrome cameras made from the mid-1920s onwards. These include early Nikons and Canons, which were in production before World War II but only began making their mark in the post-war period. The most valuable camera in Mr Chan's private collection is a Canon Hansa - the first Canon - made in 1937 with a Nikon lens. He picked it up from a mainlander for $8,000 more than 10 years ago and estimates its current value at $150,000. European collectors show more enthusiasm for even older pieces, like the real dinosaurs of the market - wooden cameras. Folding cameras, reflex cameras and miniature cameras are also sought after. Mr Pritchard's advice to camera novices is to look for quality. 'Spend a bit more to get something as good as possible.' Go for originals because restored pieces will not carry the same weight, and always be wary of fakes. First-year Nikons, Canons and Leicas should all improve in value, as should early model Hasselblads, which came out in 1948, and limited edition models of all famous names.