Buying Used Equipment: The good, the bad, and the ugly truth.

cam2Photography is wonderful but can become a very expensive art form, especially for new photographers with little gear. I love gear, but sometimes the price is more than my wallet can bear. You start out with a desire to learn only to discover you need a better camera than what you already have. While you can take awesome photos with a point and shoot or even a cell phone, you really want to take things to the next level. Do you dare buy used? Will you get ripped off?

My own experience when first getting into photography started out like this: I wanted to learn how to capture a wonderful photograph, so I began to look at cameras. I had absolutely no knowledge, used the auto setting on my camera, and my photos were really bad. I started looking online at prices of new equipment and YIKES… a camera costs that much? AND I have to buy a lens? Are you kidding me? I almost quit right there! However, something kept pulling me back to the DSLR cameras. But every single time my wallet stopped me. So I bought a brand new shiny red superzoom Nikon. It was cheaper and I didn’t have to buy separate lenses. It did have manual capabilities… so I set off to learn. Boy did I learn! I learned how to shoot totally manual and I learned just what that camera could not do. It was basically a fancy point and shoot. Man I wish I had known that, because in a few months I had outgrown that camera. I wanted an upgrade, but again the price was stopping me.

So I began looking at used equipment in the online classifieds. I found a photographer who was going out of business and selling two strobes, a camera, and a lens for the price of a new entry level DSLR. Wow!!! (Remember – I’m inexperienced…) In this case, I got lucky. The photographer was honest and while it was not really a bargain, they didn’t rip me off either. I knew nothing of things like shutter actuations, ISO noise and sensor size… remember – at this point I’m self-taught, inexperienced but learning. I kept that camera body for a year and learned all about DSLR photography and even began to learn about flash. Many (horrible) photos later I began to get better and once again wanted to upgrade my camera. I checked out the online classified again and shutterfound an acceptable upgrade, so I listed my camera for sale. The first thing I was asked by a potential buyer was “How many shutter actuations does it have?” (Silence from me…. Shutter what? Quick Google search and wow… you mean *gasp* it can wear out? I better look! (You can find out how to check your camera's shutter actuations in this article.))

I also checked the shutter actuations of the new camera I was interested in. How long will this camera last me? I know how many photos I take per year. Will I be able to sell it for a reasonable price when I need a new upgrade? A few other things I check for when considering buying a new to me camera are:


  • Look for scratches on the LCD screen
  • Take the lens off and check for scratches where the lens mounts on to the camera
  • Shake the camera gently and listen for a rattle or loose screws
  • Take photos of a blue sky or white wall to check image quality (scratched sensor etc.)
  • Take several photos in a row and listen to the shutter. Does it sound normal?
  • Do any of the buttons stick?
  • Resale value: can you sell it and get most of your money back or will you lose money on the deal because it’s old technology?

And what about used lenses? film camIsn’t newer and faster better? Maybe and maybe not! As long as the lens is not scratched and is in good working condition I see nothing wrong with using an older used lens. In fact, that’s how I got my 50mm 1.2 lens. I bought it for $75 at a garage sale with a zoom lens and a film body! The lady who sold it to me asked me why I wanted “that old junk”. I had done my homework… that lens is still sold brand new from Nikon and is valued over $700!! It works wonderfully on my Nikon D800 and I saved over $600!

But back to my camera story… I did buy the second used camera I had been looking at. However, this time around the used camera I purchased was not the best choice — but it was not the camera itself that was the problem – it was me! I misjudged how quickly I was learning and how soon my business would grow, and I promptly outgrew my “new” camera within six months. It was time to upgrade, Xmas bulbsagain!!! This time I ended up buying not one but two new bodies, one full frame and one crop sensor. And since I had shopped wisely for lenses that would be compatible with either full frame or crop sensor bodies, I have a good selection no matter which camera I pick up. But I’m still using those strobes that I purchased with my first used DSLR… I did get a decent deal on them. I have bought other equipment both new and used. Sometimes used is a good deal, and sometimes it's not. The photo of the Christmas bulbs to the left was taken with a used eBay lens.

When buying a used camera, it is a buyer beware market. Do your homework, look up models, read reviews, check to see if the model you are considering has any issues, and how long it will last for you. Did buying used equipment impact my photography in a negative way? No. In fact, buying used probably helped me to learn what I needed and what not to buy.

2 thoughts on “Buying Used Equipment: The good, the bad, and the ugly truth.”

  1. Excellent. Now amateur photographers have a little bit more information about principles of buying appropriate equipment. Thanks to the author 🙂

  2. jean pierre (pete) guaron

    Sound advice, Jim. When I was a lot younger, buying second hand wasn’t such a fuss – it was pretty obvious what the condition & capabilities of the cams was. But things get more complex, as the gear does, and these days I’d be more likely to buy re-conditioned stock from a reputable camera shop where I have an established relationship already. “New” isn’t always necessary and in fact sometimes it’s just a waste of money – but so is buying a bit of gear that turns out to be a lemon.

    Buying second hand now, carries a greater risk of winding up with stuff that the vendor bought on the “grey market” and that can be seriously bad. I read only last week the sad story of someone who bought a cam, it needed fixing, it was supposedly still under warranty, so off to the manufacturer. Sadly, the internal serial number didn’t match the external one, so the manufacturer had to tell the poor guy he didn’t have a warranty, after all, and he was on his own. It’s often possible to check out the vendor of used gear, and this can provide a high level of confidence – it’s also foolish NOT to, if the amount involved is significant.

    All of which is a shame, really. Many, many people out there are shifting gear all the time, as they increase their knowledge base by seeing what they can achieve with other gear and retire some of the stuff they are no longer using. And many, many people can benefit greatly from this process. If only everyone “did the right thing” . . . .

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top