Buying a used camera can be a great option for photographers who want to expand their kit, buy a discontinued camera, get started in the industry or who simply want to save a few dollars. As new equipment is released frequently it is pretty easy to find lots options in used camera stores, online and through classified ads. That being said you can’t always trust that a seller is being entirely truthful about the condition of the camera you are buying or how frequently it has been used.

Other than how the camera looks visually it can be difficult to verify that the gear you are buying is worth the price. To help you buy the perfect new to you DSLR we have put together a list of the most important things to check before buying a used camera:

1. Check the shutter count

Just like cars have a measure for how many miles have been travelled, cameras have a similar measure called a shutter count which tells you how many shutter cycles (or actuations) a camera has taken.

Camera manufactures rate their cameras to indicate an estimate of how many shutter cycles a camera can take before the mechanism needs replacing. This number will vary for each camera and ranges from 50 -300 thousand shots although this number is an indication only and largely depends on how the camera was used.

Shutter count tests are good way to do a sanity check that you are getting what you pay for. The physical condition of a camera is not a guarantee that a camera advertised as “like new” hasn’t actually shot 100,000 shutter actuations…

So how do you actually check the shutter count?

Before inspecting the camera you will a reference point to help you determine if the shutter count you find is good, bad or somewhere in the middle. If you are looking at a newer camera a quick Google search with the model name and “shutter life” or “shutter rating” should give you result. For older DSLRs you can check out which lists reports on shutter count for vintage models..

Option One:

The first option is to look at the file numbering, which may indicate how many shots the camera has taken. However, on some DSLRs, this number can be reset, so it’s not always the most reliable method.

Option Two:

The second option is to use a third-party program, to find the shutter count. PhotoME is a great free tool that will display the complete metadata, including the actuation count.

  1. Download PhotoME a free tool that can help you access image file information.
  2. Upload a RAW image file taken by the camera.
  3. At the bottom of the program window, you will find the option to “Filter” – in this field enter “shutter count”. There’s your number!

If this figure is nowhere close to the estimation provided by the manufacturer, it’s a good indication that you shouldn’t have any major issues with the camera for a little while.

2. Check the sensor

Dead Pixels

When buying a used camera you will want to inspect the sensor for any dead or hot pixels. Keep in mind that three or four dead pixels aren’t a big deal, especially when buying an older camera; but if you see a large amount it can be an indication of a much bigger issue.

To check for any dead pixels, you will need to take an image with the camera, preferably RAW, at its base ISO setting (usually ISO 100 or 200), with the lens cap on, so that you get a dark frame.

When you inspect the image on your computer at full magnification you should be able to see any sensor-related issues show up on the image.

Sensor/Chamber Dust and Damage

Next up is checking for sensor and chamber dust or damage. Like when inspecting for dead pixels you will need to take an image with the camera, but this time you will shoot a picture of a bright subject like a white wall. When taking the photo have the lens shooting at it’s minimum aperture which will be the highest f number, for example f/22 or f/16. After loading the photo on your computer scroll through the image at 100% magnification keeping an eye out for any potential issues.

While sensor dust is normal, if the camera is in horrible condition and will require a professional clean you can factor this into the price.

3. Condition of Lenses

It is fairly common when buying a second hand camera body that the seller will include a kit lens in the price. While the outer condition of any included lenses might look like new it’s good to have a sanity check that there are no issues hiding under the surface like fungus, lens scratches or botch repair jobs. Here are some key things to look out for:

  1. Firstly, check the outer condition of the lens for any signs of wear and tear to give you an indication of how much use the lens has had.
  2. Take a look at the front and rear glass for obvious issues like scratching. It can be hard to see minor scratches so one trick is to angle the glass towards a light and look at the reflection.
  3. Another big issue to look out for fungus. Fungus affects the surface of the lens, and without re-polishing can never be fully removed. The best way to prevent fungus is to store lenses in a dry area so it can be a good idea to ask the seller how the equipment has been stored.
  4. Check out the screws that hold the lens together to make sure that they match one another and that there is no damage to the screw heads. Any above board maintenance and repairs will be done with correct screw drivers sizes so this can be a warning sign that there is more than meets the eye.
  5. When the lens is mounted to the camera it should fit sturdily and securely. Give the lens a test wiggle and make sure there is no unusual movement.
  6. This one is obvious but check that the lens doesn’t give an error message when attached to the camera and when focusing.
  7. While the lens is attached is also a good time to double check that the lens auto focuses.
  8. Use manual focus, it should focus smoothly and shouldn’t catch. Test the zoom in the same way.
  9. Check that the filter threads have no flat spots and that a filter will screw into them
  10. Finally, if the lens has image stabilization check that the feature works. On most image stabilized lenses, you can hear the IS motor working.

4. Warranty

Many sellers unintentionally lure prospective buyers into a false sense of security by listing their camera as “under warranty”. These might seem like magic words but the majority of major manufacturers do not extend cover to any DSLR purchased used. Below is an excerpt from Canon Australia’s warranty statement:

On-site Warranty may only be obtained free of charge against presentation of original proof of purchase stating the date of purchase of the product.

Warranties on camera bodies will differ between countries around the world so it is best to check each manufacturer’s guidelines on a case-by-case basis and ensure that the seller can provide you with original proof of purchase.

5. Stolen Cameras and Gear

As cameras aren’t installed with security features that disable use when reported as stolen it’s pretty much impossible to be 100% certain that you are buying from a legit seller. That being said their are a few warning signs that can indicate that the item was stolen:

  1. Is the camera extremely cheap? Stolen goods are typically priced to sell fast so if the camera is priced way below market price this can be a red flag.
  2. While a seller may no longer have the original packaging it would be uncommon for them not to include a charger, a manual or some extra cables. If the seller has nothing but the camera body and a lens it can indicate stolen goods.
  3. Does that seller want to get rid of the camera urgently? While it’s not unusual for a seller to want to sell their gear fast if their pushiness makes you suspicious you may want to reconsider making the purchase.

If you suspect that the camera is stolen, you can use a tool like Stolen Camera Finder, Stolen Equipment Registry or Camera Trace to check the serial number against a database.

If you have any other tips for buying a used camera leave them in the comments below.

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