How to safely buy used photo equipment.
In today’s economy every nickel counts, and just like everything else cameras and lenses cost way more than anyone wants to pay. I’ve had good and bad experiences with buying used equipment. However, if you do it correctly then you can save a bundle.
Used equipment is available from several sources; some examples are eBay, craigslist, store returns, pawnshops, and private sales. There are others but these are what I will be covering. I’ll give you the goods a bads and recommendations on what to look out for.
The type of equipment you buy is a huge consideration. Stay away from used “push-pull” zooms. These usually get loose and wear out with age. Outdated cameras are also not a bargain like they might seem. For example, you can buy a Nikon d1 or d2 very cheap now. The problem is that while they were good in their day, now they are not. The older pro cameras are slow with writing to memory cards, use a lot of battery power and usually have much more noise than even today’s modern consumer level cameras. They were great in their day, really awesome, but now they are just simply old technology.
Tripods are a mixed bag; if you can see it and try it before you buy then it might be a good deal. Things to watch for are loose clamps, bent legs, center shafts that are warped, and cracks in the legs on carbon fiber models. I would avoid eBay or any online store that does not offer a money back guarantee on anything, but especially tripods.
Big expensive professional lenses are a tough one. Here’s an example for how to be safe. Nikon has been selling a 70-200mm 2.8 lens for years. They recently upgraded that lens and most pro photographers will buy the new upgrade even if their old lens was working fine. That’s usually a safe bet. If a lens has been upgraded then buying the old model gives you a good chance that the old owner just upgraded. The best way to be sure is to buy the old model right after the newer model is introduced; that’s when the market is flooded with the older lenses. Same is true for professional cameras. When the D4 is introduced later this year (I hope) there will be many many D3’s going up for sale.
Filters are a pretty safe bet. Unless the threads are damaged or there is a scratch on the glass then there’s nothing that can go wrong with it. Avoid batteries at all costs! That seems like common sense but I see used batteries online all the time. Strobe units are another to avoid, just way too many electronic parts to go wrong. Bags and soft cases are usually safe. Avoid hard cases because the padding is usually already cut to fit the previous owner’s equipment.
Used underwater cases are a huge treasure! So many scuba diver try underwater photography and fail it’s ridiculous. Ebay is full of underwater systems that are used very little and you can save thousands sometimes! Just remember to test the case in a pool without your camera in it first to make sure it doesn’t leak.
So where to buy your stuff, what’s safe, who will screw you? Those are the important questions. I’ll address several companies I’ve purchased from. I really have no specific complaints for any company—I think I’ve just had a lot of good luck, ha ha.
KEH.com is my favorite place to buy used cameras and lenses. They are very very honest and their return policy is awesome. Their descriptions are accurate and their grading is very strict. I hardly ever buy their top condition grade because I think they are way too strict. I usually look for items in their BGN or bargain grade. To me they look almost perfect. As far as I can figure is that if there is a scuff or scratch on something then it’s bargain to them. If there is anything specific wrong like a ding in the filter ring they will note that in the item description. Their service is super fast often shipping the same or next day and the people on the phone are very knowledgeable. Unfortunately you will wait on the phone on hold for a while because they are so popular. I think that’s my only complaint with them. Their return policy is simple, if you don’t like what you buy for any reason you can send it back and get a refund!
Amazon.com has a section that they sell items people have returned. These things aren’t really “used” they are simply customer returns. If you call and get the right person sometimes you can get the operator to look in the notes and find out why it was returned too. Do not wait and “think about it” these items move very fast, so buy it fast.
Ebay is a risky place. I’ve had mostly good luck but remember, these are usually regular people that think their item is in much better condition that it usually is. You will often see descriptions such as “mint, perfect, like new, pristine” these are simply sales words and really don’t help you any. Look at the description and contact the seller with specific questions. I always ask for a phone number from the seller so I can call him and talk to him about it. If he doesn’t give it to me I move on to the next item, easy.
Craigslist is another source. Unfortunately it seems that everyone selling on craigslist thinks their stuff is made out of gold. I rarely find good deals on there. The advantage of that site is you can physically put your hands on the item and examine it before you give out any cash. You can also put a listing on there that you want to buy used camera equipment. This gives you the ability to name your own price if you are a good negotiator. The only problem with that is you will get tons of people calling you and annoying you with old junk film and point and shoot cameras.
Pawnshops are great. You can get a great price and still be able to examine the item before buying it. In today’s economy people are pawning everything. The shops are paying almost nothing these days and that gives them a lot of leeway in what they need to charge. Don’t pay the first price they ask, haggle with them. If you develop a relationship with a certain store they will often call you when they get something in that they think you will want to buy and give you a better price than a normal customer.
Even with all these sources I still buy a lot of my equipment brand new. Just go by the old philosophy of Buyer Beware and use common sense and you should be fine.