Now that the digital photography era has already taken a strong foothold, more and more used DSLRs are becoming available at throw away prices. Sometimes these can prove to be a golden opportunity to own a good camera at an economical price. However these are also prone to problems, so here is a small guide to help you purchase a used DSLR.
(Broken mirror assembly in a used DSLR. Inspect the DSLR carefully before buying. The problems may not be as obvious as this one. Image with CC0 License)
Unlike lenses, the DSLRs are fast depreciating goods. They start loosing value as soon as they are bought and within a few years the models become outdated. Camera manufacturers keep on adding new features with newer models. Quite often there are some serious improvements that impact the results too. Does it still make sense to buy used or second-hand cameras? Yes, it does. Huge savings can be made and the saved money can go into buying lenses and other photography accessories. Consider these factors while buying a used DSLR –
Who is selling it?
A professional photographer is more likely to exploit a camera to its maximum compared to a hobbyist who might just use the camera on vacations. Buy from hobbyists if you can. Do not buy used DSLRs from professional photographers. Rich hobbyists are the best sellers. The upgrade itch keeps them selling practically new cameras in excellent condition at good prices. Sometimes shops sell their demo models too at a discounted price. These are new cameras that have been handled by prospective buyers and are usually good bargains. Be on the look-out for these. Similarly the kind of photography the seller indulges in can also indicate the quality of camera. Bird and Sports photographers use high fps shooting and quite frequently mount long lenses on the camera. Compare these to landscape photographers who compose for endless minutes using a light weight wide angle lens and then click one photograph. In most cases the used cameras from landscape photographers will be in a better condition than the other two. (For my photographer friend who indulges in bird photography- not everyone takes care of their cameras as you do. This statement is not for you.) There may be exceptions too. Sometimes a professional wildlife photographer just might have a practically new DSLR for sale.
Overall physical condition of a camera tells stories about its use. A shiny new looking camera will most probably have seen a careful use from a loving owner. A battered camera body shows the neglect even if the shutter count or age of the camera is low. Check for obvious scratches or marks that go deep and can indicate a fall. Scratches around the tripod socket are common when the owner has been using any kind of camera stand. These can be safely ignored. Check for dust under the mode dial and in various grooves in the hand grip area. Too much of dust again indicates use in inhospitable conditions. There should be no marks on the joints which show any attempt at opening the camera body.
In simple to understand terms, this is the number of times the shutter opened up. Shutter is a mechanical device in a DSLR and is one of the common things prone to damage due to extended use. The shutter count can be checked by various ways. Nikon and a few other manufacturers record the shutter count in easily accessible EXIF information of the photo itself. Just checking the detailed EXIF information of the last clicked photograph can provide this information. There are various online softwares also available that can help one check the shutter count. Do a quick search on internet and you’ll find many options.
Shutter count is an approximate value. Sometimes mirror lock-up is also recorded as shutter release and many a times multiple pictures clicked while using live-view increase the shutter count by just one. In these cameras, the counter might be recording the mirror movement rather than the actual shutter count. Depending on the camera model, the number of shutter actuations that a camera can comfortably perform, may extend from 50,000 shutter actuations to over a couple of hundred thousands.
A low shutter count is obviously a good sign. I have a Nikon camera that I bought around 10 years back and have used it very minimally. It has done about 10,000 shots. Had I bought it used then, even with a moderately high shutter usage, I could have easily done these 10,000 shots on that and saved a chunk of money. So, the kind of projected use should also be considered while looking at the shutter count. For occasional use camera body with high shutter count can also be considered.
This is another of the problem areas. Scratches on it are common and nothing to be worried about. Things to look out for are – AF screw if it is a Nikon, electrical contacts, Feeler for AI lenses (again in Nikons), the quality of lock and most importantly check for any cracks in the camera body just below the mount. The electrical contacts should not be loose or have any obvious marks showing any attempt at opening the body.
Buttons and Knobs
With the myriad of controls that the DSLRs come with, it is important to check each and every one of them. All the buttons should be sensitive to press and respond immediately. Any resistance to press or delay in response in a bad sign. Though these can be taken care of in a good service center but why risk it? Avoid these if you can. If the camera needs service, let the owner take care of it.
Do a factory reset if the owner permits it before trying out all the functions. Press the buttons. Turn the mode dial and try all the camera modes even if you are going to be using just one or two of those. The dial should also turn smoothly but firmly. Check the diopter correction for viewfinder and also the lens release button. These are two commonly overlooked buttons that can be faulty at times.
Battery and Memory Card compartment
Inspect the lock and then open the compartment. Shine a pen-light inside and inspect the various electrical contacts. All the contacts should be perfectly aligned to look at. Any out of the place or bend contacts is a definitely no go region. When you are at it, check the USB cable contact and the hot-shoe as well.
Preview Screen (LCD Screen)
First tilt it around and look for any obvious scratches. Preview screens get easily scratched from shirt buttons, belt buckles and jacket zips. Switch the camera on. Preview some low key photographs and some high key photographs. Look for any color casts or dead pixels. In most DSLRs, the navigation buttons allow selecting a clipped highlights information too. Click a over exposed photograph (sky for example) and then preview the image. Scroll to the clipped highlights preview mode and examine the preview screen closely. The blinking white and black should happen instantaneously without any delay anywhere in the preview screen.
Articulated screens are good if you are buying a new camera but in used cameras, these are prospective points for failure. Avoid used cameras that have articulated preview screens.
Mount a lens and click
Take some photographs using an autofocus lens that you own or are comfortable with. Understand how the camera functions. Check the electronics and how the camera is with auto-focus capabilities. Try autofocusing on dark objects as well to understand the limits of auto-focus.
Next place the camera on a tripod and open up the aperture to its maximum (lowest f-number). Focus on something close by and make a note of it. Click the photograph and preview the results. For this test, I use a ruler (rule or a line gauge) placed on a table as a subject and then I focus on some value on it and shoot. The preview gives an idea of how accurate the AF is. Small amount of deviations can be corrected within some of the advanced cameras but sometimes these may require a visit to the service center. Repeat this test with different focal lengths.
Hear the camera sounds as well while clicking. The mirror slap and shutter noise should be crisp and without any grinding or grating sounds. The camera noise could tell a lot in the film cameras but with DSLRs it is difficult to make out any faulty sounds. Still try to hear the sound even if you think that you won’t notice anything wrong. You just might.
Click some more photographs and observe the overall image quality. There should not be any flaws that get repeated across images. These are rare but do happen. Once I came across a camera which was like new but it always failed to capture green color properly in one specific area of the frame. The greens appeared as black in this camera even in raw mode. This was the only incidence which I once came across and since then I have always made it a point to check the photographs clicked before buying or recommending a camera.
Earth is dusty. Some places are magnets for dust whereas others are neat and clean. The amount of dust in atmosphere varies but it is present everywhere. Even though I hate it, this dust somehow has the knack to get into each and every nook and corner of camera. Some amount of dust in the camera is fine and can be expected. The most irritating dust is on the focusing screen of the viewfinders. This appears crystal clear, well demarcated and …. well irritating to look at. The good news – it does not affect the photographs. Dust on mirror, focusing screen and under the focusing screen is seen in used cameras but don’t let it disappoint you. Excessive dust is another case. Keep away from such cameras.
Dust on sensors is also quite common and affects the photographs. This can be easily cleaned. Nothing to worry about. (Cleaning Camera and Lens)
Scratches on the sensor (yes, I have seen even those in a camera, after a blotched cleaning attempt) are a no-go. Stop down the lens to the smallest aperture, set the ISO to the lowest (or native ISO), use aperture priority mode, focus to infinity and click a photograph of a nearby light colored wall, while moving the camera around. What you’ll end up photographing is all the dust and scratches on the sensor. Like I said earlier, dust is not a problem but if there are dark streaks visible then do not buy the camera.
Make sure that these are included in the deal – viewfinder cap, body cap, battery charger, any cables that came with the camera, battery, instruction manual, original warranty card (even if the camera is out of warranty) and the sale receipt. Straps, memory cards, camera case and the original cardboard box can make the deal sweet. Ask your seller for these.
(Leaves – photograph captured with a used Nikon D200 and a used Nikkor 18-35mm lens)
Don’t fall into traps
Be careful while buying used or second hand cameras. Exercise your common sense. If a deal looks too good to be true then most probably it really is. Do not buy used cameras online from sellers who are new or can’t be traced. Scams happen day in and day out. Do not transfer money without actually checking the camera or getting someone to check it. If the seller is in a hurry, something is wrong. If the seller fails to provide photographs that you require, again something is not right. Be very very careful while buying used cameras, especially online.
This is the usual warning and disclaimer that I give to my readers. If there is a good deal and the seller is genuine, go for it. Like I mentioned earlier, use your common sense.
How to get the most out of your old camera
Old cameras had old technology and so here are some pointers to get the most out of them –
- Give a thorough cleaning. Clean the body, all the knobs and buttons and even the sensor.
- Click raw and post process. Many of the new improvements that are seen in the new camera models, are done in the in-camera processing. By clicking raw, you can use the powerful and latest raw processors on your computer.
- Use the native ISO or low ISOs. Old DSLRs had significantly higher noise at high ISOs compared to the present generation DSLRs. Stick to low ISOs and there won’t be any noticeable deterioration of the image quality.