What to Consider When Buying Used Camera Equipment

Itching for some gear but don’t want to shell out the dough for new products? Here’s how to purchase quality used gear.

Bird photography is a thrilling hobby. You spend hours studying your subjects, learning their behaviors in order to capture that perfect shot. But time and energy aren’t the only significant investments for a bird photographer—the equipment itself is also very expensive. 

There’s no getting around the hefty price tag of new, quality gear. That doesn’t mean, however, that photographers on a budget can’t find top-notch products: Buying gently used cameras and lenses will allow you to own equipment that might otherwise be out of your league.

Whether you’re purchasing your first camera or looking to upgrade your lens, you'll find there are many options. Buying used for the first time can be intimidating. Here’s what you need to know to avoid sketchy sellers and other possible pitfalls while getting your hands on good gear. 

Invest in glass
Camera technology moves at a rapid pace, with new versions of existing camera bodies rolling out annually and offering ever more advanced features. Good glass is good glass, though, and lenses have historically retained their value very well, primarily because they have a greater effect on image quality and overall ease of use than cameras generally do. So if you have limited funds, put most of your dollars toward a telephoto lens. Take good care of it and you should get a nice price for it if you decide to upgrade in the future.

Do your research
Look up reviews and ratings of various brands and models at DPreview, Camera Reviews - CNET, and Steve’s Digicams. Also browse through the equipment forums on sites like naturescapes.net and fredmiranda.com to read more about photographers’ personal experiences with particular gear. Check out the category winners of the annual Audubon Photography Awards to see what gear the photographers used to get their winning shots.

Buy from a trusted merchant 
First do a search in your area for an independent camera store, which most likely carries used equipment and provides unbeatable in-person assistance. You can walk in, test lenses and camera bodies, chat with the staff—often avid photographers themselves—take equipment home, and return or exchange it if it doesn’t work for you.

If that isn’t an option, just about every online electronics store has a used-photography-gear section on its website. The advantage of buying used gear online from an established store is that the items have usually been thoroughly examined and issued a rating by the retailer and a variety of warranties are available. Many photographers praise the customer service of Hunt’s Photo and Video and Roberts Camera. Other well-respected merchants include Adorama, KEH, MPB, and Usedphotopro.com. B&H in New York City may be the best-known camera superstore; if you’re planning an in-store visit, keep in mind that it’s an extremely busy place, which could limit the one-on-one attention you receive.

Look into refurbished gear
Refurbished lenses and cameras are typically samples used by sales and tech representatives, or retired models that were on display at tradeshows. Some may originally have been retail items that were returned because of defects discovered right out of the box that have since been fixed.

Whatever the reason, all of these items are thoroughly examined and tested before being repackaged and sent to select dealers. Usually these items are in like-new condition cosmetically, and they come with a 90-day manufacturer's warranty. Most electronics stores offer refurbished items, and check the website of your preferred manufacturer (such as Canon) for a refurbished section.

Set up a price watch
Canonpricewatch.com and nikonpricewatch.com list both used and refurbished gear. These sites are run by a self-described “small group of photography professionals,” and they list only the most reputable merchants. Choose what lens or camera body you’re looking for, and you’ll be notified by e-mail when items are in stock, prices drop, or used/refurbished versions are available.

Proceed cautiously with eBay and craigslist
I know many photographers who have gotten great deals by buying used camera equipment on eBay and on craigslist. When using either of these resources, the first step is to know the going rate of the lens or body you’re seeking. While there’s no blue book for camera values like there are for cars, you can easily check the going rate for used items on reputable online sources, such as those listed above.

On eBay, never buy from someone with a seller rating of 99.6 percent or less. Look carefully through the feedback section for negative reviews. Ask questions about the history and condition of the equipment, and request additional photos if you need them. Finally, be aware that many cameras and lenses sold on eBay are “grey market” or “imported,” which means it could be difficult to get them serviced. (See more on potential issues and grey market items in the next section.)

The benefit of finding gear through your local craigslist directory or newspaper classified ads is that you can check it out in person.

Watch out for these potential issues 
With lenses, scratches are of course a concern. But also look carefully for opacity irregularities, which might indicate fungus (this can happen if lenses are stored in moist or humid environments). Ridding a lens of fungus is extremely tough and expensive.

With cameras, the shutter count, well, counts. The shutter is a very expensive camera part to replace. Sometimes people look to sell their cameras when the shutter is on its last legs, which results in the new owner having to shell out a lot of money for a new one. To find the acceptable shutter count for a used camera body, check out Olegkikin.com.

There are several options for checking shutter counts on used equipment. Nikon and Pentax include the camera’s shutter count as part of a photo’s EXIF data. There are also free online tools such as Shuttercounter and CameraShutterCount where you upload photos and extract shutter count info from the EXIF data. Canon doesn’t include the shutter count in EXIF data, but you can use tools like EOSinfo.exe, EOSCount, or the ShutterCount app.

Beware of buying “grey market” or “imported” gear. It won't be labeled as such, but a very low price may be a tip-off that a lens or body is a grey market item. These essentially come with no factory warranties and thus have no official support. Is the lens or body being offered by a seller or store located in a different country? If so, there’s a good chance it’s grey market.

There are also vendors who sell stolen cameras. To make sure your possible purchase isn’t hot, check the camera’s serial number against databases on sites like Camera Trace and Stolen Camera Finder.

Rent before you buy
Before you commit to equipment, it can be very helpful to rent the lens you’re eyeing from a service such as BorrowLenses or lensrental.com for a fraction of the cost. For instance, a Canon 500mm f/4 at this time goes for $9,000 new or about $7,500 used, but can be rented for a week for $400. Going on a special photo safari? It’s the perfect occasion to rent a telephoto lens. Then, if you like it, follow these tips to find the same used model for a discount. 

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