How to buy a second-hand digital SLR

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Tips on buying a second-hand digital SLR

Can't quite afford a brand new digital SLR to satisfy your burgeoning hobby? A second-hand or used SLR may be ideal for you.

As update cycles for the main brands occur so frequently, more photographers will be upgrading to new equipment every few years. This means that the second-hand market is incredibly healthy, with more cameras than ever to choose from.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you make the most of your purchase.

Check the shutter count

All SLRs have a finite number of shutter cycles (actuations) that the camera can take before the entire mechanism needs replacing.

Manufacturers provide actuation ratings, so a simple web search will tell you the number of cycles that the camera has been tested to. Ask the seller what the shutter count is, or if you have a chance to play with the camera before purchasing, there are a number of ways you can check for yourself.

The first method is to look at the file numbering, which may indicate how many shots the camera has taken. However, on some digital SLRs, this can be reset, so it's not always the most accurate indicator.

Second-hand digital SLR

(Camera image by Kenson Lai, royalty free)

The second method is to use a third-party program, such as EOSInfo for Canon, to find the actuation count. Some EXIF viewers will display the complete metadata, which often includes the shutter count.

Nikon and Pentax users can head over to and upload an NEF or DNG file produced by the camera to acquire the actuation count.

The number you obtain probably looks relatively arbitrary without a reference point, so check the aggregation page at, which lists reports on shutter count.

While we're on the topic of shutters, shoot a few frames with the camera at different shutter speeds to ensure everything sounds like it should. Squeaks or something jamming is not a good sign and indicates that the camera needs cleaning or a complete service.

Check the sensor

(Credit: Nikon)

A good way to check for sensor issues is to shoot into a bright subject (such as blue sky) or a white wall with adequate light and the lens stopped down to its minimum aperture, say f/22. Observing the resulting image on a computer or the screen at full magnification will show if there are any obvious issues like dust that need resolving.

Also, physically inspect the sensor by lifting the mirror release. This is usually done through options in the camera menu system. Check the sensor for any visible markings or dust particles.

Look at the mirror box for similar issues. Dust can usually be cleaned from the sensor with special products, but scratches or abrasions indicate a much more serious issue.

It's all about the lens


(Lenses image by clix, royalty free)

Depending on who or where you buy your second-hand digital SLR from, you may not get a lens included in the price. This is not so much a problem if you already have an arsenal of lenses already, or are willing to invest in a lens if you know what to look for.

With entry-level digital SLRs, you may find that the seller is including the kit lens along with the camera body. Inspect the front and rear element for visible issues like scratching. If the lens has a manual aperture ring, make sure the movement is smooth and the blades fold as expected. If possible, take a filter or two with you that fits the diameter of the lens, and screw it into place to make sure the thread is functioning smoothly.

One issue that plagues second-hand lenses is fungus. This affects the surface of the lens, and if bad enough, can damage the lens beyond reasonable repair. Make sure to ask the seller where the equipment has been stored; warning bells should go off if they have kept the camera in a bag for a prolonged period of time rather than in a dry area.

Also check the lens barrel for markings, dents or anything that indicates that the lens may have been dropped. The lens should move smoothly and have nothing stopping it from extending or retracting. Make sure to attach the lens to the body and check how the AF motor works at various distances.

Inspect the screen

Canon digital-SLR screen

(Credit: Canon)

The camera's LCD screen is the main way you will be interacting with your images on the camera.

Make sure to inspect the LCD screen closely. The main things to look for are dead pixels, which can be most clearly viewed when there's an image of just one colour on the screen, and any cracks in the plastic coating.

Discolouration or irregularities in the screen are also signs that the camera has had a hard life or something may need replacing.

You should also pay close attention to the optical viewfinder. Check for any visible scratches or dust spots if you can, as often, these are difficult to remove yourself without taking the camera in for a full service. A good way of checking to see if the camera's focusing screen is damaged is to peer through the viewfinder without a lens mounted on the camera, and face a reasonably bright light source. Of course, it's best to do this in a controlled environment where dust is kept to a minimum.

Wear and tear

Digital SLR wear and tear

(Credit: CBSi)

Buying off eBay or an online auction? Make sure to check the photos for visible signs of wear and tear.

Depending on the camera you are looking to buy, it might be worth asking the seller for some sample photos taken with the camera. This isn't to see how good their photography skills are, but to determine the conditions in which the camera was used. For example, if you see a lot of seaside or wet weather shots, it's a fair bet that the camera has seen some sand and water in its time.

Another indicator of heavy use is the shutter button and dials. Check for wear marks, or if the coating has come off any particular component. A good trick for determining wear and tear is if the plastic on buttons and dials looks a little shinier than pictures you have seen of other models. It's probably a sign that the camera has seen some tough times.

The strap and lens cap, which have probably been with the camera since it was new, can also show signs of heavy use.

Check the add-ons

Digital SLR box

(Credit: CBSi)

It is a bonus if the seller has kept all the documentation and the box in reasonable condition, but check that the bare essentials are included. Things like the battery charger, lens and body caps, and interface cables to connect the camera to your computer are all important.

Sometimes, sellers will throw in accessories such as lens filters, card readers or extra batteries and memory cards.


Some camera shops may offer a warranty on used gear purchases, but sellers on eBay may not be so forgiving.

If the camera is new enough, you may think that you are eligible to transfer the current warranty once you purchase the second-hand camera. Unfortunately, that's not the case for pretty much all the major manufacturers. Below is an excerpt from Canon's warranty statement:

This warranty is valid only for products that are purchased new and unused in Australia or New Zealand from Canon Australia Pty Ltd, Canon New Zealand Ltd or a reseller authorised by either of those companies. The customer must provide the original proof of purchase from one of those organisations to receive any services under this warranty.

However, you can be sneaky and ask the seller for the original receipt, which could be used for warranty claims. Proceed at your own risk with this one.

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scottyea posted a comment   

I own two Canon 10D bodies, released in 2003 - the shutter count on this model is impossible to ascertain, only Canon can do it. However, I thought that the excellentness of the 10D and its affordability would outweigh the risk - and I was right. :D I guess this is my exception to these rules - I will certainly heed them if I ever need another 2nd hand DSLR.

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