The Secret Way I Save Money When Buying Gear

The Secret Way I Save Money When Buying Gear

Buying equipment is as exciting as ever, if you ask me. While my tastes are probably slightly different than yours, in the sense that I buy '90s flash gear and DSLRs, I have been doing this for around five years and have come up with a few tips on how to save money when buying gear.

The first thing you need to consider if you want to save money buying gear is to buy used. The thing is, as soon as you walk out of the store with your brand-new gear, you’ve just lost about 20-30% of its retail value. Essentially, buying new kit is equivalent to burning money. Buying used can be tricky, and this article is meant for photographers who want to save money but may be reluctant to buy used because of the risks associated with such purchases. I understand your concern. When buying used, you may not get the manufacturer warranty, the gear may be damaged, the person selling may not be entirely truthful with you, and so on. I aim to help you out with this article and show you some of the things you need to look out for when buying used cameras, lenses, lights, modifiers, and other miscellaneous equipment.

Used Cameras

When it comes to used cameras, the property most will suggest you consider is the shutter count. That, however, is not the first thing I will look at, to be frank. The reason being is that while some cameras can have tens of thousands of actuations on them, they would’ve been used as studio units and never seen daylight. Other cameras may have under ten thousand actuations but were used in the field and had all sorts of cosmetic wear on them. My own camera has been everywhere at this point, and I would not want to buy it in the condition that it is now. The main thing you need to look at when buying a used camera is the user of this camera. What style of photography are they doing? What sort of user are they? Do they keep the camera pristine or bash it around? The fewer marks and scuffs there are on the camera, the better for you. I would buy a camera in mint condition with 100,000+ actuations over a bashed camera with 10,000 actuations any day of the week.

Used Lenses

When it comes to lenses, there are way more things that can go wrong. As a rule of thumb, don’t get the cheap prosumer lenses used. They are generally made for medium use, and not heavy-duty 2,000 captures-a-day use. This is why if you are buying used lenses, look at the L-series from Canon or the G-Master from Sony. This is the league of lenses that will be reliable performers even if bought used. Truth be told, I never ever bought a new lens.

When it comes to lenses, you might be worried that minor scratches will affect optical performance. Sure they will, but not nearly to the degree you are imagining them to. It is safe to get a lens if it has no more than one minor scratch on the glass. When buying a used lens, you need to check for dust inside of it, possible fungus, and weather sealing. Ask the user what kind of photography they were doing with the lens. Another thing to check is how well it mounts on the camera, if there is any rattle in it, and so on. Cosmetic wear such as writing on the lens is negligible in my opinion but can be used to bring the price down. Lastly, one of the most important things to check is that every zoom position works with every aperture setting, and that the aperture closes consistently. One of the first things to fail in a lens is its aperture flex cable. Things such as a lens hood are advised to have, but not a must. As long as you are getting a decent lens, with all lens caps, you are good.

Used Lights

Used lighting is generally also best bought from top brands. For example, I recently got an ancient Pro-5 generator as a backup piece for my equally ancient Pro-7a. That said, I also never bought new flash equipment. The reason being that I use Profoto, and getting it new is far too pricey. Also, because the system that I use runs off Proheads, which cost around $3,000 new. With lighting, you need to first decide if you are looking at battery-powered solutions or mains-powered solutions. If a light is battery-powered, don’t expect to get the best battery performance from it and be sure to get a few fresh new replacement batteries to be sure that you won’t run out of power. If it’s a mains-powered light, just look at the cosmetic wear on it, make sure the key functions work and so on. There is really not much that can go wrong with a light, which is why getting them used is so good. One particular thing that does go wrong with lights is flash tubes. I generally suggest making sure that the flash tube is as close to clear as possible. If it appears foggy or perhaps worn out in some way, knock the price down by a few hundred as you will be replacing that tube fairly soon.

Used Modifiers

Used modifiers can go wrong in three spots: yellowed-out diffusers, broken rods, and torn material. I really can’t say more about modifiers than this. With this in mind, if the rods are broken or the diffusers are yellowed-out, you can usually get replacements. As for torn modifiers, I would say skip buying that unless you are good at sewing. When it comes to soft modifiers, go for the RFi range from Profoto or an equivalent high-end choice from your brand. They are constructed with more reliability in mind as opposed to OCF or clic. As for modifiers such as hard reflectors, really no need to worry about most things. Even if it is slightly bent or dented, it will do the job as well as a new modifier. Broncolor and Profoto hard reflectors made for their Proheads are notoriously well-made. I think I have some zoom reflectors from the 1990s that came with my ProHeads and they do the job.

A Safe Alternative

A safe alternative would be, of course, to buy gear from places such as MPB, B&H used section, or refurbished from the manufacturer. These will usually be more expensive than buying used from a private person, though. It all depends on the budget you have. If you are trying to save as much money as you can, go ahead and purchase from private individuals. If you want to find solutions for slightly more money but which have been tested and checked by the company selling them, go ahead and buy from companies specialized in selling used kit.

Over to you, what is your experience with buying used kit? Let us know in the comments below!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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Agreed that the best move is to buy from a reputable dealer who offers a warranty. I once bought a used D4s I bought from a reputable dealer. It failed and it was fixed free under warranty. Another time I bought another used D4s used from a seller on Amazon. I sent it to Nikon to be checked out and they said it needed $500 in repairs! So I took atvantage Amazon's excellent return policy to receive a full refund. BTW, I did pay to ship the camera to Nikon but there was no charge for the repair estimate.

Also, never buy gear owned by a newspaper or wire service. Heavy duty cycle and not particularly well cared for.

I've been shooting for going on 50 years now, gone through dozens of bodies and maybe hundreds of lenses, and I've never bought any of them new. I don't even really know how. It's just not something I investigate.

The holy grail of used gear is finding a widow who's selling her husband's stuff for what he told her he paid for it.

The next in line is the doctor or tech guy who always needs the latest and greatest, but is too busy making money to really use the gear much. He'll spend as much time cleaning it as using it. The price may not be the absolute lowest, but the product is pristine and was probably the top of the line a month ago.

After that, used gear is pretty much a commodity. The price stabilizes until a new model is released. Look at Ebay 'Sold' listings, sort that by price, and it will become apparent pretty quickly what the going price is. Never pay more than that, regardless of where you end up buying it. It's not hard to find inventory in good shape at the going rate, or maybe even a little less.

The best thing about buying used is that you can pretty much always sell stuff for at least as much as you paid for it. This is particularly true for lenses. When you're ready to move on from your current gear, you can get all your money back if you haven't trashed it while it was your turn to own it.

I bought most of my gear used too, with the exception of the Canon 6D. As for getting a good deal, I bought my wired strobe lights from a photo studio chain that went out of business; & photo studio accessories from a lady, whose father retired from his photography business. One equipment alone was the same price that I paid for the whole lot.

Enjoyed your article and pointers to look for. Thank you it will be valuable as I move forward getting some new to me lenses.
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Your comment about losing 20-30% of the value of an item once you buy it new - is true maybe for Cars …I would argue not so much with camera gear unless you buy the last iteration of a previous generation - like the d850 when Nikon is full in on Z mount. Even the D850 holds value…. Most lenses I have bought new - I have sold YEARS later for the same exact price. The only thing I have lost money on are camera bodies but technically not lost money - since I used the product for years and then sold it for a little less then I bought it for. At that point maybe 20-30% less maybe - Look up edelkrone sliders you can’t get them any less then they are new. Same with a lot of kit gear. I buy used a lot too - but even then stuff in the camera world tends to hold its value.

Hmmmm, Maybe I have bad luck but I bought new the Canon RF 100-500 and decided I wanted to sell or trade toward a new RF 28-70 . The lens was still under warranty and every big box camera store I contacted was offering $1000 less than I paid for it. Contacted KEH and same thing. I did not sell, just bought the 28-70 straight out but the experience was an eye opener.

I've bought and sold a lot of equipment over the past 15 years on eBay. I look at some of the cameras I've sold for the going price at the time and it dismays me to see how much more they are worth today (mostly Fuji).

Lately I've been using MPB almost exclusively (though Roberts Camera and Adorama are still safe bets). I like MPB because of the trading ability and the 6 month warranty. It ends up being a pretty good, and hassle free deal, after you factor in all of eBay's fees and the looming tax man.

My landlord who ran a tool and die shop that did work for NASA had the entire Hasselblad catalog and sold a few things to me at a nice price....I should have bought the SWC :^(

Why do you put so much tape on your equipment..?

I currently own 4 DSLRs (3 Canons and my very first one - Olympus E500), a mirrorless (Fuji XS10) and 3 Canon C100mkii's and way too many lenses...the only cameras I have bought new were the Olympus and the Fuji...all the rest bought from Facebook's Marketplace along with all but 3-4 lenses...I do, well did, a lot of multicam video work (operas, big band concert coverage, orchestra concerts, art event coverage)...I've bought most of my lighting and audio and gimbal gear new mainly because for some they have internal non-replaceable rechargeable batteries so better to start with new...tripods I've either bought when on sale or far I've saved thousands of $$$ by doing this and haven't had any lemons amongst the buys.