Tips for Buying Used Camera Gear

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Buying used camera gear is a fantastic alternative when shopping on a budget. Modern digital cameras are updated on a regular basis, so the used market is full of cameras looking for a new home. Offering fantastic value for money, used cameras are a great way to upgrade your gear without the high price tags.

When looking at second-hand gear, not all of it will be up to scratch. Not everyone cares for their gear in the same way we do, so consideration and caution should be exercised. Below are some pointers to make sure that you get the best bang for your buck, helping you update for a fraction of the original price, and find some excellent deals.

Cameras

With DSLRs being complex machines, there are a few key indicators to look out for when shopping for a second-hand body.

Inspect external body 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 of a camera that has been dropped.

Shutter count

As a general rule of thumb, the shutter count gives you a great indication as to the amount of use a camera has seen, similar to checking the mileage on a used car. Cameras are rated for shutter durability, with enthusiast models often around the 150,000 shot mark, and pro models nearer 300,000 or higher.

When browsing, low counts often reveal less heavily used items. 10,000 or so shots on a camera that is 2-5 years old would be very low, with the normal amount being around 30-50,000. If the camera has a very high count of 100,000 or more it’s probably best avoided. This number will also give you a little insight into the owner’s usage of the camera. Higher counts may have seen professional use (and a harder life) while lower counts indicate casual consumer use.

The shutter count of a camera is simply the number of times the shutter has been fired since new. This number if often provided when cameras are being sold second hand, but if not you can find it out in a number of ways dependant on the model. Check out this article on how to do it: Finding Your Camera’s Current Shutter Actuations.

Camera checks

When looking at a camera in-store, there are a few things you can check to get a better understanding of its condition. Remove the body cap and inspect the inside of the camera around the mirror, focusing screen, and lens contacts. What you are looking for are any signs of damage or oil and gunk that has collected in these areas.

Inspect inside body used camera gear

Inspect inside the camera paying special attention to the mirror and focusing screen – look for any signs of oil or residue.

Oil can indicate the mechanisms of the internal parts are not functioning correctly, sometimes due to being bumped or dropped. Look for any oil around the sides of the internal section. Use of a small flashlight can be helpful for a better look. Remember to hold the camera facing 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 and hold it face down as much as possible to avoid any further contamination.

On replacing the lens, it’s worth taking a test shot to look for any issues with the sensor. Set the camera to f/16-22, 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 on the image. Dust spots are not a huge problem as a simple sensor clean can solve these, but any fragments in the form of lines can be evidence of a scratch on the sensor that should best be avoided.

What to look for on the test shot.

General wear and tear

Of course, it’s also important to look for any external signs of damage too. Small scratches, scuffs, and marks should be expected, but any heavy blemishes may show signs of the camera having been dropped. Rubber grips often start to come off with heavy use, but these can easily 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 for damage or marks.

Lenses

Optics are expensive for DSLRs and so second-hand options are a great alternative, once again there a few things to look for when making a purchase.

Lens blemishes

When inspecting a lens you’ll want to check the external and internal optics. Externally look for any scratches or chips. Tilting the lens to the light can help you be sure the optics are in great condition. Just because a lens has a filter on, it does not mean it’s perfect. Unscrew the attached filter and check the true front element as well 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. Plain rubbing is rather normal and not often a concern for the lens’s performance

Moving on, inspect internally for dust and mold. Working with a small torch, shine it inside the lens and look for any particles. Small dust spots will be evident inside most lenses, but pay attention and look for any large patches or seemingly smeared areas, as these will indicate if the lens has any internal fogging or other issues.

Check lens optics used camera gear

Look through the optics to ensure they are clear of dust and mold.

Dust lens used camera gear

Heavy dust and mold in a lens is to be avoided. Here you can see the hundreds of particles inside this lens as a perfect example of what to avoid.

Inspect lens inside used camera gear

Using a small flashlight inspect inside the lens with particular attention to the aperture blades. Any evidence of oil may show the lens is functioning less than perfectly.

Aperture blades

On the rear of the lens, you’ll find a small lever that can be pushed to open the aperture blades. Do this to check they are snappy and without any stickiness that could be a sign of collected oil. Look through the lens with the iris fully open, once again to check for any particles or oil spots.

Check aperture used camera gear

Using the lever you can manually operate the aperture for a better look at the lens’s function – check the aperture blades are snappy when opening and closing.

Open aperture lens used camera gear

Open up the lens’s aperture to aid inspection.

Sharpness

Check the lens for sharpness using a test chart. These patterned charts are easy to find online and can be stuck on a wall and used to check focus. Put the camera on a tripod, focus, and fire the camera using a cord release or self-timer (to make sure you don’t get any camera shake). Inspect the shots zoomed into 100% be sure of focus. Of course, some cameras and lenses will need fine in-camera adjustment 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 in the image. Even at f/2.8 if you shoot straight on the chart should be sharp all over.

Additionally, of course, it’s a good idea to once again look for any external marks or blemishes, 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 a lens is up to scratch or not!

Lens sharpness target. Use a large version of something like this to print and photograph to test the lens’ sharpness.

Where to purchase used camera gear

Shops

Lots of camera retailers hold some second-hand stock as well as new cameras. Buying from a dealer has its advantages because items are often checked before being taken on, as well as serviced before sale. Most dealers will have a return policy. Meaning if you find any faults you can exchange for a full refund, with many of the better dealers offering warranties on used gear ranging from three months to a year, offering excellent peace of mind when purchasing. Of course one of the downsides of buying from a dealer is the increased price. Having to cover their overhead along with their profit, used kit bought from outlets often costs more than that from the equivalent private seller, but of course, there is that added peace of mind!

Ebay/private sellers

Purchasing from private sellers directly offers the best chance to find a bargain. Some people sell gear off far below the apparent 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, of course, pays to be wary when shopping for used camera gear, though. Be suspicious of any deal that looks “too good to be true,” or those who will only accept cash in person. Using PayPal and other services offers a layer of protection that I would advise you to use. Of course, you won’t get a warranty in most cases, but that is a risk you take in order to get a bargain.

Conclusion

When buying used camera gear it is all about taking your time to search out a bargain, as well as the best item. Carefully study whatever you’re purchasing, be it from a dealer or a private seller, and look out for the tell-tale signs that an item may be hiding damage.

With careful consideration and a thorough look, the used market can offer a fantastic way to trade up your gear at a fraction of the cost of buying new, allowing you more funds to buy additional kit, or even better, a trip or two to use it!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

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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