Buyer’s Guide: 7 Tips to Help You (Safely) Buy Used Photography Gear Online

Buyer's Guide 7 Tips to Help You (Safely) Buy Used Photography Gear Online_blog post header

Is it Worth it to Buy Second-Hand Camera Equipment?

The short answer is yes. Very much. For the more complete answer, we have to look at what types of gear you are looking to buy. 

For less expensive equipment such as tripods, flashes, or other accessories, it depends on the savings. It may not be worth the hassle of searching online for days or weeks to save a couple of bucks when you can buy a brand new one for almost the same price. However, suppose you are looking for core elements such as a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, lenses, or similar high-value items. In that case, it can often be effortless to encounter great value on the second-hand market. 

You may be asking, ‘won't the gear be broken or in bad condition? Why would someone put a camera up for sale unless it's old or damaged?’ The truth is photographers will sell high-quality gear for many reasons. It could be the camera was purchased by a hobbyist for a vacation and sat in a closet for a few months without being used before they decide to sell. It could be a professional who is upgrading or switching to a different camera system. 

If you’re patient and know what to look for, you can easily find current and previous-generation equipment at incredible prices.

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What to Look for When Buying Online

Now, as with anything you buy second-hand, there is always the risk the seller may be trying to trick you and get rid of damaged items at your expense. This is true when buying a used car, computer, and even cameras. 

However, just like if you were to buy a used car, you would probably do some research on the seller, find reviews of the vehicle discussing how well the vehicle holds up over time, and ask the seller about any factory warranty or return policy the vehicle comes with, you should also take the time to learn about the seller and the camera equipment you plan to buy online as well. 

Here are some key things to look for when buying online:
Key Questions – What is the Camera’s Shutter Count? 
When buying a used camera, asking about the shutter count is similar to asking about the number of kilometers when purchasing a used car. But just like knowing the kilometers of a used car doesn’t tell you the whole story—travel on a highway isn’t the same as stop-and-go travel in a busy city, for example—knowing the shutter count doesn’t tell you the full story of the camera, but it is a start. 

Find out how long the previous owner had the camera. Ask about how they used the camera. A camera with 1,000 shots taken ten years ago that sat in a closet ever since gathering dust is not the same as a camera with 10,000 pictures that has been in active use and has been taken care of and cleaned by a professional. 

Key Questions – Is the Camera’s Image Sensor Damaged?
This might be the most critical question to answer when looking at a used camera. The image sensor is, returning to the metaphor of a used car, like the engine. It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing radio and speakers; if the motor isn’t working correctly, you’ll likely end up on the side of the road with a broken-down car listening to that fancy radio while you wait on a tow truck. The same goes for the camera’s sensor. Even small damages can cause the camera to be useless if they show up on the final photo. 

If you are in doubt, ask the seller if they can send a test image for you to review. Make sure to request a photo of something simple they would have in their home or store but silly or unique enough that they definitely wouldn’t have taken the picture before. This way, you know it was taken at that moment and not something they pulled from years ago when the camera was new. 

Key Questions – Are there Scratches, Dust, or Mold in the Lenses? 
If you are looking for used lenses, you want to make sure they are still going to give you the same pristine images as a brand-new lens. Some of the most common and most noticeable defects that used lenses can have are scratches, dust, or mold on the glass elements. 

Scratches are most common on the front lens and the lens on the back that is inserted into the camera. Make sure the listing of the used lens includes photos of both of these elements—and make sure they are at angles that allow you to view whether scratches are apparent.

Dust and mold are typically found in older lenses or lenses that have been improperly stored or maintained. Though these can be difficult to see in the low-resolution photographs typical of many online second-hand marketplaces, you may still want to make sure to check for a picture looking through the glass elements, down the length of the lens while it is not attached to a camera. 

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Key Questions – Does Autofocus, Image Stabilization, & Zoom Work?
Another critical question to ask about when buying lenses is whether the mechanical elements still work as intended. Since these functions don’t affect the final image quality in the same way as scratches or dust might, defects like these don’t necessarily have to be a deal breaker, depending on what you plan to do with the lens. 

You may find older lenses and no longer communicate properly with the camera or that have broken autofocus motors but can still be used with manual focus. You may find that the focus motors make extra noise, and the seller can’t use it because they need to shoot video. You may discover lenses with zoom that is too loose or too tight. 

If you are willing to make some sacrifices and pick up a lens like this, you can often find huge discounts; just be sure that you know what you are buying and what you are sacrificing by purchasing a lens with mechanical defects. 

Key Questions – Factory Warranty & Return Policy 
If you are buying a recent model camera or other equipment, they are often covered by manufacturer warranties. Buying gear with factory warranties that are still in effect can save you many headaches down the line if something goes wrong. 

Knowing what types of return and refund policies are available can protect you from scams and low-quality gear. Make sure to check with both the seller and the marketplace to see what options you have, and make sure to read the entire return and refund policy—as well as the full text of the listing—to make sure you are covered.

Key Questions – What is the Seller’s Feedback & Rating
Buying used photography equipment online can often feel risky since you can’t examine the gear before buying it. However, find sellers with high seller rating and plenty of reviews. This can be a sign that they are a legitimate seller who won’t risk ruining their reputation selling low-quality merchandise. 

Be sure to check the number of people who have rated the seller and read the reviews thoroughly. A 5-star rating from 2 people is not the same as a 4.5-star rating for 5,000 people. 

Key Questions – Is It Too Good to Be True?
Finally, use your common sense and trust your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can find plenty of amazing deals on second-hand photography equipment, but if you can’t tell yourself why the price is so low or the deal so good, you may want to continue looking for answers or find a different listing that seems more legitimate. 

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