Guide to Buying Used Photography Gear
Buying gear within the used market can be a great way to save money. However, you can also be left with a lemon, and no way to return your soft lens or broken gear. Since we work with thousands of pieces of gear on a daily basis, I figured it was time to discuss the many tips you can use to look out for when purchasing gear on a used market.
This is also a great time to talk briefly about a few programs we have to sell used gear through our own rental channels. First, I’d like to quickly mention our keeper program. If you’ve rented from us before, you’ve probably figured out how the keeper program works for a renter. To put it simply, if you rent a piece of gear from us, and can’t possibly fathom returning the piece of gear, you can purchase it from us without ever needing to send it back. With our Keeper program, we find the fair market used price for the gear you have, and then remove the rental costs you’ve already applied to the gear, giving you an exceptional price for the gear you already have within your possession.
The other service we have is through our sister site, LensAuthority. LensAuthority is the storefront where we often sell our gear after it has passed its rental cycle. the gear is cleaned and inspected, then given a rating and price through our LensAuthority marketplace. Because we have no ties with companies directly and work purely as a rental house, we have no allegiances to different brands or pieces of gear. So you can ensure that the prices and rating on LensAuthority are accurate and fair for the pieces of gear.
Lenses are likely the most common thing you will find when searching the used market for photography and videography gear. One of the many benefits to selling used lenses is that they maintain their value for an incredibly long time, especially when comparing them to camera bodies. Often, major manufacturers will update a lens design once every 10-15 years, so if the gear is well maintained it’s pricing will likely not fall quickly. Though the pricing of these lenses rarely fall over time, the quality often will. As discussed frequently in our technical articles, lenses will begin to lose sharpness over their use, and will need to be serviced to prevent back or front focusing issues. However, here are a few tips to keep in mind when purchasing a lens from the used market.
What a date code is, is simply a serial code used to identify when the lens was manufactured. Without going too far into detail with this, the older the date code, the more likely you’ll have issues with sharpness, chromatic aberrations and other issues that can develop over time. While finding the date code, and reading it is not a difficult task, it would be complicated to explain it in detail here for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma and other brands (or to do it without having people fall asleep). So, as a result, I’ve included links explaining how to do this with each individual brands of gear, for your reference.
Our friends at The Digital Picture have put together a handy guide for reading Canon Date Codes, while Nikon has a somewhat more complicated process, their codes can be found here. Sadly though, Sony, Sigma and many other third parties do not share their serial coding process publicly, though you’re often able to contact them directly to get the information and manufacturing date.
Scratches, Dust & Dirt
While we’ve proven it time and time again, dust inside the lens rarely has an effect on the image quality of the lens. That said, cosmetic damage can show signs of improper use and general mishandling of the lens. However, if you’re confident on the visual damage doing no harm to the image quality, it’s a great way to pick up a used lens on the cheap. Heck, my Canon 135mm f/2L looks used and abused, which allowed me to get an otherwise perfect lens for about 60% of the used price – simply because the filter ring was a little scratched up. However, one alarming problem you may face when purchasing used gear is unsmooth focusing from dirt and sand inside the focusing barrel. The build up of sand and dirt in the internal moving parts of your lens can begin doing damage to your lens over time, and would want to be serviced before long.
Perhaps the largest problem you can face when buying used gear is improper focusing with an older lens. Generally, these problems in accuracy occur over the life of the lens, and can often be calibrated through the respected manufacturers, and sometimes, on your own camera using micro adjustments.
Warranty Cards & Boxes
A common practice among photographers is to hold on to the warranty cards and boxes for their lenses, so when it comes time to sell, they can include that in the package. Often, with a warranty card in place, you’re still able to take advantage of the manufacturers warranty if something was to go wrong. While this practice and warranty lengths vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, having the box and warranty cards help safeguard the buyer from any unforeseeable problems with the equipment.
For my personal use, I love scratches and dust. Minor ones almost never (say, 99.9%) affect image quality and operation, but lower the price significantly. I fear dents, though. Dents usually mean an impact and a lens is like a shipping box full of crystals: the impact may mess stuff up inside. It depends a lot on which lens, in specific you are considering. The original Canon 24-70 f/2.8 lens, for example, very often decenters when an impact sufficient to dent the front filter ring occurs. Many supertelephotos can look like they’ve been hammered and still function fine. But a dent generally means look at the optics carefully.
I’m very careful to check the mechanicals on any used lens I’m considering. If a barrel zooms out, make sure it doesn’t rock back and forth significantly. Make sure the mount fits well and the lens can’t rock back and fort (a bit of rotation is fine). The zoom and focus rings should operate smoothly. The focus motors shouldn’t squeal (nor should the focusing ring when turned manually). Image Stabilizing units are different in different lenses. Some are fairly loud and seem to jerk the image in the viewfinder when they are perfectly fine. In a different lens this may be a sign of failure. So it really helps to have handled a lens of the type you’re buying, or at least be able to talk with someone who uses it.
Optical quality is probably what causes people more stress than anything else. I do recommend taking a few ‘brick wall’ shots at various focus lengths (for a zoom) and focusing distances (for any lens). Just see if the corners appear equally sharp. Then take some pictures and see if they seem OK.
As has been repeated so many times on forums, though, if you take hand held shots with a wide angle, wide-aperture lens and a corner is soft, it’s your technique. Checking those does require a tripod and being absolutely square to the target. And if you check a lens using autofocus and it’s fine, well, that’s fine. But if it’s not fine, the problem is with focus until proven otherwise. Live-view manual focusing is the only accurate way to test a lens’ optics.
Perhaps the biggest way to save money in photography is to buy your camera bodies on a used market. Because of the frequent release cycle of new cameras, camera bodies will often lose their value much faster than lenses or other pieces of gear. Alongside the frequent updates of new bodies, cameras will often lose their value faster than lenses, because they have more moveable parts, which leads to higher chance of failure. Shutters on all cameras have a timeline, and if used long enough, will fail eventually. These variables will eventually bring the price of a camera down, and lead to more risk when purchasing used. When buying a camera body on the used market, here was some things to look out for.
As mentioned above, all shutters will fail over time. Many shutters a rated for 100K to 500K shutter clicks before they fail, a number that can easily outlast, or succumb to. However, there is no real way to detect when a shutter is going to fail (unless of course it’s making weird noises, or you’re able to literally watch to start to come apart). That said, you can often look up the shutter count using various programs and you’ll want to double check the shutter count prior to purchasing any camera body used.
Checking the Sensor
Certainly giving a full comprehensive test of the sensor may not be a viable option, but checking it for any damage can easily be done by locking the mirror up on the body, and looking at the sensor at different angles. Dust and dirt can easily be removed with a simple cleaning, but if cleaning was not done properly, damage could have been done to the sensor. The most obvious to detect is scratched on the surface. While uncommon for most cameras, this check can be done visually and in just a few seconds. It’s important to double check the sensor prior to purchasing your used camera body.
With cameras, they generally either work or they don’t. BUT I do recommend checking every I/O port on the camera. You may never use the HDMI port, etc., but if they are broken or not functioning, on most cameras, the entire main board will have to be replaced. I’d also always do an f/16 sky shot to look for sensor scratches (dust is no big deal). On a full-frame camera a sensor replacement will often be over $1,000. It makes a shutter replacement seem inexpensive.
These are just a few tips to help ensure a good buy when searching the used market. That said, there is no guarantee that you’ll get perfectly good gear when buying equipment, both used or new. If you’re worried about quality, I again recommend either taking advantage of our Keeper program or looking through our sister site at LensAuthority.com. No gear is more rigorously tested and cleaned as often as our own stock, and it is one way to promise the highest quality of gear when buying used.
Author: Zach Sutton
I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at Lensrentals.com. I’m also a commercial beauty photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.