How To Inspect a Used DSLR Before Buying

by Charlie on

How to inspect a used DSLR before buying

Are you considering buying a used DSLR body? You should note that there are two types of used equipment: factory refurbished and private party. Like a used car, a used camera will likely have minor defects due to normal wear and tear. Those defects can easily be overlooked if you don’t know what to look for. This article concentrates on the private seller, usually selling “as is” products, whereas factory refurbished units generally come with some warranty. Even so, these things are good to look out for any time you are buying a DSLR.

Before you go look at a camera, bring a lens just in case because it is impossible to fully test a DSLR without one. If you have a specific lens you’re going to use with the body, definitely bring it. The LCD screen on the camera body is too small to see how well a camera is taking pictures. For this reason it is also a good idea to bring a memory card, laptop, and a memory card reader so you can see your test shots in detail. You will want to look for overall image quality, picture sharpness/softness, and defects such as pixel lines, dead pixels, and off-colors.

Some owners baby their cameras, leaving them in almost new condition whereas others… well let’s just say some cameras have had a rough life. Checking the camera body for physical defects can be tricky. You want to take some time and really look over the camera body.

  • Check for cracks because that is the most common defect you will find; pay close attention to the points where screws screw in. While mainly a cosmetic issue, cracks can be very small and should be addressed before they spread allowing cover pieces to start falling off. The good news is that you will likely be able to talk the seller down in price and repair facilities can easily replace covers usually at minimal cost. Minor blemishes and defects can be used as a bargaining chip to lower the seller’s price, but tread lightly.
  • Next, check the LCD window for cracks, dead pixels, color, irregularities, and if the LCD functions fully.
  • Pop up the flash a few port inspection
  • The ports are an easy thing to overlook; inspect them very carefully. Use all the cables it’s coming with and check them for functionality.
  • Take a look through the viewfinder at the sky without a lens. Do you see a clear image or do you see dirt, dust, or debris? While it may be bothersome, it will not affect the functionality of the camera. If you see white lines, those are scratches on the focus screen and cannot be cleaned. The focus screen must be replaced as it may affect how the camera focuses and meters light. Neither of these viewfinder issues should be considered a “deal breaker” when purchasing a used camera because they can be easily fixed by a trusted service center.
  • A camera can function with water damage for a little while, but sooner than later corrosion will put an end to the camera. Look for rust, encrusted salt, and water stains. Water damage can be limited to the exterior of the camera and cleaned off. However, while testing the cameras functions, if you notice very strange behavior in camera operation then water may have gotten inside and damaged some of the electronics. Water damage is by far the worst kind of damage and usually not worth repairing. It is highly recommended to avoid buying a camera you suspect has this kind of damage.

 rust damage

It is important to fully test the camera as much as possible before making a purchase. Testing overall functionality of camera takes time and patience (especially because you are likely unfamiliar with it).

  • Reset all the menus and settings to their defaults and check each mode simulating their purpose as best you can (example: in sports mode take a picture of a moving car). If you are not confident in your attempt at resetting, Auto mode will override most custom settings the camera’s owner may have set.
  • Test all of the buttons and switches to make sure they do everything they are supposed to do. Turn any wheels or dials and make sure they change whatever values they are designed to adjust, such as F stop and shutter speed.
  • Verify that the focus operation is working properly by depressing the shutter half way a few times on various targets.
  • Take some “before & after” shots with and without the flash, inside and outdoors.
  • If you see dark spots in the pictures, it is most likely dust on the sensor which can be cleaned. However, sometimes what looks like dust can also be a scratch from a past attempt at cleaning. A trained camera technician will know the difference.
  • How many shutter actuations does the camera have? The camera may look perfect but could have 100,000+ shots on the shutter. Some cameras this is easier to tell on than others; check out our previous article “Your Camera’s Shutter Life Expectancy” for more info.

buying a DSLR

If the seller will let you, it is best to have it inspected by a professional service center to make sure there is nothing severely wrong, especially if you suspect any water damage. Don’t rush into a purchase of used equipment; if you are purchasing over the internet, make sure you can return the unit if you discover any problems. If you are purchasing locally, plan to spend some time with the camera.


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