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Buying A Preowned Camera – Caveat Emptor

Although the prices of new dSLR cameras continue to drop as manufacturers release newer models, there are still many reasons you may want to consider a buying preowned camera.

Price is perhaps the main reason for many people. Are you currently using a point-and-shoot camera but are yearning for higher quality photographs? Then buying a preowned dSLR may not be
such a bad way to go.

Newcomers to photography aren’t the only ones shopping for preowned cameras. Many experienced photographers use preowned cameras as backups or for times in which they don’t want to risk damaging their newer equipment when shooting in difficult locations, bad weather conditions, etc.

Although previewing a preowned dSLR camera won’t take a lot of time and isn’t as big of a purchase as a preowned car, for example, you should still “kick the tires.” Caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) should be a reminder especially if you’re shopping online and cannot touch and feel the camera. Photography terms can be intimidating so if you’re fairly new to photography, take a friend with you who knows about photography. Meet the seller during the day if at all possible. The natural sunlight will help you better test the quality of the camera and its features easier (not to mention that it’s safer). In fact, keep safety in mind at all times.

  • First check the battery compartment. If you see any sign of corrosion or battery leakage, stop right there and consider moving on to another camera. Otherwise, check the battery doors and battery springs that can become loose over time. Make certain it’s easy to insert the battery back in the compartment.
  • Check the camera body carefully. Look for dents, scuffmarks, scratches, etc., that indicate a dropped or otherwise carelessly handled camera.
  • Bring a memory card for testing. Don’t necessarily trust the card that nay already be in the camera. You want to make certain that your card works in the camera. Check all the terminals and look for bent pins or any “gunk” that is stuck in the pins.
  • Turn the power switch on and off a few times.
  • Examine the LCD monitor and adjust the contrast higher and lower.
  • If the camera has a live view or video mode, make sure they’re working properly.
  • Does the viewfinder look clean? It’s not uncommon to see a bit of dust or some dirt particles, but reconsider the camera if you see defects or any foreign objects in the viewfinder.
  • Make certain the diopter control wheel works.
  • Ask how many photos the seller has taken (actuations) with the camera. The camera’s shutter has a “life expectancy” so a replacement may be expensive. Most cameras are rated for about 100,000 actuations. So, you can probably consider a camera with less than 10,000 actuations to be in relatively new condition. A camera with 50,000 or more actuations is “well-used” and “very well used” if it has more than 100,000 actuations.


  • Check that pop up flash actually pops up by pressing the flash button (if available on the camera).
  • Test the camera in dark conditions to make sure it flashes.
  • If the camera has a hotshoe, make sure it too is functioning.
  • Check the remote IR flash if it’s available with the camera and you have plans to use it.


  • With a lens attached, activiate the camera’s autofocus.
  • Remove the lens carefully. Check the lens mount for scratches or other damages. It’s important that the lens mount is solid especially if you’ll be using different lenses.
  • Peek inside the camera to the mirror box. Make certain no dirt or water marks are on it.

Test shots
OK, now that you’ve looked over the camera and are satisfied, it’s time to snap some photos. This is when it’s a good idea to bring along someone who is familiar with photography and let him/her do the testing for you.

  • Does the shutter work and sound OK?
  • Do all of the buttons and dials function properly?
  • Make certain that all modes on the dial work as they should.
  • Taka a few photos with different aperture and shutter speed settings to check whether the exposure has changed.
  • Set the diopter control wheel correctly for your eyes, select a focus point and take a manually focused photograph.
  • Test the multiple shot (sometimes called burst mode) feature of the camera if it’s available. You should do this for at least two reasons. The first is, of course, to test the mode itself. The second reason is that if the shutter is indeed failing, it’s possible that you can hear the shutter get slower.
  • Compose a picture, select a focus point and autofocus on it and capture it. Verify the photos and focus point are in focus. (This is probably best done with a lens you know is good.)
  • Shoot a few photographs in spot metering mode. Make certain the meter actually changes based on the scene you’re shooting.
  • This is a test for the LCD monitor. Take one fully underexposed (black) and one fully overexposed (white) photo. Then look at each carefully in the LCD monitor. You’re looking for dead pixels on the LCD monitor and on the sensor.

Often overlooked

  • Ask about a lens cap, users manual, quick start guide, etc. that originally came with the camera.
  • The battery charger is one item that is often forgotten so make certain that it works.
  • Although not always a reliable way to see how much action the camera has been through is to look at the camera strap. You may want to consider another camera, and possibly another seller, it the seller maintains that the camera has barely been used, but the strap is worn and faded. A camera strap won’t wear down much with gentle and minimal use. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the seller didn’t replace the strap with a newer one.
  • Will the seller would agree to ask about a warranty period (even a week or two)?

That should be about it. In addition to the these suggestions, use some common sense and you should do fine.

Written by Scott Slaughter

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