As some of you know, I own a lot of cameras. Although I have sent many of these back into circulation, I have also added to my collection. Despite my sizable collection, I seldom buy new cameras. In fact, almost all my cameras are used. The only exceptions are my Canon Rebel XS (my first camera), Olympus PEN E-P2, and a couple of Lomography cameras. While it may not come as a huge surprise, given that I deal primarily with film cameras of a certain vintage, the used cameras list also includes a Leica M8, a Canon 5D, and a Canon 5D MKII. So how does one get started with buying used?
Websites and Forums
The best places to buy used are forums, and to a lesser extent eBay. In many forums, the total number of posts by a seller can be used as a proxy measure of how respected he is in the community. On some, such as FM, explicit ratings systems are employed for all forum sales. You can of course try to gauge the seller’s credibility by looking through his previous ads, though sometimes that can be a daunting task, depending on how good the search engine on the forum is. For my analogue needs, I typically depend on apug and LFF. For digital camera parts, I go to FM and getdpi. For rangefinders, I depend heavily on RFF’s classifieds. When I am back in Singapore, I look at clubsnap’s Buy and Sell forum occasionally.
eBay is also a valuable source of used equipment, though you can expect a 10-15% mark-up on the prices. You will also need to be extra careful with the description of the items. Many sellers try to use vague language to conceal blemishes in their product. For example, they may give you a description like, “It looks great to me, but I am no expert.” Now, my response to that is, “If you’re not an expert and cannot judge the quality, you should be pricing it much cheaper, or not be selling it at all.” Of course, sometimes you really get steals from inexperienced sellers, but more often than not (especially if they have sold many items) this is not possible. Watch out for blurry pictures, especially if this lack of photographic ability occurs in only a few images or items he is selling. Chances are, he is using the poor images to obscure some imperfection.
Physical Shops, Flea Markets and Yard Sales
In general, since Baltimore is a fairly small market, there aren’t many good bargains to be had. Flea markets are almost non-existent, though in bigger/more artistic communities like Pasadena there are swap meets that can be really profitable. Generally, I will avoid buying from physical shops unless you have first established a relationship with the owner. This is because given the overhead involved in owning a space, equipment from these places tend to be more expensive than online sources. But that’s not to say that price should be the only consideration. A good store, especially one close to you, can be an invaluable asset. For one, you can test the camera on the spot, and chances are you will not ever have to deal with not-as-described purchases, and thus save on shipping both ways. You can also handle the camera to make sure that it really is what you want. In the event of camera malfunction/damage, the seller can also provide repair service, usually at a good rate if you buy the camera from them. And of course, there’s the little matter of supporting your local stores – I believe in paying a premium to keep local stores viable, because every city needs jobs and a vibrant economy. That said, there are plenty of dishonest shop owners out there, wanting only to make a quick buck off unsuspecting/ignorant buyers. I once paid 150 USD for a Pentax Spotmatic F with non-functioning meter and a 55mm f/1.8 lens in Singapore (P&G Camera). That’s a 300% mark-up over the market rate. I was new to film cameras, and in my eagerness the owner must have seen a real sucker.
Yard sales are a bit more interesting. Scouring the craigslist listings can turn up some real treasures (though in a small city like Baltimore this tends to be rare, and instead all we get are overly-optimistic sellers unaware of the declining state of film photography). I once picked up 3 pristine Mamiya Sekor M42 lenses for 5 bucks apiece from the granddaughter of a photography enthusiast. At that time I thought it was a super bargain, until I realized that they aren’t worth much and it was about fair price for those lenses. I did manage to sell one of these lenses on eBay for 40 bucks, though. I also picked up a fully functional Beseler 23C XL enlarger for only 40 bucks. This is by far the best deal I had gotten off craigslist, ever, and forms the foundation for my darkroom work. If nothing else, yard sales can be fun to rummage through, and even when I have not picked up cameras, I have come away with other interesting items, so they are definitely worth going to.
I love using vintage cameras, and using vintage processes. I hope this little primer has been useful for anyone interested in getting used equipment. The key to getting good equipment is patience, and having money in hand when the deal comes up (I will do well to remember these admonishments myself!). With a little luck, and after spending lots of (enjoyable) time, you too can amass a sizable collection. 🙂