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How to Buy Used Camera Gear: A Step-By-Step Guide

Digital photography equipment – especially top-notch mirrorless cameras, DSLRs, and lenses – is expensive. While big manufacturers do continue to add more affordable options to their lineups, what if you need a high-level camera or lens but you don’t have $3000+ to spend?

That’s where used gear comes in handy. If you approach the used market correctly, you can often obtain near-mint cameras and lenses at incredible discounts. But shopping on the used market comes with plenty of pitfalls, and without a careful strategy, you may find yourself wasting time, effort, and money on defective or damaged equipment.

As a photographer who relies constantly on the used market, I know how to avoid these problems, and below, I share a step-by-step approach so you can successfully purchase used gear of your own.

Let’s dive right in!

How to buy used photography gear

Step 1: Price check used items before buying

By now, just about every online camera retailer has a used section on their website. Availability of items is obviously variable, but a simple item check can pull up estimates for the current standard used prices of the items you want. Before you hit that “Buy Button,” I encourage you to look at multiple websites, identifying the average and lowest prices, with the aim of determining the best purchase for your needs.

But don’t simply be drawn in by rock-bottom prices! Be sure to note the quality rating and the description for each item and see how it compares to your expectations. Often, used items that are priced too low have some sort of cosmetic or mechanical problem, so if you think a deal is too good to be true, then it probably is.

Another reason to be suspicious of outrageously low prices? The item might be gray market, which means it essentially comes with no factory warranty. The best way to check if an item is gray market is to find the serial number and reference it in the camera maker’s database.

The advantage of buying used gear online – as opposed to in person – is that the gear has often been checked out and issued a rating by the retailer. Additionally, online used gear, especially when it comes directly from users, tends to be far cheaper than used gear purchased from a dedicated brick-and-mortar retailer. There may also be some flexibility in terms of exchanges and returns in case you aren’t happy with your purchase.

Pro tip: Before buying, be sure to double-check and make sure the seller has a good reputation, especially on marketplaces like Amazon and eBay.

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Check out the local classified ads

Scan local communities boards or publications, or see what’s listed in your local Craigslist directory. The advantage to buying used gear in-person is the ability to test the gear out before you buy it. Nervous about meeting a stranger for a business transaction? Choose a meeting place at a super public space like a mall or cafe. Also, I’ve found that many Craigslist sellers of camera gear in my area tend to be other professionals, and thus their names and corresponding web portfolios can be easily researched online prior to meeting in person. If you do opt for an in-person transaction, be clear on how to assess used camera gear yourself.

How to Determine Used Lens Quality

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Lenses are relatively straightforward to assess in terms of quality. First, investigate the lens thoroughly and watch out for common problems such as fungus, dust, and scratches. Shine a light through the lens, and any imperfections should be visible. Note that some problems such as dust and small scratches will likely just be cosmetic damage and should not affect overall image quality. However, any signs of fungus on the lens is a deal breaker as it is incredibly difficult and costly to remove.

Second, do a mechanical test of the lens to see how it performs. It’s best to have your regular DSLR with you to see how it fits. Make sure the aperture blades on the ring are clean and can move freely, and try out both the zoom and focus rings. Depending on the lens model, it’s not uncommon for the rings to offer some resistance, but be sure sure they both operate relatively smoothly. Finally, check out the autofocus operation on the lens and make sure it is smooth.

How to Determine Used Camera Body Quality

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Used camera bodies can be a bit trickier to assess. While it’s perfectly normal for bodies to have physical signs of wear and tear, use your initial visual impressions of the camera as your first judgement. If the camera appears badly worn and used, it’s likely not looking any better on the inside. However, the most telling part of the camera body’s lifespan is the shutter, which is very expensive to replace. Sometimes people will sell their cameras when the shutter is about to die, meaning the new owner will have to drop a lot of extra money soon after to replace it. How to check shutter counts, as well as how many shutter counts are acceptable for a used body, depend on the camera make and model. Google searches and forums should offer some resources.

Autofocus is another aspect of the camera body that should be tested. Using a reliable lens that you bring with you, test out the camera and see how both single and continuous autofocus performs. While you’re at it, also examine the lens mount on the camera and make sure the lens mounts securely.

Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, it’s completely acceptable to purchase used camera gear. Just be sure to do your research and have a thorough understanding of the product you are considering buying. Always use reputable sources, and remember that if the deal seems to good to be true, it probably is!

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Suzi Pratt
Suzi Pratt

is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she’s not taking photos, she’s making travel photography and camera gear videos for her YouTube channel.

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