Buyers’ Guide – Tips for Buying Camera Gear Online – By Ted Ayre

When I was starting out I borrowed a camera from my Grandad, his plastic auto-focus Minolta Dynax 7000i SLR, with a zoom lens. It wasn’t the coolest looking camera, but it definitely gave me confidence to get out there and shoot some more film. Later on my Dad handed me a box of his old 90’s cameras, and I tried a few I liked (and some I didn’t!) but I was lucky to be able to get started with borrowed gear. Before you start looking into buying a camera, if you can, I advise that you try out a friend’s camera and see how you like the experience.

If you’re interested in finally getting yourself a camera, and are ready to take the leap, then it’s useful to have some tips for purchasing cameras online. If you’re a new film photography enthusiast, it can be easy to get all fizzy over something that looks like a ‘good deal’ or claims that it is in ‘excellent +++’ condition. You can never really be sure buying used equipment, but these tips for online purchases might just help you along the way:

1. More photos means greater trust in the seller.

I’m sure you’ve seen these types of listings, where the price looks ok, and the description is generic, but it only has one photo. For me, that isn’t good enough. I expect to see multiple photos of the exact item, especially for lenses where defects are difficult to see online. Even better if the seller has pictures of the inside of the camera, where you can check for any issues. I always feel a bit of risk when sellers put ‘representative’ pictures of similar items instead of the actual item too.

2. Detailed descriptions help support your buying decision.

Even if the seller has written an essay on the item, I’d much prefer that than no description at all! They should be able to provide detailed notes about any issues, and describe their own tests of how the item works. If there’s no description at all, then I’m wary.

3. Clear condition ratings should help manage expectations.

There are no absolute guarantees with used equipment. Even something in mint condition could have a fault down the line, however when buying something online the ‘condition ratings’ help you to know what to expect. The difficulty with this is that there isn’t consistency between sellers, and because different shops have different ‘condition ratings’ then it can be confusing. After some bad experiences, I now only shop online for near mint condition items, with no dust or defects. This is where going into a physical shop can really help, as I can see the items in-person and talk to the (hopefully) friendly staff.

4. Camera servicing, light seals and CLAs can give peace of mind.

When I purchase a camera I expect it to work straight away, but for others they are happy to buy a ‘fixer upper’ and do minor repairs themselves. Depending on what your experience level is, you might want to look for a camera that says it has been ‘fully serviced’. This should mean that it has new light seals around the doors and shutter, and often it has had a CLA (Clean, Lubricate, Adjust) Remember that buying a lower condition item might seem a good idea at first, but I’ve found that you may have to pay the same amount again for a full service just to get the camera working properly.

5. Longer warranty’s show that the seller is confident of their product.

This means that the seller has an obligation to repair, replace or refund the purchase within a certain time frame if something goes wrong. Sometimes this timeframe is divided into whether the issue is electronic or mechanical.

6. Know your rights, but always read the small print.

Did you know that – in the UK at least – any online purchases have a 14-day return window? You’re protected by law, but there are some exceptions. You can check out the details on the UK Government website here – if you’re not in the UK, try a google search for an equivalent site for your country. Also, please don’t be embarrassed if the item you bought isn’t what you expected. We’ve all been there, so maybe give yourself a day or two to think it through, and don’t feel bad for sending it back.

Real Camera Co. – my local analogue photography shop here in Manchester, U.K. – shot on Portra 400 with the Olympus XA.

7. Save the original web page.

When you make a purchase often the listing goes off the website, and then if you need to check any details or make a claim later it’s more difficult with it gone. I usually save the photos, or screenshot the web page until I’ve received the item as expected.

8. Trustworthy shops and sellers have nothing to hide.

It’s never a good sign if you can’t find their return address, or any pictures of the shop or owner on social media etc. Personally I prefer to know who I’m buying from, and I love it when sellers have the confidence to put their names, faces, and personalities out there. I’m forever scrolling to the bottom of websites or looking at ‘About Us’ sections!

9. Visiting a store? Take a friend with you.

It can still be intimidating to go to an actual store, especially if you’re non-male or non-white. Like most hobbies, the ‘average white guy’ has laid claim to being the expert, so for reassurance and confidence take a friend with you. If the staff or customer service are anything less than supportive and encouraging then just leave, you don’t owe them anything.

10. Trust yourself, and get the camera that suits your needs.

Finally, only you will know what you want right now and why. If you can afford it, then get that luxury compact camera, it might be exactly what you wanted! However, make sure to stick to your original reasons for getting a film camera. It’s very easy to get distracted and end up with something that doesn’t suit your needs. For example I purposely got an all manual SLR because I wanted to explore photography as a hobby, and manually learn about exposure. However, if I were going to a party or festival, then an automatic point-and-shoot like a Pentax Espio would do me nicely!

Good luck!

I hope these suggestions guide you through the often difficult decisions we make when buying gear online. Trust your instincts, but also do your research. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with exactly what you want. If you’re not so lucky, then don’t feel bad, it’s happened to us all!

Check out similar articles here on 35mmc:
Which film camera should I buy?
Thinking about spending a stack of cash on a film camera? Read this first.

What advice would you give your younger self about your own purchases? Do you have any ‘golden rules’ for buying online? Let the community know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of my photos and experiences with this community soon.
You can find me on Instagram: @tedayre

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24 thoughts on “Buyers’ Guide – Tips for Buying Camera Gear Online – By Ted Ayre”

  1. Thanks for this – useful advice. In addition I would never buy from a seller who says something like “I know nothing about cameras but….” If I am buying online (except from a recognised dealer) I always factor in the cost of a CLA – and I am not often wrong! If a good dealer offers a camera for, say, £200 I know I will be getting something checked by someone knowledgeable and which will come with some sort of warranty. I would not pay more than around £130-140 from an individual. I often then watch as the bidding goes stratospheric and think “I am well out of this”!

    1. Thanks David! Haha yeah I’ve certainly watched bidding go higher than I’m willing to pay for things! I agree, it’s great to keep in mind the hard work that a shop or dealer has done to include servicing as part of the sale. Good advice!

  2. A good film camera to buy , if you can get it , is the Canon AT1 match needle 35mm s.l.r. I’ve had it, and think it’s great! It has centerweighted metering On the right side if the frame when you look through the viewfinder are two needles. One needle moves up and down according to the light. The second needle has a circle on the end to line it up over top the moving needle. By turning the shutter speed dial on top of the camera , or the aprature ring on the lens, you aline both needles one over top the other to get the correct exposure.

    If you have a light source behind the subject like a window, just move the camera down, take a reading, then move the camera back up for the composition. The window can have an influance over the exposure and the subject will come out underexposed. There’s as lot you can do with this type of camera.

    1. Ooh that’s an interesting suggestion Barry – thanks for the tip on the Canon AT1, most likely an overlooked camera on the usual lists!

  3. One advice to be added if one buys for eBay, especially if it is a first purchase: only select sellers who allow returns. Best,

  4. One more eBay buying tip. Before purchasing a camera anywhere, go to the “Advanced Search” option in eBay and search for SOLD items to see a selection of recently sold items. You can also read the descriptions for any items that come up on the list. That will give you a rough idea of market price or how rare the item is if you can’t find any listings.

    1. That’s a good eBay tip Karen thank you! Definitely useful to get an idea of the value of something before committing to a purchase.

  5. Avoid cameras on eBay that specify “untested” especially if they are those potential gems that take AA or AAA batteries. I mean, what effort does it take for a decent seller to check out those 1980’s compact and slr Canons and Nikons et al with a cheapo battery? Avoid like the plague I say!

    1. Great tip there Brian! I totally agree that it shouldn’t take that much effort as a re-sale business to check that kind of camera too.

      1. I agree. I’m always baffled by sellers who are too lazy, uninterested, or deceitful to buy simple batteries and check the item. It may be a cost/ benefit tradeoff. I can spend xyz calories to buy batteries versus getting $xyz less from a naive buyer.

        1. Most definitely a cost/benefit trade off I think for sellers – however, as others have mentioned, often items sell faster if the listing is more thorough.

    1. Haha yes Bob it’s definitely a temptation every time I’m in the city to juuuuust pop my head into Real Camera, you know, just in case?! They have been nice chaps every time I’ve popped in, and are happy to talk around any purchasing ideas you might have.

  6. I agree with the comment about avoiding cameras that are “untested” because they wont buy LR44s or AA/AAA batteries, way too much risk there. Taking detailed photos is such an easy step to do, but it seems to be the hardest thing for sellers of almost every item (whether it be cameras, computers, car parts, etc.) and it goes a long way getting interest/sales.

    Steps 1-4 also good advice for selling cameras online and maximize the price you get. In many ways I’ve applied what you’ve posted about and it seems to help sell cameras that I end up selling after having some GAS. It doesn’t take much effort to take detailed high res pictures of the camera, the battery cover area, etc. Even then I still worry one of these days no matter how detailed I’ve been with my photos and description, a camera is going to die in transit.

    1. Thanks for the comment Andrew – yeah you just never know with used gear if it could develop a fault down the line, all we can do is list things as thoroughly as we can. I hadn’t thought of it like this, but I guess this ‘buyer’s guide’ could also be a ‘seller’s guide’ if you reverse the intention! I agree too that when I’ve been more detailed and honest about the condition when selling it actually sells faster, because it builds trust I suppose.

  7. Another red flag: sellers of seriously expensive lenses such as Hasselblad, Leica, Arri sometimes do not include lens caps. They are offering a $2000 or more lens and are too cheesy or greedy to include caps?

  8. Firstly, if I want something for an actual purpose I’ll buy from a trusted retailer. For that helps. For less critical stuff, I like tinkering and will happily remove lens elements to clean fungus, replace mirror foam etc. and eBay comes in and my approach is kind of opposite to the article and goes a bit like this;

    • Never search in the Film Cameras category or the Lenses category – you’ll often get it cheaper from a proper retailer anyway.
    • Searches for fashionable film cameras will ignore the Vintage Cameras category by default so go there first.
    • Look for eBay listings with inaccurate descriptions, terrible photos and obvious lack of knowledge.
    • Look for lots where mis-matched items (e.g Canon body with Minolta lenses or whatever) are together it confuses bidders
    • When adding lenses/accessories look at getting relatively unloved bodies with the item attached e.g a broken Olympus OM-2sp may well have the pricey OM finger grip attached – that’s how I got mine and, recently, a Yashica FX-D and ML lenses 50/1.7, 28/2.8 & 35-105 for £40).
    • Note as well that any lens above about 24mm can have coating marks and minor scratches.My Zeiss 35/1.4 C?Y fit was a steal because of some minor coating marks and is just fine, but something like a Canon FD 17mm shows every mark by f/16.
    • Assume anything you bid on with eBay has a fault. Even if it’s described as fully working it’s probably flawed in some minor way.
    • Use a sniper with a low-ish bid.
    • Prey!

    I’ve had some disasters (a Canon 17mm with scratches where I overpaid because it was the rare first version and lost £50 comes to mind) but not that many as well as some very good results with this approach over the years. Ive had the chance to play with fun items I might not otherwise have owned too. And, by keeping the bids low, have sometimes even been able to sell broken/damaged gear at a profit by accurately describing the issues or making small, easy, fixes.

    1. Thanks BP – great comment, and interesting to hear your take on purchasing online. Yes the site, is an amazing resource, especially as one can filter out eBay etc. if needed. Haha your suggestions are great for those in a similar mindset to you BP! I think there’s definitely scope for people to go ‘hunting’ for deals online, and that can be rewarding in itself too.

  9. One more tip. If you have the camera in your hands open the back. This obviously allows you to check the state of the shutter curtains if they have them, but also alows you to sniff the interior. If it smells mouldy and damp you can be sure it’s not been too well looked after.

    1. Yeah that’s a good tip for in-person buying Martin thank you! Checking the shutter curtains is really important too, and I’m not sure I’d want a mouldy or smelly camera either!

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