If you’re looking to save some money and don’t need the latest and greatest, it’s worth considering buying used camera gear. Whether it’s for a summer vacation, a road trip or you just want something that’s better than your phone, a great camera at a not-quite-new price is the best of all worlds.
And it’s not just the cameras themselves. Lenses and many accessories are also available used. I’m not talking about eBay… or at least, not exclusively: There are a variety of ways to get used camera gear that’s been tested by professionals so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Is it worth the risk? I thought so. I’ve bought a variety of used camera gear in the last few years, including most recently an $1,100 lens in like-new condition for 30% off. Here’s what to consider and where to look.
If you have a local camera shop, that’s ideal so you can physically look at the camera/lens/whatever and make sure it works, doesn’t have peanut butter smeared in the battery compartment, and so on. I actually drove out of my way on my 10,000-mile road trip last year to visit a used camera store so I could sell my old gear and buy a new Canon R6 and a used Sigma 50mm f1.4. However, this is not feasible for most people.
So what about the web? If you’ve visited eBay at all in the last few years you’ll have noticed the vast majority of sellers are companies hawking their wares. You can find person-to-person sales, sure, but they’re quite outnumbered. I mention eBay first as it’s the website that’s probably top of mind when most people think “buying used on the internet.” Personally, I’d never buy expensive gear on eBay, because you never know what you’re going to get until it arrives. The same is true of Craigslist, which offers the added bonus (terror) of meeting the seller in person.
What’s needed is a filter or a middleman that can look at the used gear, judge its fitness and sell it. Fancy car companies call this “certified pre-owned.” Fortunately, there are several websites that do exactly this: Examples include KEH Camera, MPB and LensRentals. Most of these sites either have pictures of the actual item, a description of what appraisers found or both. Some other companies, like Adorama and B&H, include used options alongside their new offerings.
Beyond the camera-speciality realm, there’s also Amazon’s dedicated Amazon Renewed program. What’s notable there is a 90-day satisfaction guarantee. (Keep in mind that’s not for any used items or third-party Marketplace items on Amazon, only items in the Amazon Renewed program.)
How it works
I had a lens I wanted to sell as I’d never used it. I had also fixated on getting another lens for my current camera. (Don’t get into photography, kids. It’s expensive.) I decided to check out the used camera gear sites.
First, selling. The process is similar on each. You put in the brand and model of what you’re selling along with a general appraisal of its condition (good, OK, peanut-butter smeared, etc.). You’re then given a quote/estimate of what the company will pay you for the product. (In my case, a lens.) I went with the site that gave me the best estimate, obviously, and it emailed me a label I could print out for shipping. The cost of this shipping must be included in their pricing as there is no separate shipping charge.
After a brief time in transit, I got an email saying they’d received it. A few days after that I got a final quote, which I accepted; it was for slightly less than the original quote, which I deemed fair based on the lens’ condition. A few days after that, the money hit my PayPal. It was exceptionally easy, so it’s certainly worth seeing if any of your older gear is worth selling.
Buying is, with one addition, like buying anything else online. That addition varies a bit with each site. It’s how, and how elaborately, they explain the condition of the used gear. For instance, KEH uses an 8-point scale, as seen in the image above. LensRentals has a 4-point scale. MPB goes all out and actually photographs the specific piece of gear you’re considering.
I ended up going with KEH for both as they had the highest price for the one I was selling and lowest for the one I was buying. That price difference is going to vary depending on the gear, so it’s absolutely worth checking all the sites for the best deal.
Weighing the risks
The obvious risk is the gear not working as promised. With most websites and on most gear there is a return policy, often a few weeks. So if it doesn’t work or look as described, you can return it.
Then there’s the question about longevity of gear that’s already been used, perhaps heavily. There’s no way to know this risk: That’s the price you pay to get lower prices. This is mitigated somewhat by the inspection process you’re paying these middlemen for, when you could theoretically get the same gear for less direct from someone selling it used.
There likely won’t be any manufacturer’s warranty. If something does go wrong, you’ll have to pay to fix it. Even if you get something within the manufacturer’s warranty window, since you didn’t buy it new they likely won’t honor it. Since you didn’t buy it new from a licensed dealer, it’s possible the manufacturer won’t fix it even if you’re willing to pay. However, you should still be able to get it repaired at a third-party repair place.
Certain sites will offer their own short-term warranty on gear they sell to you. KEH and MPB each come with six months, while Amazon Renewed and LensRentals products have three. You might also be able to buy an extended warranty from the website, though read the details about what these cover.
Is it worth it?
Personally, I’ve had good luck with used gear. Then again, I’ve bought lenses (and they tend to last a long time). If the price was right I’d probably buy a GoPro if it was in good condition, since most people use them for Disney vacations and not wingsuiting through canyons or whatever this is.
I’d also check used sites for any accessories, with the exception of batteries. There’s no telling how poorly a battery’s been treated.
Would I buy a used, full-size expensive camera? I don’t think so. I think for something I couldn’t easily replace if it was damaged I’d want a warranty and the peace of mind that it was all new parts… and any damage done was only the result of my own clumsiness.
However, that’s all a personal calculation. Saving dozens, perhaps hundreds of dollars against the chance that something might not last as long as a new one could be worth it. Just go in with your eyes open. If the price seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.
He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.