New year; new kit. For anyone who's looking to add to their kit bags but don't feel the need to buy brand new gear—maybe it's for financial reasons, possibly owing to ethical concerns, or just because 'new' doesn't have to be 'new'—the post-holiday period is the perfect time to go shopping. People who've received shiny new toys as gifts will be more likely to sell on their old gear, and the glut of cashback offers that manufacturers offer just before the holidays might also encourage people to sell off their used kit. If you're really fortunate, there might even be some unwanted gifts being sold on the cheap. If you have a clear idea of what you want, but at the same time are prepared to be a little bit flexible, there are some super bargains to be had from second-hand sales.
But where should you look for gear, and what should you look for once you think you've found the perfect item, to make sure it is as flawless as you hope it is? We've pulled together as much as advice as we can remember; just do remember that it is advice. Caveat emptor.
Where to buy
How long is a piece of string? There are so many places offering second-hand sales it might feel a little overwhelming. The first places that might spring to mind are eBay, Craigslist, and Gumtree. Then there are major retailers who offer second hand sales in addition to their new business: Adorama, KEH, Wex Photographic, Wilkinson Cameras, for example. Your local independent camera dealer probably has a second-hand range, too. It's also worth watching Twitter as well. I quite often see people offering their kit for sale there before taking it to a dealers or trying eBay.
All of these come with their advantages and disadvantages. Online auction sites offer you the opportunity for great deals on price, but you have to place your trust in the seller that they're honest and reliable and that their descriptions are accurate. What you might think of as mint condition could be different to someone else's idea; and heaven forfend that someone takes your money and doesn't deliver the goods, or fences stolen property. The aftersales care and protections, for example returns and warranties, are less straightforward than with established traders, too.
Purchases made through established companies might be a bit more expensive than what you'll manage on eBay or similar, but most of them have a clear returns policy and even offer a warranty on goods. These companies' ratings systems usually afford you a clearer indication of the condition of the product you're looking to purchase, so you shouldn't receive any nasty surprises when it arrives. But, if you're buying over the Intergoogles, you don't have the opportunity to hold the product in your hand and test it out for yourself. This is perhaps the biggest advantage of local traders. I pop down and test out lenses before spending money on them and ask about a gazillion questions as well. Where I shop offers me a six month warranty on second-hand purchases, which is a great benefit.
It all depends on how confident you are buying over the Internet and how comfortable you feel spending money on goods sight unseen.
Questions to ask
You might not have the opportunity to ask questions of goods being sold online by major retailers, but you can ask questions of sellers on auction sites and in bricks-and-mortar shops. The first question I always ask is 'Why is it being sold?' If the seller can't give you an answer that sounds reasonable, you might want to reconsider the purchase. I ask about the original paperwork for the product, too. And I always double-check on the returns policy and the warranty.
If you're buying via an auction site, don't be afraid to ask the seller to clarify anything mentioned in the description, for more images of the product, or anything you'd like to know but hasn't been covered, for example where and when it was purchased originally.
What to look for
If you're buying from a second-hand dealer, they often use their own code to describe the condition of the goods they're selling. It's worth checking out the key to be sure you have a grasp of what's on offer. Remember: some sites are happy to sell irreparable goods for parts, others aren't.
Whether you're buying sight-unseen or from a bricks-and-mortar establishment, keep the following in mind. It's not exhaustive, but it is a good start:
- Actuations - how many times has the shutter been released? Obviously the fewer the better
- Battery and battery connectors - you don't want the battery to have leaked or for any of the connectors to be mis-shapen
- Battery charger - it's all very well having a battery, but you need to be able to charge it
- SD card slot - do cards move in and out cleanly and record without issue?
- Sensor - are there any dead pixels (you can spot them by taking a shot into the lens cap and looking at it in an editing suite) or dust or oil spots?
- Lens mount - it mustn't be mis-shapen or have worn threads
- Auto-focus - does it work properly?
- Scrapes and scuffs, dents and dings - a couple are to be expected, but you probably don't want it looking as if it were dropped down a well and dragged out again
- Dust and spots - you'll never get a lens that's perfectly dust-free, even brand-new, but you really don't want obvious dust or dirt spots
- Fungus - lenses that have been left in dark, slightly damp conditions are prone to growing fungus. You don't want any of that.
- Scratches - you want a scratch-free lens
- Aperture blades - check the aperture blades work properly and are clean
- Zoom and focus rings - twist the zoom and focus rings to ensure they're in full working order
- Auto-focus - check the auto-focus works properly
- Threads - you don't want the threads to be stripped or in any way mis-shapen
- Legs and head - Some tripods don't come as a complete package of legs and head. Be sure what you're buying so that you don't get a nasty decapitated surprise
- Mounting plate - if there's no mounting plate, you'll struggle to attach your camera to your tripod. That's not so useful
- Leg and lock function - check the legs extend properly and do so without too much difficulty, and that they lock into place properly
- Feet - a two-legged tripod would be quite obvious and not very useful, but do check that it has all of its feet
- Weight - have you checked how much the tripod weighs?
- Maximum load - double check your tripod's maximum load; you don't want to buy something that can't support your camera and lens
- Electricals - make sure that connectors aren't mis-shapen and that chargers and adapters work properly
- Fabric goods - how's the stitching? Do the buckles and fastenings work? Was the original owner a smoker?
Finally: remember that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is.