Tips for Buying Cameras and Lenses on eBay

Choose based on the lens you want and avoid antiques

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If you’ve heard that there are smashing deals to be had on camera equipment on eBay, you heard correctly—you can in fact save hundreds or even thousands 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.

Whether we’re talking film or digital, cameras are objects that inspire creativity and passion in almost everyone—so much so that people are willing to spend a lot of their disposable income on a camera or to make a camera purchase the centerpiece of their vacation plans.

Unfortunately, they’ll often have to spend a lot of their disposable income to buy a nice once, since with advanced digital technology and high-precision lenses, cameras remain relatively expensive gadgets.

Here’s what you need to know to buy professional-style digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, lenses and other photo gear on eBay.

Read Descriptions Carefully

Because cameras in this space command a premium, there’s 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” actually does connect to lenses made by Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina or Tamron. These are the major lens brands out today, and they 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. However, they don’t actually have detachable lenses or operate with “extension” lenses or “adapter” lenses.

They produce inferior image quality and can hamstring you when it comes to lens choice.

Avoid Antique Cameras and Claims About Original Retail 

Because the very first big-name digital cameras were at the time exotic equipment intended for elite professionals, 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 and are decked out in all kinds of “professional” marketing and accessories.

Reviews of them often treat these products as though they are the ultimate in camera technology—and they were, 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 10 years old. These are so venerable as to be largely proprietary and to have image quality poorer than many current consumer cameras.

Buy a Generation or Two Back for the Best Deal

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, 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.

These “several years old” bodies can often be had for the same price as or even less than consumer-level cameras.

Choose Based on the Lenses You Have or Want

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

Consider a Consumer Camera

If the last point leaves you confused or you don’t yet know which lenses you’ll need to shoot with, you may not actually be a good match for an SLR or DSLR camera. Consider a consumer-level camera (fixed-lens) instead with the “amount of zoom” that will match your needs.

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

Ask 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, but many in the mid-range and prosumer space 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.

Do Your Due Diligence

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).

Don’t Buy 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.

Consider 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.

Consider a Third-Party Warranty

Cameras and camera equipment are costly items that do require some level of maintenance and that 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 MackWorth Avenue Group and many homeowners' and renters' insurance plans. Consider coverage, particularly for expensive equipment.

Buy 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 own buyer protection program has failed you.

Don’t Be Afraid to Upgrade

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 in order to fund the purchase of a new one.

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