A Guide to Buying Used DSLR Gear

craigslistThis article is the second part of the previous article titled “Pro Camera Gear on a Student Budget“, and contains some advice for what you should do once you find a good deal and have arranged a meeting with the seller. I personally consider purchasing used gear on craigslist to be a much better route than other services (i.e. eBay), since you can check out the gear personally and walk away from the deal if anything doesn’t seem right. Here are the tips:

Know What to Look Out For

Just as you need to know a good price on a piece of gear from a bad one, you need to be able to distinguish something that looks and works like it should from something that doesn’t. I’ll be covering some specific things on what you should look for, but bring along a photographer friend if you haven’t used the kind of gear you’re buying before.

Check the Camera’s Sensor

sensorThe sensor on a DSLR is what captures the image you photograph. You don’t want to buy a camera and then later find out that the sensor is scratched or damaged in some way, since this might affect the quality of all of your photographs. Different cameras let you examine the sensor in different ways, so be sure to know how to check the sensor on the camera you’re looking at before going to the meeting. Just taking off the lens won’t expose the camera’s sensor, since it’s naturally hidden behind both the mirror and the shutter curtain. You’ll have to use the feature of the camera that locks up the mirror and opens the shutter curtain in order to see the sensor.

Ask How Many Actuations the Camera Has

Cameras are like cars, and mileage matters. Each camera has a “life expectancy” for how many actuations, or shots, the shutter system is expected to be able to handle before it fails and needs to be replaced (which is expensive). A camera is generally in pretty new condition if it has less than 10,000 actuations, and very used if it has more than 50,000 or 100,000 actuations (since many cameras are only rated for this many). Research your specific model to see how many actuations the manufacturer rated the camera for. Since for most cameras there isn’t an easy way to verify the actuation count with certainty, the figure is meant to give you an idea of how used the camera is, and how much life you might still get out of it.

How to Tell if A Camera is More Used than the Owner Claims

From personal experience, the best indicator for how much use a camera has seen is the strap attached to the camera. If the owner claims that the camera has barely been used, but the strap is worn and faded, then a warning bell in your head should go off. Gentle and minimal use won’t wear down a strap much.


Other areas you can check for wear are the external flash hot shoe and the LCD screen. On certain camera models, the hot shoe has a black paint coating that slowly rubs off every time an external flash is attached or removed. If the hot shoe is used and worn, then the camera probably is too. Newer LCD screens also will appear smooth, and lack the hairline scratches that appear over time. A flawless LCD screen does not prove the camera is in new condition, but one with many small scratches indicates the opposite.

Check the Front and Back Elements of the Lens

If you’re buying a lens, take off both lens caps and hold the camera up to the light. Make sure theres no scratches or other imperfections in the glass on either side of the lens.


Ask the Seller to Pose for Portraits

The benefits of this are two-fold. First, this allows you to test the sharpness of the lens. Focus on the seller’s eyes with the lens wide open, and check whether the eyes are sharp. This also gives you an opportunity to have a photograph of what the seller looks like, as an extra precaution. Honest sellers might even be more than willing to let you copy down their contact information from their drivers license, as I’ve experienced a few times.

Test for Front and Back Focusing

Make sure the seller isn’t selling the lens because it focuses incorrectly. You can do this by focus testing the lens at the meeting. If you don’t want to bring something specifically to use for testing the focus, learn to do focus testing quickly on any sheet of paper with text on it.


Tips for Meeting the Seller

Try to meet during the day, since it’s both safer, and easier to examine and test camera equipment. Sufficient light will help you to more easily test the quality and sharpness of photographs. Of course, there’s always the general craigslist tips for being a “safe buyer”. Meet sellers in person at a public location, and with another person if possible. I’ve found that meeting in a coffee shop at noon generally works very well. I’ve even managed to make the process very quick and painless, since many times sellers will agree to meet me at the coffee shop just down the block from where I live.

In Conclusion

The things I shared in this article were certain things I picked up through the past few years of doing gear transactions through craigslist. It’s definitely not a comprehensive list of what to be wary of, and you should examine all the normal functions of the equipment to ensure that they’re working flawlessly. If there are other important things that I failed to include, please leave a comment and share!

  • Kevan

    This is a GREAT set of recommendations. If you really want to geek out, bring a laptop and download the images right there to check picture quality. Also, depending on which camera model, sometimes number of actuations can be found on the EXIF data. I know with lower end Canon DSLRs this is the case.

    Do you have any recommendations about warrantees and things like that?

  • Michael Zhang

    Yeah, bringing a laptop will definitely help you to check image quality and verify sharpness.

    If the owner has a blank warranty card, it’s definitely a plus, but generally you’ll also need a copy of the original receipt to have work done. I’ve found that even if sellers have blank warranty cards, they don’t always realize that you need the receipt as well, and don’t often have a copy of it stored away.

    Also, having a blank warranty card might not be too much of an extra benefit for cheaper items, since shipping the items to the Canon repair center is pretty expensive in itself.

    Thanks for the comment Kevan!

  • Susjustjake

    I really lie the strap advice!!! The whole post is great!

  • makaid

    Nice tips. I never thought about the strap thing either

  • john ko

    great suggestions Mike! one addition about lenses: make sure in checking out lens that you look for fungus. this is more common on older lens. i’ve seen this on several occasions on older Nikon gear. =(

    Exif viewer works great for actuations as long as you don’t pull the file from a post-processed program. and Flickr does it too, on some jpgs.

    btw, for NIkon, you cannot transfer the warranty. =(

    One advantage i would say for ebay is that you can get a warranty through square trade. but i’ve gotten great deals on lens/bodies through craigs.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the tips!

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  • Patrick Houlihan

    Don't rule out purchasing a lens with a scratched front element. (I picked that tip up from a pro who is more frugal than he needs to be.) I bought a Canon 100-300mm lens that was available for less than $50 because of a badly scratched front element — there is no effect on the photos whatsoever.

    Don't even think about buying one with a scratched back element.

  • Michael Zhang

    Interesting point. Something like that would be very difficult to sell off though, once you want to upgrade or get rid of it.

    Less than $50 is pretty awesome =)

  • joannad

    Well, if you bought it for 50$… keep it!

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  • Rahul

    Thanks Mike! Great Post!

  • Rahul

    Thanks Mike! Great Post!

  • readingtofour

    Thank you for posting this. I am looking at buying a used Nikon D200 and I'm very nervous about judging the camera, as the only one I've had I bought brand new (Nikon D60). These tips help me feel more prepared to meet the seller.

  • sleeprunner

    Very useful! Thank you! Great article!

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  • Lahavens

    Thanks for the tips. Very helpful. I’m trying to buy a used d90.

  • Mircea1967

    Dear patrickhoulihan: what you posted its true. I bought a noctilux 50mm,f:1:1 Leica M lens w/plenty scratches on front element, for: $125 I tested on the spot w/M8 camera. Rezults..PERFECT LENS. So I saved plenty$$$ with this one.

  • Vidi


    I’m just about to get my first dSLR. I am confused whether to go in for a used camera & invest more on brand new lenses or whether to buy a brand new camera & buy used lenses. Any suggestions please?


  • manoj shrestah

    im trying to buy used 40d and this post helped me a lot.. thanks

  • Used Test Equipment


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  • Andy

    im gonna buy a used d3000 thanks for the tips!

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  • Ranvir


  • Ranvir


  • Ranvir

    how can i check for scratches on sensor in canon 550d? 

  • Ranvir

    how can i check for scratches on sensor in canon 550d? 

  • faye anne

    how can i check the actuation or shutter count once i meet the seller without having a laptop? thanks

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  • knan

    Does anyone have a used canon 7D for sale or any used gear (track and dolly to jibs)

  • Cyberlawprof

    You mentioned its expensive to replace the shutter. 
    How much is it in $?