If you’re shopping on a budget, then buying used camera gear is a great idea.
Modern digital cameras are updated regularly, 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 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, as well as some pointers to make sure you get the best bang for your buck. That way, you can update your cameras, lenses, and accessories for a fraction of the original price!
How to buy used camera gear: the basic 4-step process
When you’re buying secondhand or refurbished equipment for the first time, this simple approach should help:
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 variable, but a simple item check can pull up estimates for the current standard used prices of the items you want.
And before you hit that buy button, I encourage you to look at multiple websites, identifying the average and lowest prices to determine the best purchase for your needs.
That said, 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 you must 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 headaches 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 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 perform 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 notice 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 cameras: an in-depth guide
Cameras are complex machines, so there are a few key indicators to look for when shopping for a secondhand body. While I discussed some of these elements above, it’s worth exploring them in greater depth:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
How to buy used lenses: an in-depth guide
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.
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.
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.
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.
Look through the lens with the iris fully open, once again checking for any particles or oil spots.
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!).
Where to purchase used camera gear
If you’re struggling to find high-quality used camera gear, here are a few suggestions:
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.
5 questions to ask before buying used camera gear
I’ve bought a lot of used gear over the last decade. A lot of those purchases turned out great. Some of them I still use to this day.
But a large chunk of the used purchases I made?
In fact, in my more naive years, I was forced to return over 50% of the gear that I purchased. There were just so many problems: sand in focusing rings, stains on the front element, shutter buttons that couldn’t communicate with the shutter. (Oh, and my least favorite: Fungus inside the lens. Doesn’t that just make you shiver?)
And here’s the kicker:
I bought all of this gear through respectable buyers, who described the equipment as in “excellent condition,” “flawless,” “perfect,” “like new,” – you name it.
It got so bad that I considered leaving the used market entirely and just buying new. But I resisted.
Used camera gear is a real bargain – if you buy carefully. This is why I took all of my negative gear-buying experiences and turned them into a process for making sure I purchased good used gear.
At the core of that process is a series of questions. Questions that I’m going to share with you today. Some of the questions are for you, the buyer. Others should be posed to the seller before you put any cash down.
Are you ready to discover how to buy used gear effectively?
Let’s get started!
Question 1: Are you buying from a reputable seller with a money-back guarantee?
This is the number one most important thing that you should do when buying used gear.
Purchase from a seller that you trust – and that gives you an enforceable money-back guarantee. You don’t want to purchase a camera online, only to find that it’s full of water damage and sports a cracked LCD.
This means that buying used through Amazon is fine. All of their products are backed by Amazon month-long guarantees.
Buying used through eBay is also fine. Ebay’s buyer protection ensures that you’re not going to get ripped off in such an obvious fashion.
But this makes most forums (if not all forums) off-limits. If the forum doesn’t have a serious money-back guarantee that’s honored by the site itself, then stay away.
This also makes in-person sales off-limits, such as those done through Craigslist. Sure, you can inspect the item upon receipt, but what are you going to do when you get home, put that lens under a light, and realize it’s filled with an army of fungus?
It’ll be too late, and your seller may not be so receptive to a return.
So just don’t do it. Instead, use sites like Amazon, eBay, KEH, which all have clear money-back guarantees., or
Question 2: Does the seller include actual pictures of the gear?
Sellers not including pictures is a big warning sign, especially on a website like eBay, where pictures are the norm. It should make you ask: Why doesn’t the seller want to show off their “excellent condition” item? Is there something they’re trying to hide?
Another red flag is only showing a stock photo. These are easy to spot; they look way better than anything that a casual, eBay-selling photographer would have taken, and there tends to be only one or two of them.
If you like the price and everything else checks out, then go ahead and shoot the seller an email, asking for in-depth pictures of the item. If the seller refuses, then it’s time to look elsewhere.
You might come across some sellers who are offering many units of the same item (e.g., five Canon 7D Mark II’s). In this case, they likely have shown a stock photo, or a photo of one item, because they don’t want to go through the effort of photographing each piece of kit.
In such cases, you should message the seller and ask for pictures of the exact item that you’ll be purchasing. It’s too easy, especially with these big sellers, to end up with an item that you’ll have to send back.
Question 3: How many shutter actuations has the camera fired?
(Note: This section is for buying cameras.)
First things first: A shutter actuation refers to a single shot taken with a camera.
Every camera has a number of actuations its shutter is rated for. Once the shutter has reached around that point, it just…fails. While you can get the shutter replaced, it generally costs enough that you’re probably better off buying a new camera body.
If you want to know the shutter actuation rating of any particular camera, you can look it up through a quick Google search.
Of course, the shutter rating isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are some cameras that go far beyond their predicted shutter count, and there are some cameras that fail far sooner. The shutter count is just an average.
Now, when you look at camera listings online, you’ll see that shutter actuations are reported about fifty percent of the time.
But the other fifty percent of the time, there will be no mention of them.
This is for three possible reasons:
- The seller doesn’t know about the importance of shutter actuations.
- The seller can’t figure out how to determine the shutter actuations for their camera.
- The seller doesn’t wish to share the shutter count because it won’t help the sale.
I would never buy a camera without knowing its shutter count. Therefore, I recommend reaching out to the seller and asking.
If the seller refuses to share the count, then let the camera go. If the seller claims they don’t know how to view the shutter count, explain that they should be able to find it easily, either within the camera itself or through a website such as https://www.camerashuttercount.com/.
If they still won’t give you the count, then don’t buy. It’s not worth risking it.
Question Four: Does the lens have any blemishes on the glass, fungus, scratches, haze, or problems with the focusing ring?
(Note that this is for purchasing lenses.)
This is a question to ask the seller, and I suggest you do it every single time you make a purchase.
Yes, the seller may be annoyed by your specific question. But this is a transaction; it’s not about being nice to the seller! And I’ve never had someone refuse to sell to me because I annoyed them with questions.
In fact, what makes this question so valuable is that it often forces sellers to actually consider the equipment they’re selling. Up until this point, the seller may not have really thought about some of these things. So it can act as a bit of a wake-up call and make the seller describe the item beyond “excellent condition.”
When you ask this question, make it clear that you want a detailed description. You genuinely want the seller to check for scratches on the glass, fungus in the lens, problems with the focusing ring, and more. You don’t want a perfunctory examination.
Unfortunately, there will still be some people who don’t do a serious examination, or who lie in the hopes that you won’t notice the issues (or be bothered enough to make a return). But asking the question is the best you can do.
Question Five: Has the seller noticed any issues with the item in the past?
This is another question to ask the seller before you hit the Buy button. It’s meant as a final attempt to determine whether the item has any issues.
In this case, by asking about the item’s past.
Unfortunately, there will be sellers who have had an item break repeatedly – but, as long as it’s working at the moment they take the photos, they’ll give it the “perfect condition” label. Fortunately, many sellers will still be honest with you. If they’ve had a problem with the item, they’ll say.
So it’s definitely worth asking – just to be safe.
Buying used camera gear: final words
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 equipment – 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!