How To Safely Buy Used Photography Gear Online, Without Regrets

Filed in Articles How To Longform on August 8th 2017 • Dev • Live

If you’re like most people the allure of saving up to 75% off the MSRP on a piece of camera equipment is just too good to turn down. And the one way to do that, is to buy used.

Nearly 90% of the over 200 lenses, bodies, and accessories that I’ve owned has been bought used. Everything, from inexpensive lenses like my first Nikon 50mm f/1.8 to top end gear like the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AFS II, and I’ve never once been swindled or scammed.

I want to share with you the steps I take when buying used to ensure safety and satisfaction.

Research

Obviously research should go into any purchase but especially so when buying a lens online, sight unseen. I’m going to spend a lot of time on this because it’s critical in ensuring you don’t waste money or buy something not suitable for yourself.

Lightroom will allow you to sort all your metadata from every photograph, diving into this will allow you decide which types of lenses or cameras you may need.

When I begin shopping I first consider what type of lens I’m buying, that is to say, am I shopping for a wide angle prime or zoom, standard prime or zoom, fixed focal length of any type, short telephoto or long telephoto prime or zoom, tilt-shift, and so on.

This can be a very tricky decision to make and it’s one that may even stay fluid throughout the buying process. For example, when I bought my 300mm I was between a few different lenses, one of which had Nikon’s Vibration Reduction feature (VR). I was haggling with people on a VR model and ultimately decided that the additional weight of the VR model might not be worth the gains or monetary cost of VR.

Once decided, I begin to research what is available in that category of lens or body type. Let’s pretend I’m shopping for a wide angle zoom lens — a pretty broad category — but I’m undecided on whether or not I want a fixed aperture or variable aperture.

This is a hard decision to make because the price difference between a variable aperture lens to a fixed can sometimes be nearly double. So it’ll come down to your use cases. If I already own a wide angle and I’m upgrading, I’ll go look at my portfolio of pictures that I’ve shot with that lens and ask “would this have been better or easier to shoot if I had a 2.8?” or “will the difference of 2mm between a 14-24 and a 16-35 matter at the wide end? How many pictures have I shot at 16mm, did I need the extra 2?” and so on. A lot of self review can be needed to avoid wasting money. Lightroom makes this very easy to accomplish with the Metadata tab above the Grid View, you can drill down by lens type and aperture used.

do not assume or take for granted your security because you’re on a popular website. Do your homework and be very critical of every aspect of your correspondence with the person you’re dealing with

As you inch closer to actually shopping, it’s important to know what lenses will actually work with your camera or vice versa if you’re changing bodies. One big benefit that Nikon has over other companies is that you can use any lens ever made by Nikon for the F mount, no matter how new your Nikon DSLR — with just one or two exceptions, so double check. I always consult this list on Photosynthesis.co.nz it’s kept up to date and very thorough.

I’ll also do things like google “Nikon wide angle mount lens” and just see what comes up. The third party manufacturers are always releasing random lenses you might not hear about. Furthermore there’s probably older lenses that still work just fine, if you can get your hands on them. I say if because hoarders do not often want to give up their tough 35mm f/1.2 manual focus AIS lens.

On top of that, nowadays the prevalence and cost of adapters is so good that you can pretty much put any lens on any body. For example, I use Voigtlander glass made for the Leica M Mount on my Sony A7. It is manual focus, but that is what I prefer for the A7 when I shoot with it.

Once I’ve narrowed down to three or four different lenses I begin reading and finding comparison reviews. A lot of time can be sunk into this, especially if you’re still not quite certain which style of wide angle is the right fit. I use sites like Ken Rockwell because he’s pretty blunt with his opinions and speaks candidly about gear.

Sony A7 with the Metabones adapter and a Voigtlander 75mm 1.8 of the Leica Mount variety.

There is an element of marketing and selling to his tone, because he’s trying to get you to buy gear through his referral links, so you have to combine his words with opinions of those on other forums. Overall though, he’s pretty free of pretentious bias you commonly see on other review sites. Those sites should be taken with a barrel of salt these days.

Speaking of message boards, my favorite is Fred Miranda and it’s where I’ve bought and sold a lot of gear over the years. If there’s a lens in existence you can rest assured it’s been discussed on FM.

By now you should have almost decided as to which specific lens or body (or whatever) you want. Or at least you may have a priorities list depending on your rush and how much you can score the gear for, after all people will haggle.

Contacting Buyers, Where to Shop

First, do not buy from eBay, ever, ever, ever, ever… omg ever. I don’t care how good of a deal you’re getting. You’re odds of being scammed on eBay are higher than any other source for used gear and to make thing worse, support from Paypal for when you are eventually scammed, never goes your way, whether you’re the seller or the buyer, lol.

One great retailer is KEH.com, it’s actually where I bought my 300mm f/2.8 annnnd  I try to avoid because their old cameras section is a huge tease for me. I want them all.

Also, BHPhoto.com, Adorama and Henry’s have used gear sections online with stock that changes daily.

But what I want to talk most about is private sale of used gear. I mentioned Fred Miranda a minute ago, that site is also an amazing place to shop for used gear. There’s a lot of great people on there and it’s kind of a close knit community. The scam rate is very low and members are surprisingly active and on guard, instantly sussing out a scammer and calling them out for it. But you should always do your homework on the seller, and we’ll get into that now.

Creep Like You’ve Never Creeped Before – Warning Controversy Lies Within

This is a sale from FM, notice his feedback, Green+41, his location. You can find his website and other information at the bottom of his ad.

Once I’ve contacted a buyer about a piece of gear I immediately start looking for warning signs. Sadly, one of the biggest warning signs requires you to be very, very judgemental but with good reason.

We’ve all been rang up by a “telemarketer” telling us we’ve won a boat or have seen it in scam emails: poor or broken English. Well it’s no different online. Often time the scammer is from Russia and is running their Russian text through a translator. Suffice it to say, one of the biggest red flags for a potential purchase from a private seller is if their written English is really bad, like it’s being run through a translator.

What will standout as well, is that they’ll overshare, everything is very conversational and not getting to the point of the sale. This is because they’re attempting to groom you into subconsciously trusting them.

For example:

You: Hey, wondering if you still got that 24mm and would you break on the price a little, $800 seems a little steep?

Them: Hey! My day great thank you asking. I hope you are also are doing well. We’ve had some rain latly but that is good for thr crops right? I have lens for you, $600.

So many red flags here.

Bad writing won’t entirely turn me off from a purchase, I’ve made them before with people for whom English is a second language, but I also know, from information I’ve gotten after the fact, that I’ve narrowly avoided being scammed by being very cautious with a seller who just didn’t correspond appropriately.

This is just one red flag though, you have to combine a lot of information. I always check out their post history to see how active they are in the community and will try to find their real name if they’re hidden behind an alias. Then I’ll google the real name, google the email they’re corresponding with, their alias and so on till I reassure myself they’re who they claim to be.

Check their feedback, importantly checking the dates on the feedback. If they haven’t been active for some time, that’s a red flag that indicates the account may be stolen. Many users on the forums will have their portfolio website in their signature. There’s always another way to get in contact with someone, but not everyone displays this information, so you have to be a detective.

One time I was selling something and the ship-to name didn’t match the person I had supposedly been dealing with. I ran the name of the person I was meant to ship-to, found them on Facebook and contacted them. Turned out, their account on this website had been hacked and they were not the person I’d been dealing with. No doubt I’d have shipped the lens and then immediately seen a Paypal Charge Back in my email the next day, only to be out $500.

The message I’m preaching is, do not assume or take for granted your security because you’re on a popular website. Do your homework and be very critical of every aspect of your correspondence with the person you’re dealing with.

A Pictures Worth A Thousand Words, In More Ways Than One

Another red flag I look for, if they have a portfolio or website is to find pictures on their site made with the lens they’re selling. Some lenses style really stand out, example a Tilt-Shift lens. Anyone who is selling a tilt-shift lens will have easily spotted TS pictures on their website. This lets me confirm they actually own and have in hand the lens they’re trying to sell.

Up close macro photographs of the lenses diaphragm or aperture blades are what I prefer. I can quickly determine if the lens is in good shape.

I’ll always ask the seller to send me pictures they’ve recently shot with the lens. This isn’t foolproof but, again, it’s just another red flag to watch for. From these pictures you can view the metadata and see when the picture was shot and — if the camera wrote Copyright information to the picture — WHO actually shot the picture. If the date shows as a year ago but they’re claiming to have shot that snap a week ago, you need to be on alert and query them. It could be that their camera EXIF date is wrong, ask for it to be corrected and shoot a picture of that days newspaper. You can never be too cautious.

A lot of scammers will just Google Image Search a popular lens and use that. If the metadata from the product picture of the lens doesn’t add up, you have a warning sign. Ask them to take picture of the lens with the computer screen of your correspondence in the background.

For the buying of used bodies, always ask for how many pictures are on the shutter, sometimes called actuations. You can do this with a recently shot JPG straight from the camera in question, uploading the picture to Camera Shutter Count will tell you how many snaps are on that shutter assembly. Important to know. You don’t want a camera with million pictures on a shutter rated for just 150,000.

If my Spidey Senses are tingling I’ll do two things. Reverse Google Image Search the pictures they’ve sent me of their lens and run it through Stolen Camera Finder to search by serial number.

Ultimately, I want to see good, clean pictures of whatever piece of gear I’m buying. Watch the angles to ensure the seller isn’t purposefully hiding or obfuscating a scratch or ding and you should be OK. As well, the pictures shot with the lens will not only help me validate the information I’m being told via the EXIF data, but they ensure there’s no flaws with the internals, such as a focal plane being out of whack, with half the frame being out of focus, which is kind of common for Sigma lenses.

I’ll usually ask for pictures at the more common f/stops like wide open f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11 and f/16. If it’s a zoom lens of some type, I’ll ask for these at each main interval. If it’s a 70-200 I want those 6 pictures at 70, 105, 150 and 200. Satisfy that and we’ve got a sale.

Conclusion

These are just some of the steps I take to ensure safety and satisfaction when I’m buying used photo gear online.

There may be some tricks and tools you use to help yourself too, feel free to share them in the comments if you do!

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