Buying used equipment

Writer / NYIP
Illustration / NYIP

The New York Institute of Photography gives us tips on buying used cameras and other equipment.

As we’ve noted, photo dealers often take in used cameras as part of a trade-in for a new model. In addition, you’ll find used lenses, meters and darkroom equipment often offered for sale in many stores. If the seller is an individual, chances are you’re dealing with someone who has bought new equipment or who has lost interest in photography and wants to cash out.

Since Minolta introduced the first auto-focus model of the Maxxum in 1985, camera manufacturers have brought out hundreds of auto-focus models. Many of the best-known camera manufacturers don’t even make manual cameras any more. Nikon still produces the F-3, but all Canon and Pentax models currently in production are auto-focus, auto-exposure models with the option of manual override.

But in the world of used equipment you can still find Nikon F-2s, the long running Pentax Spotmatic K1000, and a slew of Canon A-1 and AE-1 models. These are metal-body work horse cameras and even though they may be 10 or 15 or more years old, if they haven’t been abused, they’re likely to be capable of giving you years of reliable service.

One potential problem with certain older models is that the old mercury-based batteries that were used to run the primitive metering systems have been taken out of production because of today’s environmental concerns. However, there are one or two special battery manufacturers that specialize in making batteries out of modern materials that will fit and power older cameras. Scherer Batteries of Ewing, VA [tel: (423) 733-2615; fax: (423) 733-2073] is a regular exhibitor at PMA and offers zinc air batteries in several popular 1.35 volt sizes that work with many older camera models.

If you want to learn about the models that dominated the market 10, 15, or 20 years ago, we suggest you visit your local used magazine dealer and pick up some December issues of Popular Photography from yesteryear. For many years, Pop has had a camera round-up in its December issue, so if you want to read detailed reports of old cameras there’s no better source.

You’ll also find lots of used lenses available. Again, these are often trade items.

Sadly, the listings of people offering used darkroom equipment represent not trade-ins, but abandonment. Since the mid-1980s, the interest in the darkroom has plummeted. This fact is not without an upside. Not only does it means that you can get a great deal on a used enlarger and other photo equipment, but it also means that people who become good darkroom technicians will always be in demand. While there’s no question that the computer-based electronic darkroom is here to stay, we suspect that there will be a resurgence in traditional wet darkrooms in the future. There’s no more pleasant place to spend your time than listening to your favorite music under the red-orange glow of a dim safelight while making photographic prints. If you’ve never tried it, you’re missing something.

Sellers of Used Equipment

There are six principal places you’ll find used camera equipment-your local photo specialty dealer, mail order dealers that advertise in magazines, pawn shops, flea markets and garage sales, newspaper classified ads, and on-line auction services. Each has its special benefits and pitfalls. Let’s examine each in turn.

Photo Specialty Dealer

As noted, these folk take equipment in on trade. In recent years, many specialty dealers have also realized that there’s a profit to be made in selling used equipment because it is possible to put a decent mark-up on top of the amount they paid for the item. In today’s highly competitive pricing of new equipment, many photo stores have found that the space they allocate to the display and sale of used equipment is very worth while. For instance, B&H Photo devotes a page in most of its back-of-the-book advertisements to the used equipment it has in stock at the time the magazine went to press.

Mail Order Dealers

While most of the mail order advertisers that run in the back of the photo hobby magazines don’t advertise used equipment, if you look at Shutterbug magazine, you’ll find that there are a number of smaller dealers that advertise in this particular magazine who specialize in selling used equipment. Particularly if you’re in the market for medium-format gear or in used cameras made by major manufacturers, this is a great place to look. In a moment, we’ll cover some shopping tips that relate to these ads.

Pawn Shops

There are always a few great camera deals sitting around in any big pawn shop. The trick is to find out how good the gear really is. Chances are, no one in the shop knows anything about what they have in stock, or anything about photography. You’re on your own if you shop here, and you’re not likely to get any guarantees.

Flea Markets and Garage Sales

There are always interesting cameras and accessories at flea markets. Once again, you’re not likely to get any expert help, so you need to rely on your own best judgement. There are special photographic flea markets and swap shows where you’re likely to encounter knowledgeable dealers, but that’s different than the serendipity that goes into finding a good working camera in the barn or garage of a sale.

Newspaper Classified Ads

These tend to be items offered by individuals. As noted earlier, most times the items offered for sale are being sold because the advertiser has either purchased new equipment or lost interest in photography. Here again, you’re pretty much on your own.


On-line Auction Services

This is, of course, a hot new growth area on the Internet. On-line auction services-the best known being attracted lots of people to the auction concept. Naturally, the problem with a virtual auction is that you the buyer haven’t had the opportunity to physically examine the items that are being offered by the seller.

The on-line services are working hard to insure that there are adequate safeguards to prevent abuse. Our advice is to get to know the service you are using. For example, e-bay offers an escrow service that allows the purchaser to receive and inspect the equipment before payment is released to the seller. In addition, most services supply some reference information about sellers, so you can find out whether the person from whom you are buying an item has had favorable reviews from past customers.

Our e-bay addicts also suggest that you ask as many questions as you can from the person offering the equipment. Obvious examples: How much have you used the camera? Has it ever been dropped? Has it ever been repaired?

Specific questions about the features of the camera will clue you in as to whether the buyer is legitimate and has the camera to sell.

Sizing Up Used Equipment

Assuming you can physically inspect the equipment you may purchase, we suggest the following. First, look closely at the exterior of the camera. Are there any signs that the camera has been dropped or suffered severe physical shock? We’re not concerned about a few chips in the paint or minor dents, although those do indicate that the camera was used quite a bit.

It’s unreasonable to expect that the camera was owned by a collector who never used it. In fact, it’s often better if a camera has had mild use during its lifetime, since that tends to keep the lubricants spread over the mechanical parts. What you want to avoid is a camera that has been mistreated by a clumsy owner or used heavily by a professional. Sooner or later, every camera will experience failure of some system after excessive use.

Open the camera. Is it clean inside? Look at the chamber where the film cassette is placed (assuming it is a 35mm camera). Are there signs of wear? That suggests a lot of film was loaded into the camera.

Hold the camera up to your ear and advance the film and listen to the shutter. Set the camera’s shutter control to run at different speeds. How does the shutter sound at 1/4 second? At 1/60? At 1/500? If you hear rough noises or different sounds at different speeds, that’s a reason to be suspicious.

When you inspect a camera lens, feel how the focusing mechanism responds as you run through it. Are there any rough spots? Hold the lens to your ear and listen while you adjust focus. You shouldn’t hear any strange noises. If you’re looking at a zoom lens, run through the zoom range and feel and listen for any abnormalities.

With enlargers and other darkroom equipment, we don’t anticipate much damage from use. Check to make sure the enlarger head is aligned, that the equipment is clean and that the electrical system that runs the light doesn’t have a short in it.

Terms of Purchase

When you buy from an individual at a flea market or from your local newspaper’s classified, you’re not likely to get any guarantee or offer of warranty. Same from a pawn shop or an on-line auction service. In these instances, you need to trust your own assessment of the equipment you are considering. If possible, ask if you can shoot a roll of film using the camera (or lens) and ask that the seller hold the item for 24-hours while you get the film processed. This will give you a chance to determine whether there is anything wrong with the camera.

If you do get a chance to shoot a test roll, make sure that you test the response of the built-in meter if the camera has one, and use a wide range of different shutter speeds and aperture sizes to test the full range of the camera’s function.

If you purchase via mail-order, many reputable dealers use some sort of grading system. For example, the B&H Photo Monthly Catalog states that all used equipment is guranteed to work, regardless of cosmetic condition. Used photo items are guaranteed for 90 days and there’s a 14-day return period. B&H promises that “mechanics and optics are assumed to be excellent” and classifies each items under a cosmetic grading system:

  • 10=100% – Like New
  • 9=90-99% – Minor Wear
  • 8=80-89% – Average Wear
  • 7=70-79% – More Than Average Wear
  • 6=60-69% – Well used, but it works

Some advertisers in Shutterbug use a system that runs from “Mint” and “Mint/box”, to exc++, exc+, exc, vg++, vg+, vg, and so on. If you’re unfamiliar with this short hand, “Mint/box” means like new in the original box, “exc” means excellent, “vg” means very good.

Many of these mail order dealers have been in business for many years and value their reputation highly. Others can be less than satisfactory. We suggest that you ask for references of other customers, make sure you understand what warranty or guarantee is included, and pay with a credit card so you have some protection if there is a problem.

When you buy from a photo retailer you should make sure that you get a written confirmation of the terms. You should be able to expect a 60 or 90-day guarantee and possibly a short period when you can return the item if it does not meet your expectation.

If you take the time to follow the steps we’ve listed here, you should have no problem getting great value when you shop for used photo equipment.

Reprinted with kind permission from the New York Institute of Photography web site (no longer exists).

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