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Suggestions for Buying Used Gear: Where and How to Buy

If you’re like me and you shoot a lot film, you lean heavily if not exclusively on the used market. Even then, nearly all of my digital photography gear came to me used.

If you’re a digital photographer, the answer is pretty simple. Used gear is cheaper than new gear — or at least it should be. For more than a decade, technology has continued to move forward and cameras have become better and better. That said, unless your entire career and how you make a living is based on having the best and newest gear, updating your gear for one model newer often provides only a negligible benefit. I would even argue that unless it’s imperative you have the newest gear, buying one if not two models older is, in fact, a wise decision. Take, for instance, the Sony a7 series. The a7 II can be had brand new for right at $900 and like-new models are closer to $700. Why pay the extra $200? If you’re just getting into photography and are looking for your first full frame camera, why pay for anything more than the Sony a7 II, which is still, by today’s standards, a perfectly fine camera. I would even go so far as to argue that unless someone was quite serious about their photography and had a lot of experience, they would never notice a practical difference between the a7 II or the a7 III.

I would argue that much to the same end, there’s next to no chance any quality difference would be noticed between a new and used copy of either camera regardless of whether or not the photographer is buying their first camera or they’re stepping up to something new. In fact, I recently moved up from using my original a7 to the Sony a7R II, saving $800 buying an open box model over a new model. Why would I pay the extra $800 just to have something better than an open box model? Why would anyone?

This argument goes even further with lenses, since their generations change far more infrequently. Take, for instance, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art. At the time of writing, B&H had one in condition 9 that is more than $200 cheaper than its new counterpart. If you’re willing to search beyond B&H or for a model that isn’t in as good condition, the possible savings are even more extreme.

Perhaps you’re the kind of person that wants their gear to look flawless from day one so that each scuff, scratch, ding, and dent are from their own usage and not from someone else. I get that perspective. It’s an expensive perspective that I don’t adhere to, but I get it.

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know I shoot a lot of film, and you know what that means. I have a lot of used gear. I don’t know any film photographers who even consider buying their gear (film or digital) new. You get over the fear of wear and tear pretty quickly since the only new options will leave little room in your wallet to buy any film. What’s more, the selection of new film cameras is pitiful compared to the selection of used cameras.

Anyone that tells you there’s one specific place that’s best to buy used gear is either lying or doesn’t know what all is out there. Between B&H and KEH, the prices are typically good and the condition is accurately described, so you can have a fair amount of confidence. The only frustration is not being able to see multiple photos of the exact item you’re considering buying. To accommodate for this shortcoming, their return policy is pretty good, so there’s no fear of being stuck with an item in worse shape than you anticipated or one that you’re overall unhappy with. The biggest drawback to B&H is their pretty limited selection. KEH, on the other hand, tends to have a fairly large selection, but the prices are, in my experience, very touch and go. There are times when their gear is at a phenomenal price and I jump on it straight away, and other times, I think the price is pretty outrageous. Without doing your research first and having a sense of what is and isn’t a good price, I wouldn’t just assume whatever they have is a good deal.

My preferred place to pick up gear has actually been one of the local shops here in Columbus, OH. Of the two that are here in town, one focuses primarily on used gear, selling some new stuff, and one focuses primarily on new gear while having a used department. The latter of the two doesn’t always have the largest selection of used gear, but they are pretty particular about what they take in, and as such, the gear is always in good to great shape. In addition, their prices are generally fair, and when they’re on the high end, they’re willing to negotiate. Conversely, the other store has quality that’s all over the place. They’ve had lenses that I would swear someone poured sand into, only to have it priced at what I would expect for an excellent copy. Then, at other times, they have lenses and camera bodies that are in immaculate shape. Regardless of the condition, they’re usually on the high end, and I’ve only encountered complete refusal to negotiate on the price, so I typically only purchase from them as a last resort.

No conversation on where to buy used gear can be complete without a conversation about eBay. For better or worse, eBay drives overall pricing of used gear. For film camera gear in particular, there are two types of sellers, with the worse kind being the sellers who put “EXC+++” or something along those lines in the title only to click on the posting and see the gear in bad shape with fungus or haze or something else that makes me shy away from a piece of gear. I will say this, though, most sellers usually have a pretty thorough description of the condition of the item in the description. As for buying gear from other sellers, I always prioritize auctions over “Buy Now” items. Sure, the buy now items can be bought right then and there so you can get the gear sooner. Auctions, on the other hand, almost always result in lower cost. An alternative is the “Make An Offer” option, which is usually a great choice, particularly if the seller has it set up to automatically respond to offers.

Rounding off the list of places to buy are Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. Most listings are people who think their gear is worth its weight in gold. Some listings have terrible photos, some have overly vague descriptions, some are a great deal, but more often than not, they’re not particularly good deals. That said, every now and again, there’s a good deal, and I’ve jumped on my share of them. Other places that are solid choices to look for used gear include local thrift or antique shops and online message boards. The majority of thrift and antique shops don’t provide any buyers confidence about the condition of the item, so, for me, the price needs to be low enough that there’s little invested just in case the gear ends up being a fancy paperweight.

I rarely purchase any used gear that I can’t negotiate on the price. Even then, when I did make those purchases, they have almost exclusively been through an online retailer I trust (i.e., B&H and KEH). In select cases, I’ve made purchases elsewhere with someone who’s rigid, but in those situations, I did so only reluctantly. When you’re buying used gear from a brick and mortar shop, there should be some wiggle room on the price. The majority of the time, the markup is generally very considerable, and often, they came to own the gear by giving store credit, which is always less cost to the store, that is to say, if a store obtained a piece of gear as a trade in, the value they assigned to that trade in is never equal to the actual investment made. For example, if a store offers you $100 in store credit for your used lens and you turn around and you use that store credit on another lens they’ve listed for $100, you can bet the new lens you’ve purchased was not a $100 investment for them. Instead, that new lens you have was likely only a small investment of theirs in the first place.

All in all, I suggest never trading in gear and prioritizing local businesses that are willing to negotiate on the price or online retailers that have a very established track record of used camera sales. What are your thoughts on buying used gear? Do you have any suggestions that I didn’t touch on?

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