Buy used photo equipment: my advice

Points to check before buying used equipment

If you are not sure you understand the points mentioned below, it is probably best for you to buy new equipment, at the risk of ending up with a used camera in poor condition.

The external appearance of the equipment says a lot about its former owner: shocks / scratches

First of all, examine the equipment carefully from all angles to assess its wear and tear and whether it has been subjected to any shocks.

For digital cameras, look carefully to see if all the buttons are present and working, if the housing shell is not cracked or dented in some places. A simple scratch is sometimes not a problem, but a shock mark, however small, can mean that the case has fallen, and some components inside, that you don’t see, may have been damaged. A quick look at the battery connectors will allow you to see if there are any traces of oxidation. Without a lens, also check if the contactors and the device mount are in good condition, and that there is no dust (or worse, sand) inside the sensor cage. A few dusts on the mirror are generally not a problem (because the mirror protects the sensor from the housing) but it is better to be too demanding than lax and bite your fingers later.

For the lenses, check carefully if there is no dust trapped between the different lenses, if the lens surface is not scratched, and if it is a zoom, if the zoom ring works and is fluid. Tip: Use a flashlight and illuminate the inside of the lens on the side where the lens is attached to the body. This way, you will see all the dust present in the optics.

Ask specific questions about the equipment to the seller

Before buying second-hand equipment, I like to talk with the seller, to know what his use of the equipment has been, how long he has been using it, if he has been satisfied with it, why he sells it,… In short, all these little questions that seem like nothing but that will allow you to check that the person in front of you is really the user of the equipment. If not, think about it, and if in doubt, refrain from doing so, as the dealer may tell you stories.

In general, unless you are comfortable enough to inspect a piece of equipment yourself, or you buy it in a photo shop, talk directly with the user of the photo equipment for sale.

Check the number of trips

If you think that a SLR camera is immortal, you are mistaken: each camera has a shutter that is one of the wear parts that allows you to know how to use a camera. With the number of shots, you can find out if the camera has taken a lot of pictures, and especially estimate how many pictures you have left before the shutter shows signs of weakness (black bars on your picture) or breaks down completely.

To find out how many times a camera has been triggered, the easiest way is to study the EXIFs of the last picture taken with this camera. If your in-house photo software does not allow you to find the number of triggers, download XnViewMP (free) and open the photo using this software.

For information, and depending on the ranges, here is the number of theoretical releases of the boxes before a failure occurs:

  • Entry level: 50,000 trips (ex: D3300, 100D)
  • Mid-range: 100,000 trips (ex: D7100, 70D)
  • Semi-pro: 150,000 trips (ex: 7D, 5D, D800)
  • Pro: 300,000 trips (D4s, 1DX)

These figures are not contract values provided by the manufacturers, and if your shutter fails, the repair will only be covered if the housing is still under warranty.

Replacing a shutter costs several hundred euros, depending on the model (the higher the model is, the more expensive it will be to replace). So check the number of trips before choosing a box, and if it is too close to the theoretical limit, ask yourself if you could find another device that is newer and perhaps a little more expensive, with which you would be more comfortable.

Trigger and trigger

For a box, it is essential to perform a few trips to see if the device is working properly. The important points to check here are the exposure cell, autofocus, viewfinder, recording files on the memory card.

To check the exposure cell, disable bracketing and exposure compensation, photograph a bright area several times in a row and check that the exposure is correct and above all constant between the different shots.

Inspect the sensor

The sensor is the centerpiece of a DSLR, and if it is not in very good condition, it is better to stop there in the purchase. Indeed, it is an extremely fragile and delicate component, and a simple cleaning of the sensor without taking precautions can cause stains or even scratches on this sensor, with permanent traces on all the photos you will take later.

To check that the sensor is in good condition, is not filled with dust and has no scratches, here is a simple procedure to carry out with the housing:

  • use a manual setting with priority to aperture
  • choose a very small aperture type f/16 (do not worry about the shutter speed
  • use the widest focal length and focus manually as close as possible
  • take a picture of a clear wall, a white sheet of paper or even a blue sky

Take several pictures, and watch them on a large screen (not just on the back of the camera). If you see small dark spots or lines on the image, the sensor is not in good condition. If the stains (dust) can leave after meticulous cleaning (go through a professional or someone who knows what they are doing), the scratches are there to stay, so give up. And if you have your sensor cleaned, a tip: take pictures with the professional to show the condition of your sensor before leaving it, so there is no unpleasant surprise if it turns out that its cleaning has made things worse, or worse, brought a scratch on the sensor.

How to choose the device model: step-by-step method

The brand

First of all, I would like to draw your attention to a very important point: it is useless to get too caught up in the head. For the same range, 2 cameras of different brands are often just as good as each other, and will not make any fundamental difference in your photography practice. What I mean is that a 200€ compact from one brand or another will often be about the same. Ditto if you hesitate between 2 entry-level reflexes from Canon or Nikon. I will come back to this, but it seems important to me to clarify it now.

The budget

  • Below 150-200€: choose a good compact, well rated on the Digital ones. You don’t have to worry about it.
  • About 300€ (or even 400€ when selling a kidney): think about turning to the opportunity. You will find reflexes (or even hybrids) 2 to 3 years old, which work very well and will be enough to start with. You will probably be much happier with it than a brand new bridge or compact. Don’t be fooled by things like wi-fi, GPS and so on: it’s frankly not essential.
  • Over 400-500€: choose a SLR or hybrid. Even at the beginning of the range, you will really enjoy it.

Hybrid or reflex?

That’s the question you’re asking yourself a lot today. Clearly, many hybrids have achieved a quality equivalent to SLRs. However, a small footprint is always a big advantage (footprint, weight, travel and travel, discretion, etc.). So in which situations should you still choose a reflex? As always, it depends on your needs and your photography practice.

In my opinion, reflex is essential in the following practices:

  • Animal photography: you will need a long telephoto lens and a good balance with the body, which hybrids cannot offer.
  • Sports photography: for the moment, SLRs still have the advantage in terms of reactivity, which is essential in this discipline. The gap is likely to be reduced to zero in the coming years, but this is still the case in 2014.
  • The photo of shows (concerts, etc.): the handling, ergonomics and reactivity of reflexes remain for me essential in this discipline. But high-end hybrids are starting to compete!
  • To a lesser extent, the macro: the range of macro lenses is often reduced on hybrids, so make sure you have what you need before you buy.

And that’s all! For everything else (landscape, portrait, everyday life, architecture, street photography, travel, etc.), you will not see any fundamental difference in the rendering between hybrid and reflex. Especially if the sensor size is the same.

So it’s really a matter of personal preference: some will favour a small footprint to be able to take the device everywhere, and others will prefer something bigger for a better grip. Now it’s up to you!

How to choose between the 2 or 3 finalists?

Normally, at this stage, you will have 2 or 3 cameras that tempt you, without being able to choose: you have kept the cameras that correspond to the 3 main criteria mentioned above, you have filtered with your budget, you have chosen between hybrid and SLR. And you still have 2 hybrids or 3 SLRs left at the same price, looking at the top rated cameras on the comparison sites. And you have no idea of the differences between them, despite reading many tests or comparisons.

Well, good news: there are few of them! As I said above, for the same range, there are relatively few differences between competing devices. An Olympus PEN and a Panasonic GF of the same generation are quite close. Ditto for Canon and Nikon SLR cameras of the same range.

My best advice here is to take them in hand in store: look at which one you feel most comfortable with. Handle the device, see if you can easily find the settings, if the menus are intuitive for you, if it “falls into your hands”. It’s a bit like looking for an apartment after all: you have a crush or not. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s really very, very important to have an intuitive grip: it will make it easier for you to take pictures, and the pleasure of taking pictures.

This first-hand experience will also allow you to notice small details that you may have missed in the tests, but that are important to you:

  • the presence of a viewfinder
  • a swivelling screen

These criteria are really very personal, personally I don’t find the swivel screen important, but you have the right to take this into consideration 😉