How To Buy A Used DSLR Camera: Know Your Stuff

Buying a used camera is one of the best ways to save money if you know what to look out for. To the untrained eye, however, it’s also one of the fastest ways to throw money at a dud. We’re not suggesting that second-hand DSLR/ SLR cameras aren’t worth it — far from it.

It’s just that spending a little time getting to know which red flags you should watch for can pay dividends.

Thinking of buying a used DLSR/ SLR? You’ve come to the right place. This buyer’s guide will run you through our top tips to avoid disappointment. Take it from us photography nerds; you’ll be glad you did your research.

Check the ‘Mileage’ When Buying a Used DSLR Camera

If you were buying a used car, you’d immediately want to know about its mileage, wear and tear, and other signs of overuse, right? The same is true when buying a used camera. The less a second-hand camera has been put through its paces, the better your chances that it will work as advertised.

As long as it hasn’t been sat unprotected in a dusty garage, that is.

Buy From Non-Professionals if Possible

As a general rule of thumb, buying a used camera from a professional might not be the best way to go. While they have probably maintained the device fairly well, they’re also far more likely to have pushed the camera to its limits.

Someone who received a DSLR camera as a gift, never used it, and is trying to sell it on is an ideal candidate for someone to buy from.

Check the Shutter Count of the DSLR Camera

The shutter count of a used DSLR will tell you how many times the camera has taken a photo. In short, the shutter of a DSLR camera is a moving part that is more vulnerable to wear and tear. One of the best ways to check the shutter count of used cameras is to:

  1. Take a photo with the unit
  2. Upload it to a site like this
  3. Check the shutter actuation/ count that can be found in the file’s EXIF data

Be sure to check this figure against the “expected shutter life” of the camera in question. This can usually be found with a quick Google search or by checking the manufacturer’s website.

Look for External Damage on the Used Camera

This one is obvious but it’s your first tool for finding a used DSLR that’s not worth the money. Look for scratches, cracks and tears on the camera body of any DSLR you consider. In particular, make sure you check that the LCD screen and viewfinder is working as advertised.

Spot Dead Pixels on the Sensor

It’s worth bringing a bright torch with you when buying a used DSLR. Shining a light on a second-hand camera’s sensor can help identify scratches, unwanted marks and even dead pixels. If the seller will let you, another great way to assess used cameras is as follows:

  1. Cover the camera lens with its cap
  2. Switch to manual settings and turn off noise reduction
  3. Take a variety of shots using the full range of the camera’s ISO and shutter speeds
  4. Assess the photos for white, blue, green or red spots

If the images are pure black, you’re good to go in this regard. If you see these spots, you should proceed with caution. A few damaged pixels can be repaired or perhaps even overlooked. Lots of damage can seriously undermine the performance of a DSLR camera.

Check the Lens of the Used Camera

The lens and the lens mount are two of the most important things to focus on when picking up a used camera. You can waste a lot of money if you buy a camera with a poorly damaged lens. Check for the following for added peace of mind:

  • Fungus that has grown on the lens
  • Scratches, dust damage and other marks
  • How many lenses the previous owner used. This will tell you how much work the lens mount has been put through
  • Cracks and other severe damage
  • How well it still performs by taking a few test shots

Look for Sensor and Chamber Dust

Dust is a massive camera killer and is a big factor to look out for when picking up a used model. Built up dust can even wreak havoc on the external LCD screen, so definitely check inside the lens chamber and around the sensor for excessive amounts of dust.

A little build up is basically unavoidable, but steer clear of models that are absolutely caked in the stuff.

Other Used Camera Buying Tips

Checking for ‘mileage’ related damage is one of the most important things to consider when picking up a used camera. That said, there are plenty of other things to think about to get some much needed peace of mind.

Buy From a Trusted Seller

When buying a used DSLR, proceed with caution if you don’t know much about the seller. Try to find options from people with plenty of positive buyer reviews online. Buying from someone you know personally can be even better, but we appreciate that this isn’t always possible.

Look at their track record for selling second-hand DSLR cameras. Some less scrupulous sellers will shift high volumes of cheap, unrelated products first to build up positive reviews. They’ll then pivot to selling more expensive items like cameras.

Check out their review history and make sure positive reviews specifically mention cameras.

Buy Last Year’s Model if Applicable

Waiting for a product refresh can be a great way to save some money and still get an excellent camera. Sometimes, the main updates just pertain to the camera body and perhaps a slight image processing bump.

Either way, you can save a ton of money if you strike while the iron is hot.

For example, you can guarantee that prices for the Canon EOS 90D will go down the moment Canon releases an updated model. If you have your eye on a specific model and an update is released that you can go without, you may even be able to pick up the older iteration in a brand new condition.

Take Some Test Shots for Yourself

Don’t be shy about taking some test shots with any used camera you consider. If a buyer is hesitant to let you try before you buy, this is usually a huge red flag. Take a few shots in a couple of different lighting environments and look at the results for yourself. The resulting image quality will tell you a lot about whether to move forward.

Reference the results you can see against the description given by the seller and your own personal requirements.

Check Old Reviews and Descriptions

Doing a little research about the specific model you’re looking at can pay off — big time. Checking out old product descriptions and reviews online can give you a fairly good impression of how the camera is supposed to perform when fully functional.

This isn’t a foolproof approach by any means, but it can help filter out more obvious duds. For example, if you read up on a specific camera and learn that it was highly regarded as having “lightning fast” autofocus, but then notice that the seller’s model takes forever to focus in, that tells you something.

Test the Autofocus

You’d be amazed how much the autofocus capabilities of a camera can degrade over time. When you do some test shots, pay attention to how long it takes for things to come into focus. Also try some basic movements and introduce new subjects into the frame to test how well the af system adapts to changes.

If things don’t feel right, consider looking elsewhere.

Think About Accessories

Remember that sometimes a killer deal can fall apart when you look a little closer. Double-check with the seller what specific items you’re getting for your money. Are you getting just the camera body, or will there be a number of lenses, straps and other bits of gear thrown in for good measure?

It’s important to mention that this discussion goes both ways — don’t waste money on a “deal” with tons of accessories that you don’t actually need.

Get a Warranty if You Can

This is another big reason to buy through a reputable seller. Most used cameras come with expired or voided warranties, but a good seller/ store will usually honor the sale with a guarantee of their own. Choosing options that come with some form of protection like this can remove most of the anxiety that comes with buying second-hand.

If it comes with a warranty, you can get it repaired or reimbursed.

Used SLR/ DSLR Cameras — Frequently Asked Questions

Is it Safe to Buy a Used DSLR?

In short, yes. The long answer is that it’s important to go into any sale with the knowledge you need to spot a dud. If you buy from a trusted seller, you can usually rely on the camera you buy. This is especially true if it comes with a refurbished warranty.

Is There Still a Market for Old SLR Cameras?

Yes, but it’s much smaller than it used to be. The older film format is far from dead, but it’s tiny in comparison to more modern options. It’s still possible to find hidden gems, but proceed with extra caution when considering older SLRs. Where possible, look for the big names from the era like Leica and Hasselblad. They rarely produced cameras that weren’t worth the money.

Are Classic Cameras Worth any Money?

It depends completely on the vintage, remaining performance and external condition. That said, a highly sought after, mint condition classic camera can easily sell for more than $5000. If you know what to look out for, keep your eyes peeled and you might just strike oil.

Are Film Cameras Making a Comeback?

While they’re unlikely to regain their prominence from yesteryear, film has enjoyed a resurgence similar to that of vinyl records. Some manufacturers like Fujifilm are even producing film cameras in 2021. For this reason, a market for film cameras persists today.

What’s Considered a High Shutter Count?

Most fairly recent DSLRs are rated for at least 100,000 shots, with more pro-grade models capable of much higher numbers. Your best bet, especially when considering older SLR models, is to look for user manuals and manufacturer guidance online. Shutter count maximums can vary significantly from camera to camera. For this reason, it’s important to be as specific as possible before spending any money.

How do you Check a Camera’s Shutter Count?

Most cameras store this information within the EXIF data of every photo they capture. There are plenty of websites online that can parse this data for you and give you an accurate figure for how many photos a camera has taken.

Final Thoughts

What should you do if you’re not an experienced photographer? How are you supposed to check for wear and tear on a device that you don’t understand that well? Our advice is to choose a reputable seller that offers its own second-hand or refurbished warranty on its products.

This way, your purchase will be much closer to buying something that’s brand new. If anything goes wrong, you’ll have legal access to repairs, replacements or refunds.

In general, picking from recognized brands with strong reputations is the best way to go. Names like Sony, Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm all have cameras from the past several years that still perform exceptionally well.

Use the information outlined in this guide to find a product that’s right for you. The more you know about potential red flags before looking at a camera, the easier it will be to avoid disappointment. Whichever camera you choose, we hope it serves you well!

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