Buying Cameras and Lenses on eBay

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There are great deals to be had on camera equipment on eBay. You can save hundreds or even thousands, in fact, by buying used models in particular. But there are also some pitfalls to avoid and tricks to employ to ensure that you get the best deal possible with a minimum amount of heartache. Here’s what you need to know to buy professional-style, digital, single-lens, reflex (DSLR) cameras, lenses, and other photo gear on eBay.

Being Sure to Read the Descriptions Carefully

Cameras in this space command a premium, so there is a lot of incentive for scammers to try to pass poor imitations off as real pro-level cameras. Make sure that a camera that claims to be an “SLR” or a “DSLR” connects to lenses made by Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina or Tamron.

These are the major lens brands out that represent a series of standardized “mounts” (attachments to the camera). There are some cameras on eBay (mostly dirt-cheap imports) that claim to be SLRs or DSLRs but don’t have detachable lenses or operate with “extension” lenses or “adapter” lenses. These options produce inferior image quality and should be avoided.

Why You Should Avoid Antique Cameras

Because the very first big-name digital cameras were intended for elite professionals at one time, there are very, very old cameras out there from Kodak, Nikon, and Minolta that claim original retail prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. Reviews of them often treat these products as though they are the ultimate in camera technology. The fact is, they were at one point, but that was at least a decade or more ago.

Even if the body originally cost many thousands and looks to be as rugged as they come, avoid any pro camera body with less than three megapixels of image real estate or that is more than ten years old. These are so venerable as to be mostly proprietary and to have image quality poorer than many current consumer cameras.

Getting the Best Deal By Purchasing Older Models

To find the best deals on eBay in the pro or prosumer camera body category, look for cameras that are a generation or two old, in the 3-12 megapixel range, models from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung or Sigma. 

A camera body like a Canon D30, D60, or 10D, Fuji S1 or S2, Olympus E-1, E-300, E-500, or other manufacturers' models from the same era will still produce images that put any consumer camera to shame and remain compatible with all of the lenses from the camera family in question. There are “several years old” bodies that can often be had for the same price as or even less than consumer-level cameras.

Choosing Based on the Lenses You Have or Want

If you’re a pro or prosumer shooter, you probably already have a specific subject matter or certain lenses in mind. Rather than choosing the camera body first on features and then buying lenses to match, make a choice based on the lenses that you plan or would like to use and then buy a compatible body, since serious lenses are generally a more significant investment over the long term.

Asking for an Actuation or Shutter Count

Because most SLR and DSLR cameras have an actual mechanical shutter just like film cameras, be sure to get a count of the number of “actuations” from the item description or seller. Fewer than 10,000 is a good buy. Above this number, and you’re into grey territory.

Some digital bodies have shutters rated as high as 150,000 actuations before service is needed. Many in the mid-range and prosumer space, meanwhile, have maximum shutter counts of only 30,000-50,000. This means that a body with 20,000 actuations on it may be approaching the need for an expensive shutter overhaul at the nearest service center.

Doing Due Diligence and Other Buying Tips

Check the seller’s feedback and detailed seller ratings, and be sure you know what these mean. Avoid listings with obvious red flags. Read the item description carefully and note any condition information that is presented. Double-check terms and conditions, and never hesitate to contact your potential seller and ask for more information or sample image(s).

  • Avoiding Buying Memory Cards on eBay: As a general rule, memory cards on eBay fall into “wild, wild west” territory right now. Many of them are relabeled, defective, or fakes, and genuine articles are not particularly expensive these days in your local drugstore or big-box retailer. Avoid buying memory on eBay unless you’re an expert in this area; instead, buy locally.
  • Saving Money By Buying Rechargeables: For any camera that uses a standard battery type like AA, consider getting an inexpensive set of rechargeable NiMH batteries. These can be bought on eBay as well (along with chargers) and will save you tons of money and frustration in the long run.
  • Third-Party Warranties: Cameras and camera equipment are costly items that do require some level of maintenance and are fragile. There are lots of third-party insurers out there that will be happy to provide insurance or a warranty for your eBay purchase, including Mack, Worth Avenue Group, and many homeowners' and renters' insurance plans. It might be worth considering coverage, particularly for expensive equipment.
  • Buying With a Credit Card: Because of the complexity and value involved in camera equipment purchases, it’s always a good idea to pay for these using a credit card (not a debit card or bank transfer) on PayPal. That way, you can always file a credit card dispute and be reimbursed, even if eBay’s buyer protection program has failed you.
  • Upgrading: Because working photographic equipment holds its value well, photo gear of all kinds are prime candidates for eBay-style upgrades over the years. Don’t hesitate to sell your old camera on eBay to fund the purchase of a new one.

When to Consider a Consumer Camera

Ultimately, pro gear is great, but you need to know how to use it properly to get good results. Without professional or serious-amateur-level photographic knowledge and vocabulary, you may find that an SLR or DSLR is confusing to use and produces images for you that are less pleasing than what you’d get from a consumer camera.