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 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!
Step 1: Price check used items before buying
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 this 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.
Step 2: Ask any relevant questions
If you walk into a camera shop and do a hands-on inspection of the gear you wish to buy (see the next step), this may not be necessary. But if you’re buying online, you’ll generally be working with a limited description of the item, and if you’re not careful, you may end up purchasing a camera or a lens that doesn’t meet your expectations.
That’s why it’s important to read gear descriptions carefully and ask specific questions to gather any missing information. Some sellers simply aren’t aware of certain relevant tidbits, and it takes a bit of prompting before you can get the information you’re after. Others will deliberately hide relevant information, and it’s important that you ferret out the truth before buying.
You might be thinking: If a seller fails to disclose relevant information, I can just return the gear, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Depending on the return policy, you may only be able to return the item if it’s not as described. And if the description is very vague, you may have trouble obtaining a no-cost return – whereas if you had asked specific questions, you would’ve had a much easier time!
So make sure you submit lots of relevant questions. When buying a used camera, ask:
- How many shutter actuations does the camera have?
- Does the sensor have any significant dirt or dust spots?
When buying a used lens, ask:
- Does the lens have any fungus or haze?
- Does the lens have any scratches on the front or rear element?
- Does the lens have any large pieces of dust?
- Does the lens autofocus work well?
- Does the lens autofocus mechanism contain any sand?
Some of these questions may seem outlandish, but you’d be surprised by what can turn up in a camera or lens. Better to be safe than sorry!
Step 3: Inspect the gear
If you plan to buy your gear in person, you can generally do an inspection before agreeing to purchase the equipment. But if you buy your gear online, you’ll need to do a thorough inspection upon receipt. After all, you don’t want to use a lens for a month, only to realize that a certain feature doesn’t work!
This inspection should differ depending on the item you’re buying:
How to inspect a used camera
Used camera bodies can be tricky to assess, but the right approach will save you a lot of headache down the line. While it’s perfectly normal for bodies to have physical signs of wear and tear, pay attention to your initial impression of the camera. If the camera appears badly worn and heavily used, it probably doesn’t look 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. People sometimes sell their cameras when the shutter is about to die, meaning the new owner will soon have to spend a lot of extra money to replace it. That’s why it’s important to always assess the shutter count as soon as you receive the camera; how to check this, as well as how the number of actuations that are acceptable, depends on the camera make and model. Google searches and forums should offer some resources.
Make sure you also test the camera’s autofocus capabilities. Make sure that both single and continuous autofocus performs as expected, and examine the mount to make sure the lens interfaces securely with the camera.
I’d also recommend taking a few test shots and examining the results at 100% magnification. Look for significant dust spots and any areas of blur, which can indicate potential mistreatment (and can dramatically impact your images).
How to inspect a used lens
Lenses are relatively straightforward to assess. First, investigate the lens thoroughly and look for common problems such as fungus, dust, and scratches. Shine a light through the lens and identify any imperfections. Note that some problems, such as dust and small scratches, are effectively cosmetic and generally won’t affect overall image quality. However, any signs of fungus should be a complete deal breaker as it is incredibly difficult and costly to remove. You should also check the lens contacts to make sure they look relatively clean and in good condition.
Second, do a mechanical test of the lens to see how it performs. It’s best to have your regular camera with you to see how the lens fits. Make sure the aperture blades 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 they both operate relatively smoothly. Check out the lens’s autofocus capabilities and make sure focusing is smooth.
Finally, capture some test photos – you can find a test chart online – and zoom in to 100% to assess image quality. Look for unusual amounts of chromatic aberration, front- or back-focusing issues, unusual softness, and significant changes in sharpness across the frame. Be sure to capture test shots at a range of focal lengths and points of focus. (Note that many lenses do vary in sharpness from the center to the corners and from the middle of the zoom range to the extreme ends. But a dramatic loss of sharpness from one side of the frame to the other, or from one end of the zoom range to the other, is not a good sign.)
Step 4: Keep the gear (or send it back)
If you follow the previous steps and you’re pleased with your purchase, then go ahead and keep it! You’ve likely managed to grab a great camera, lens, or accessory at a very cheap price.
However, if you noticed some problems during your inspection, it’s up to you to decide whether the equipment is worth returning. If the issues are minor but significant, you can often ask for a discount from the seller. And if the issues are serious, I’d recommend just returning the gear; trying to fix problems yourself or send the gear in for repairs often isn’t worth the cost or the hassle.
How to buy used camera gear: final words
Well, there you have it:
My step-by-step guide to purchasing used gear.
Remember: Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, it’s completely acceptable to purchase equipment on the used market. Just be sure to do your research, and have a thorough understanding of the product you’ are considering’re buying. Always use reputable sources, and always inspect the item as soon as you receive it!
Now over to you:
What used gear do you plan to buy? Where will you buy it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!