For many photographers, especially those of us who are starting out… and also those of us who can’t resist the thought of a bargain, the second hand market is a large attraction. However, the second hand market can also be a minefield, with lemons and disguised problems. Just like buying a second hand car, things are not always as they seem. This is not to say that you will always cooker of second best, but a warning that some dealers are better than others.

I have been fortunate enough to have spent a few years working in photographic retail, including time spent coordinating repairs and more importantly time working with second hand. I have also learnt the hard about the second hand market.

Here are some tips whenever you are buying second hand camera equipment. Some are general to all second hand dealers, others are a bit more situational.

Know what you want

It is foolish at best to browse without knowing what you are looking for. If you browse and buy you are relying on the dealer to inform you of the item and the condition, pricing and quirks. Knowing what you want will better equip you with what to look for and what to check. That is which variant of a dangers or lens you want and the common problems that they display. If you know what you want you can research this.

Know where to look

There are a large number of avenues from which to look for used camera gear, these range from established online dealers (keh.com, bhphotovideo.com) to shop fronts, pawn brokers and the wonderful world of trading sites (eBay, Gumtree, camera markets). Not all of these are equal and you should expect different things from each. The established shop fronts and online dealers will usually have clear pricing and details about the items that they sell and will usually have some form of warranty. Pawn brokers are not experts so they will have little detail about the item but they will have some form of warranty, do not expect help with your purchase here. Camera markets/eBay/Gumtree/Craigslist…caveat emptor, these are largely unregulated transactions, dealers reputations are a must check, the onus is on you to check and verify the item and there is usually little to no protection.

Know what it is worth

After you know what you want you can then further your research to canvas pricing. You will always check the price for a new item, do the same here. This extends to knowing what the item is worth according to the condition. I use a combination of keh.com and eBay as well as bhphotovideo.com as a price guide. Most second hand dealers do as well.  Note that these sites are in US dollars (except eBay) but in the second hand market there is no difference between grey import and local stock, warranties are not transferable, but do remember to factor in exchange rates and shipping. I suggest getting familiar with the different condition ranking systems.

Don’t take the sellers word
In this day and are it is rather easy to check one if the above websites to gauge pricing. Don’t fall for signage describing items as rare or condition. Check the condition for yourself. Knowing the item that you are buying will also mean you don’t fall for the rarity.

Check the condition
Dealers will usually tell you that an item is working and if it has faults what sort of faults they have. Good dealers will also have warranty periods. Camera markets and eBay/Gumtree don’t afford these protections. I try to avoid eBay and only use Gumtree/Craigslist for transactions where I can inspect and pick up the item. Keh.com I trust and have used a number of times, they are a respected company with stringent condition ratings and also have a good return policy.

What to look for?

Lenses

Fungus/Dust/Scratches

Point the lens towards a light source and look through, repeat from the other end. You are looking for any dust/scratches (self explanatory) and fungus (web looking patterns). If fungus is present then put the lens down and move on, fungus can be removed but this can be expensive and can leave marks in the coatings and glass. Dust and scratches are less of a problem. One again dust can be change at a cost. Scratches are usually found in the front and rear elements, if it is on a rear element put the lens down. If there are lots of scratches or deep scratches on the front element put down the lens.

Mechanical issues

This depends on the type of lenses you are buying. For all lenses look for signs of abuse, scratches, dents, rusted screw’s, cracks… in particular you want to closely examine the mount it should be clean and smooth, a well used mount will have light scratches following the edges of the mount, some will shore a change in colour from a silver to a gold/brass colour. If possible mint the lens onto a camera to make sure it mounts smoothly and there is little play (excess movement)  in the mount. Also check the action of the focus and zoom rings (and aperture ring). Also check the aperture blades, they should move smoothly and should be clean. If the aperture blades show signs of deformation or have dark spots on them put down the lens, dark spots are a sign of oil which will impede the operation if the aperture, causing over exposure, this can be serviced. Deformed appetite blade are a sign of damage or improper assembly, this may be irreparable. For auto focus lenses make sure the auto focus works by mounting it to a body to test. For lenses with image stabilisation also check, make sure the stabiliser does but make excessive noises or restless constantly, some quiet whirring is normal on some lenses.

Cameras

Check for function, make sure the shutter fires smoothly and that the different speeds seem to work. Also make sure the camera is clean, especially internally. Knowledge of the camera model will help you diagnose any apparent problems. I check shutter speeds, self timers, auto focus and the light meter. There is no way to know if a light meter or a shutter is working accurately but you can usually tell if something is terribly wrong. For film cameras examine the light seals. Must older cameras will need them replaced as they are deteriorating and/or mouldy, sometimes this will have been done already. Also check that the film pressure plate is in good shape, in the correct position and not too scratched up. A heavily scratched film pressure plate indicates the camera has been heavily used. Also take note if the shutter itself, there are to two primary types of shutter, metal blade and cloth/foil. Metal shutters are easy to check, the blades should not be deformed or scratched. For cloth and foil shutters need to be checked for holes as well as damage. To check for holes take the lens of and open the film back and direct the camera towards a light and look for any light passing through. Obvious to say if any damage or holes are found in the shutter put down the camera.

For digital cameras you can check to see that the camera takes pictures properly immediately but do know why what a new battery will cost as often used batteries are close to the end of their life.

Cameras are difficult to check so be prepared to buy something that may need a service. Even if the dealer claims it has been checked and serviced it may not have been.

Know where to get something serviced and how much it will cost

Most technicians won’t provide a quote without inspecting the camera but if you budget $100 for a clean/check/service you will be in good stead. If a camera or lens needs serious work then what may have been a deal could cost you a lot.

In Summary

  • know what you want
  • know how much it is worth
  • check for obvious problems
  • do not buy anything that does not feel right

NOTE: Unlike other bloggers I do not have any affiliation to the various websites (hence I don’t link to them), however I do have an affiliation to Phottix so clicking through on one of those banners or a Phottix link will mean any purchases will provide me a small donation towards the upkeep of this site.