Unlike lenses (which I address here) the value of DSLRs drops continually (though not linearly). So when you want to buy a 2nd hand DSLR, the value of the camera is more dynamic and subjective.

So, why buy a second hand camera, considering it is such a bad investment? Well, although technology improves, old cameras can do pretty much everything you can do with a new one…  and if you can’t take a good picture with an old camera, a new one won’t help you. :)

In order to help you to determine the value of a second hand camera, here a few things you need to look at.

1) Actuations

The shutter, being a continually used mechanical component, is usually the first thing that goes when a DSLR is getting old, and is therefore a key thing to take into consideration when buying a used camera. Generally, the camera manufacturer has rated the shutter for a certain number of actuations (or how many time the shutter has been operated). What this means is that this mechanism has been tested and certified to be operational up to about x number of actuations, and this rating is different between cameras. For example, a Canon 450D (circa 2004) has a rating of 100,000. This would mean that you are fairly certain it will be able to take 100,000 images without a problem. However, this neither a guarantee, nor a death limit. Many times cameras can go on for far more or less…  it is a ballpark figure. So when you are asking about a camera, if the stated actuations is close to the limit for the camera, you may well be on borrowed time!

So, ask the buyer the actuations of the camera, and see how many ‘you have left’. I would consider anything less than 50% of the total as fine, up-to 80% as OK, over 80% as a worry, and if it were over the limit, I would need a serious price reduction as the repairs might actually cost more than the camera (~300 USD).

2) Cosmetics

Cameras a tough…  don’t kid yourself, they can stand up to a lot of abuse, so cosmetic signs of ‘wear and tear’ are not the best indicators of how well the camera will function. Don’t believe me…  check this out.  However, there are some things to look for (other than the obvious missing bits, cracked LCD or obvious problems). Cracks in the body show a significant impact and would set up some warning signs. Peeling paint, particularly on the base, are nothing and would not affect the camera functioning!

3) The age

People are concerned about the age of the camera. For me, age is relative. It might be a barely used camera from 2004, or a heavily used camera from 2010. I prefer to consider the usage of the camera rather than the age! Usage is determined from actuations, physical age, and physical condition (all discussed above). A low ‘use’ camera is generally better than a ‘high’ usage camera, but do not rule out the ‘high’ usage, just be aware! :) In my opinion, the strap can often tell you some useful information. A camera can look like new, but still be heavily used, but the strap will give it away…  If the strap looks faded, and used, particularly where it is connected to the camera, then the camera has been well used too! This is more of a test of the seller than of the camera, but hey, better to buy with confidence, and if they have lied about that, what else are they lying about?

4) The sensor

Use the mirror lock-up feature on the camera to look at the sensor to make sure it is not scratched/damaged/stained…  don’t worry about dust, that can be cleaned easily enough.

5) The auto-focus and metering

Slap on a lens and make sure it can focus! ;)

So to recap:

  1. Actuations; the lower the better! ~50% or less of rating is nothing to worry about, up to 80% is OK, greater than 80% be wary.
  2. Cosmetic condition; cracks in the body are signs of large impact and bad, check it has all it’s buttons and bits (obviously), peeling paint is no big deal, it happens, especially around the tripod mount or cable connectors.
  3. The usage; the less used, the less mechanical problems (it’s like a car).
  4. Make sure the sensor is not totally screwed!
  5. Check the AF is working.

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