Most photographers are trustworthy and knowledgeable about the gear they offer for sale online. But not every seller is worthy of your hard-earned cash. With some common sense and a bit of research, you can avoid the frustrating, facepalm-worthy pitfalls awaiting your precious shutterbudget when buying gear online.
Nobody entirely trusts online purchases. Retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar, are always trying to find new ways to convince you they're trustworthy: Amazon’s easy return policy and customer service; Kohl's Department Store's “Hassle Free Return” policy; and LL. Bean’s “If you send it back with a straight face, we’ll take it because we just want to be your friend,” policy. In college, I worked at a well-known retail store that had a generous return policy, and the sales associates were encouraged to make sure the client left satisfied. A co-worker of mine once took back a returned lawnmower that was so old the the brand had once been sponsor of the 70s TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
Brand trust is particularly critical to online retailers because each on-line store attempts to level the playing field with brick-and-mortar shops. The used market is different. While some retailers sell used gear, it's not a retailer's bread-and-butter. Most used photo gear is sold by individuals, not large corporations with marketing department budgets dedicated to shaping public perception. A seller might only have a couple of paragraphs and a few images online to shape not only the perception of the product being sold but also the buyer's view of the seller herself.
Still, some of us refuse to learn from the experience of others. If you want to be a well-rounded ignoramus when it comes to buying used photo gear online and learn things the hard way, then consider the following tips to be your guiding principles for the craft:
1. Trust stock photos.
By all means, if you’re going to drop $500 on a used lens, just trust the stock photos that the seller you’ve never met pulled down from a random Google image search. I mean, it’s not like the actual condition would matter. What are the odds that the seller’s crumb-crunching three year-old spilled a juice box on the barrel, causing the focus ring to stick like the transmission of an '82 Renault? After all, the stock photo is probably a better photo than most seller's would take anyway, so you're getting the the most detail possible from a stock photo.
In the age of the ubiquitous smartphone, if an online seller can’t provide a picture for any item over $30, don’t walk away. Run. It either means the seller is too lazy to provide a picture to sell the item, or they’re hiding what it looks like. If the former, then the laziness in the sale is likely mirrored by laziness in the seller's care for the gear. If the later, then the seller’s dishonesty is its own warning. It’s not hard for you to find the manufacturer’s photo on Amazon or B&H. You don’t need the seller’s help for this. You need to know what the actual product looks like. Warts and all.
An honest seller will show you every known physical flaw up front. An honest and knowledgeable seller will know which flaws the buyers/bidders think are important and which ones they are willing to overlook. A reputable seller is more afraid of a bad review than a single passed-over sale.
2. Send cash in the mail.
Absolutely send cash in the mail! I mean, what could possibly go wrong? It’s a tried-and-true method for payment that’s always been good enough for great Aunt Wilma, who still sends you that crisp $5 bill every year for your birthday. So it should be good enough for buying that studio lighting bundle from “Kevin,” a confident fellow who hasn’t set up his voicemail yet but swears he can cut you in on a great deal on some gently used vaping equipment if you pass on the photo gear.
Good gravy, how is it even possible that people are still doing this? It’s 2017. You might as well answer an ad that asks you to trade the family cow for some magic beans. Besides the fact that it makes it impossible to track or adequately document the exchange, you presumably have to give the seller your address. As a bonus, since you’re now tagged as the kind of person who sends cash in the mail, and they have your address, they’re probably going to assume you're the type of rube who leaves your front door unlocked, too.
By the way, it’s an urban legend that sending cash through the mail is illegal (at least in the U.S.), but the Post Office does say that it is not a good idea. And this is the organization that once issued a stamp commemorating the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. So it knows a little something about bad ideas.
3. Pay a big upcharge for shipping.
Even if the trusty Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 that you have your eye on is a constant size and weight across hundreds of manufacturing iterations, and any government or third party parcel delivery service posts its prices on the internet so that even a dim-witted circus monkey could calculate the shipping price, it’s still perfectly reasonable to expect that the seller will have no idea what the shipping costs are, even knowing the shipping address. It’s probably just standard online sales behavior to round $9.37 in shipping up to $18.00. Probably has something to do with currency conversion or the metric system or something. After all, you already got a good deal on the lens, you shouldn’t expect one on the shipping, too.
Ugh. Shipping costs are no longer rocket science or voodoo. Flat rates, such as the U.S. Postal Service’s “If it fits, it ships” campaign for Priority Mail boxes takes much of the guesswork out of shipping domestically. But even if flat rates aren’t an option, an ad for used gear doesn’t have to advertise a flat rate to be reputable. An ad that says “buyer pays shipping” is perfectly reasonable. But once the address is known, the seller should be able to determine an exact amount during the sale or within a short period of time. Hiding the fine print of shipping costs is no longer necessary or acceptable. It should simply make you suspicious.
4. Don’t bother researching compatibility issues – just assume it will all work out.
So you heard some of the Improve Photography guys mention a new doodad of the week that’s a combination flash modifier/bamboo sushi roller. It sounds fascinating, but you don't know which camera body you should use with it. You have a Pentax K-1000 film camera and a vintage 110 camera with one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and you’re not sure which one would be best. (Which camera, not which turtle. Raphael, obviously.) You’re pretty excited to get it bought and shipped, and you’re pretty sure it will work with at least one of your cameras—so why bother finding out for sure? You can always send it back.
Impulse buying is a hobby unto itself. But when you’re tempted to skimp on the “Will it work for me?” side of online buying, just think back to how frustrated you were when you bought the Neutral Density filter at 77 mm when you needed 82mm. You were pretty sure you needed 78 but you didn't have the lens with you at the time and didn't want to wait for fear of missing out. Now multiply that times ten. That's wha tit will feel like if you buy expensive gear that isn't compatible.
Unlike some of the situations where shady sellers are to blame, this kind of mistake is on you, chief.
5. Ignore any camera equipment more than 5 years old.
The industry changes fast. Anything more than a few years old is probably junk, right? You want all the bells and whistles—especially with big lenses and camera bodies. People respect photographers who have the latest equipment, not ratty old stuff made clear back during the Obama administration!
Not true! There are plenty of great deals to be had on gear that might be made before 2012. As a Canon shooter, I could pickup a a great 16-35mm f/2.8 wide angle lens. Canon made versions of this in 2001, 2007, and 2016. But is the 2016 worth the higher price on the used market? Though they did increase the filter size in the 2007 version, these were mostly incremental changes in build quality, as all 3 had USM and none of the versions had Canon's image stabilization feature. When it comes to glass, some features, such as IS or a very fast auto-focus, may simply not matter much for your style of shooting. A photographer shooting primarily landscapes, for example, might not get much advantage from either feature.
6. Don’t Buy Used Gear from Professionals
Who would want to go to a professional who has used gear when you can buy from an amateur? Sure, maybe amateur photographers are more likely to store the gear for years in a musty garage, and never clean the glass. But they also are not going to have any idea what their gear is worth and you’ll get it for a steal!
Wrong, and wrong. While there are many amateurs who have quality equipment for sale on general public sale sites like Craigslist and eBay, there are also a mountain of kit lenses looking to be unloaded by someone who never really got into the photography hobby as much as they thought they would, and think that because the kit lens is “barely used” they should be able to recoup 90% of their retail purchase price. It’s not usually the equipment that makes buying in these circumstances so tedious. But the unrealistic expectations of the seller mean that if you only look at what amateurs are looking to unload in online classified ads, you’re going to wade through a lot of overpriced coal before you find that diamond.
7. Assume that the Law of Supply Does Not Apply
Sure, under normal economic conditions, the less of a good or service the market can supply, the higher its price. This is simply scarcity at work. But that just doesn’t apply to the market for used photo gear. After all, photography is the study of light—what you’re really paying for is the capacity of equipment to be a tool of your art. Even in a so-called “flooded market,” a simple artist’s tool for this purpose can be worth almost any high asking price. And a hard-to-find technological marvel might not fetch a high price if it’s not been used to make great art. So antiquated notions of supply and demand should be tossed aside when looking for used photo gear online.
This is hot garbage. It’s an excuse to make you—and let’s be honest, me–feel better about buying equipment that is overpriced, or not really needed. Like anything else, the price of used photography gear is influenced by a host of factors. And scarcity works just like it does in any other market. I’m not saying no softbox is worth $300. If it’s the right tool for you, it might be worth the cost. But don’t view the gear you want through rose-colored glasses. Popularity (i.e., demand) dives prices up. But increased availability (i.e. supply) drives prices down. If there are a thousand similar soft boxes on the market, maybe their wide availability is simply a good thing. It keeps used prices low. Not every low-priced piece of gear is sheep’s clothing hiding the wolf of a poorly-made product.
8. Rest Assured that Every Low Price is a Good Deal
Cheaper is always better. If you know what you want, never pay a penny more than you have to. Anyone who charges you too much doesn’t deserve your business.
Balancing the need not to second-guess every bargain-priced piece of gear is experience. It teaches us that sometimes you get what you pay for. Certainly, much used gear is overpriced for no good reason. If the brand new, warranty-in-tact version is $100 and the beat-up three year-old used one is $95, that’s a head-scratcher. But if two items that seem identical, like two YN-560 III speed lights, are priced at $10 and $65 respectively, there might be more at work here than your super-human bargain hunting skills. Proceed with Caution.
A severely under-priced item can really only have a few explanations:
- The seller honestly has no idea what a YN-560 III is worth.
- The seller honestly doesn’t care what a YN-560 III is worth. He just needs to make room for more gear.
- The seller knows darn well he dropped his YN-560 III in a giant bowl of queso dip during a Super Bowl party last year and he doesn’t intend to tell you and hopes you won’t notice.
- The seller is not the least bit interested in making money or recouping costs. He woke up this morning after the Archangel Gabriel came to him in a dream and instructed him to sell his used YN-560 III on Craigslist to Carl from Ypsilanti, Michigan for a fraction of what it would be worth to other buyers. And lo, it came to pass.
The best hedge against being a sucker is common sense and research. Then more research. Not just research of the product, but of other markets. What else is it selling for? What are the most common problems that can create price differences? Is it the condition, the battery mechanism, reliability, compatibility, or something else?
Research the seller, too, through customer feedback, and your own research. If the seller will answer emails ask why the product is being sold, how frequently it was used, and if it was used by a professional or amateur.
To Err is Human
Maybe you’ve made some of these mistakes in the past. Most of us have at some point. But don’t fret, the same internet that gives fraudsters a platform to take advantage of the irredeemably gullible also has given us many effective ways for honest professional and amateur photographers to sell used gear. Avoid these pitfalls and you’ll likely find more positive experiences than dumpster fires.
For a great run-down of useful websites for buying and selling online, see Matty Vogel’s blog entry from earlier this year. You can even check out Improve Photography’s own platform. Before you buy, I also recommend the Recommended Gear page.