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Used Cameras — Should You Buy One


Used Cameras — Should You Buy One

June 30, 2020  |  by Bob Killen

Many in the photographic community think pre-owned cameras or lenses are rejected or defective due to wear and tear. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Photographers do not sell or trade their used cameras or lenses in most cases because it is old, defective, or malfunctioning. They sell their used cameras and lenses to purchase new equipment as soon as it becomes available, to change systems, or a given camera or lens no longer fits their workflow.  The equipment that they have traded-in or sold online gives other photographers a chance to purchase useful, previous-generation gear with like-new quality standards and save up to 45% off new.

Is it Used or Preowned?

I like to think of used cameras and lenses as pre-owned for the same reason high-end car dealers no longer sell used cars. They promote the sale of late model low mileage cars as pre-owned because they are in good operating condition. The only difference between a pre-owned vehicle and a new one is that the newer model has some desired technology advancements, a unique style, or a few lifestyle trinkets not available on a previous model. The pre-owned vehicle is an excellent deal for someone who does not want to pay full price for new and experience an immediate depreciation drop in the first year.

used DSLR camera and lens on wood table

The pre-owned camera and lens market are quite similar. Camera equipment has a long-life cycle; and, when we purchase pre-owned cameras or lenses, we are supporting sustainability and usability at a fraction of the cost of new gear. Preowned entry-level DSLRs, such as the Canon Rebel, are inexpensive and used as a great learning tool with professional results. Moreover, adding a pre-owned gear to our equipment inventory gives us the freedom to expand our creative range and explore image-making at the next level.

8 Pre-Owned Points to Examine

If you were to buy a pre-owned car, you would do a test drive and a detailed examination of the vehicle. You may even pay a mechanic to help with inspecting critical components. Buying a used camera is similar. While you do not need a camera mechanic in most cases, there are several metrics to examine and test drive when checking out preowned camera bodies.  

1.       Check the Shutter Count— Shutter counts are like the odometer on a car. The number of times a shutter clicks roughly depicts the mileage on the camera. Camera manufacturers rate their cameras for 50, 100, 150, or 300 thousand shots. For example, Canon rates my Canon 5D Mark IV for 150,000 shutter actuation. And, while that is not a guaranteed number, I would expect it to live up to that rate. You should check the shutter count of the preowned camera you plan to buy. There are several methods but here are two easy resources: the Free Shutter website and this TipsNNTricks YouTube video.

2.       Check for Scratches and Minor Dents— If a pro is selling or buying a camera, cosmetic condition means little. However, deep scratches and visible dents can indicate the camera has been dropped. I would avoid this purchase even at an attractive price.

3.       Look a the CF Card Slots— If the camera you're buying uses CF cards, none of the pin connectors inside the card mount should be bent or damaged in any way. If you see bent pins, you have the potential to short-circuit your cards, and memory card compartment repairs are pricey.

4.       Grip Wear — Wear in this area is expected; but, if you see significant peeling, the camera may have been working in moist conditions. Still, it can be repaired at a professional service center. This should not be a 'deal killer' but as a "not new" imperfection and should be part of the price value.

5.       Examine the LCD Screen—  A scratched LCD screen is a red flag and can be quite expensive to replace. If that is the case, negotiate the price for replacement expense.

6.       Check the Lens Mount— This is a critical component, and it should be in excellent condition even on the older model camera. Make sure there are no dents, and the contact pins should be clean. Dents or bends are indicators of a dropped camera.

7.       Fit and Finish— Relatively new DSLR or Mirrorless cameras, built in the last 5-6 years, should feel rigid or sturdy. If not, this is a red flag and indicator that this camera has seen some hard use. Another issue to check is buttons and switches - they should be firm and stable. If not, your price should reflect the need for possible repairs in this area.

8.       Check the Autofocus System— Autofocus is one of the areas that have significantly improved over recent years and help drive new camera sales. If you are looking at pre-owned cameras manufactured in the last 3-5 years, autofocus systems have become critical systems. The simple check is to put a lens on the camera and see if it focuses, and while doing an in-depth test with things like the Lens Calibration guide is desirable, a visual check will provide a lot of information. If focus issues appear, you may want to walk away from this camera.

Should I buy from a Used Camera Dealer or an Individual? 

The answer is to buy from a trustworthy source. That source could be an individual on eBay, someone you know, or from a reputable dealer who is active in the pre-owned camera market such as Samy's Camera, and many others. However, there some key differences to consider between the two purchase methods.

Overhead shot of DSLR collection

Individual Sellers

If you are buying on eBay or other public bid forums doing price and condition, research is necessary. I recommend using the Bokeh Market app, which will give you real-time price averages, or you can check out the Fred Miranda forums, which are dedicated to buying/selling gear. This information would apply to buy online from and individual or when buying in person.

When buying from an individual, make sure you have their contact information. If possible, having a choice to return the camera is very useful, so check if there's a return policy in place.

When buying from an unknown individual, meet with them in a public place, during daylight and don't pay upfront. Bring someone with you and use common sense to stay safe.

 Buying Pre-Owned from a Camera Dealer or Store 

When you buy from a reputable, active, pre-owned camera dealer, you gain several advantages that eliminate many of the transactional hazards and guesswork. In turn, you may pay a bit more than when buying from and individual. But, in my view, peace of mind is worth the minor difference in costs.

 Two Ways to Buy

Instore— You may visit the dealer's place of business, which gives you the advantage of immediately holding the camera in your hands. Most will let you do in-depth testing of the camera or will rent the unit to you for a day while you check it out. As recommended above, be sure and apply the 8 inspection points to determine if the camera is for you and before you arrive at a price. 

Most camera stores or dealers also offer a limited warranty on the camera and, in many cases, the opportunity to buy an extended warranty.

The disadvantage of buying from and the instore source is that most dealers have a small inventory from which to choose. Moreover, you may have to visit several to find what you are looking for or wait for your ideal model to show up in the used camera department.

Online— Most large camera dealers have used cameras or pre-owned cameras and lenses sections within their website. Such an example is Samy's Camera, which boasts a large inventory of used equipment. Also, dealers such as KEH sell used equipment online exclusively. And, you will find many others with a simple Google search.

Sales, Return, and Warranty, and Exchange Policies—

Online Dealers have return policies, usually 30 days, which gives you time to verify and test what you bought.

Online Dealers also rate the equipment so that you can determine before you buy what to expect and to judge the camera value or make the best offer if that option is available. Rating Systems vary somewhat from dealer to dealer with a range from nearly new to well used.

Online Dealers provide a warranty that is generally for six months with the possibility of purchasing an extended warranty. Samy's Camera offers one-year parts and labor warranty with their preowned equipment.


Pre-Owned Cameras are a great way to stretch your budget and your imagination with equipment that will help you create exceptional work with an extended emotional range. Besides, you can apply the money you save for photo travel and education or maybe a gift for that special someone who is supporting your work.

June 30, 2020

About the Author

Bob Killen

Bob Killen

Bob Killen is a nationally recognized Fine Art Photographer, Landscape Photography instructor, and artist. He is the Director of the National Park Photography Expeditions, President of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation, a National Park Service Friends Group, a national speaker on landscape photography and an Adobe Certified Instructor. His thematic work explores Western Americana landscapes with a focus on man’s obsession to abandon structures, places, and things across a shared American landscape. His work is owned by collectors in 20 countries.

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