What Should You Look For When Buying a Used DSLR Camera?

Used DSLR camera

If you’re looking to save some money, buying used cameras is a viable alternative to purchasing something brand spankin’ new, but you have to go about it cautiously. Being prepared and knowing what to look for is key to finding some great buys but also to prevent you from getting ripped off.

So, what should you look for when buying a used DSLR camera? The things you want to check out are the shutter count, shutter mechanism, overall condition, sensor, lens mount, LDC screen, hotshoe, and CF compartment. Let’s go over each of these in more detail below. 

Shutter Count

The thing with buying used cameras is you want to get one with a relatively low shutter count (how many times the shutter has been actuated… to get fancy). 

Odometer with eighty thousand miles

It’s kind of like mileage in relation to a car, the lower the miles the better condition the car is in (with normal wear and tear) at least with regard to the shutter mechanism.

All shutters have a life span, just like engines, so when they stop working they can be replaced but it’s going to be a costly repair. 

Now, the camera may work just fine with a high shutter count, but it’s closer to encountering a problem than one with a much lower count. Again, back to my car analogy. A car with 90,000 miles is more likely to encounter a problem sooner than one with 35,000 miles. 

First Things First

The first thing you want to find out is what the average shutter life span is of the camera model you’re looking to buy. It does you no good if you know the shutter count but not have a baseline to judge it against.

Most professional cameras have a shutter life of around 100,000 to 200,000 actuations. Entry level DSLRs can be as low as 50,000 while high-end professional cameras as much as 400,000. So there’s quite a range there depending on which model you’re looking at. 

You can find a camera’s life span by Googling it. Type in “life span of Nikon D800” or whatever camera model you’re looking for, or call the manufacturer. They should be able to tell you.

Down For the Count

There is software you can get so when the camera is plugged into your computer, will tell you the shutter count. Some is free, others you have to pay for.

There are also some free online sources for certain brands like:

www.camerashuttercount.com

You just upload the last picture you took from your camera and it will give you the shutter count.

I wouldn’t buy a used camera without first knowing what the shutter count is. Oops, I take that back. I did buy my Canon 60D refurbished from Canon itself, and it’s given me no problems whatsoever, but that was before I knew anything about shutter count… and I trusted the source.

When I bought my Nikon D800 used from a private seller though, I had the software and brought my laptop with me when checking it out and the shutter counter was just over 6,000 — which is like buying a used car with only 6,000 miles on it. Sweet!

The shutter count is important, however, it’s not the only thing you want to look at. 

The Sensor

Lego figures inspecting inside of DSLR camera

You’ll want to inspect the sensor behind the mirror. Go into the menu and find a selection called “Lock Mirror Up For Cleaning” or something similar depending on the brand. Note, this must be done with a lens attached, then once the mirror is locked up you can remove the lens and look inside. This is just a cursory visual inspection to find any obvious issues.

A better way to check the sensor though is to take a picture of something white, or at a cloudless sky, at the highest f-stop, then view the image on a computer at 100% magnification and look for any irregular lines which would be indicative of a scratch. You’ll also see how dirty the sensor is by the number of black dots that appear on your white image. These are dust particles that can be easily removed with proper cleaning.

Check Out That Body!

Check the outside of the camera for any dents or significant damage which would be a sign that the camera was dropped or that something smashed on top of it. 

Say “Ahhhh”.

Take off the front cap and shine a light inside. You want to check for any oil, dirt, or grime. If there are signs of oil, this could mean that the shutter mechanism is spitting out particles of oil onto the sensor glass which in turn will produce a milky cloudy effect on your highlights. This was a problem Nikon had with the D600 and D610 models which they’ve since discontinued. 

DSLR camera up in the air

The best way to check for this is to take a picture of something bright and shiny contrasted with something dark right next to it. If there’s no oil on the sensor glass your highlights should appear crisp with detail as opposed to soft, murky, and blown out. 

Dirt, grime, or sand (yikes!) could indicate the camera was in some pretty harsh environments and may have suffered some internal contamination.

Take some pictures and listen to the shutter mechanism. It should sound smooth and normal without any grinding or lagging.

Lens Mount

Inspect the lens mount for any bent or warped areas. Slip on a lens and see if it secures easily and snuggly without any problems. 

Hotshoe

Inspect the hotshot the same way you did the lens mount, looking for any damage. Slip a speed light on and see if it slides in easily and snuggly and that the flash secures firmly.

Man with DSLR camera

LCD screen

Check out the LCD screen and turn it on. See if it’s illuminating properly and that there aren’t any burnt out sections. 

Articulating Screen

If it has an articulating screen, check for ease of movability and that everything is functioning properly.

CF Compartment 

If the camera uses CF (compact flash), open the compartment, shine a light into it and check for any bent pins. If you have a CF card, gently slide it in and check to see if it inserts snuggly and easily. 

Take Some Video

Record some video and then play it back. Make sure the playback is normal and that all the controls work; fast-forward, reverse, pause, play, stop, etc. 

Take Some More Pictures 

Take some more images and again, check for anything that looks abnormal and again, check the highlights for a cloudy murky look which could indicate oil on the sensor. 

Refurbished From Manufacturer or Trusted Source

Your odds of getting ripped off go down dramatically if you buy refurbished gear from the manufacturer or a trusted source, like a camera store that routinely deals in used equipment (like KEH in Georgia). 

Both major manufacturers and respected retail stores inspect and repair (if needed) the used gear they acquire before re-selling it to the public, and they have people that do nothing but that all day long. 

They can tell if something can’t be fixed and they’re not going to risk their reputation (especially with social media nowadays) by trying to sell you a piece of junk.

Buying From a Private Seller

You run more of a risk when buying from a private seller.

A good friend of mine bought a used camera body (off Craig’s List) from someone who swore the shutter count was very low. Unfortunately for my friend, he later discovered after buying it that it was actually over 100,000 — and could never get a response from the seller after calling him on it. 

Now, the camera may have worked fine but if they lied about that, what else may they have lied about, so be careful. That’s why you need to know exactly what to look for and check out when buying from a private seller. 

Psst… Hey Buddy, Wanna’ Buy A Watch?

watches

People do sell stolen gear on Craig’s List and it’s usually easy to spot. One sign is that the deal will be too good to be true. I recently saw a brand new Fuji XT3 with zero shutter count for $500. They were selling it for their aunt… who lives in Montana… although they were posting in Virginia… but then they wanted me to buy it from a link they would send me on eBay.

Whaaat?

That makes no sense.

It’s all a shell game to remain anonymous and that ebay link is probably fake. 

In Conclusion

Buying used and refurbished cameras is a great way to get the camera you want at a discount. If buying from the manufacturer, like Canon or Nike, make sure you ask a lot of questions about the points above because you won’t be able to inspect it in person.

If buying from a private seller, though, you’ll be able to do that inspection yourself. 

If you found this article helpful, forward it to someone else who may also benefit from it.

Thanks for your time!

Charles Mitri

Founder / Lounge Boudoir

Bella Mitri Boudoir

Charles Mitri

Charles Mitri is an award-winning boudoir photographer and also founder and writer of LoungeBoudoir.com, an educational blog and resource website for boudoir photographers worldwide. He lives in Yorktown, Virginia.

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