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Even though the prices of digital photography equipment continue to fall significantly, it can be a tough to dole out a thousand plus dollars on a brand new camera or lens. On the positive side, camera gear (especially lenses) retains its value really well. As a result, there’s almost always a surplus of used camera bodies, lenses, and accessories. Before you take the plunge and buy used gear, be sure to understand that used equipment can be a bit tricky to assess in terms of quality and price. As a photographer who shamelessly has about 50% used gear in her collection, here are some methods I run through when contemplating a used camera purchase.
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. Be sure to note the quality rating and commentary of each item, and see how it matches up to your expectations. Often, used items that are priced too low have some sort of cosmetic or mechanical problem, so if you think you’re getting an amazing deal, get suspicious. Another reason to be suspicious of outrageously low prices is that they might be grey market items, which essentially come with no factory warranties. The best way to check if it’s a grey market item is to find the serial number and reference it in the camera maker’s database.
The advantage to buying used gear online is that often the gear has been checked out and issued a rating by the retailer. There may also be some flexibility in terms of exchanges and returns in case you aren’t happy with your purchase. Be sure to double check and make sure you know who the seller is, especially on Amazon, which allows private sales to be made.
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.
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.
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!