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Buying a second-hand camera

Second-hand doesn't have to mean second-best


Consider your intended use of a camera so you will look only at models that will meet your needs.
Consider your intended use of a camera so you will look only at models that will meet your needs.

There is risk in buying a second-hand camera, because you have few ways of knowing what abuse it was put through and whether it will perform all its functions as originally intended. Your objective is to minimize the risk, providing yourself with as much assurance as possible that the camera will perform properly and operate reliably for years to come. The following tips and pointers will help you through the process of acquiring a good used camera.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFOREHAND

When you know what you are looking for, it is easier to find it. Walking into a second hand store or a pawn shop and asking if they have any used cameras for sale is not the way to begin. You will undoubtedly be shown an array of different models in varying condition, and either be sold something you don’t know a lot about or walk out more confused than when you started.

The first step in buying a second hand camera is similar to buying a new model. Begin by considering your intended use of it so you can narrow down the selection to models that will meet your specific needs. Unless you are a camera collector, there is no point buying a whiz-bang camera that has features you won’t use, and there are few things more frustrating than ending up with a camera that falls short of your needs.

POINT-AND-SHOOT

If you simply wish to take snapshots at family get-togethers and have little interest in expanding your knowledge of photography beyond the basics of point-and-shoot, you will need a camera that does most of the work for you. There are so many inexpensive new point-and-shoot cameras on the market that it will probably not be worth your while to look for a basic, low-end used camera. The difference in price will be minimal in relation to the risk of the camera not performing well. You should target quality, and narrow your search to very good, used point-and-shoot cameras that have features beyond the basics. Some to consider are compact size, automatic focus with manual over-ride, choice of focus modes, choice of exposure modes, zoom lens, built-in flash, fill flash, red-eye reduction, automatic film advance and rewind. By learning about these features before beginning your search for a used camera, and determining which ones you are likely to use, you will be able to hone in on only those models that meet your needs.


ADVANCED PHOTOGRAPHY

If, on the other hand, you are intending to become a serious student of photography, you will want a camera that will not only provide you with quality images, but also has features that enable you to learn the craft and will meet your needs as your photo skills improve. At a minimum, the camera must permit you to manually select aperture and shutter speed. If you can’t control both of these, then you can’t fully control your picture-taking.

The ideal camera for the novice who wishes to learn photography is one, believe it or not, that permits you to make mistakes that can be corrected by proper use of the camera. What kind of camera does this? A basic, manually-operated camera that has an excellent lens. Strange to say, the manual type of camera is no longer being made by many of the well-known manufacturers, whose new models all tend to have automatic features such as auto-focus and auto-exposure. Such cameras may, however, have manual over-ride capability, permitting the photographer to take control.

Older used cameras that are fully manual or have the option of manual control can still be acquired in serviceable condition. Some models may be 15 or more years old, but were so well-built - many having die-cast metal bodies and titanium foil shutter curtains - that, if they have not been abused, should have several years of service left in them. (A word of caution, though: Before buying a very old camera, check with the manufacturer to learn whether they still stock parts for the particular model. You don't want the inability to make even a minor repair to put your camera out of business.)

Features to look for include a quality brand name, sturdiness and solid feel, wide range of shutter speeds, electronic flash synchronization, through-the-lens metering with easy-to-read exposure data, ability to interchange lenses – ideally lenses that can be used with the latest models of the camera (so you will not have to trade everything in and start over if you upgrade your camera body in future) – self-timer and a fast, bright, easy-to-focus lens that has good resolution and color rendition.

There are so many inexpensive new point-and-shoot cameras on the market that it will probably not be worth your while to look for a basic, low-end used camera.
There are so many inexpensive new point-and-shoot cameras on the market that it will probably not be worth your while to look for a basic, low-end used camera.

Acquiring a camera with a good lens will help to make your picture-taking happy for you.
Acquiring a camera with a good lens will help to make your picture-taking happy for you.

A GOOD LENS IS CRITICAL

The importance of purchasing a camera with a good lens cannot be over-emphasized. The lens must be fast and sharp, and preferably multi-coated, and of such good quality that you will want to keep it years from now (if it is not permanently attached to your camera) when you trade in or retire your camera body. If it comes down to a choice of buying either a great lens/good camera body combination versus a good lens/great camera body combo, go for the combination with the great lens, and your images will thank you.

ACCESSORIES

When checking out a used camera, it’s a good idea to check into the types and availability of accessories for it. One useful accessory to acquire at the outset is a hard or semi-soft case in which to keep and protect your camera. Also, be sure the camera has a firmly-attached neck strap, and check it for wear. If there is no strap or it looks worn enough to come apart, purchase a new one of good quality and be sure it firmly attaches to the camera. (We actually recommend double-stitching your neck strap on a sewing machine to be sure it won't come loose. It's an added bit of insurance you will always be glad you did.)

Be sure you don’t leave without a lens cap that attaches firmly. The next item on your shopping list should be a tripod, and you may want to save up for it, since just any tripod won't do for your first one. (There is no point in buying equipment that won't do the job well or that won't provide you with years of satisfaction.) Check out our section on Tripods when you are ready to spring for one.


BRAND NAME

Buy a quality-made camera built by a reputable manufacturer, and you increase the chances of your used camera being in good condition. Some manufacturers made models that were known to be sturdy and built to withstand bumps, shock and frequent use. An older camera that was top-of-the line and designed for professionals when it was introduced is more likely to have been purchased by an experienced photographer who knew how to care for equipment. The downside, however, is that such a camera may also have seen extremely heavy use before it was traded in, but remember that some of the better old cameras were built to withstand heavy use.

PRICE

It is a good idea to find out what the camera's retail price was when new. If the seller doesn't have the original bill of sale, you can check magazine ads from the period, or contact the manufacturer. This will give you a starting point in determining its current value. Unless it is a rare, collector's camera, the asking price should be significantly less than the original. You can also compare prices for similar models being sold on the internet. Check websites such as Craigslist or eBay.

Look for a quality-made camera from a reputable manufacturer.
Look for a quality-made camera from a reputable manufacturer.

Make a photocopy of your manual. You will thank yourself should you ever lose the original.
Make a photocopy of your manual. You will thank yourself should you ever lose the original.

ORIGINAL CAMERA MANUAL

Ask if the camera (and the lens’s) original manuals are available. Often sellers have them, but forget to include them with the camera when it is offered for sale. The manual will probably end up getting tossed out some time after you have left with the camera. If you are buying the camera from a dealer who doesn’t have the original manual that came with the camera, ask if the dealer can get one. Many dealers keep copies of older manuals for just such eventualities, although they may be at another branch and not immediately available. This can usually be confirmed with a phone call or computer message.

The dealer can also check with the camera’s manufacturer for a manual, or may be able to recommend a good after-market book that deals specifically with your particular model. If a book is available, it would be a good idea to get a copy even if you have the camera manual, since such books often expand upon the information in the manual and provide you with a greater range of useful pointers.

If you're in a spot and can't get one any other way, there are specialty web sites now that offer downloadable copies of old camera manuals, but expect to pay for them, if they have the manual for your camera.

Once you have the camera manual (and hopefully you will), it's a good idea to make a photocopy of it to store in a secure place. If you lose the original, it may be impossible to find another, and you will praise your personal brilliance in thinking to make a photocopy when you need to refer to it.


Further information...

Inspecting a used camera

Different kinds of sellers