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Before You Buy a Used Camera

With so many people moving to mirrorless, you may see a lot of used DSLR bodies for sale these days. There are some excellent deals to be had if you shop around a bit. But before you buy a used camera, there are a few things you should check.

As a general rule, expect a brand new camera to be free from any dings or signs of abuse. If you buy a new camera and it arrives damaged, you should expect the seller to exchange it for one in pristine condition. But when you're buying on the used market, things work a bit differently. The seller only has the camera they have, and both parties know it's not new. When buying a used camera, there are two primary considerations. Just what condition is that camera in, and how do you know it?

There's a multitude of sources for buying used camera equipment. Many established online camera retailers sell used gear in addition to new ones, but a few, like KEH Camera Brokers, deal only in used equipment. Then there are private sellers looking to offload their old equipment, often to help finance the purchase of an upgrade themselves. You can find plenty of such offers on eBay and similar sites, but don't neglect to consider local sellers, too. I've also found that some camera repair shops have a side business selling used gear on consignment. Any of these could have the perfect camera, just waiting for you to discover. But the devil is in the details.

If you've bought from a company before, you have a personal track record that speaks to how ethical they are. If not, look carefully at reviews by others to help inform your decision. If you can't find believable reviews, it's probably best to avoid that seller. If the seller is local, take the opportunity to examine the camera before you commit to purchase. Find out if the seller offers return privileges or a warranty period so you won't make a hasty decision that you end up regretting.

If possible, inspect the camera and look for signs of damage. Buying a camera that was dropped is asking for trouble. Check for any apparent dents, gouges, or other potential structural issues. The cost of ownership could be higher than you think if you find repairs are needed after the sale. The seller should disclose and be able to explain any honest wear and tear from use. I keep seeing random complaints online about some camera's rubber coating coming off, and I've never understood how that can happen. But if the price was right, and the seller seemed honest, I might consider buying. But if the body looks like it's had fender replaced by an auto repair shop, I'm more likely to commiserate for a while and head on my way. Double-check parts that are subject to wear and stress, such as the lens mount, battery door, and memory slots.

Does the camera come with all the original accessories or at least the ones that interest you? Even if my new camera comes with one, I wouldn't be caught dead using a camera strapped emblazoned with a Nikon logo. I prefer a more discreet look, but I'm not as ambivalent about all those other bits that sometimes get lost. If anything critical is left out, that should be noted and reflected in the price. Check the batteries, if included. Just my pet peeve, but a photographer who spends a thousand dollars on a camera body but balks at the extra $50 cost of investing in Nikon OEM batteries can't be trusted.

Mentally go through the steps involved in using a camera and test that everything seems as it should. Are the tripod threads in good working order? Can you mound a lens without excessive binding? When the AF motor activates, does the signal communication between body and lens achieve the expected result, or does it sometimes not respond appropriately? To the extent practical, test all the buttons and menus.

Look at the LCD screen. Is it scratched more than you can live with? Examine the display to check that all the pixels are working. If one or two seem questionable, you're probably still good. But if you see too many, it's time to consider if the price is worth it. Sometimes, it's better to walk away than end up with buyer's remorse later.

The bane of digital photographers the world over is dust. Dust on the sensor can be cleaned, but too much indicates that the seller didn't take proper care. Dust on the mirror won't show up on your picture but will interfere with the viewfinder display. Dust in the viewfinder is likely there for good.

If you can, shoot some test images. Make sure the shutter click sounds appropriate. Look at your results and make sure the exposure matches what you set it as. If you know the lens is good, but your focus is consistently off, the fault probably lies with the camera.

Determine the shutter count on the camera body. Often, this will involve shooting an image and inspecting the metadata. That shutter count is like the odometer on a car. As the digits roll by ever higher, you're putting more miles on that machine. Eventually, it will wear out. Some photographers are very selective and only fire the shutter once everything is just so, racking up minimal shutter activations. Other shooters fire away with machine-gun staccato on continuous shutter merely to hear the sound. He who dies with the most shutter clicks wins or something.

If the seller is listing the camera as like-new or in similar primo condition, ask if they have the paperwork for it. The camera warranty and box should have the same serial number as the body being offered.

Is anything extra included? I always appreciate it if the seller throws in a Really Right Stuff or Kirk L-bracket for the body. The best mounting plates are model-specific, so it makes sense for it to go with the body it fits. Any after-market books are similarly of more use to the prospective buyer than the seller. Some sellers throw in a small camera bag they used to use. I can take or leave that sort of thing but to each his own. I already own too many camera bags.

Not every camera deal out there is good, but some of them probably are, if you can find them.


Date posted: October 10, 2021

 

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