We give you the lowdown on buying used photography equipment!

Just about every photographer I know has a wish list that’s at least a dozen items deep.  But let’s face it…lenses, camera bodies and other camera accessories are expensive.  To save money and expand their kit more quickly, some photographers turn to buying used photography equipment.  But is it safe?  Can you save money?  In this tutorial, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of buying use photography gear, talk about some pitfalls to avoid and give you a few ideas of where to look online.  Should your next lens be a used lens?  Read more and decide for yourself!

what used photography equipment is available.What used photography equipment is available?

You can buy just about any kind of photography equipment used, either online, at flea markets or through private sellers.  You just need to know where to look.

Camera bodies, lenses, off-camera flash equipment, drones, props, backdrops, and even camera bags can all be found used.  If it has to do with photography, chances are, you can find a used version for sale.  Some photographers quit or outgrow their equipment.  Others simply like to have the latest and greatest technology and will upgrade often.

Why would I want to buy used photography equipment?

If you’re willing to tolerate some wear in your gear, buying used photography equipment can save you some serious money.  You can also buy equipment that’s been discontinued by the manufacturer.  Buying used can be a great way to get into higher quality equipment faster, such as higher-end lenses or camera bodies.  Used photography equipment also makes great backup equipment.  It might not make sense to pay new prices for equipment you’ll only use in an emergency.

How to choose the best Canon Camera for you…read our guide!

Is it safe to buy used photography equipment?

Yes and no.  You can purchase high-quality photography equipment used with no problems at all.  Most people are honest and just want to unload equipment they don’t need anymore.  But there are also people out there who would like nothing better than to separate you from your money.  The secret is knowing the difference.

buying used photography gear

What do I need to know about buying used photography gear?

There are a variety of safe, quality places to purchase used photography equipment.  I’ve bought used equipment from online sites and physical stores, as well as from trusted photographer friends.  Here are a few things to consider.

  • Inspect the item first-hand whenever possible
  • Only buy from reputable dealers
  • Protect yourself with a written return/exchange policy
  • Price shop used photography equipment the same as you would new photography gear

Inspect the item first-hand whenever possible

You can troubleshoot a lot of problems if you can see, hold and use the gear before purchase.

inspecting used photography equipmentLenses

On lenses, check the glass for scratches, fungus, haze or dust. Shine a flashlight through the lens to reveal any imperfections.  Small scratches and dust specs don’t usually have any kind of effect on image quality, but large scratches and lots of dust or fungus will.  If you see any of those, you should probably pass on the lens.  Then inspect the housing for dings and dents.  Look at the rubber focus and zoom rings.  Work the action of both.  See if they work smoothly or if there is a hitch as you rotate them around.  These may or may not be problematic, but can be indicative of a larger problem.  Check the aperture blade for oil or scratches.  If you see either, that’s an indication the lens might need to be repaired in the future.

If possible, put the lens on a camera body and take a few frames.  Does the lens attach and detach easily?  Are the contact points clean?  Try out the focus.  Does it autofocus where you tell it to?  Does the focus hold after you’ve adjusted it, or does it creep?  Inspect your images at home if possible and see if you notice anything unusual.  If the lens passes those tests, it’s probably safe to buy it.

Still not sure about the different types of camera lenses?  Read our guide!

Cameras

Camera bodies can be a little harder to assess the true condition because you can’t see many of the internal parts.  But there are a few things to look for.  Inspect the outside of the camera first.  Do the grips fit snugly?  Do the scrollwheels operate smoothly?  How about the buttons?  Next, open the memory card compartment.  Do the memory cards pop in and out smoothly?  Do the doors close properly?  If a camera looks beat up on the outside, it’s a good indication of wear on the inside, too.

Next, consider the shutter count.  Modern cameras are built to withstand 160,000 or more shutter actuations, with some high-end bodies rated at 200,000 clicks.  Use a site like http://www.myshuttercount.com/ to determine the shutter count.  If the owner says they’ve replaced the shutter, ask to see the paperwork for it.  Don’t just take their word for it that it’s a new shutter.  And keep in mind that even if the shutter is new, the other internal mechanisms aren’t.  Other parts break down over time, too.

Don’t forget to seat a lens on the camera body and check out how it performs in real use.  Test the focus, including continuous focus.

Other equipment

It can be hard to describe exactly what to look for in other used photography equipment because what you’re interested in might vary widely.  Inspect the item for wear and tear.  If the item has a battery compartment, open it up and check for corrosion.  Make sure the buttons, levers and latches work and doors open and close correctly.  For fabric or printed materials like backgrounds, look for scratches, tears or loose threads, as well as discoloration on both sides.  If it’s a flash modifier, open it up fully and inspect it.  Make sure it opens and closes correctly and doesn’t have any stains or tears.

Protect yourself from these common photography scams!

inspecting used photography equipment

Only buy from reputable dealers

When buying used photography gear, remember the old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  Don’t be tricked into taking junk equipment because it’s a super good deal.

Stick with reputable dealers like your local camera store or online sources.  Fellow photographers you know and trust can also be a great source for used photography gear.  The following sites are all well-respected in the photography world when it comes to buying used gear:

  • Camera and lens manufacturers like Nikon, Canon and Sony
  • Lens manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma or Tokina
  • B&H Photo Used Department
  • Adorama Used Department
  • KEH.Com
  • Amazon Used Department

Other online sources include nationwide rental companies like Lens Authority or Borrow Lenses.  These companies will list their lenses for sale after a certain period of time, sort of like buying a program car from a rental place.

E-bay and Facebook for sale sights are inherently riskier than the above sites, as you are depending on the honesty of an individual seller.  You can buy some quality used gear there, but there is risk.  If you can’t afford to lose the money you are considering investing in the piece of gear, don’t use E-bay or Facebook.  Being a smart E-bay/FB shopper is a tutorial in and of itself.  Instead of covering all that here, I’ll refer you to this post by photographer Ken Rockwell.

https://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/ebay/index.htm

Garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores can be other sources.  Again, inspect the item closely, make sure they are fully functioning and see if the company has a return policy.

Protect yourself with a written warranty/return/exchange policy

See if the seller offers a warranty on the item you’re interested in.  Read the warranty and the seller’s return and exchange policy carefully.  See what your options are for returning gear, the time frame for returns and any associated costs.  Will you get your money back or just receive store credit?  Who pays for the shipping?  Some retailers will charge a restocking fee, so even if you return the item in the same condition you received it, it might cost you anywhere from $10 to $200, depending on the policy and price of the item.

At KEH.com for example, you have seven days to return the item for a full refund (minus shipping costs), BUT anything over $2,000 is subject to a 20% restocking fee.  That might not sound like much, but on a $4000 used lens, that could cost you $600 if you just decide you don’t really like the item.

 Price shop used lenses like you would a new lens

Don’t take someone’s word for it that the price they are asking for a lens is a great deal.  Compare prices at several of the above online retailers to see how the price being asked compared.  Photographers often overestimate the value of their lens, even unintentionally.  And it’s always a good idea to check the used prices against the current price of the item new.  Manufacturers often offer great rebates or severely discount the price of new photography equipment if they are coming out with a newer version.  You might get a brand-new lens or camera for $25 or $50 more than a quality used one if your timing is right.

For example, I was considering purchasing a used Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 lens.  New, the lenses ran about $900.  Used, the quality ones seem to be anywhere from $650 to $950.  I waited long enough, Sigma put the lens on sale NEW for $650 (including a rebate).  That price included the USB dock and was cheaper than just about any used lens I could find.’

Where can I sell used photography equipment?

Most places that sell used photography equipment also buy it from photographers.  If you have a lens you aren’t using anymore, you might consider selling it (or trading it in on something different).  You should know, however, that a used photography gear dealer isn’t going to give you top of the line prices.  They want to make money on selling the equipment too, so expect to receive less for your gear than the current asking price.  If you want absolute top dollar for your equipment, you’re better off selling it yourself.  This is similar to trading in a used car to a dealership vs. selling the car outright to a private buyer.

What does refurbished mean?

Refurbished items like cameras or lenses can be a great investment.  Sometimes, refurbished items are essentially new items that have been removed from their packaging and returned to the manufacturer (so they can’t be sold as new).  They might have a corrected flaw, a minor defect or used briefly as a floor model.  The manufacturer inspects, tests, repairs and cleans the items and then resells them at a discounted price.  A refurbished item is usually brought back to new condition and then sold at a discount.  These are probably the most reliable items of used photography equipment you can purchase.

What is gray market equipment?  Is that the same as used equipment?

The term gray market is used to describe products imported into another country without the permission of the manufacturer.  These items generally aren’t counterfit…they are usually the genuine goods just sold in a different country.  For example, Nikon makes and distributes photography equipment specifically for sale in the United States.  But another retailer might purchase new lenses intended for sale in a third party country and offer them for sale in the U.S., usually at a discount.

Gray market items can include lenses, cameras, and other equipment.  They are usually new, and you can get a great piece of equipment at a discounted price.  But there is a drawback…the original manufacturer’s warranty will not cover a gray market item and some manufacturer’s refuse to service or charge more to service gray market items.

That means if you purchase a gray market Nikon D750 and the shutter goes out on you after two weeks, Nikon won’t warranty the camera.  You only have the seller’s warranty to rely on.

Batteries, chargers, and parts might also not be up to the original manufacturer’s warranty or instructions might not be in English.  Gray market items can be a great deal but know the risks and weigh those against your potential cost savings.

Final thoughts…

Buying used photography equipment can be a great way to save money and upgrade your photography kit quicker.  I’ve personally bought several used lenses and they’ve been a great and long-lasting investment.  I purchased my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens almost eight years ago off E-bay and it’s still going strong today!

Yes, there is some risk involved in purchasing used gear, but if you stick with our tips above, you should come out with a great piece of gear and some money still left in your bank account.

Now go score a great deal!

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