The Photocritic second-hand kit buyers' guide

I recently saw an article that listed sound advice when it comes to saving money when purchasing new camera gear. Amongst other suggestions, it mentioned part-exchanging your gear, buying at demo days, and waiting for manufacturers' seasonal cashback offers. What it didn't suggest was to buy second-hand, however. Someone did point out to me that then the gear wouldn't be 'new' in its strictest sense, but I take a slightly less stringent view of the word 'new' in this respect. It's still new to the buyer, after all. I'm a huge fan of buying camera gear second-hand. Some of the lenses that I've picked up have been practically box-fresh, but bought at a half or two-thirds of the retail price. And it's a small step towards reducing waste and the use of valuable resources. But buying second-hand does require you to put some trust in the seller as well use some of your nous and common sense. So what should you do? This guide has been put together using my own experiences together with advice from Campkins Cameras in Cambridge (where I buy lots of my kit) and Adorama, who sell used as well as new gear. It is of course advice, and while it's as thorough as I can make it, it probably falls short of comprehensive somewhere.

What to buy

My own preference is for new bodies but second-hand glass, still there are great deals to be had on very well kept camera bodies. Used accessories can be picked up on the cheap, too. Almost anything that you'd like to establish or augment your photographic arsenal can be purchased second-hand, from vintage kit to barely used up-to-date digital gear.

Given that there are so many places to look for used photographic equipment, it's advisable to begin your search with a clear idea of what you want and how much you have to spend. You might not get very far with 'I want a new lens!'

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.

Anyone want to buy my Holga? Boxed. I think I've put two rolls of film through it. Make me an offer.

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 offer 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.

When to buy

If you're in the market for a particular camera or lens, it's worth keeping an eye on manufacturers' release cycles. When new models in the line that you're interested in go on sale, you're likely to find a bump in people selling their older versions when they upgrade. For example, Nikon announced its D810 today; as a consequence, people wishing to upgrade from their D7100 or even their D800 or D800E will probably start thinking about selling them on soon.

Nikon's new D810 - what will people be selling on as they upgrade to it?

Taking a look at the second-hand market just after Christmas is a good idea, too. People receive gifts, they're given money to put towards new gear, and they resell their old equipment as a consequence.

Or you can do what I do. Decide on the specifics of your next purchase, but not restrict yourself to a timescale and ring up your local dealers every week to ask if they've anything that fits your requirements.

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

Should you be buying via a site that uses a grading system for second-hand goods, read their ratings descriptions carefully to understand the condition of the product you're looking to purchase. Some sites won't sell goods that don't function normally but others will, indicating that they're good for parts. Make sure you know the code!

If you're looking at goods graded N or D on Adorama, these are just about as good as new and it's unlikely that there will be much difference in the price from a brand new product. You're likely to get a better deal on something that Adorama grades as E or OB. OB means 'Open Box' and it's the equivalent of a demonstrator car: it's been used as a display model or for training purposes.

Here are some of the things to look for, but remember it isn't an exhaustive list by any means.


  • 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
  • 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

No. You can't buy the Trip.


  • 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

Finally, remember the adage: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Now: happy shopping!

Camera remote hacking

I've written this caption four times, but every time it comes out like a cheap sex joke.

You may have heard about a little project I've been working on the past few months; it's an universal camera trigger that lets your camera trigger based on events; a sound, light, lasers, time-lapse photography (even non-linear timelapse photography), and any number of other things you could dream up.

screen_shot_2011_07_28_at_130524.jpgAs a part of this project, I've been spending way more time than what's healthy looking at camera remote control cables, and I've done a few cool hacks to them. Among other things, I've looked at how you can make your own camera connection leads. Making your own is the quickest way to create leads (well, after buying them from us directly, of course), it’s not always the best way to go about it.

Reducing waste

Why? Well, the problem is that many cameras use rather obscure plugs, and you can’t turn to Maplins or Radioshack to buy them. So, Unless you’re Triggertrap Megacorp and able to order them by the hundreds, for most of us, the only way to actually get your hands on the right connector lead for your camera, is to go online and buy a cheap knock-off remote control for your camera on eBay.

I always thought it was a bit of a waste to take a perfectly good remote control, lop off the remote control part, and only use the cable. So, that got me thinking: Is there a way to leave the remote control intact, but add a 3.5mm socket to the casing, so you can use it as a normal remote control, but so you can also connect the Triggertrap to it when you want to use it?

Why? Well, the problem is that many cameras use rather obscure plugs, and you can’t turn to Maplins or Radioshack to buy them. So, Unless you’re Triggertrap Megacorp and able to order them by the hundreds, for most of us, the only way to actually get your hands on the right connector lead for your camera, is to go online and buy a cheap knock-off remote control for your camera on eBay.

I always thought it was a bit of a waste to take a perfectly good remote control, lop off the remote control part, and only use the cable. So, that got me thinking: Is there a way to leave the remote control intact, but add a 3.5mm socket to the casing, so you can use it as a normal remote control, but so you can also connect the Triggertrap to it when you want to use it?

So basically, we're adding a remote control to your remote control? Well that makes sense. Let's do it.

Before we get started; Here’s how you recognise what camera remote you need, and there’s a list of cameras and their corresponding remotes as well.

Step 1

First of all, you need to source a 3.5mm jack socket. Technically, it's known as a 'Screened Chassis Socket'. Try Maplins or Radioshack, but they also show up on eBay from time to time.

Step 2

Get a remote control that fits your camera. This one is a MC-30 camera for Nikon cameras; but you can adapt most remote controls quite easily.

Step 3

When you look at the insides of these things, you realise why they're so cheap: But it works, which is the important part. Also, its simplicity means that it's easy to adapt to our needs. See that little space at the end of the metal parts? That's where we'll be installing our socket.

Step 4

There's three wires. From the top, they are Ground, Focus, and Shutter. Wanna know how I know that? A multimeter may have helped a little bit.

Step 5

To get the socket to fit in the confined space, I had to take off the little rear wing

Step 6

I didn't have a drill or my Dremel handy, so I used my soldering iron to burn a hole in the side of the remote. Highly not recommended, I probably shaved about 2 years off my life by breathing those fumes. Anything for a good blog post, eh?

Step 7

Everything soldered in place and the socket installed. Because the hole is small enough that the threading on the socket grips properly, I didn't need to put the flange back on the end (besides, the remote's walls were too thick to make it fit anyway). I'll have to be careful when inserting the mini jack so I don't use too much force, but so far it works fine.

Step 8

Voila! It's hardly the most beautiful DIY job in the world, but it does the trick.

Step 9

Step 10 – Enjoy the spoils of your endeavours!

Well will you look at that! It works!

Saving money on your photography

Taken with the compact camera in my handbag. Far from top of the range and runs on rechargeable AA batteries.

Photography is not a cheap hobby. It probably starts out as an inexpensive past-time for most of us, maybe with a low-end compact camera or using Dad’s SLR and a couple of prints here and there – I know it did for me – but as our experience and our enthusiasm grows, so do our kit bags.

Add together the cost of an entry-level dSLR, a couple of lenses, a tripod, and a few other bits and pieces to make your life more interesting and you’ve already spent the best part of £1,000. Before long we realise that we’re having to take out insurance policies specifically covering our photographic equipment.

So if finances are a bit strained, or if you’re trying to save to go on the photographic trip of your dreams, what can you do? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Small Aperture’s guide to skinflint’s photography.

Buy secondhand

From eBay to the local paper to car-boot sales to word-of-mouth there are thousands of pieces of perfectly useable photographic equipment for sale at a fraction of the price they would be brand new. Granted, they come without warranties and guarantees, but shop carefully and there are bargains to be had.

Don’t feel compelled to buy the latest model

At the moment you can pick up a Canon 450D for about £550 / $600 (Amazon UK / Amazon USA) whilst a 550D is roughly £750 / $1,000. If you’re just stepping up from a compact to an SLR the difference in specification is probably not worth £200. The same goes for lots of kit; so weigh up if the extra expense gives you suitable value-added.

Coffee shot through a home-made pinhole camera

Borrow equipment

Without even thinking too hard I can name two of my friends who also use Canon cameras. Did one of them lend me his wide-angle lens when I went away last weekend? Of course he did. Would I loan someone my 50mm prime lens if asked? Almost certainly.

It costs nothing to ask, just make sure you care for someone else’s kit better than you’d care for your own granny. (That is assuming that you like your granny. Otherwise pick your favourite person in the world.)

Rent equipment

Okay, so you use a Nikon and your best friend uses Pentax. You can’t borrow her macro lens for your weekend at the Eden Project, but you can always rent one.

Renting the same piece of kit over and over again will be expensive and you might as well just buy it in the long-term, but every now and again, or if you want to try before you buy, it could be worth it.

Make your own

Need a soft focus lens? Improvise with clingfilm. Don’t have a diffuser? A piece of muslin over your flash will do the job. Left your tripod on a train? Try using a piece of string. Want an interesting portrait background? Look around you: there’s sure to be something intriguing.

There is a bundle to be saved with a little ingenuity and creativity.

Try using old kit

Plenty of camera manufacturers haven’t altered their lens mounts in years. That means that many lenses from manual cameras will still fit on their digital grandchildren. Even if they don’t fit, picking up an adaptor is relatively cheap. Think of all that beautiful glass you could be using!

Use rechargeable batteries

I keep a compact camera in my handbag: it has rechargeable AA batteries in it. Got a flashgun? That’ll take AAs, too. Might as well make those rechargeable.

The photoshoot couldn't get to New York; so New York came to the photoshoot

Use free software

If you haven’t got £230 to spend on Adobe Lightroom, there are free photo editing packages available, for example GIMP, Photoscape, and Picnik. They might not be quite as responsive as something you pay for, but they will do the job.

Shop around for printing

I’m as guilty as the next person of always using the same company to run off prints of my photos. If I were to shop around, looking online and on the high street, I might be able to save myself some pennies on printing.

I do try to save up and print in bulk, though, which is far more economical than ten photos here and there.

In summary…

The day that I realised I was frustrated with my compact camera and wanted the versatility of an SLR, I knew that I was in for the long haul, but at least I know that it doesn’t always have to cost me a king’s ransom!

Insuring your camera stuff

If you’re anything like me, your photography hobby is more expensive than an out-of-control crack habit. Spending a lot of money on buying top-end photography gear is all good and well (and it feels lovely to have equipment that does what you want it to), but there’s a lot to be said for making sure your equipment is safe.

Yes, folks, it’s time for the most boring blog entry you’re ever gonna find here on Photocritic: Insurance.  


Most house-insurances will cover photographic equipment – even if you’ve removed it from your house – up to a limit. Because you are already paying them, it may be worth giving them a ring, to see if perhaps they are able to insure all your camera gear cheaply. Be aware that many of them will only offer like-for-like insurance, however, so if your camera is a very well-kept, 2 year old EOS 20D, the insurance company will go on eBay and look for 2 year old 20D cameras, and you won’t get nearly as money back as you need to buy a new camera.

If you travel a lot, it may be that your travel insurance actually covers your camera equipment – in that case, your house insurance will cover your stuff when you’re at home, and your travel insurance will cover it at all other times. Make sure to check this first, however.

Also note that most insurance policies only cover theft, and occasionally damage done by third parties (baggage handlers at Heathrow, I’m looking at you…)

The best way forward – especially if you are working (semi-)professionally, is to get a dedicated photographer’s insurance. There are a lot of them out there, and prices vary, so shop around.

The most expensive insurance companies will offer new-for-old (the 20D in the above example would be replaced with a new 20D, or a 30D if the 20D has gone off sale), will cover loss (if you drop it in the ocean), damage (if you are butter-fingered), theft, theft from car boot or other securely locked place, and lots of other things. Basically, unless you give your camera to a stranger and forget about it, you should be covered.

In addition, it is worth considering getting public indemnity insurance and public liability insurance. These are often offered as part of the professional photographer’s insurances. Between them, it means that:

  • If you drop a camera on that expensive Bugatti Veyron you’ve been asked to photograph, the insurance company will pay for the damages.
  • If a model sues you after you ask her to take just one step back and she tumbles off a cliff, the insurance company picks up the tab.
  • If you photograph a wedding, only to discover the next day that your memory cards have become irrecoverably corrupted, the bride and groom will hate you lots, and probably sue you for being an unprofessional bastard. The insurance will pick up that tab, too.

The best way to find a good photographer’s insurance is to go on a big photography forum such as dpreview.com or photo.net, and have a look what people say about photographic insurances. You’ll always find some good and some bad feed-back, but go with your gut instinct. It’s also worth asking other photographers who work in your area (both photographically and geographically) and find out who they are using, and if they are any good.

Insurance can be expensive, but can you afford to replace all your photo gear if something happens to it?

Knock on wood, folks, keep your fingers crossed and count your lucky stars, but just to make sure, that insurance policy may be just what keeps you from going nuts in the case something does happen.

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