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Tips for Buying Digital and Film Cameras on eBay

Getting a camera doesn't have to cost a lot; just keep a few tips in mind

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Tips for Buying Digital and Film Cameras on eBay

A good camera is a purchase that will join you on innumerable adventures, so it pays to take the purchase seriously.

Image: Yurchyk / Fotolia

For most people a camera purchase is a big deal, even if they aren’t a professional photographer. Cameras capture the best moments of our lives, and need to be reliable enough to be available to catch them, portable enough to usually be along for the ride, usable enough to make “fumbling around with settings” the exception rather than the rule, and affordable enough to make sense within a houshold budget.

eBay can help. If you’ve heard that there are smashing deals to be had on camera equipment on eBay, you heard correctly—you can in fact save hundreds or even thousands by buying used models in particular—but there are also some pitfalls to avoid and tricks to employ to ensure that you get the best deal possible while avoiding the need for refunds, exchanges or disputes.

Here’s what you need to know to buy cameras, lenses, and other photo gear on eBay.

Consumer-Level (Attached Lens) Digital Cameras

  • Stick to the well-known brands and models. At the consumer point-and-shoot level, there are a lot of very, very cheap cameras on eBay from companies that you’ve never heard of. Don’t buy these as a primary camera. Even with what sound like great megapixel counts and great features, these radically inexpensive camers don’t deliver nice photos, as a rule. The numbers and features may be good, in other words, but the photos are still bad. Stick to big-name electronics and camera companies like Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Samsung, Sony, and so on.

  • Do your research. Look at a site like DPReview to help you to evaluate and compare models and features. Do look carefully at the sample images there, and consider taking a couple of samples down to your local drugstore or photo printer to see what the photos look like as prints.

  • Newer is better. In the consumer space, newer cameras from major manufacturers tend to have higher pixel counts, better image quality, better features, and better compatibility with the memory cards that you can find at your local retailers. In particular, avoid cameras that use outdated standards like SmartMedia or that only support small Secure Digital (SD) cards, since these are unlikely to support any memory card you’ll easily find now. There’s no reason to spend on an outdated consumer camera when you can get a great current model for a similar price or a few dollars more.

  • Get at least 2-3 megapixels, but don’t sweat things after that. A two megapixel camera is needed for a film-quality 5x7" print, and a 3 megapixel camera is needed for a film-quality 8x10" print. Most consumers will never print photos larger than this, so higher megapixel counts aren’t necessarily all that important. Consider avoiding extremely high-count consumer cameras, since the tiny sensors used in consumer cameras often look worse at very high megapixel counts. For most consumers, something in the range of 4-10 megapixels is probably ideal. Either fewer or more than this usually means no appreciable gains, or perhaps even losses, in photo results, despite what the marketing department may try to tell you.

Film Cameras

  • Pay close attention to condition. Film cameras at this stage are aging, and many of them (pro and consumer alike) have reached the point at which major service is needed for proper operation. Give preference to cameras that are listed as already having recently gone through a major service or having seen very light use. Avoid cameras that say they need work unless you are an expert in this area.

  • Don’t overpay. At this stage of the game, film cameras of all stries are and should be relatively cheap. Under no circumstances should you be willing to pay many hundreds or thousands for a film camera unless you are a serious collector, with all that this entails.

  • Be sure about film availability. Film is on the way out, and most of the major films that were once manufactured are now only available in old batches and on places like (you guessed it), eBay. It’s also increasingly difficult to find film processors, especially for anything other than the most basic, mass-market 35mm films. Check for the availability of both the film you’d like to use and a way to process it before you buy. If you haven’t really thought about these things, stop here—film is not for you—and look into the digital consumer cameras discussed above or digital SLR cameras if you must have maximum, pro-level quality. For nearly all cases, digital images have now surpassed film in resolution, color fidelity, and dynamic range in scientific testing, so don’t instinctively let your “inner purist” take over and convince you that film is somehow automatically better or “more serious.” Digital is also easier to use than it has ever been, and for most computer users is a “plug and play” phenomenon. In most cases these days, film is for collectors and hobbyists, not serious shooters.

So far, so good. But there are just a few more things to keep in mind that apply to any kind of camera, lens, or accessory that you plan to buy on eBay. Read on to find out what they are.

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