Whether you buy new or used, our camera buying tips can help you navigate the camera market safely. Cameras and lenses are expensive electronics and the last thing you want to do is lose money or get scammed. Understanding a few key terms and some issues to look out for can help you save money and have peace of mind when you make your next purchase.
FTC Disclaimer: **This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking through my links
Let’s start with new camera gear. You would think this is self-explanatory and that new gear is new and therefore always safe to buy, but it is not.
You go to Amazon. There is the camera you’ve been dreaming of and it is $400 cheaper than at Best Buy. It says it’s new. Wow, what a deal, right?
Have you heard the phrase, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” given as buying advice? It would be wise to heed this advice. “Deals” online often come with a catch.
The most important aspect to check is the seller’s name. Make sure the seller is an authorized seller for that brand. Amazon is usually an authorized seller, but you have to go look at the “sold by” and “ship by” information on the product page. If these don’t both say Amazon, then it is possible this is a third party seller who is not authorized. This could void any warranty.
Sometimes “new” cameras and lenses are repackaged items. For example, the seller buys a camera and lens as a kit, then they sell the camera body and lens separately for more money. These items are technically new, but those types of sellers are not going to be authorized sellers.
You may find a package deal or kit that includes a bunch of accessories like the one shown below. Most of the accessories in these kits are cheap junk that will end up in a landfill. These sellers may or may not be authorized sellers, but you are not investing in quality accessories. For example, the tripods are usually flimsy and won’t hold up over time, they usually cannot be fixed if they break, and may not be rated to support the weight of heavier cameras and lenses. The filters will not be good quality glass and might even be Plexiglas or plastic.
There are also kits sold that bundle a camera with one or two lenses without all the accessories. These can be good deals at times (when they are authorized sellers, of course). These lenses are often the cheaper versions of lenses made by these manufacturers and are what the industry calls “kit” lenses. Take into consideration the quality of the lens and check prices. You might be better off to buy the camera body alone and then add the higher quality lenses that you want individually. For example, Canon offers a EF 50mm f/1.8 lens (the “nifty fifty”) for about $125. This is a much better lens than the typical EF-S 18-55mm lens that usually comes in a bundle.
Prices from authorized retailers are going to be dictated at the MSRP level, which means that a deal you find at one seller should be exactly the same as a deal you find at another seller. If you find a good price and then check elsewhere and don’t see the same offer, that is a red flag. In some cases a seller might offer other incentives like free shipping or a gift card off a future purchase, but the camera or lens price remains unchanged.
Prices are basically standardized in each country or region. You will see differences in prices from one country to another – sometimes as much as $700 to $1000 or more. This is usually related to import taxes and distribution costs, as well as labor costs and the size of the market in that country. For example, a camera priced at about $3000 in the United States might cost almost $4000 in Australia.
If you see a cheaper price on Amazon Canada, can you buy it there and send it to your house? Yes, you can, but again, it might not be covered under warranty even if the seller in Canada is authorized. Confusing, right? The seller must be authorized in your country and the product must be purchased in your country (in most cases) to be covered.
One final tip when buying new gear. Consider buying the previous year's model of the same camera or lens. Often the new version have a few upgrades, most of which will not make that much of a dramatic difference in your image quality, but the cost savings of buying the older model can be very appealing and quite dramatic. For example, currently the Nikon Z7 II is selling for $2997, but the original Z7 is $2497, a $500 savings! Take a look below at the key specs of both cameras (from Camera Decision website, an excellent resource) and you will see that the only big difference you get for the $500 is one additional frame per second when shooting high speed bursts.
Refurbished & Reconditioned
Refurbished or reconditioned equipment mostly comes from retail purchases that are returned. Someone gets a fancy camera as a gift and then they discover it’s too complicated for them or they don’t have time to figure it out. So it gets returned. Any returned camera is no longer “new.”
Refurbished cameras can also be open box or demo units from a camera store. The equipment might be perfectly good and in excellent shape (possible slight surface issues from demo use and such), but again they are not “new” anymore.
To recoup money that would otherwise be lost from such equipment, the cameras (or lenses) are inspected and repacked for a lower price. You, as the buyer, can benefit from this pricing discount.
Refurbished cameras are actually tested in a more stringent manner than a new product straight from the factory. Each camera (or lens) is inspected by hand and must pass strict Quality Control standards. The only word of warning is that the warranty may be different, so carefully check the fine print to make sure you will be covered. Then decide if the difference in warranty is worth the discounted price.
The best place to buy a refurbished or reconditioned product is direct from the manufacturer. Well-known and established camera stores like Adorama and B&H Photo also sell refurbished equipment. Be careful when purchasing from other electronics retailers. Make sure they are authorized sellers and make sure it is really a refurbished piece and not just an open box item they marked down locally without any inspection process.
Gray Market & International
Gray market cameras and lenses are products that are imported and then sold by someone other than the manufacturer. They are usually genuine products of that manufacturer, but they were initially distributed in another country or market. A third party, typically in Asia where cameras are priced lower (due to lower distribution costs), buys the cameras and then exports them to another county.
This means that your camera purchase may have accessories for other countries. Chargers may be modified or adapted to be compatible in your country. Instruction manuals might be in another language. Most importantly it means the gear will not be covered under any warranty. In fact, if it breaks and you want to send it in for repair, the manufacturer might not offer service, even when you are willing to pay for it!
There are also cases where gray market or "international" versions of cameras are knock-offs or fakes. It is also possible that the gear is a refurbished or open box item that has been repacked for sale as new. Therefore, there are risks to buying a gray market or international camera or lens. Sometimes the price is so good though it may be enticing. A gray market camera might sell for $400 to $600 less than those sold at authorized retailers.
When shopping, watch out for terms or phrases like import model, seller warranty, gray/grey market, warranty via seller, Canon import, Nikon import, Sony import, USA seller warranty, off market, direct import, or USA coverage by seller. Check the fine print to see what kind of warranty you will get and check the seller’s name on the manufacturer’s website to see if they are an authorized retailer.
In the end, you might decide the price difference is worth the risk. If that is the case, then know that there is no difference between a manufacturer import and gray market import (as long as it isn’t a fake) in terms of the camera body itself. Both will have been made in the same factory with the same specs. The differences are only in the accessories, packaging, and warranty/service.
Most manufacturers strongly recommend against buying gray market.
Nikon Warning https://www.nikonusa.com/en/nikon-store/shopping-help/gray-market.page
Canon Warning https://www.usa.canon.com/internet/portal/us/home/products/groups/gray-market
There a many places to buy used gear. Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, Nextdoor, ebay, Craigslist, and online photography groups are all places where you can find cameras, lenses, bags, and accessories. It is in these places that scammers flourish, so buyer beware!
It is hard to keep up with scammers. Each time people catch on to the current scam, they switch to something else. Recent scams have included selling the box for the camera only without the camera, swapping out what you saw in the ad for other items or broken items, offering the items for free or super cheap prices because it is some special occasion (see image), never sending the item after payment is received, specifying in the description that the equipment is “untested” (which probably means it doesn’t work), and I am sure there are more that I am forgetting as I write this.
My recommendation is that you NEVER buy used gear on a platform like these unless it is a local seller whom you can meet (in a safe place, like the police station parking lot) and you can test the equipment before you buy. Bring a lens to test on a camera body, or bring a camera body to test a lens. Make sure the seller has the camera charged, so you can check it out.
My even better recommendation is that you buy used from a reputable reseller like KEH Camera in Atlanta. KEH buys used gear (a great way to get rid of stuff you don’t use and get some cash) and they also offer trades. They then take the used gear, check it and grade it (bargain, like new, excellent), and then list it on their site for sale. The greatest part of buying from KEH is that you also get a warranty of at least 180 days for any equipment (unless it is as-is, for parts, or not working to begin with). As of the writing of this article, they were offering a holiday deal for a 1 year warranty!
Other companies sell used gear. For example, you can buy from MPB (locations in the USA and in Europe), Adorama, and B&H Photo. So if one reseller doesn’t have what you are looking for, try another. In addition to checking stock, it is a good idea to compare prices and the grade of gear from one supplier to another.
One final tip about used resellers… you can use their sites to check prices before you buy anywhere else. For example, if I was going to buy a used Canon T7i from a local person Facebook Marketplace, I would first go to KEH Camera’s website and get a price for that same camera. If they are selling it with a warranty for about the same price, why would I buy from the local person? Or if the local person’s price is way higher I now have some bargaining I can do. If their price is lower, then I know I am probably getting a good deal (as long as it checks out when we meet up in person).
Buying cameras and lenses can be a frustrating process when there are so many places to look and you see so many appealing prices. The key things to remember…
New – buy from authorized sellers in your country, check the manufacturer’s website for a list to make sure, and don’t buy the accessory kits.
Refurbished – buy from an established and authorized seller and check the difference in the warranty offered.
Gray Market – do not buy gray market if you want warranty service (or service at all), but if the warranty/service issue doesn’t bother you, then just be aware your product’s accessories may be different and there is the possibility of getting a fake or knock off product.
Used – buy only after being hyper-vigilant against scammers, it is better if you buy from local individuals so you can test the equipment before you hand over the cash, and if possible the best option is to buy from a recognized and reliable reseller that might offer at least some warranty on your purchase.
Now that you know some of the common pitfalls of buying camera gear, whether new or used, you are ready to go do some shopping! Oh, happy day, I love new (or new to me) gear, don't you?! :)