Buying your first digital camera could be a tricky choice with most manufacturers providing both advantages and disadvantages in their offerings.
Thing is, you don’t have to go all out to splurge on one. You can get perfectly reliable second-hand cameras for cheap — as long as you know how and where to look.
Considering getting a used digital camera? Are you wondering how to select a camera that suits your needs and where to buy it?
If you are new to this, it is recommended to seek advice from a professional photographer as the selection process can be challenging.
When clients and friends would ask me for recommendations, I would generally ask them some basic questions in order to know about their interests:
- What will you use the camera for? (Street photography, capturing life-memories, travel, nature, etc)
- Will the photos be printed? If yes, what size?
- When do you plan to upgrade?
- How much are you willing to spend upfront?
- How much depreciation are you willing to accept?
- What is your shooting style?
- What kind of computer power and how much storage space do you have? (For storing files and editing the images)
These answers could help in deciding the format of the camera — DSLR, mirrorless, rangefinder, medium format, etc — or the brand of the camera. Right now, let’s assume that the type and model of camera has been decided. But how would you know which second-hand camera in the market will be your best bet?
Three things should be mainly considered while buying a camera — age and support, camera condition, and, of course, price.
Age and support
An older camera will mean the chances of it breaking down will be higher and that might also mean that the support for the camera is not easily available in the market. It’s always better if it is still under warranty. For digital cameras, the older models will generally mean that it’s lower in value.
How do you ensure that the set you are looking at is in good condition?
Ensure that there are no cracks or dents as it might mean it has been dropped on the ground before. This is especially important for cameras with an aluminum body — when such models receive some form of impact, there is a possibility that the sensor has shifted. This will incur quite a bit of cost for repair.
You can tell a lot about how old camera really is and how a camera was used from its appearance. Make sure to remember that any flaw must be reflected in the selling price of the camera.
The rubber covers on the back of the camera and on the grip may start to come off after the camera was has been exposed in hot and humid conditions for long.
It gets worse with use and is not attractive to look at, but can always be replaced at a professional camera service centre or even by yourself. In any case, it's not that serious a defect, but as always, the price should reflect such imperfections.
Viewfinder and screen
For optical viewfinders, make sure to look thoroughly for scratches and dust, which can be somewhat distracting and annoying. Especially when it is stuck in a place from where it cannot be easily removed.
For electronic viewfinder, make sure it looks clean with no dead pixels or flickering. A scratched LCD screen can be a little expensive to replace too, so make sure it still displays accurate colours with no dead lines running across.
The lens mount on a camera should never have any damage. There should be no bends and dents, and the signal pins should be clean. If you see dents and/or bends on the camera body, it could mean the camera was dropped with a heavy lens. Make sure your lens fit firmly and doesn’t jiggle around, though very minor movement under pressure could be normal.
It is normal for older plastic cameras to screech a little every now and then when gripped hard — they are used, after all, and far from being fresh out of the box.
However, relatively new cameras should feel quite tough. If it doesn't, there's a possibility that it may have been banged around or dropped. It's something to consider to ensure that the used camera won’t fall apart after just a few months of use. It has to feel firm in your hand even with heavier lenses attached. Also, no buttons should feel loose because when they fall out, it's another trip to the camera repair shop.
In order to check sensors, capture an image with the camera. In RAW format if possible at its base ISO setting (usually ISO 100 or 200) with the lens cover on, so that you get a dark frame.
Observe the image with your computer; any dead pixels should be easily noticeable when viewed at 100 per cent. Do not worry if some are found. It’s normal, especially if the camera is a little old. Three or four dead pixels at most don’t mean much, you will still have several million left. But if you see a lot more, then I would be worried that something is wrong with the sensor.
Use a light meter if you have one. Check the readings on the light meter and compare it to the reading on the camera. It should not be too far off. If you do not have a light meter, use another known working camera to take the same photo. Compare the two images from both cameras. The images’ exposure should be similar.
It’s not just the lens that needs to be checked for errors. See if the camera actually focuses well. Take a photo. Ensure that the image is sharp at the focus point.
If focus issues are quite noticeable, then you might be better off with a different body because it may either have an autofocus issue or it just does not work properly with the lens you have. Make sure autofocus operations are not slow when the light is good (always try to be wherever lighting is abundant when testing gear) and check both continuous and single autofocus performance.
Check the mirror, if any
DSLR camera bodies have a mirror inside to reflect light coming in through the lens up to a prism and into a viewfinder to preview your shot. You’ll have to check this mirror too for defects, and also if it properly flips up when you hit the shutter button.
Obviously, don't go searching for one in mirrorless cameras.
There are two factors to consider: your budget and the camera's depreciation. Certain camera brands are more expensive but depreciate less and some lens’ value even increases with time! You just have to consider what suits you and what you can actually afford.
After considering these three points, hold it, take some photos with it. You have to like its feel and its grip, especially since it'll be a handheld tool for your creativity.
Last but not least!
Be safe. Try to meet with the seller in public places and during the daytime. Never pay upfront. Bring someone along with you — not only for safety reasons but also because you might need some support. If you have a feeling that the deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Be as thorough as you can, and you will save yourself a lot of frustration, money and time in the process.
Buying used cameras can be a great deal, and even professionals do it all the time. You just need a little bit of know-how to pull it off.
KC Eng is a former engineer in the Republic of Singapore Air Force who left in 2003 to launch a full-fledged career in photography. Today, he is a Leica Ambassador and an instructor at Leica Akademie, with his work showcased in multiple local and international exhibitions and publications.