Tips and Advice For Buying Used Cameras

An old friend of mine wrote tonight to ask if I had any suggestions on a camera upgrade. He currently shoots with a modest Canon DSLR, one of the fairly early ones from the early-to-mid 2000s. Capable, but showing its age, I’m sure.

I am not an expert on camera buying, having purchased only a handful or two in my lifetime. That being said, and with all ego aside, I have managed to tease some pretty remarkable results out of many years of garden variety, entry-level gear. So, I decided to post my advice to him in case it prove valuables to someone else in his shoes. Here’s what I wrote:

1. You Don’t Want (Or Need) Cutting-Edge Technology

Stay away from cameras featuring recent innovations (e.g. mirrorless) — it will cost you a premium. Just like the television industry, some innovations turn out to be gimmicks (cough, 3D) and some new features become big successes (smart TVs). But at the end of the day, you really just want to watch TV. And with camera shopping on a budget, you definitely don’t want to pay for the newest tech.
For shopping new cameras on a tight budget, look for ones with a traditional feature set. For used digital cameras, look for bodies made in the last 5-7 years. There are certainly plenty of capable DSLRs produced during that timeframe, probably tens of millions. For film cameras, you can extend that range even further, as the technology has evolved slower in recent decades. For motorcycles, the skies the limit, man.

2. Don’t Be Afraid To Buy Used

Search used marketplaces diligently for quality gear at big discounts and when you spot an opportunity don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. Competition for pricing on new cameras is very tight – you can save a bit of money shopping between the bigger distributors or by finding a sale, but most retailers are priced pretty evenly. When you look at the used market, however, that’s where the pricing on cameras really opens up. Search for used Canon 6Ds (my camera) on Ebay, for example. Some people are selling them for $1100. Others for $490. That’s a HUGE difference.
Find someone selling a used camera at an attractive price, make sure (as best you can) that it’s operable and in good condition, and then take advantage! Over half of my lenses were purchased secondhand this way. Sure, it’s always a gamble, but the payoff can be sweet.
The vast majority of people who sell nice cameras and gear on Ebay or Craigslist have taken great care of them. I don’t. I beat the crap out of my camera and neglect virtually all basic maintenance and care. My 6D has been soaked, dunked, frozen, dropped, kicked and blasted with sand for days on end, and yet it still functions perfectly. Maybe that’s just luck, but it’s also worth mentioning that higher-end cameras (i.e. full-frames) generally have better weather-sealing, durability and quality of materials, which makes them safer bets for secondhand purchasing, even from idiots like me.

3. Take A Look At “Second Tier” Brands

Don’t just look at the two big manufacturers, Canon and Nikon. Other companies like Sony and Pentax make capable cameras, too, and often times they are a bit cheaper. You will need to evaluate whether making the switch to a cheaper camera manufacturer will cost you more in the long run, however, since most lenses built for Canon cannot be used on Nikon/Pentax/Sony, etc. Or, at least not without an adapter.
The longer you go with one particular brand, the more lenses you accumulate and it becomes progressively harder to switch. So personally, this advice is tough to follow. Still valid, but I think I’m on the Canon ship for the foreseeable future.

4. Making The Leap To Full Frame Is Worth It

Make the jump to full-frame as soon as you can, but understand that it comes at a cost.
Similar to making the switch from one camera manufacturer to another, taking the leap to full-frame means some of your existing lenses probably won’t work on your new camera. The sooner you make the switch to the larger sensor size, the quicker your photography will take flight to the next level. It was a huge game changer for me getting my hands on the 6D, even if I had to jettison a few entry-level lenses in order to make the leap. Totally worth it. But do your research and make sure you will have at least one lens to use with your new camera while staying within your budget. I had four lenses for my Canon T3i, for example, and could only use one of them on the new 6D when it arrived. Zero regrets. The past is already written. The future holds all the possibilities. There’s always Christmas and bank robberies.

5. Prioritize The Features You Need And Skip The Gimmicks

Innovations are always new, and pricey. Gimmicks can be found in cameras of all ages. Think of “gimmicks” as all of the features you truly don’t need.
My 6D has WiFi and GPS onboard. Awesome? Sure. I use both features sometimes. But would I trade both of them for better autofocus or for a few hundred bucks back in my pocket? Absolutely.

You’re buying a camera to replace an old one. What’s fixed in that scenario? Your budget.

Your goal is to find a camera that satisfies what you absolutely, most-desperately wish to have in terms of cabilities within that price. Great video capability? Fast frame rate? WiFi and Bluetooth? Megapixel count? Full-frame versus crop sensor? What’s most important to you?

The list is endless, those were just a few samples that came to mind. Write down the 2-3 features/capabilities/attributes you value most in a camera and then make sacrifices in all the other areas. I do this with lenses all the time. Do I like toting around a Rokinon 24mm prime with no autofocus, manual aperture, no zoom, that needs to be calibrated all the damned time? Hell no, but I love it because it gives me the absolute sharpest, faster image I can possibly get for my price range. I get the sharpness and sensitivity of a $4000 lens at a price of $600 because I am willing to put up with all the other shortcomings that come along with it. Those are a pain in the ass, but I can solve those with sheer effort and determination.

Here’s me the other week, captain of the soapbox for this evening’s long-winded but well-intentioned post. This is my best “well, what the fuck do I know?” expression.

When Asked About My Camera

“My camera is a Canon 6D purchased new in early 2013. It was Canon’s cheapest digital full-frame at the time — perhaps it still is. It was definitely a stretch for me financially but I haven’t ever regretted it. After 17,000+ exposures, a few drops, one submersion, and a lot of hard miles, the camera is pretty beat up and scratched to hell, but I find it just as sharp, capable and reliable as ever.

I am sorry to report that I don’t have any new camera suggestions because I have not been in the market for almost five years now. For general advice for shopping used cameras on a budget, I suggest the following…”