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New vs. Secondhand Camera Equipment

Introduction

One of the most common dilemmas in the photography world is whether you shouldn’t settle for compromises and buy your equipment as new or you should save some money and look for the same objects (or maybe the previous version of them) in the secondhand market. While the first option is the safer one (but also the more expensive), the latter is a bit more risky but at the same time it’s also more tempting.
Even if there’s no final answer (otherwise it wouldn’t be a dilemma), there is a whole plethora of tips and tricks that we can give you so that you’ll be able to make the wiser choice next time you’ll find yourself in a similar situation.

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1. What to Expect When Buying Used Photography Equipment

The best way to fill all your doubts is to list all the pros and cons and see which one between the advantages and the disadvantages of buying used equipment will outweigh the other for your needs. Guess what? That’s what we’ll do together right now!

1.1 Pros of Buying Used Camera Gear

Let’s start right away with the main reason why many photographers are buying their gear in the secondhand market: it’s cheaper. Here you go, that’s it. No surprises here, right? But please, let me tell you one thing: sometimes it looks cheaper, but it’s not.
I hear you, sometimes the only way to afford a new lens or camera is to find some deals in the used market; my point is, are they really great deals? Or just some mousetraps?
First of all, you should be well aware of how much that object is selling for new; not just the list price, but also the retail and the online prices, so that you have a clear idea about how much you are saving. Now, a crucial factor when it comes to used items is, well.. How much they’ve been used since they were new. I’ll dedicate a chapter later to talk about what are the main things you should observe when buying an used camera/lens, but just as an example: it’s been used for just a few months? Or it has been used for years? Time is one of the most crucial and important variables when it comes to judging the price of a used item. Is warranty still valid? Or has it expired?
As a very, very general rule, I’d never buy an used piece of gear with less than 15/20% difference from the best price I found for that same lens as new. Consider that on new items you are also paying taxes, while on used ones you don’t, and neither does the seller. The percentage I wrote is the limit you should consider buying an used piece of gear instead of a new one. Less than that, it’s not worth it!

1.2 Cons of Buying Used Camera Gear

I don’t know if the physiological risk of buying used camera gear can be considered a real disadvantage, but if it is, that’s the main cons of buying secondhand equipment for sure.
When buying used items, there’s always a certain degree of risk because you aren’t able to know how it’s been used till that moment: it may have been in the hands of a maniac who kept the object in better-than-new conditions, or it could have been in the hands of a careless owner who wasn’t paying attention to the item and it could have taken shocks or hits. Some of those hits will be visible and so easily recognizable, others won’t: those are the most dangerous ones, because unless you disassemble the object and check each component, you have no way to know it in advance. All you can do is have faith in the words of the seller and hope he’s telling you the truth.
That’s why, price wise, it makes all the difference in the world to know if the object has still some time manufacturer’s warranty left or not. If the answer is positive, in case you’ll have to deal with some issues you won’t be completely on your own, but you’ll be able to talk to the technical support and find a solution together with them; it will also makes sense if the price will be slightly higher compared to other similar used models. If there’s no warranty left though, you are buying the object at your own risk. The manufacturer’s technical support will still be there, but unless it’s a recognized factory issue, you’ll have to pay for it. And trust me, repairs generally don’t come at a cheap price. Basically, when buying an used object without warranty, you trade the assistance and certainty of having a fully working instrument in exchange of the money you are saving by buying it secondhand. That’s it. Then, if it all goes well, you’ll have saved some money to spend elsewhere, if some issue pops out, the money you had originally saved will be spent to repair the object.
The final question is: are you willing to take the chance?

1.3 What to Check for in a Camera

Till this moment, all I mentioned as a very general criteria to buy a secondhand piece of equipment has been time. How much time passed since the first owner bought it from new. And while that’s a good way to measure the value of the object, it might not be accurate enough. Let’s focus for a bit just on cameras, we’ll talk about lenses in the next chapter.
Let’s make an example: you are undecided between two apparently identical one-year old cameras from two different owners. The first model though has been in the hands of an amateur who rarely used it, while the second one has been in the hands of a professional wedding photographer and it’s been heavily used for the whole time. Which one would you buy? I think we all agree on the former example. Problem is that sometimes you don’t know who the owner is. Don’t worry: the shutter count will come in and help you figure it out! You can easily check, by using some very simple softwares, how many shots have been taken with that camera since the day it was assembled. Fantastic right? Now you are sure that the camera has an acceptable wear and tear and a reasonable shutter count, so should you buy it? Not so fast: there’s one last check to make. Before to take the final decision, take a few pictures with the camera. If there are a few spots where you see halos or weird colors/decreased contrast, it means that there are some oil/dust spots on the sensor; while some of them are quite easy to remove, the worst case scenario is that you may arrive to replace the sensor, and that will cost you some money. Be sure that images are equally sharp everywhere.
So, if the camera passed all these tests you can seriously start to think about buying it, as it may be a great deal!

1.4 What to Check for in a Lens

Sometimes a used lens is an absolute bargain, sometimes you’ll regret to have bought it in the first place. As I said in the previous paragraph, while time is a decent measure to understand the value of an object, when considering to buy a used lens time has little to do with the final decision generally. Why? Because each lens is unique in it’s own way. There are old lenses that have irreplicable bokeh, outstanding features and incredible image quality. Sometimes time doesn’t matter at all, or it’s even a pros of that lens.
So, what should you look for when buying a secondhand lens? To start, take a look at it. Check if it has scratches. Take it into your hands. Check if all the rings are fine. If it’s an autofocus lens, check if it’s working. If it’s a zoom lens, check if the ring is rotating fluidly. Observe closely the front glass, look for scratches.
Now, onto the next phase: put it on your camera and take a few shots with the lens. Then, look at the photos you took: are they showing humidity inside the lens? Is there some hint of mold, due to the age of it (for old lenses)? Is there some problem with the autofocus, like front/back focus?
If the lens passed all these checks, then you should definitely go for it as you’ll have a lot of fun with your new piece of equipment!

Got all you need?

Come in one of our Dolomites photo workshops to test your camera equipment!

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2. What to Expect When Buying New Photography Equipment

Now that we went through the more complex used camera gear analysis of pros and cons, we are left with the more straightforward study of pros and cons of buying new photography equipment.

2.1 Pros of Buying New Camera Gear

Should I really tell you what are the pros of buying new camera gear? Well, for sure the biggest advantage is the fact that you set almost to zero the risk of breakings and/or various other issues. Starting with the fact that new items have to come, as established by law, with the manufacturer’s warranty, that is lasting generally two years since the moment you buy the object. Then, as obvious as it can be, new items have less chances to break down when compared to used ones, as no one has ever touched the former ones.
Talking from an economic point of view, sometimes it is worth to spend a bit more and have an object that you are sure you’ll keep for many years than save a few bucks at the purchase moment and having to deal with issues or to replace the object after a short time because it’s not working anymore as it should be.

2.2 Cons of Buying New Camera Gear

Well, there aren’t really any “cons” of buying new camera gear, the only disadvantage when compared to the secondhand market is quite obviously the higher price tag.
My only recommendation here is to look around you a lot: online, in stores, wherever they are selling that product. Don’t stop at the first deal you find, because you may find a better one along the search.

2.3 What to Check for in New Camera Gear

One of the great advantages that most of the times you have when buying secondhand compared to new camera gear is to test the product you are interested in before to actually buy it. When buying used items, you can talk to the seller, come to an arrangement about where and when to meet, and try the product; if you are satisfied, then you can decide to take it, otherwise you are free to leave. That is going to be less likely to happen when talking about new pieces of gear. While you won’t have any chances to try them when buying online, it’s also hard to find shops and stores that will make you try the product in depth, unless you are a really good client and you know the seller.
So, on what can you rely if testing the gear is not an option? The web will come in rescue! Luckily, nowadays there are plenty of websites where you’ll find all the sorts of tests, comparison, reviews and feedbacks from other users that already have that product. All you have to do is make a bit of searching on the web, nothing else. Even if you won’t be able to physically touch the product, I’m sure you’ll get way more informations that you could ever need about it!

3. Why Buy New vs. Secondhand Camera Equipment?

As you may have understood all along the article, the main variables of this comparison are the risk of breakings and the price of the item. By excluding impossible extreme cases, we can say that the two variables are inversely proportional: it means that at the rise of one will correspond the fall of the other and vice versa.
Let me be clear: there’s not an absolute answer for the question if it’s better to buy new or used camera equipment. Budget allowing, new will be the safer bet against possible problems and issues and the object could last more. On the other side, with the spare money saved from the purchase of an used item, you can go on a trip, pay normal expenses, etc, and in the meanwhile still possess a great, working tool.
You should be the one that knows how much the two aforementioned variables are weighting in your opinion, and act consequently!

Mirrorless or DSLR though?

Now that you know the pros and cons of buying new and used, you better check out the comparison between mirrorless and DSLR cameras!

Conclusion

So, even if unfortunately I can’t give you the ultimate answer to this dilemma, I hope to have given you a few ideas and a few useful advices about how to go through the deciding process and most of all what are the checks that have to be done before to buy a piece of gear, doesn’t matter if new or used.
Whatever you are choosing, the most important thing is that you are sure of your purchase and you’ll be satisfied and happy for quite some time after it!

Leonardo Papèra

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