‘New is always better’ – or, at least, so they say. Let me in on a little secret – they are wrong. Sometimes used or second-hand is just as good (or even better). For example, when you compare a brand-new dress from a retail chain, which somehow every other girl on the street is sporting too, to a unique vintage dress from the 1970s; or that veteran road trip-proven van with all necessary comforts and features, which you miraculously found advertised on a notice board vs. the new car which costs you an arm and a leg, and ages to custom-fit to your needs. Keeping costs low is generally a striking argument to go second-hand, and another one of my favourite things (apart from vintage dresses and hippie vans) is no exception: camera gear.

With new models and makes of lenses and camera bodies being knocked out permanently, online market places are flooded with an equally constant flow of (barely) used second-hand gear. Check out Gumtree’s electronics section for example, and you’ll find a plethora of cameras and accessories to choose from. I bought my current camera second-hand in July 2012 (it was basically brand-new), and it’s still going strong ever since. Especially for beginners it is great to get cheaper gear to begin with, to test the waters and learn the basics without too great expenses.

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Here are some tips on how to get your head around buying used camera gear online.

Before the purchase

Make a list of what you want vs. what you need – often these are two very different things. Depending on how advanced your photography is already, you might be fine with an entry-level or semi-professional camera, even if the full-frame Canon 5D Mark III sounds amazing, unless you are a professional, you will probably not need it. Which saves you a lot of pennies for, say, a better lens (it’s all about the lens, baby!) or an epic trip to a new continent.

Research different brands, models and lenses. What can they do? Do you want a camera with time-lapse function? Should it have a video-mode? What is the average actuation rating/shutter count (meaning how many photos can you take with it before the system needs replacement?) Which cameras do your photographer friends, or favourite bloggers shoot with? I’m not saying, that you will achieve the same results as them as long as you use the same gear, but it’s a start to see what’s possible.

Find out what popular cameras cost new and used and compare prices. If a deal looks too good (cheap) to be true, it probably is – knowledge is power.

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Finding a good deal online

Before you waste your time inspecting a camera ‘in person’, make sure that you get all necessary information about the offered camera upfront. Does the seller seem serious and trustworthy? A detailed description of the camera and clear close-up images showing potential scratches or other signs of use, are both positive signs that the seller knows what they’re doing – the more info they are willing to give, the better. Ask why they are selling the camera and keep an eye out for reasons like ‘unwanted gift’, ‘no use for it’, ‘unused back-up camera’, ‘recently upgraded to a newer model’ – all reassuring reasons to sell.

Make sure the bare essentials are included in the price: rechargeable battery plus charger, lens and body caps, interface cables to connect the camera to the computer, ideally a lens (particularly if it’s a starter kit). Bonus points for a seller who has kept the original box in a good condition.

Ask the seller for photos – not only of the camera (these can show you visible signs of wear and tear), but also of photos they have taken with it (depending on what they send you, these can be hints at how the camera has been used by them).

This is a no brainer, but DON’T pay upfront – always request to see the camera first.

Ask the seller if there is a return policy in place. It is unlikely to happen, but asking doesn’t hurt.

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What to check when buying

First of all, if you can, bring your laptop, as well as a memory card and a lens with you to the viewing (unless any of this is included in the kit you’re about to buy). This way you can take some shots at the spot and directly check them on your laptop. Ask the owner if it is alright to take a few test shots, if they say no, something is potentially fishy.

Check the shutter count and compare it to the average numbers of the model you found online. The price of the camera should reflect the shutter count, as it’s an indicator for how long you will be able to still shoot with it. Again this is something you will need your laptop for. Take a photo with the camera in RAW format and upload it to an online resource like PhotoME – it lets you check the shutter count of that particular file.

Small scratches and signs of wear are normal, and shouldn’t alarm you. Larger scratches and dents however can be a sign that the camera has been dropped, which could have caused internal damage. Also check the viewfinder and LCD screen for scratches or damages (like changes of colour), as those will be your main sources for information about your photos.

Test the lens mount, make sure the lens sits tight and there is no squeaking or cracking. If you buy a zoom lens, make sure the zoom mechanism works flawlessly.

If all things seem to be in order, and/or damages/service needs are reflected in the price, nothing stands between you and your new toy!

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Unless you bought a camera kit, it is now time to find the perfect lens for your purposes and learn more about how to treat your DSLR while on the road. Happy snapping!