with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Equipment Lust – Buying Used Equipment

If you are looking for used equipment, consider buying a brand with the widest range of accessories and product line. Nikon is one of the oldest and most popular in the used market because most of the old-style lenses work on new camera bodies. Some features of newer bodies may not be functional with older lenses, but the lenses will still mount and work. Used EOS Canon equipment is harder to find because there is little available on the used market, though this will change as time passes. Many camera companies chose not to maintain compatibility with the older lenses when they switched to the autofocus and digital systems. This is common in a quickly changing industry like photography.

Hunting for used equipment can be like a treasure hunt. There are camera shows, used camera shops, the classifieds, yard sales, and all kinds of other places to find used equipment. We recommend sticking with a reputable seller and getting a warranty or at least a refund policy in writing if you can. Here are a few things to look for when buying used equipment.


The lens is the most important element for creating your images. A camera body is just a housing for the film that controls the amount of light passing through the lens. If the lens is of poor quality or is scratched, damaged, or dirty, the quality of the image is effected. Carefully examine the outside and inside of a lens and check its functions.

    Graphic of an older camera

  • Look for dents on the front of the lens body. Filters may not mount, and this is a sure sign that the lens has been dropped.
  • Make sure the lens focuses smoothly throughout its entire range.
  • Make sure other controls move smoothly and freely.
  • Look for polishing and cleaning scratches on the front and rear elements of the lens. Look closely for signs of any other damage.
  • Look through the lens. Do you see any obstructions or cracks in the internal lenses? Dust? If something is inside the lens it can mean it has been repaired or damaged in some way.


Graphic of camera with aperture opening and closingCamera bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The older ones tend to be boxy while new ones have smoother curves, LED displays, pop up flash and lots of gadgets. Have a list with you of the elements you are looking for like depth of field, remote shutter release connection, manual override and such. When you start feeling your heart palpitating over the latest hot camera body, pull out your list and ground yourself with what you really need and don’t be distracted by fad cameras. It also helps to have a list of questions for the seller so he can help you in the process of choosing a camera.

  • Look for dents on the camera body, particularly on the pentaprism, as these may cause your focusing to be off.
  • Open the back of the body and look at the shutter. There should be no damage at all to the shutter or the film plane. Look for small scratches on the film backing.
  • With the back open, set the shutter speed to about 1 second and watch as the shutter opens. It should open completely. Now try different speeds. It should operate smoothly with no jerks or hesitation at any point in the process. Some newer bodies won’t allow the shutter to operate with the back open. If this is the case, remove the lens and watch from the front.
  • Fire the shutter at shutter speeds from about 1/4 to 1/125. You should be able to hear the differences at the various settings.
  • If possible, run a roll of film through the camera using different aperture and shutter speed combinations. Take notes, use one hour processing, and check for proper results.

Hunting for Deals

Camera swap meets and used camera shops are great places for finding many of the accessories you need. Many dealers will bargin with you, or give you good deals like two for the price of one, while others will offer special discounts and prices during the meet. You will usually find typical photo accessories like filters and tripods which can be found at most photo shops, but specialized equipment is often harder to find, especially if what you need must fit an older camera system. Camera swap meets might be the best place to search for these things. Some hot items to keep an eye out for include:

Tripod Accessories
A super clamp by Bogen fits around the leg of the tripod and holds the tripod head for unusual positions. Photo by Brent VanFossenThere are a variety of tripod accessories worth keeping an eye out for at camera swap meets and used camera shops. The Bogen Super Clamp is a favorite of ours. It is literally a clamp that can tighten around your tripod leg close to the ground or at any angle, or to a fence, post, or any surface that will support a clamp. Screw your tripod head to the clamp’s mount and you are ready to photograph from even the most challenging positions. Also look for replacement tripod head screws, quick release attachments, and special tripod heads. Other unusual items to look for include tripod feet (for different surfaces such as snow or mud) and weights (which hang from the middle of the tripod to keep it steady even in fierce winds).
Bellows fit between the camera and the lens allowing for ultra closeup photography. Photo by Brent VanFossenRemember the old box cameras? Their version of a zoom lens was an accordion style box compartment between the actual glass elements and the film. Interested in ultra-macro photography? Check to see if your camera’s manufacturer ever made a bellows attachment or lens? Then start hunting for it. A few creative inventors have found ways to build mounts for fitting bellows to the newer cameras and lenses, though they often lack all their auto features. With a good hand held meter and some patience, you can manually focus to incredible closeness with these.
Flash Accessories
In addition to a wide range of flashes for your camera, look for flash Look for synch cords and diffusion filters for your flash. Photo by Brent VanFossenaccessories such as off-shoe synch cables, diffusors, extenders (extends the range of the flash “light”), filters and other flash accessories. Also look for reflectors, light discs, strobes, box lights, and other light accessories often found in a studio. Some of these can be used in a small home studio for photographing set-up shots like aquariums, insects, butterflies, and flowers. Others maybe more portable for field work.
Cable Releases
Oftentimes camera swap meets will have special deals and sales, usually they are on small ticket items like filters. But keep an eye out for shutter cable releases. These things are frequently lost while traveling or in the field, so why not find several cheap ones and buy them. Maybe they will give you a deal for three for the price of two.
Small Parts
If you have small parts on your camera and tripod which you can lose, buy some replacements when you can. Cable releases, lens covers and backs, and step-up (or down) rings are freqently lost in our travels. But we also lose more important items like the little screw that holds important parts together on the tripod, or the Bogen handle that also serves as an allen wrench to tighten the loose screws, or the little cover pieces for the flash or cable release “holes” on the cameras. After having the entire bottom of a camera clatter to the street because I was oblivious to the screws coming loose, I started carrying replacement screws. Check your system to see what little parts you might break or lose and consider buying now rather than hunting later.
Camera Bags and Accessories
I absolutely LOVE camera bags, always the first in line to test drive one. Camera swap meets are excellent places to really get some hands-on exploration of a variety of camera bag systems, especially the bag accessories like bags for lenses, flash, film, and other accessories. Look for Domke wraps on sale as these versatile squares are excellent for protecting lenses and equipment while traveling. Look for different bags for different uses such as backpack bags to carry equipment and clothing for extensive traveling, or smaller bags for a few hours out with only one camera and lens with a couple rolls of film. Think about how you use your equipment and check out the variety of bags they offer.
New Gimmicks
Camera swap meets are excellent places for the latest and bestest whatever. Sometimes these are offered by the large manufacturers, but usually these come from innovative individuals who saw a need and decided to do something about it. From these creative folks we’ve discovered the Wimberly Tripod head featuring a free-motion, swiveling suspended tripod head, excellent for bird photography. We’ve also found tripods that bend and twist into a variety of shapes, all endeavoring to support your camera in any position possible. We’ve seen lens cleaners, lens changers, film changers, film processors, all kinds of gadgets to help make the photographer’s life a bit easier, or at least a little more complicated. Keep an eye out because you never know what gimmick might indeed make your life easier.

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