One thing we can all agree on is photography equipment is expensive.
Whether it is a hobby, or your long-term freelance business, buying camera bodies and lenses burns a hole in your pocket.
Photographic technology updates all the time. The competition and companies force you to get better and faster gear.
This all comes at a cost, even if you are unsure if a specific item is going to be very useful to you.
It doesn’t even stop there, as areas of photography need different tools and gears. Tripods, flash units and reflectors all cost money.
It all adds up. So why not buy used lenses and cameras? There is nothing wrong with it, especially if you follow our guidelines.
By buying used gear, you could save upwards of 50% on the same item brand new. The items in question might have a little wear and tear.
But as a photographer, you probably only care about the image quality, and not how new your camera looks. So here we’ll show you exactly what to watch out for when buying used lenses.
There are many places where you can pick up used gear, either online and from a physical shop.
Online can be tricky because you don’t get to see the item beforehand. You have to rely on customer photographs and description alone.
These descriptions might not be 100% truthful. The person selling the item might not know exactly what they are looking for when posting an item online.
These issues might come from looking at second-hand gear from websites such as eBay and Craigslist.
Sellers here might provide information where you can send back items. But there is limited screening involved for sellers.
This could mean your emails go unanswered and the address isn’t one owned by the seller. This makes it impossible to track down the seller for a return/money back situation.
Companies such as eBay and Craigslist will offer little to no help or assurance when it comes to bought items. They are just the middleman.
Saying that, I have bought cameras and lenses from eBay costing upwards of $600. These are cameras and lenses that you can no longer buy brand new, as they were discontinued.
The purchases were from sellers with a very high feedback rate and star rating. These come from previous transactions with other buyers. These tend to be the best and safest options.
You will also find camera companies use these sites to approach a wider audience. The benefit of buying from a camera company is they have a searchable address.
They also know about the equipment they are selling. This means they are going to answer all those questions you have.
A physical shop is always going to be a better bet, as you can see the item in question, and even give it a little test run.
Companies such as B&H and Adorama are the best when it comes to physical items, and you can even check them online first. They also grade the items based on wear and tear.
However, companies such as these might not know exactly every little detail about every lens or camera. They do have a return policy on most items, which should put you at ease.
First off, a good lens is going to feel good. It will have a weight to it that tells you ‘Hey, I’m the real deal!’
Take your time to look it over. Feel no pressure from the seller, as that could state a bad sale.
Look for the obvious dinks, scratches or where the lens paint coating has rubbed off. If there are areas of worn paint, it might be due to usage, not necessarily careless behaviour.
The dinks and scratches are important as they may stop the focus ring or zoom ring from working smoothly and effectively.
Just by looking the lens over, you can tell if it has been used much, and how well the owner took care of it. The care of the outside will state the care of the inside.
Just because the lens may have some imperfections, it doesn’t mean it will affect the images. It might, however, help you negotiate a better price.
Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to used lenses:
- Are the rubber rings snug and fit tightly? Do they move the lens smoothly?
- Are the filter threads worn?
- Does the front lens have scratches on it?
- Does the aperture ring move smoothly?
- Open the aperture all the way up, and look through it. Do you see mould? Most lenses will present some dust, but that is still another cost of cleaning
- Check the mount. Is it worn?
- Are the contacts clean and in good condition? This is the only way your lens and camera communicate with each other.
The last three are what I would call ‘the dealbreakers’. This is where I walk away and say thanks but no thanks, and this is why.
- Mould – Mould is a living organism and can make its way into your camera, and any other lenses you use with it.
- Mount – If the mount is too worn, it might not fit on your camera properly and could damage your camera mount. This also means also damaging your other lenses. This could become too costly to repair, if it is even possible, and could render your bought lens unusable.
- Contacts – Contacts might be unfeasible and uneconomical to repair in some cases. Especially if the camera lenses were around corrosive material, such as salt water.
All in all, it is down to you to take a risk with the bought item. Many problems with a lens can be fixed and still keep the cost of the lens under the price of a new one.
When looking to buy a used camera, you first need to do an all over check. Focus on wear and tear that could limit your photographic experience.
Bring along your own lenses and see if you can mount them. You know your own equipment, so it will give you a base to work from.
All the dinks and scratches are not necessarily a sign of a ‘bad’ camera, or that it hasn’t been looked after. It might just be well used.
Checking for these surface imperfections could be a sign of what the camera looks like inside. This, for any digital camera, is the most important part.
- Is the serial number still visible? Without it, you might not be able to warranty or service the camera. You might even have a fake or stolen camera.
- Do all of the buttons work? Do they feel stiff and difficult to press? These might be fixable using a professional camera service
- Does the battery compartment door work smoothly?
- Check the terminal covers (rubber parts that cover the input/output jacks). Do they look worn and need replacing?
- Does the on-camera flash pop up with ease?
- Check all the dials for stiffness or damage. They might stop you from using particular settings.
All the above points are for peace of mind. The camera might work perfectly. But with these, you might also negotiate for a better price
The most important things are the sensor, the mirror (if it has one) and the in-camera settings. These are the most difficult and expensive to fix.
Most DSLRs from Canon and Nikon are designed to work fantastically after some heavy duty. Even after hundreds of thousands of shutter actuations.
But the shutter count is something you really need to care about. It tells you how many times the shutter has been pressed.
Every camera has a shelf life, especially those DSLRs with mirrors. You wouldn’t buy a car without knowing how many miles were on the clock.
Cameras for the everyday population will often start to show signs of age around the 80,000-100,000 mark. Not to say it won’t work perfectly after that.
A great website to use is CameraShutterCount . Here, you upload an image from the camera, and it will shoot back at you with the shutter count and the life expectancy.
So bring your own memory card and laptop. The physical store might do this for you, but it is always better to check yourself.
On to the inside of your camera. Turn on the camera.
- Does the camera read your lens? Try taking it off and on to make sure it all works smoothly.
- Take many photographs. Too many people shoot off one image, which might not show any problems at all.
- Check the sensor for scratches. To do this you need to take the lens off and lock up the mirror in the settings. A blower could be handy to distinguish between dust and worse.
- If the LCD is a touchscreen, test it out.
If you are happy with what you find, then feel free to buy it. Use the points above to negotiate the price lower, especially if the seller missed something.
Don’t be afraid of negotiating anyway, even if you really want it. You could save $50, which is halfway to a ‘nifty-fifty‘. We have a great article on camera accessories under $250 for some inspiration.
Never feel pressured into buying something. Check the camera first, at your own pace. Look at the images you have taken, and upload them to your laptop if you need to.
A physical shop will always be better than online. Otherwise, you are buying blind, with no guarantee that you can get your money back.
The most important thing is research. Look at common problems with the make and model you want to buy. That will give you a better idea of what to look for.
If there is any doubt in your mind, then you need to weigh up the pros and cons. For me, if something is over $200, I like to really think about it.
Nevertheless, had I been too cautious, I wouldn’t have my Mamiya c330, my first Canon 500D or the Ricoh GR II camera I still use today.
For more great tips, check our article on best time to buy a camera or how to sell your old camera gear without stress (or scams)!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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