When Is the Right Time to Sell Your Old Photography Gear?

When Is the Right Time to Sell Your Old Photography Gear?

We spend a lot of time talking about when it’s the best time to buy new gear. But it can be harder to know when is the right time to let go of the old gear as well.

I didn’t quite make it to the store yesterday. I had planned to go. I intended to go. But a pervasive sense of uncertainty led me to dawdle about on the couch just long enough for the opportunity to pass. To be fair, it’s an opportunity that will come again. Actually, it’s something I can do anytime, including doing it now instead of writing this article. It’s just that doing it yesterday would have been a tad bit more convenient on my schedule.

The event in question was one of KEH’s regular buying events. I’ve sold off a number of cameras to them in the past once the cameras had passed the usefulness. Usually, this is as simple as packing things up and taking them down to UPS. Then waiting to figure out if the actual quote will live up to the estimated one I had calculated online. To make this process even easier, KEH will occasionally take the show on the road. A representative will pop up at a local camera store to receive the gear in person. No trips to UPS. And, if you accept the deal, payment right on the spot.

There was one such event here in Los Angeles over the weekend. I put it on my calendar, just as a point of reference, before having anything in particular in mind that I would want to sell. After battling gear acquisition syndrome for years, there’s always something hanging around my house that isn't being used. But trade-in values aren’t always worth the hassle of digging through the garage, so often these trade-in events come and go without me actually taking advantage.

What piqued my interest this time around was what had happened the night before. I wrote last week about using the Nikon Z 30 to (re)start my YouTube channel, Moveable Canvas. I had to send back the loaner unit, so for the episode I was shooting this week, I thought I would audition one of my other cameras to film the episode. This particular assignment went to the Canon EOS R5. If you’re thinking that camera is a bit overkill for filming a direct address YouTube video, you may very well be right. I certainly didn’t purchase it for that purpose. I purchased it almost two years ago to be my main hybrid camera for professional work. At the time, I was shooting the majority of my stills with the G.O.A.T., the Nikon D850, but that camera lacked many of the video features that I needed, so, as my work became more and more video focused, the R5 started getting more and more snaps. I shot a number of advertising campaigns, editorials, and personal projects with the R5 and it produced some of my favorite images. A lifelong Nikon-ian, I seriously entertained the idea that this Canon R5 might be the right fit going forward.  

Then the Z 9 came out. I very quickly realized that the Z 9 was the absolute perfect camera for my particular set of needs. It felt right in my hand. It is built to work fast and efficiently. Efficiency is my middle name. And, being a lifelong Nikon-ian, it just simply felt right. No judgment on other brands. But, for me, the Z 9 turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for. Once I was able to get my hands on a second Z 9 as a backup to the first, I suddenly found that I had all my camera needs taken care of for the foreseeable future.

That’s not to say that the R5 didn’t still serve a purpose. With the built-in grip of the Z 9, there are advantages to having another smaller body like the R5 when you need to maneuver your way into certain less camera friendly shooting environments. The smaller body is also beneficial in some gimbal shooting scenarios (although the Z 9 does fine on a gimbal as well). And, though it uses a different log/raw format, having a third camera that is also capable of shooting 8K isn’t exactly a terrible option to have at one’s disposal.

The question, however, is how often am I likely to actually use that option. Because the Z 9 has cemented itself as the camera of choice, any game time the R5 would get at this point would be as a C camera. And while it does have the advantage of the smaller size versus the Z 9, it’s not like there’s anything it does that the Z 9 can’t. Except, of course, that it has the flip around screen. And this is why I thought I might audition it as my YouTube channel camera.

Doing so reminded me of two things. One, the image quality of the video is amazing. And, two, the thing still overheats. This has improved with recent firmware updates, but, depending on your combination of settings, that blinking red overheating light is still a persistent threat. I was reminded of this when, midway through taping the episode, I got the overheating warning and was forced to shut down my recording for about a half hour before I could resume and finish what I was doing. It wasn’t particularly hot in the room. I wasn’t shooting 8K. There didn’t seem to be any reason why I couldn’t have made it through a simple direct address to camera, aside from my own propensity to stumble over my lines. Yet, the camera did, in fact, overheat, reminding me of one of the main benefits of going to the big body Z 9 in the first place. That thing can shoot 8K, 4K, or whatever K for days on end without limitations. Hence, one of the main reasons why it took over the starting spot.  

I didn’t mean this article to turn into a comparison of the Z 9 versus the R5. Both cameras have served me incredibly well as a professional photographer and filmmaker. But I did want to give some context for why I found myself yesterday morning trying to decide whether to finally pack up the R5 and take the drive out to the store to see about trading it in. Because it’s still an amazing camera, the R5 should still be able to fetch a fair price on the used market. And it’s unlikely that the value will increase over time. So, trading it in now while the value is still relatively high makes a lot of financial sense. It’s only my own internal wavering that leads me to wonder what situations might come up where I’m going to wish that I still had it within my tool kit. No doubt, there will come a time, if I were to trade it in, that I would wish that I had kept it. Trading it in would also mean that all the cameras I have now would be of the built-in grip variety (other than the compact Nikon Z fc). It feels odd not to have a mid-sized body somewhere in the collection. But, again, is that really a reason not to cash in now, when the value is still high?

With this column, I often get a chance to talk about all the many detailed reasons why you should or should not buy a certain piece of kit. But I find deciding when to let go of existing kit to be a far greater challenge. What’s the best way to decide when it’s time to let an old camera go? And where is the line between its value as a backup option and its monetary value as a trade in? With the R5, it has value. But what if the camera you're considering trading in is worth so little versus what you paid for it that the question becomes more difficult?

I was once dating a woman who had a one in, one out philosophy when it came to clothes. In order to keep her closet manageable, for every new item of clothing she purchased, she would give one item of clothing to Goodwill. As a born hoarder, I always envied her this discipline. I have had a similar approach to cameras. I usually sell the old ones to help pay for the new ones. But, while I have multiple cameras now, they all serve slightly different purposes and come in slightly different form factors, which makes the decision slightly more difficult.

I’ve heard of some photographers who make a schedule for their trade-ins. Every three years, they trade in their old cameras and upgrade. I think this approach has a lot of selling points. For one, it takes some of the guesswork out of knowing when to upgrade. We like to debate which cameras are perfect for us and how one brand is better than another. But, truth be told, very rarely do most of us actually need to upgrade. We want to. But, there’s a good chance that any camera you’ve bought within the last three years is probably perfectly capable of getting the job done. So, if you simply set a calendar date for updating your gear and are able to stick to it, that allows you to get out of the technology rat race where every time you buy something new it’s made obsolete within six months.

The other advantage to doing it this way is that it forces you to sell when the resale value is relatively high. Once the new model is announced, the price of the old one will inevitably drop. If you set a schedule to sell your old ones at regular intervals, it might help you to get the most value from your trade-in.

These are all, of course, just my working theories. But I’d love to figure out how you go about deciding when to let go of your old gear. Do you set a schedule? Do you constantly upgrade every six months to stay ahead of technology? Do you hold on to cameras until they disintegrate on the shelf? I genuinely am curious to know how others manage the retirement of the cameras and gear that serve us so well over the years. In the meantime, I’m going to keep twiddling my fingers while looking at my R5. The answer is bound to come to me eventually.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Since I am older, I used to keep cameras forever, and I was not always the first owner when it was MF or LF. Medium format was too expensive to replace very often.
I know people who day trade their cameras, knowing what the new models have that theirs doesn't (seems like a form of GAS) some who buy and then sell on a tax depreciation schedule. They also lease cars (but that is a good tax expense) I also know a guy who had a few break ins at their studio and upgraded with insurance money...
I keep lenses for a long time, bodies are turned into B C or D cameras when I get a new A camera. I rarely have the latest/greatest but most still are very usable for most purposes even without the latest features. I admit to still using a 5Dmk2 once in a while along with "current" Sony gear.
The $300-500 I could get for a used body might not be worth it when it could be a #2 or #3 back up.

I always sell my gear just before or when new stuff comes out so I can get the best resale value, it’s allowed me to constantly upgrade for only a few hundred each time a new body comes out.

Seems like keeping up with the updates and learning new cameras would be a lot of work. lol

I see it as my duty to pass along my gear when it becomes more valuable to others than it is to me or to my work. Think of the satisfaction someone else will get when using your hand-me-down to produce their best photography.

I have tried that a few times but no one wanted my hand-me-down :)

Good way to think of it

Good question Christopher, up to now i have waited until a better version of my "A" camera came out, then "A" becomes "B". Great example would be the Nikon D750 replaced by the D850 and having both in my bag adds a comforting level of security. But with mirrorless option this has become complicated as I can't see working with both a DSLR and a mirrorless at the same time. Did you keep your D850 when you switched to the Z9? Or are you only shooting mirrorless ? Thank you.

It was truly painful, but I eventually sold the D850. The Z9 just made it redundant. And because of the video features, it was better for me to have two Z9s than use my D850 as a backup. But I HATED seeing it go.

I just sold my gear to KEH. I am 76 now, Got a fair price. I am buying new gear , lighter weight and less expensive. I know selling to this kinds of vendors I won't get best price if I sold myself. I just don't want the hassle, etc. Worked for me. Have my new camera and lens and was almost even split when I bought my new gear. When I get to the age I cannot sell, most likely I will find someone to give too.

I sell to KEH all the time. You do get less than you could get selling independently. But I've been scammed too many times so I feel like it's not worth the hassle. KEH is smoother and gives you a fair price.

R5 as a ‘C’ camera 😒. Really ?

At one time I had 5 or 6 Nikon cameras, most of them D300's. I had a D100, D200 and a D90, and my favourite, a D300s. All I have left is the D300s and the D90. I'm debating selling the D90, but I can't seem to bring myself to let go of it. It still works great, has a low shutter count, and I can't really see any advantage in not having it around when I need a smaller camera to work with. Reading your article kinda made me write what I just posted because I can sympathize how you feel about selling off your equipment.
ps: The D300s is my #1 shooter. I'll never sell it!

It's always hard to sell. I do it all the time and every now and then feel regret for having let go of some of my favorite cameras (even though I wasn't using them anymore).

You write about the "use case" of keeping an older camera as a back-up.

But what about as a pure investment? As you say, the D850 is/was GOAT as far as DSLRs are concerned.

I am keeping mine because I think they will be collectors items in future. But maybe I'm wrong?

I think that you should enjoy it while you can, maybe someday the 850 or 750 will become a collectors item if it has never been or very light used. And wait 20 years.

I agree. The 850 for sure will be a collectors item in the future.

Pay it forward. Experience how good it feels to give. I shoot mostly Hotels and Hospitality, i recently met a young man from Uganda, he was helping out with house-keeping duties on the day, i could see he had a spark in his eye, for Photography, after chatting to him it was clear he had a passion and wanted to one day be a photographer. I am passionate to have the very best kit, because it ultimately helps to make the best images, so I’m constantly upgrading my gear and thought: what better way to make use of the previously loved kit than to pay it forward to a fledgling photographer. I put together a bag of lenses, tripod, cables and most importantly, a Nikon camera and delivered it to him.

His joy and gratitude made my heart sing and I’m thrilled to be supporting the next generation of photographers.