Monday, March 12, 2012

Photography As Hobby: Purchasing Gear On A Budget

So you love to take photos and want to start taking your hobby more seriously, but after looking at the prices of new lenses and cameras you feel priced out of the market. I'll be honest right from the start, photography is an expensive hobby, if you must have all the latest and greatest gear. Fear not, there is a large market for used photography equipment! It may not be the newest gear, but it was good enough 1-3 years ago for working pros and amateurs, so why not for you now at a reduced price? There is a lot of gear being sold today that hasn't even been broken in, for example I'm often seeing used cameras with less than 5000 shutter actions that are 2-3 years old. If you are lucky you might even nab that camera or lens that sat on a shelf 90% of it's life.

The used photography market can feel a little intimidating, there is a lot of gear out there in various conditions. What if you end up with a bad camera or lens? That is always a danger when buying used equipment, but there are ways to protect yourself. The first option is to buy used gear from a trusted reseller, such as a local camera shop that offers a 30-90 day warranty. You might pay more than on eBay or Craigslist, but at least you have some peace of mind, and you get to check it out before you buy. Your second option is to buy locally and meet with the seller in person. The advantage of meeting the seller is that you will, at the very least, get a chance to check out the gear before you buy it. Lastly, if you are willing to take a risk you can buy from reputable sellers on eBay, just check their feedback to see if they have had issues in the past. This can be a good way to buy, because you can sometimes find gear at lower prices than elsewhere. Below are some tips on what to look out for when buying used camera equipment.

If I do buy used camera equipment, what should I watch out for?
  1. The first red flag with used gear would primarily come in the form of obvious outward damage to the camera or lens. If it looks like it has been dragged through the mud and smashed on rocks, then you might want to look elsewhere. 
  2. Does the camera/lens make any strange sounds when you auto focus or change settings. The best way to know what the camera or lens should sound like is to check them out in a store first (or if friend has one, ask if you can try it out). Each lens or camera is slightly different, but within a brand, generally speaking, the sounds are very similar. Listen for loud squeaking noises with lenses when they are focusing, it could mean there is or very soon could be a problem with the focusing motor. 
  3. Check for buttons and switches that don't work or that feel mushy with reduced functionality. Also watch out for stiff zoom or manual focus rings. Some lenses do have stiff zoom rings, so read some reviews before judging based on stiffness alone. 
  4. Lenses only: Check for scratches on the front or rear glass elements. Some small marks wont show up in photos, so it is up to you if such marks are an issue. I would avoid lenses that show any sings of fungus growing inside, as it will render the lens ineffective and could spread to other lenses in your bag. Check to see if the aperture blades are responsive and free of oil. On Nikon lenses you can easily check this by flicking the aperture lever on the lens itself. With Canon lenses you'll need to test it on a camera.
  5. Cameras Only: Does the rear/top LCD work? Are there any marks that might make reviewing images or changing settings on the screen difficult? Again this could just be a minor cosmetic issue, and you might be able to live with some scratches. Also watch for rubber parts on the hand grips that might be falling off or coming loose. That might not seem like a big deal, but if it were to fall off while you are handling the camera you could drop it! You can often find replacement rubber grips on eBay (for many Nikon models anyway), so that doesn't have to hold you back. 
  6. Cameras Only: Check the shutter count (found in EXIF data). The shutter count on a camera can give you an idea of how much the camera has been used, even if it still looks new (some people, like me baby their stuff), that doesn't mean that it is. A word of warning though, the shutter count can be reset. Usually the reason for a reset shutter count is if the camera has been serviced by the manufacture (such as if the shutter has been replaced), but some less than honest people also know how to do this as well. You cannot trust the image number (often looks like: DSC_1596) itself to tell you how much the camera has been used, as that can easily be reset. Most cameras, unless changed from default settings, reset after an SD/CF card has been removed. In addition, camera image numbers automatically reset after 9999 images have been taken.