Guide to Buying Used Photography Gear

Most of my camera gear was bought on the used market. Maybe I’m just cheap, but if I can save a few hundred dollars by putting in a little more time, I’ll do it. Sites like Craigslist have made it very easy and convenient to find lightly used photography equipment for photographers on a budget. If you know what you are looking for, this can be a great solution for getting the photography gear you want at the price you can afford.

Follow along for advice for how to buy used photography equipment.

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General tips

As a professional photographer, I know that my gear takes a beating. I’m moving fast and more concerned about getting the image than babying my equipment. Therefore, I try to avoid buying used gear from professionals. I know this is a complete generalization based only on personal experience. However, my favorite people to buy equipment from are amateurs who have Gear Acquisition Syndrome, are constantly upgrading to the newest thing, and rarely use what they have. I’ve found this is the best way to get a practically new piece of gear at a steep discount. If the equipment is still under a manufacturer’s warranty — even better!

Camera Bodies

DSLRs lose their value faster than any other piece of equipment, but remain relevant for at least a few years. If you are willing to forego the latest and greatest, you can get a solid camera with fewer bells and whistles for half the price. When Canon introduced the 5D MkIII, I made the decision to buy two 5D MkII’s for the same cost as one Mark 3. This allowed me to have a solid backup camera instead of one camera with features that my clients wouldn’t really notice. DSLRs do have a lifespan and their shutters are rated for a certain number of clicks. When you are buying used, ask the owner how many actuations are on the shutter verses how many the camera is rated for.

used camera

The above camera is worth about 15% of what it went for new, but still capable for many photography projects

Lenses

While camera bodies lose value rather quickly, lenses usually do not, especially the ones that are solidly built. You can expect to find used lenses on Craigslist or eBay at 75 to 80 percent of their new value. This is because they are built to last a very long time and are generally sealed up from the elements that destroy the mechanical and optical parts. When looking for a used lens, you can ask for the serial number and sometimes figure out how old the lens is — giving you an idea of how much use it has seen. Lenses that have had UV filters on them from the beginning help to assure you that the glass is free from scratches. Try the lens out to make sure that the autofocus motor still works well and zoom lenses move smoothly, but not freely. Lenses with scratches on the body can also be good buys, as long as the glass is free from defects.

Flashes and accessories

In general, if a piece of equipment has little to no moving parts or few electronics it is a good thing to buy on the used market. Speedlights also seem to hold their value relatively well on the used market. I’m always hesitant to buy them in case they have been dropped or electronics are loose that can’t be seen without opening the unit up. If you test the flash out for a few minutes before buying, you are probably safe, but I think it is riskier than other used items. Of course, light stands, tripods, camera bags, lighting modifiers and items without many moving parts are a safe best with a quick visual inspection.

Refurbished

If you are not comfortable with the risks involved buying on the used market, you can look into manufacturers that offer refurbished units. These are usually offered at a discount and are perfectly good pieces of equipment — with a warranty!

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