Here at PhotographyTalk, we've been telling you for a long time that a great way to make the transition to better gear is to buy good-quality used equipment. One of the most common questions I hear in response to that is, “How do I tell if the used equipment I'm purchasing is of good quality?” Well, that's a very fair question and in the interest of keeping our readers well-informed, I'm going to list some of the most important things to look for when you're inspecting a used DSLR. (I'll talk about used lenses in a separate article.) Ready? Here we go.
Dirt, Corrosion and Fungus
Nothing tells the tale of camera abuse like fouling. Check all the seams, the sensor area, contacts and mounting surfaces for dirt buildup, rust and corrosion. Open the battery compartment and make sure the contacts are bright and corrosion-free. Some dust is to be expected, but corrosion is a sure sign of impending problems.
Finding a used DSLR with the original box, manual, etc. is rare. Take a look at the one above.
Fungus growth inside the camera is best spotted by taking a few shots and viewing them at high magnification to look for web-like patterns. This can be a catastrophic problem, expensive and difficult to fix. Dust spots may be easy enough to remove with a good cleaning, but don't assume anything.
DSLR shutters have a finite life. While many cameras will live beyond the expected number, a high shutter count means the risk of failure is higher. If the camera is likely to fail soon after you purchase it, it's not a great investment, since shutter repair is costly.
Older model cameras may have high shutter counts and should probably be purchased only from a reputable dealer. The one in the photo above is tested and guaranteed. Take a closer look.
What's high? Well, entry-level DSLRs have an expected lifetime of about 50,000 actuations, mid-level will last for about 100,000 shots and pro-grade DSLRs should handle about 200,000 actuations. Where do you find the count? Well, there's the rub; it isn't available on all cameras. If the camera does offer the information, however, it's usually available in the EXIF data for your images, capture an image, download it and use an EXIF viewer to find “Image Count”, “Shutter Count” or a similar parameter.
Age and Wear
This starts with knowing a little bit about the camera you're considering. If it's an older model or version, you can assume it's seen a lot of use. Wear patterns will give you some visual clues to that, too. Note the scratches and scuffs, labels worn off of buttons and the condition of the mounting surfaces.
The Canon 5D MkII has been replaced by the MkIII. The MkII version, however, is still usd by many pros. Here's a guaranteed one for less than $1,000!
If it's a new model and being sold at a very low price, it's worth considering whether it was stolen. Be cautious of anxious private sellers.
“What?” Right. If you're buying a used camera from an individual and they're offering a warranty, be very skeptical. In virtually all cases, camera warranties are not transferable, so don't be fooled by a seller that says, “It's still under warranty!” For the original purchaser, that's true – but not for you if you buy it used.
There are two ways to get a valid warranty on used cameras. One is to purchase a refurbished unit from the manufacturer or a reputable rebuilder. The other is to deal with a trusted dealer that offers their own warranty. For instance, Used Photo Pro offers a 180-day warranty on their high-rated used gear. That means you can return it for up to almost 6 months if it fails. The bottom line is there's less worry involved in purchasing a used camera from the right source.