Photography has always been an expensive endeavor, for amateurs and professionals alike. And while digital imaging has eliminated pricey film, processing and printing from the equation, it reminds me of switching to an electric vehicle… you save money on the film – um, fuel – but pay considerably more for the car. Likewise, modern digital cameras are overflowing with technology, and even the most basic interchangeable lens camera will set you back a few hundred bucks. For beginning photographers, students, pros who need backup camera bodies, or just hobbyists looking to expand their lens collection, the cost of brand new equipment can be daunting, and sometimes simply out of the question.
Of course, buying new equipment does come with obvious benefits… for one, when you buy products straight from the manufacturer or an authorized dealer, you know you’re getting pristine, never-used, straight-out-of-the-carton items, with no shutter actuations, scratches or dings. New items are covered by the manufacturer’s warranty from the time of purchase. And if you keep the box, packing materials and accessories, resale value will inevitably be better down the road. But all that comes at the cost of firm retail pricing, which is dictated by the manufacturer. In other words, if you want a special deal on a brand new camera or lens, you’re pretty much out of luck.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to look past the allure of a shiny new product, buying used equipment can be a very sensible choice. There are a veritable plethora of reasons to buy pre-owned gear, but let’s narrow it down to the top five benefits:
You can save a boatload of cash up front
The obvious answer, and the reason most people look into buying used gear in the first place, is to save money. Whether you’re just dabbling in photography for the first time, buying a second camera for travel or stocking up for a business venture, you probably would rather avoid paying full retail for your gear. If you buy used, you can usually save 10-20% on current models, and much more for models that are a few years old, especially on the high end. For example, at the time this article is being written (June 2019), a new Nikon D850 camera body on Cameta.com is $3,000, and that’s with a $300 instant rebate. A used D810 – while it doesn’t have the absurd amount of megapixels of the D850 – is still a fantastic, high-resolution, full-frame camera, particularly for studio use, and it’s MUCH cheaper at $1,500 with a low shutter count. Entry-level cameras are a bargain, too… a Canon EOS Rebel T6 can be had for $100 less (or more, as used products often have a little wiggle room) than the current T7, and the feature set is practically identical.
Lenses are a slightly different story. Optics don’t get obsolete very quickly, and modern lenses hold their value very well, so finding huge discounts on the latest 70-200mm 2.8 lens is an exercise in futility. Sure, you may get current generation glass for 10% off or so (or more for well-worn gear), but the real deals reside in older lenses. Good glass is good glass, and while old lenses might not autofocus as fast (or at all), if your goal is simply to produce quality images, many decades-old optics are just as capable as they ever were. For example, I personally shoot with a Sony Alpha A7 III. A 90mm macro lens for Sony is nearly $1000. Rather than dump four car payments into a lens that I would just be using for fun, I picked up an old manual Canon 100mm f4 Macro lens here at Cameta Camera for about $100, tacked on a cheap mount adapter from Amazon, and was able to capture stunning macro photos for about a tenth of the price. Does it autofocus? Nope. But the lens is ultra-sharp with great character, my camera body has manual focus peaking, and I’m not trying to track moving insects, so this lens was a great buy for me.
You won’t get screwed by depreciation
Everyone knows that your new car loses value the second you drive it off the lot. The same is largely true when it comes to new photography equipment. And since an outsized percentage of photographers are pixel-peeping, fingerprint-finding, dust-seeking obsessives, your gear will go down in value the moment you fully depress that shutter button. Suddenly, that $1000 camera body becomes a $900 camera body, or even less once you factor in fees, shipping, gas, time, or any of the other hassles that come with selling photography equipment.
Used equipment, however, doesn’t come with a retail sticker, and the value is determined by what people will pay for it. So assuming you pay a fair price for your used gear up front and you take good care of it, it’s a good bet you won’t lose much – or anything at all – should you decide to sell it within a reasonable amount of time. High-quality lenses, especially, retain their value over time, because as mentioned above, good glass is good glass. Just remember that no matter how good the initial deal was or how sought-after the item is, technology relentlessly continues to march on, and modern equipment will most certainly go down in value, so don’t expect to make any investments.
Your pictures (and clients) won’t know the difference
Unless some forum-dwelling dweeb is scrolling through your metadata hunting for a reason to criticize your photography skills, nobody will know – or care, for that matter – if you shot your pictures with an older Mark III or a new Mark IV. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if you paid half price for a fast portrait lens with dust in the elements that doesn’t show up in any aperture setting under f/8. What’s important is the end result. To make another trivial car comparison (this is what I do), I bought a dealer loaner with less than a thousand miles on it. Did it have that new car smell? Nope. But it gets me to Point B just as quickly and safely as the one in the showroom, and I saved ten thousand dollars.
Cameras, lenses, lighting… these are merely tools, little combinations of plastic, glass and circuit boards that help you capture and create the images you want. And if you can achieve your creative vision and spend less doing it, why not?
You’ll have more money for more gear!
Okay, now for the real reason buying used equipment is so desirable… you can buy MORE STUFF!! Let’s say you’re just starting out, and you want to buy a camera with a basic zoom lens. Great, get an entry-level DSLR for $500. ORRRRRR get a slightly-used DSLR with the exact same sensor and lens, and spend the $150 you saved on a 50mm f/1.8 for ultra-sharp photos with a super shallow depth of field, or an external flash unit for improved lighting. Guaranteed you’ll get better results with the older camera body, plus a nice prime lens or bounce flash (or both!). And if you can get those items used as well, you’re well on your way to a quality photography outfit at a fraction of the price.
Of course, newbies aren’t the only ones who might want to load up on used gear. More experienced photographers are often afflicted with the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.), and sometimes, buying used is the only way we can afford to maintain the steady flow of cameras and lenses required to keep us sane.
You’re giving good cameras a new life
Alright, so it’s not like you’re adopting an abandoned dog or something, and call me a hopeless romantic if you must, but old cameras don’t belong in a landfill. They belong out there, in the hands of someone with an eye for the dramatic! On a fine wooden shelf next to a well-preserved Kodak Brownie! In the backpack of an enterprising young photographer, just learning what on earth an aperture is! And besides, cameras and lenses are not exactly eco-friendly items to dispose of, so the longer we keep using them, the less end up leaching nasty chemicals into the ground. Sure, Cameta Camera will sell fewer new cameras and maybe I’ll be out of a job, but hey, I’m a sucker for an old camera.
Alright, so let’s assume I have thoroughly convinced you that buying used photography equipment is a dang good idea… where does one find and purchase said gear? As previously mentioned, the market for pre-owned cameras and lenses is very extensive, and as such, there are plenty of viable options.
Yes, it’s still a thing! The original auction website isn’t the online commerce powerhouse it once was, but it’s still the best place to find the exact pre-owned item you’re looking for at a price dictated solely by market forces, meaning it’s very hard to “overpay” for something. Need a Nikon DSLR camera body? There are thousands of results. Need a very specific, very old item, like that 100mm f4 macro FD-mount lens I mentioned earlier? There are dozens of results there, too. From current models with a little bit of dust on the zoom ring to century-old conversation pieces, Ebay still has the most extensive selection.
Of course, Ebay has also been known for its – shall we say – unregulated shopping experience. And with sellers originating from anywhere, selling virtually anything, risking your money on pricey photography products can be unnerving. Thankfully, Ebay’s tried-and-true feedback system lets you know which sellers are trustworthy, and if you exercise a little bit of caution, you’ll find that Ebay is an excellent place to score used photography gear. Make sure you carefully review the seller’s images and description, ask questions, and feel free to walk away if the seller isn’t forthcoming about the item’s condition or operation. Additionally, if you’re located in the U.S., stick to U.S.-based sellers (like Cameta Camera!) with excellent feedback ratings (like Cameta Camera!) that stand behind their sales.
Craigslist / Facebook
While we at Cameta Camera don’t officially endorse Craigslist as a sales platform, it’s more than just car parts and escorts. I’ve personally bought and sold a number of lenses on Craigslist, and so far, I haven’t had to call the police even once! And honestly, because you can personally haggle with people, some of the best deals can be had on the List of Craig. The same can be said about sales on Facebook. There are countless local marketplaces and “garage sale” groups throughout the country, and Facebook is quickly becoming a preferred way to list, view, buy and sell locally, especially because conversations are saved and money can be exchanged digitally, so you don’t have to carry a wad of cash when meeting a stranger for the first time.
As with any in-person transaction, however, you should not only be cautious about when and where the swap takes place (I usually go with Starbucks), you should also cover all your bases to make sure you don’t end up with a defective product. If you’re buying a camera, take a close look at the image sensor if possible, and make sure you test the important functions… shutter, autofocus, buttons and dials, memory card slots, image stabilization… and if you have time (and a laptop), check out the shutter count. There is no standard method, but you can find the information you need in the camera’s EXIF data, so you’ll typically need to take a sample image and upload it to a website or view it with a specific computer program. If you’re looking at an Olympus or Panasonic camera, you can generally find the shutter count by inputting a “cheat code” type combination of button presses directly on the camera. Again, it varies by manufacturer and model, so research the method you need to employ so you’re ready to go when you meet the seller.
If you’re buying a lens, you’ll want to inspect the front and rear elements (especially the rear) for scratches, fungus or wear on the lens coating. While a little dust or minor scratches rarely affect your images, some imperfections can cause serious problems. If possible, bring along your camera and take some test shots to check for issues with sharpness, autofocus, image stabilization, motor noise, etc. Make sure the zoom and focus rings move freely, and verify that any buttons or switches on the lens are functional. This may all seem like overkill, but remember, there’s no return policy with Craigslist, Facebook, or even old-school printed classified ads. If you buy an expensive item that doesn’t work right when you get it home, you’re on your own.
Online Photo Retailers
Did you know?? Most authorized dealers of your favorite photography brands will also list used products on their website (like Cameta.com/used, of course), so you can rest easy knowing that the item you’re buying has been tested and cleaned, will be packed and shipped properly, and can be returned if something is amiss. Transactions are safe, customer service is accessible, and in some cases, the products are even covered by a seller warranty (like Cameta’s 6-month warranty on all used gear). You might end up paying a few extra bucks overall, but the anxiety and potential risk that comes with buying goods from a private party is mitigated by the fact that an actual company with an actual reputation to maintain is going to back up the pre-owned gear they sell.
While they are few and far between these days, mom-and-pop photography shops still exist, and generally, they rely on personal relationships with steady customers to keep their businesses humming along. The original (and still kicking!) Cameta Camera store, located in Amityville, New York, takes trade-ins and sells used equipment to locals in addition to handling a robust online business. And if you have a camera shop like ours near you, chances are they not only have a good selection of used gear to pick from, but they can help you find the right equipment for your needs, provide technical support, offer photography tips, make prints, and more. Not only that, but you’ll be able to see, inspect and test the gear you want prior to purchase, and the shop should definitely vouch for the quality of their used inventory with some sort of return policy or limited warranty, so you’ll feel confident in your new gear (new to you, that is) after leaving the store.
Yes, the humble local camera store is still the one place where you can buy a new camera, get a bargain of a used lens to go with it, trade them both in, buy a more-advanced used camera, learn how to use it, find accessories, trade in all your gear when you convince yourself that a smartphone is good enough, buy another camera when you realize it’s not, buy a 35mm film camera to get back to the basics, process the film and make prints, buy more film after accidentally exposing it to light, and so much more.
So, to wrap up… was this entire article just a long advertisement for Cameta Camera? Of course it was. I work here, dang it. But while we obviously prefer that you buy from us (and there’s plenty of good reasons to!), the overall point is that no matter what sort of gear you’re looking for, you can save hundreds, even thousands, by purchasing pre-owned equipment. And with a massive selection of used equipment available online, at local shops and possibly right in your neighborhood, there’s a cheap camera (or lens, or tripod, or bag, or filter set, or battery grip, or flash unit, or softbox…… you get the idea) out there for you.