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Should You Consider Secondhand Photography Gear?

Back in the dim dark ages otherwise known as the 20th century, I bought a lot of second-hand camera gear. New gear was expensive and I preferred to spend my meager income on film and processing rather than equipment. I also convinced myself a camera was a dark box to hold film and a good lens was a good lens, regardless if someone had used it before me.

These days, I’m not so sure. I still buy the occasional piece of secondhand equipment, but generally I buy new these days. I shoot digital only, my images are often published, and I’m happy to pay a little extra for the inherent reliability and manufacturer’s warranty that comes with new gear. The latest technology can make a difference, too, especially in regard to focusing speed, lens coatings, sensor size and design, buffer sizes and so much more.

However, for some photographers I can still see some benefits of buying used. For example, a student would be far better off with a secondhand Canon EOS-1D Mark IIfor under $1500 than a new camera for the same money, especially if they have ambitions to shoot sport, reportage or wildlife, for the speed of a Canon (focussing and frame rate) 1-series will far eclipse the prosumer or amateur cameras.

And don’t for a moment think people don’t take you more seriously as a photographer if you turn up with a big camera! If you’re more into weddings and portrait work, the sensors in the 1Ds and Canon EOS-1D Mark IIwere both excellent and still produce great images, and a fraction of the price of the latest gear.

The same applies to the big Nikon cameras such as the Nikon D3that was and still is a legend.

If you’re a pro or aspiring pro photographer, a big, heavy secondhand camera is a great back-up to your EOS 5D MkII or D700. “Oh this old thing, why it’s provided years of faithful service,”—yes, to someone else!

I’d be less inclined to recommend secondhand prosumer or amateur cameras. Put simply, they go out of date so quickly, and their performance specs are so comprehensively trumped by the next model, it’s hard to see much value. That said, if you’re after a lightweight backup, you could do a lot worse than a 40D, D300 or Olympus E-3.

Lenses, flashguns, tripods and studio lights are a different ballgame though – there’s a lot of value in secondhand gear away from camera bodies. Brand new pro lenses are expensive and just occasionally they come onto the market at irresistible prices.

I bought a Canon 24mm f/3.5 tilt-shift secondhand in 2009. TS lenses are rare, expensive and have a very limited range of uses. I had wanted one for years, but not enough to actually buy one. For around half the new price, I bought it.

The author bought the EF 16-35 f/2.8L for around half the price of the latest model, recently: the 24mm TS lens (left a couple of years ago, and the Gossen Lunasix F (in the background) many, many years ago.

The same applied to a 16-35mm f/2.8LI purchased just a few weeks ago. Good condition, old model, half price. I’m happy with that, for my old 17-35mm f/2.8 was getting so loose in the zoom and focus rings it wasn’t funny. It worked fine for years on my 1D MkIIN, but it was a lens designed for film and I certainly noticed the color fringing apparent in the old lens when shooting on the 5D MkII. The 16-35, while probably not as good as the latest MkII version, is still great: and it takes the same 77mm filters as my 24-105 and 70-200, whereas the 16-35mm f/2.8 MkII uses 82mm filters. There’s $300 I’d need to spend to get new versions of the filters I like to carry.

The downsides of buying secondhand are numerous: faulty, out of date gear won’t do your photography any favors. But for most of us, taking a punt on secondhand gear which is not going to get used day-to-day or which might be a back-up to your main equipment is often a bet worth taking.

Coming soon: How to inspect secondhand gear.

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