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Tips for Buying DSLR Cameras and Lenses on eBay

If you're a camera body, lens, and accessory junkie, eBay's the place for you

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Tips for Buying DSLR Cameras and Lenses on eBay

If you don't know what these markings mean, then a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera might not be for you. Look into consumer digitals instead.

Photo: Craig Jewell / Sxc.hu

Whether we’re talking film or digital, cameras are objects that inspire creativity and passion in almost everyone—so much so that people are willing to spend a lot of their disposable income on a camera, or to make a camera purchase the centerpiece of their vacation plans.

Unfortunately, they’ll often have to spend a lot of their disposable income to buy a nice once, since with advanced digital technology and high-precision lenses, cameras remain relatively expensive gadgets.

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 with a minimum of heartache.

Here’s what you need to know to buy professional-style digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, lenses, and other photo gear on eBay.

Tips for Buying Interchangeable Lens Camera Bodies

  • Read descriptions carefully. Because cameras in this space command a premium, there’s a lot of incentive for scammers to try to pass poor imitations off as real pro-level cameras. Make sure that a camera that claims to be an “SLR” or a “DSLR” actually does connect to lenses made by Olympus, Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tokina, or Tamron. These are the major lens brands out there today, and represent a series of standardized “mounts” (atttachments to the camera). There are some cameras on eBay (mostly dirt-cheap imports) that claim to be SLRs or DSLRs but don’t actually have detachable lenses and/or operate with “extension” lenses or “adapter” lenses that produce inferior image quality and can hamstring you when it comes to lens choice.

  • Avoid ancient cameras and claims about original retail prices. Because the very first big-name digital cameras were at the time exotic equipment intended for elite professionals, there are very, very old cameras out there from Kodak, Nikon, and Minolta that claim original retail prices in the tens of thousands of dollars and are decked out in all kinds of “Professional” marketing and accessories. Reviews of them that you find online often treat these as though they are the ultimate in camera technology—and they were, a decade or more ago. Even if the body originally cost many thousands and looks to be as rugged as they come, avoid any pro camera body with less than three megapixels of image real estate or that is more than ten years old, since these are so venerable as to be largely proprietary and to have image quality poorer than many current consumer cameras.

  • Buy a generation or two back for the best deal. To find the best deals on eBay in the pro or prosumer camera body category, look for cameras that are a generation or two old, in the 3-12 megapixel range, from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, or Sigma. A camera body like a Canon D30, D60, or 10D, Fuji S1 or S2, Olympus E-1, E-300, E-500, or other manufacturers' models from the same era will still produce images that put any consumer camera to shame and remain compatible with all of the lenses from the camera family in question. These “several years old” bodies can often be had for the same price as or even less than consumer-level cameras.

  • Choose based on the lenses you have or want. If you’re a pro or prosumer shooter, you probably already have certain subject matter, or even certain lenses, in mind. Rather than choosing the camera body first on features, then buying lenses to match, make sure that you choose based on the lenses that you plan or would like to use, then buy a body that’s compatible with them, since serious lenses are generally a bigger investment over the long term.

  • Consider a consumer camera. If the last point leaves you confused, or you don’t yet have any idea what lenses you’ll need to shoot with, you may not actually be a good match for an SLR or DSLR camera. Consider a consumer-level camera (fixed-lens) instead with the “amount of zoom” that will match your needs. Without professional- or serious-amateur-level photographic knowledge and vocabulary, you may find that an SLR or DSLR is both confusing to use and produces images for you that are less pleasing than what you’d get from a consumer camera. Pro gear is great, but you need to know how to use it properly to get good results.

  • Ask for an actuation or shutter count. Because most SLR and DSLR cameras have an actual mechanical shutter just like film cameras, be sure to get a count of the number of “actuations” from the item description or seller. Fewer than 10,000 is a good buy. Above this number and you’re into grey territory—some digital bodies have shutters rated as high as 150,000 actuations before service is needed, but many in the mid-range and prosumer space have maximum shutter counts of only 30,000-50,000, which means that a body with 20,000 actuations on it may be approaching the need for an expensive shutter overhaul at the nearest service center.

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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