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Tips for Buying Used Camera Gear

How to buy used camera gear

If you’re shopping on a budget, then buying used camera gear is a great idea.

Modern digital cameras are updated on a regular basis, so the used market is full of cameras looking for a new home. Used cameras are a great way to upgrade your gear without breaking the bank (and they often offer fantastic value for the money, too).

But when looking at secondhand gear, not all of it will be up to scratch. Not everyone cares for their gear, so you must exercise consideration and caution.

Below are some pointers to make sure you get the best bang for your buck when buying used gear. That way, you can update your cameras, lenses, and accessories for a fraction of the original price!

Buying used cameras

buying used camera gear tips

Cameras are complex machines, so there are a few key indicators to look for when shopping for a secondhand body.

Shutter count

The shutter count of a camera is simply the number of times the shutter has been fired in its lifetime.

(The shutter count is also known as the number of shutter actuations.)

Generally, the shutter count will give you a great indication of the amount of use a camera has seen, similar to checking the mileage on a car. Cameras are rated for shutter durability, with enthusiast models often rated around the 150,000-shot mark, and professional models rated at 300,000 shots or higher.

When browsing, low shutter counts often indicate less heavily-used items. Fewer than 10,000 shots on a camera that is 2-5 years old is very low, with the normal amount being around 30,000-50,000.

If a camera has a very high count of 100,000 or more, it’s probably best avoided, especially because this number will also give you a little insight into the owner’s use of the camera. Higher-count cameras may have seen professional use (and a harder life), while lower counts indicate casual consumer use.

So how do you find out a camera’s shutter count?

The number is often provided when cameras are being sold secondhand. But if you’re not sure, you can find it out a few ways, depending on the model. Check out this article for guidance: Finding Your Camera’s Current Shutter Actuations.

Camera checks

When looking at a used camera, there are a few things you can check to get a better understanding of its condition.

First, remove the body cap and inspect the inside of the camera around the mirror, focusing screen, and lens contacts. Look for any signs of damage, oil, or gunk that has collected in these areas.

Inspect inside of body used camera gear
Inspect inside the camera, paying special attention to the mirror and focusing screen; look for any sign of oil or residue.

Oil can indicate that the mechanisms of the internal parts are not functioning correctly, sometimes due to the camera being bumped or dropped. Look for any oil around the sides of the internal section. A small flashlight can be a big help here.

Remember to hold the camera face-down as much as possible to reduce the risk of contamination from dust and dirt.

Hold downward used camera gear
When inspecting a camera, try to hold it face down.

If you have a lens on hand, it’s worth taking a test shot to look for any issues with the sensor.

Set the camera to f/16 to f/22, point it at a bright subject (a white wall or the sky), and shoot a frame. Play the image back and zoom in on the LCD screen to look for any marks and scratches.

Dust spots are not a huge problem, as a simple sensor clean can take care of them. But lines can be evidence of a scratch on the sensor (which means that the camera is best avoided).

example of sensor test shot
What to look for in the test shot.

General wear and tear

Of course, it’s also important to look for any external signs of damage. Small scratches, scuffs, and marks should be expected, but heavy blemishes can indicate that the camera has been dropped. Rubber grips often start to come off with heavy use, but these can be replaced at a low cost.

Body outside used camera gear
Outside grips often become worn and unglued. As long as there are no signs of a drop, these are a simple and cheap fix.
Check LCD used camera gear
Remove any protective screens or filters to look at the true body and lens in order to assess the damage.
Inspect external body when buying used camera gear
Look externally for any signs of bumps and scrapes. Often, cameras will have a few marks, but major dents may be evidence that the camera has been dropped.

Buying used lenses

Camera lenses are expensive, so secondhand options are a great alternative to buying new.

Once again, however, there are a few things to look for when making a purchase.

Lens blemishes

When inspecting a lens, you’ll want to check both the external and internal optics.

Externally, look for any scratches or chips on the glass. Tilting the lens toward the light can help you make sure the optics are in great condition.

Note that, even if a lens has a front filter, it may not be optically perfect. So unscrew the filter and check the true front element to be sure.

Lens wear tear used camera gear

Often, lenses will show signs of wear on their focus or zoom ring and the external barrel. Simple rubbing is normal and isn’t usually a concern.

Moving on, inspect internally for dust and mold. Shine a small light inside the lens and look for any particles. Most lenses will have small dust spots, but look for any large patches or seemingly smeared areas, as these will indicate whether the lens has any fogging or other internal issues.

Check lens optics when buying used camera gear
Look through the optics to ensure they are clear of dust and mold.
Dust lens used
Heavy dust and mold in a lens are to be avoided. The hundreds of particles inside this lens offer a perfect example of what not to buy.
Inspect the inside of the lens when buying used camera gear
Using a small flashlight, inspect inside the lens, paying particular attention to the aperture blades. Any evidence of oil may indicate the lens is functioning less than perfectly.

Aperture blades

On the rear of the lens, you’ll find a small lever that you can push to open the aperture blades. Do this, and check if the blades are snappy and without any stickiness that could be a sign of collected oil.

Check aperture
Using the lever, you can manually operate the aperture for a better sense of the lens’s functionality. Check that the aperture blades are snappy when they open and close.

Look through the lens with the iris fully open, once again checking for any particles or oil spots.

Open aperture of the lens
Open up the lens’s aperture to aid inspection.


Check the lens sharpness using a test chart. These patterned charts are easy to find online, and they can be stuck on a wall and used to quickly evaluate a lens.

Here’s how it works:

Mount the lens on a camera, then put the camera on a tripod. Focus on the test chart, then fire the camera using a remote release or the self-timer (to make sure you don’t create any camera shake).

Check the shots on your camera LCD (or, if you can, on the computer). Zoom into 100% to be sure of focus. Of course, some cameras and lenses will need fine in-camera adjustments for perfection, but any wildly unsharp tests may indicate a lens has been dropped or is out of alignment.

It’s also a good idea to test the full aperture range and look for sharpness from edge to edge. Even at f/2.8, the center of your test image should be relatively sharp.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to look for any external marks or blemishes when performing these tests, turning the focus and zoom rings to check for any stickiness or grating sounds.

With those checks done, you’ll have a good indication of whether the lens is up to scratch (and worth purchasing!).

lens test target
Here’s a lens sharpness target. You should use a large version of this type of chart to test a potential purchase.

Where to purchase used camera gear

If you’re struggling to find high-quality used camera gear, here are a few suggestions:

Camera shops

How to buy used camera gear

Lots of camera retailers offer some secondhand stock as well as new cameras. Buying from a dealer has its advantages, because items are often checked before being added to the inventory, plus they’re often serviced before they’re sold.

Also, most dealers will have a return policy, so if you find any faults, you can exchange the used gear for a full refund. Many of the better dealers offer warranties on used gear that range from three months to a year, which will give you excellent peace of mind when purchasing.

Of course, one of the downsides of buying from a dealer is the increased price. Used kit bought from outlets often costs more than gear bought from private sellers – so you must decide if it’s worth that added peace of mind!

Ebay and private sellers

Purchasing from private sellers directly offers the best chance to find a bargain. Some people sell their gear at far below the market value. If you know what to look for, and are confident about the quality and genuine nature of the sale, you can often get an excellent deal.

It pays to be wary when shopping for used camera gear, though. Be suspicious of any deal that looks too good to be true, or of buyers who will only accept cash in person. Using PayPal or PayPal alternatives offers an additional layer of protection (one that’s very important in online sales).

Of course, private sellers generally won’t offer a warranty, but that is a risk you take to get a bargain.

Buying used camera gear: Conclusion

Buying used camera gear is all about taking your time to search out a bargain. Carefully study the used gear you’re considering, whether it’s from a dealer or a private seller, and look out for the telltale signs of damage.

Assuming you use careful consideration and do a thorough inspection before buying, the used market is a fantastic way to trade up your gear at a fraction of the cost of buying new.

And this, in turn, gives you money to buy additional kit – or even better, a trip or two on which you can use it!

Now over to you:

Have you ever bought used camera gear? What was the experience like? Share your thoughts, as well as any tips or tricks for purchasing used gear, in the comments below!

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Tom Mason
Tom Mason

is a professional nature photographer and content creator from the UK. Passionate about the natural world, he aims to document and share stories from the wild. A professional lecturer Tom loves engaging and enthusing others about wildlife photography and helping them to achieve their own goals. Check out his website here.

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