Regardless of whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, photography gear is expensive. Between camera bodies, lenses, filters, tripods, bags and backpacks, flashes and other accessories, there is no shortage of things to buy. Not only is there a lot to buy, but cameras and lenses can easily cost a significant amount even without all the other stuff.
One of the best ways to save money on photography gear is to buy used equipment. There are several different ways to go about buying used gear, but the process can be intimidating and might even seem risky if you haven’t tried it before. Or even worse, if you’ve been burnt in the past by a shady seller on Ebay or Craigslist.
When it comes to buying used gear there are a few key things that you need to consider. It’s very possible to save a lot of money with used gear while avoiding a big risk, and in this article we’ll take a detailed look at the topic.
For disclosure, this article has been sponsored by mpb.com, one of the leading marketplaces where you can buy or sell used photography gear. All of the content of this article is my own and has not been influenced by mpb.com. If you’d like to read more about my own personal experience with mpb.com, please read How I Got a $600 Lens for $164.
Options for Buying Used Photography Gear
Before we get into tips for buying used gear, let’s first take a look at the different ways you can go about finding deals on used gear.
Buy from a Brick-and-Mortar Store
If there is a camera store in your local area, they may sell some used gear. There are a few advantages of buying from a local physical store. The biggest advantage is that you can actually see the product in person and hold it in your hands before buying it. You should even be able to test it out to make sure that it works as expected. Also, if you have a problem with an item that you purchase you may be able to return it, depending on the policies of the store.
The down side to local stores is that there aren’t really that many of them around these days, and there may not be one in your area. Another factor is the limited selection. If you have one store in your town that sells used gear you will be limited to whatever they happen to have available. Chances are, if you’re looking for a particular camera body or lens, they probably won’t have exactly what you’re looking for when you want to buy it. You may need to choose from whatever they have available at the time, wait and come back every now and then, or tell them what you’re looking for and ask them to notify you if they get it in stock.
Buy from an Online Retailer
Another option is to buy from an online retailer. There are several websites that sell used cameras and lenses, and the one I have personally used is mpb.com. A company like mpb.com that specializes in buying and selling used gear has a lot to offer to buyers as well. While you can’t go to the store and hold the item before making a purchase, you’re likely to find a lot of detailed information in the listing regarding the condition and level of use of the item before buying it. mpb.com and some of its competitors also allow you to return items within a certain window of time if you’re not satisfied with the item. And your purchase can also be covered by a warranty to give you added peace of mind.
One of the major advantages of online retailers is the selection. Instead of being limited to the selection in a local store you’ll have access to a much bigger selection, and its more likely that you can find exactly what you want at any given time.
Buy Directly from the Owner
The last option is to buy directly from the owner rather than at a local camera shop or through an online retailer. You can buy directly online or in person. Sites like Ebay make it easy to buy or sell used gear online. Other sites like Craigslist or local Facebook groups make it possible to find people in your area who are looking to sell something.
Buying directly from the owner makes it possible to get a lower price than you could get by going to a local camera store or through an online retailer. However, it also comes with much higher risk. You need to be much more careful if you are buying from someone on Ebay or Craigslist, and make sure you’re comfortable with your own assessment of the item before you buy it. Some Ebay sellers will have a return policy, but if you’re buying from someone you found on Craigslist you’re going to be stuck with the item even if it doesn’t function like it should.
Tips for Safely Buying Used Gear
Now that we’ve taken a look at the different options, here are some tips to help you save money and buy used gear safely.
1. Buy from a Reputable Source
The biggest factor is where you are buying the camera/lens, and who is selling it. If you want to minimize your risk, the best approach is to by from a trusted, reputable source. This could be either a local camera store or a leading online retailer. You may be able to save a little bit more money buying directly from the owner, but buying from someone you found on Craigslist is a much bigger risk. If you’re buying directly from the owner, be sure that you are getting a really good deal and that you’re ok with the risk. For those who are new to buying used gear I would recommend sticking with a local store or an online retailer at first.
mpb.com and some other online retailers that specialize in selling used photography gear understand that buyers are going to need to take precautions when they’re buying used gear. For this reason they thoroughly inspect every item to make sure it meets their standards before listing it for sale. They also typically have a process that allows you to return an item if you change your mind (within a limited window of time), and they may offer a warranty on the item. mpb.com offers a 6-month warranty on all purchases.
Stores and websites that specialize in used gear know that their reputation is critical to their long-term success. As a result, they don’t want to sell an item that’s going to be a bad purchase for the buyer. On the other hand, that stranger on Craigslist may be looking to take advantage of someone since there is very little recourse for the buyer.
Of course, that’s not to say everyone selling on Craigslist is a scammer because that’s not the case. The point is, you’re safer buying from a trusted source.
2. Consider the Return Policy
If you’re buying from a local store, an online retailer, or an Ebay seller, be sure that you check and understand the return policy before you buy. If you’re buying from a local store you will be able to inspect the item before you buy, but you’ll still want to test it out in the field and make sure that it works as it should.
If you’re buying online you won’t be able to physically inspect the item before buying it, so the return policy will be especially important. I recommend buying from a store or website that will give you at least a few days to test the item and return it if needed.
3. Consider the Warranty
Does the used camera or lens come with a warranty? If you’re buying directly from the owner it almost certainly will not come with a warranty, so this is another reason to consider buying from a local store or an online retailer. Not all of them will offer a warranty though, so be sure to check the details and understand if your purchase comes with a warranty.
4. Pay Attention to the Shutter Count
If you’re buying a camera, one of the main factors that you want to consider is the shutter count. The shutter count for a camera is similar to the number of miles on a car. It can indicate how much use the camera has had, and it can give you an idea of how much life you should expect to get out of the camera.
Some cameras will be made to last longer than others, but there’s never a guarantee that a camera will reach a certain shutter count before it dies.
If you’re looking at cameras for sale at mpb.com you’ll be able to see the shutter count listed in the details of the camera.
Most DSLRs will be rated for 100,000 – 300,000 shutter actuations. You can usually find this information on a particular model with a simple Google search.
5. Consider Trading in a Camera or Lens That You Don’t Use
This tip is more about saving money than it is about buying safely. Most online retailers that sell used gear also buy used gear, including mpb.com. It’s possible that you have a camera or lens that you rarely use and wouldn’t really miss. If that’s the case, consider trading it in to reduce the amount you’ll need to spend on the camera or lens that you want to buy.
Inspecting a Used Camera
When you’re buying a used camera there are several things that you’ll want to check. If you are buying from a local store where you can see and hold the camera, try to check all of these things before buying.
If you’re buying online you’ll need to rely on the listing and any photos that are available, but once you receive the item you’ll need to test it thoroughly. You may have a short window to return the item if you don’t want to keep it, so it’s important to check it right away so you can make that decision.
Look for Oil or Residue
Check the camera and chamber for things like oil, dust, and residue. There will be some dust, and that shouldn’t cause a problem unless it’s excessive. But oil and other gunk can be a sign of problems, and you might need to have it cleaned.
Check the Battery Compartment for Corrosion
Open up the battery compartment and check for any sign of corrosion. Hopefully it will be clean and clear.
Look for Signs of Wear
The camera body may show signs of wear, depending on how extensively it was used. This could include things like scratches and dings, rubber parts that are worn or starting to come loose, screws that are loose or damaged, or any number of things.
Of course, a camera that has been used for a few years is going to shown some wear, and that’s not a problem. Keep in mind the age of the camera and the type of wear that you might expect to see after that period of time. Look for any signs that might indicate problems or that the camera has not been well cared for.
Verify the Shutter Count
You can use CameraShutterCount.com to get the shutter count for a camera. Just take a photo with the camera, upload the JPG, and it will tell you the shutter count. Do this before buying if you are buying from the owner. If you’re buying from a retailer that lists the shutter count I would still recommend doing this once you have the camera just to be sure that it was accurately listed.
Test the Camera
Use the camera with one or more of your own lenses and make sure that it performs up to your expectations. Open up the photos on a computer and inspect them at 100% to make sure that there are no problems.
Try to test the camera in the same conditions and for the same purposes that you will use it most often. So if you’re a landscape photographer, take the camera out for a sunset session, a hike in the forest, or any other setting that will be typical use for you.
Inspecting a Used Lenses
And if you’re buying a used lens, here are some things that you should check.
Check the Front and Back Elements for Scratches
If there are any filters on the lens, be sure to remove them. Check the front and back elements for scratches or imperfections. While a perfect lens is preferable, used lenses may have some minor imperfections that will not impact the quality of photos. If you find any scratches, dings, or other imperfections, be sure to take several test photos and check them thoroughly to see if they are visible in the photos.
Look for Haze, Mold, or Excessive Dust Inside the Lens
Look through the lens. Make sure you’re in good lighting, or use a small flashlight if needed. The most significant thing you don’t want to see is mold or fungus. Almost any lens will have some dust, and that’s not a problem as long as it’s not excessive. Any haziness in the lens could reduce the sharpness of your photos, so that is another thing to look out for.
Make Sure the Auto Focus Works
If the lens has auto focus, test it and make sure it is working. Test the different auto focus points, and pull the photos up on your computer to check them.
Check Buttons and Switches
Test any buttons and switches on the lens to be sure that they are working.
Look for Signs of Wear
Of course, older lenses will show some signs of wear. Signs of wear aren’t necessarily a bad thing, just be sure that the item you purchased matches up with the description and rating of its condition (especially if you purchased online).
Cosmetic issues like minor scratches on the barrel or some wear on the rubber should not impact the quality of photos that the lens will take.
Be sure to test the lens with your own camera and make sure that it works as you would expect. Test it in different lighting conditions, using auto focus, manual focus, at different focal lengths (if it is a zoom lens), and as many variables as you can think of. Check the images on your computer to make sure everything looks good.
Buying used gear is a great way to save some money, but you need to be careful to make sure that you avoid a bad purchase. By following the tips in this article you can do your best to ensure the quality of the item you’re buying.
If you’re ready to get started, I recommend heading to mpb.com to see what they have available. It’s where I’ve bought (and sold) used gear in the past, and I’ll definitely check there first in the future whenever I’m looking for used gear.