This article combines the scripts from the two videos above into a single resource that shows you what to check when buying a used DSLR or mirrorless camera on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
Buying a used DSLR or mirrorless camera is a great way to expand your kit on a budget, and the best value is typically found on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and similar sites. However, a downside of buying a used camera directly from the owner is that you’re giving up the peace of mind offered by store refunds and manufacturer warranties in exchange for a lower price.
Since these deals involve cameras that are “final sale” and “as-is” — meaning, there’s no recourse if you find fault in them later — it’s essential to confirm the camera’s condition. Here’s the ultimate checklist of what to look for when buying a used DSLR or mirrorless camera in person.
Research whether this model suffers from common issues.
Cameras can have quirks or manufacturing defects that are common to specific models. Do a web search to see if the model you’re interested in suffers from common issues and check for them during the inspection.
Ask the seller to update the firmware and reset the camera to factory defaults.
The software powering your camera is called firmware. Like all software, firmware can have bugs. Camera makers sometimes release firmware updates that fix bugs and add or expand software-based features. Firmware bugs can easily be confused for physical faults or defects, and so can the previous owners’ customizations. It’d be a shame to pass up an otherwise excellent camera because a bug fix wasn’t installed or a non-standard button assignment that wasn’t reset. You can avoid these pitfalls by asking the seller to update the firmware and reset the camera to defaults before you meet.
Don’t allow the seller to pressure you into a quick inspection.
If the seller claims they’re in a rush and have somewhere else to be, there’s a good chance they’re hiding something and hoping that a cursory inspection will miss it. Always take as much time as necessary to conduct your assessment or terminate the deal. Don’t succumb to pressure; you don’t owe the seller any favours.
Check the battery and its compartment for corrosion and damage.
Open the battery compartment and remove the battery. On most modern cameras, the battery is spring-ejected upon release. A damaged or defective lithium battery can sometimes swell to a point where the spring cannot push it far enough to pull out. This is a sign the battery will need replacing.
Once the battery is removed, use your phone’s LED to inspect the electronic contacts inside the battery compartment for signs of corrosion or oxidation. I’d consider any damage a dealbreaker because it can cause shorts, power loss, and so forth.
Power on the camera.
Place the battery into the camera, ensure that it fits well and secures into place, close the compartment door, and turn the camera’s power on.
Check the memory card slot(s) and confirm they work.
With the aid of your phone’s LED, check the slots for dust and damage. This is a critical check on cameras that use Compact Flash (CF) cards since they don’t physically prevent accidental sideways insertion, which could lead to bent pins. Always bring your own memory cards to check for compatibility. Make sure they lock into place, and the camera can read and write to them—you can snap a few photos to confirm.
Check the electronic terminals and flash hot shoe.
Modern cameras have a variety of electronic terminals such as HDMI, USB, and audio ports. Because there are so many, it’s not always practical to check every port without the appropriate cables and connecting device on hand. Instead, perform a visual inspection of each terminal for dust, debris, and bent or broken pins. And when you’re buying a camera for a purpose that involves a specific terminal, definitely bring something to ensure it’s in working order.
Also, make sure to check the camera’s external flash hot shoe mount for corrosion. Some mounts may be covered by plastic tabs, so feel free to remove them. Better yet, bring any hot shoe-mounted flash and test it with the camera. While most flash units are designed to work with a specific camera system, virtually every contemporary camera can fire a hot shoe flash when taking a photo.
Check the condition of the doors and rubber flaps.
Pay attention to the condition of the plastic doors and rubber flaps that protect the terminals. Do they close flush with the camera body? Are the anchors attaching the rubber flaps in good shape? For cameras with “weather resistance,” check the condition of the rubber or foam seals on all doors and flaps.
Check the camera’s lens mount and electronic contact pins.
A lens is attached to a camera using the mount, which provides a secure attachment point and ensures the lens and camera are correctly aligned. All camera lens mounts are metallic and take determination to damage.
The electronic contact pins found just beyond the interior edge of the lens mount facilitate communication with lenses. Ensure that the contact pins are clean, not bent, and don’t exhibit signs of corrosion. Remember to hold the camera face-downward while performing these checks to minimize dust entering the cavity.
The easiest way to confirm is by mounting your own compatible lens, ensuring it secures into place with an audible click. Although a tiny amount of rotational give is acceptable, the lens should fit tightly, and there shouldn’t be any tilting or sagging.
Confirm that the camera recognizes the lens by engaging the autofocus and adjusting the aperture. Take several photos while adjusting the aperture and focus location between each shot. Then, examine the pictures to confirm the changes.
[DSLR] Check the mirror box components.
When examining a DSLR, it’s crucial to check the primary components found in the mirror box. These include the mirror itself and the ground glass focusing screen onto which light from the mirror reflects to form the image seen in the viewfinder. The focusing screen is located at the roof of the mirror box. They should be free from water marks, dirt, and scratches. Hold the camera facing down when performing this check to minimize dust contamination.
Inspect the image sensor for damage and dust.
There are two ways to check the image sensor. You can perform a direct visual inspection of the sensor itself, or you can check the photos it takes. I recommend doing both.
Performing a visual inspection is simplest on a mirrorless camera. Remove the lens or body cap from the camera, and look at the sensor inside. The easiest way to check a DSLR’s image sensor is by selecting a long exposure time in Shutter Priority mode—something like 30 seconds or longer—and “taking a picture” with the lens off. With the camera held face-down, examine the sensor with the aid of your phone’s LED. You should see a smooth iridescent surface that’s free from scratches and damage. Don’t be alarmed or disappointed if you see dust, as it’s completely normal and relatively easy to clean.
The second method of checking an image sensor is by taking a photo. To do this, select ƒ/16 or higher in Aperture Priority mode, then point the camera at a bright and featureless subject (such as the sky or a white wall) and take a shot. Blurry dots and specks are dust or grit, and blurry squiggles are fibres; blurry lines, especially longer and straighter ones, are likely scratches.
Does the shutter work?
The shutter is a precision mechanism that’s crucial to the functionality of a camera. The estimated durability of a shutter is described by camera makers as shutter lifetime and expressed in shutter actuations, which is the number of times a shutter has fired. Generally, cameras with fewer shutter actuations carry a premium over those with more. In this respect, they’re like the odometers on cars. There are several ways to check the number of camera shutter actuations. Still, they vary from brand to brand, so I recommend doing a web search about the model you’re considering. Since this only matters if the shutter works, it’s essential to do several checks.
Check whether changing the shutter speed actually changes the exposure. In Shutter Priority mode, take several photos across a range of shutter speeds, from one second to the camera’s fastest, which is typically 1/4000s or 1/8000s. Review the images to ensure that they’re evenly illuminated from top to bottom. The shutter is beginning to malfunction if the top or bottom of the frame starts to grow progressively darker at faster speeds.
When taking these photos, pay attention to whether there’s a noticeable delay between depressing the shutter button and the shutter firing. Some delays are caused by the autofocusing system, so set the lens to manual focus first.
If the camera is capable of continuous or burst mode, test to make sure it works. Set a reasonably fast shutter speed, point the camera at a static scene, and take a burst of photos. The photos should all be consistently exposed.
Does the autofocus work, and is it correctly aligned?
This advice comes from personal experience. I once dropped my DSLR, and the impact created a slight misalignment between the autofocus system and the focus points displayed in the viewfinder. Essentially, when I wanted to use a single focus point on a subject, the camera would focus the lens on the area halfway to the left adjacent focus point. It was a huge pain in the butt and costly to repair.
A mirrorless camera’s autofocus system is built into the image sensor. If the sensor works, the autofocus system can take readings. You want to test that it accurately communicates focus readings to the lens.
To test the autofocus system on either type of camera, compose a photo of a small, well-defined subject that stands out against the background. Using a single focusing point, autofocus on the left edge of the subject and take a photo. Take a second shot focusing on the subject’s right edge. You can repeat these steps on the top and bottom edges to be extra thorough. Just make sure to manually defocus the lens between every shot. After you’re done, review the photos on the screen to confirm whether the camera focused on the intended target.
Check that the shooting mode dial works correctly.
Your choice of shooting mode determines which camera settings and controls you can access. Except for several retro-inspired and pro-level models, most cameras have a rotating dial for selecting shooting modes. You want to confirm that the physical dial and its electronic connections are working and correctly aligned with the indicated mode. In practice, this means selecting M puts the camera into Manual Mode, selecting A (or Av) puts the camera into Aperture Priority Mode, and so on. Ensure the detents are firm, and if the dial has a locking function, that it works.
Does the main screen work?
Checking whether the rear screen works is straightforward: switch on the camera, push the Menu or Info buttons, and the screen should activate. To check for dead pixels, take one completely white (overexposed) photo and review it for black dots. To check for hot pixels, take a completely black (underexposed) photo—keeping the lens cap on helps—and review it for pixels that won’t turn off.
If the mirrorless camera you’re considering has an Electronic Viewfinder, check the frames you just captured in it as well, as EVFs can also have defective pixels.
If the LCD is a touchscreen, give it some pokes, swipes, and pinch-to-zooms to ensure accurate touch sensitivity.
If the camera you’re examining features a multidirectional screen, check the condition of its joints by moving it around and confirming that it stays in place.
If the DSLR has Live View or movie mode, make sure they work.
Many new DSLRs have a feature known as Live View, which lets them work like mirrorless cameras by displaying a live image on the rear screen. They do this by raising the mirror and opening the shutter so the light from the lens can fall directly onto the image sensor for as long as Live View is active. It’s typically activated by a dedicated button.
Activating video mode on a DSLR will also throw it into Live View, showing the view on the rear LCD. Regardless of your camera type, you can test video mode by recording a video and reviewing the result.
Do all the physical controls work?
This is about checking the physical integrity of the controls themselves, not the underlying features associated with them. If rotating a dial, pushing a button, or moving a switch causes the camera to respond, it’s reasonable to conclude it works. Just make sure the buttons have adequate resistance and the dials maintain their detents.
The pitfall in this assumption is reassigned custom function buttons. To ensure that you don’t confuse the seller’s customization for malfunctioning buttons, remember to ask them to reset the camera to factory defaults before you meet.
Does the built-in flash work?
As a rule of thumb, an opened pop-up flash always fires when taking a picture. The only exception is the “No Flash” Auto shooting mode on some entry-level cameras. The simplest way to fire a pop-up flash is by raising it, setting the camera into Manual shooting mode, and taking a picture.
And while I’m on the subject of flash, some advanced and professional camera models feature IR or wireless triggering of remote flash heads. If this function is vital to you, consider this your reminder to test it.
Check the tripod mount threading.
The humble tripod mount is found on the bottom of virtually every digital camera. However, it’s often overlooked during inspections because of its ubiquity and relative sturdiness. You can perform a quick visual inspection of the tripod mount to confirm no cross-threading damage. Still, I recommend bringing a tripod mounting plate or 1/4” ‑20 screw for physical confirmation.
What is the condition of the strap connectors?
A similarly overlooked physical feature of most cameras is the strap connector. I should emphasize that I’m not referring to the strap itself or the loosely attached strap rings or triangles. The strap connectors are the metal eyelets permanently attached to the sides of the camera body. These unremarkable parts are indispensable for your camera’s convenient and safe use. Make sure they’re not bent, cracked, or detaching.
[DSLR] What is the condition of the viewfinder?
In addition to checking it for dust or lint, the viewfinder assembly also contains light measuring sensors that determine auto exposure and assist in manual exposure. To check whether the light meter is working, select any auto shooting modes and point the camera at different parts of the scene. You should see a change in the shutter speed and aperture values as your view sweeps across the scene, which indicates that the meter is working.
[Mirrorless] What is the condition of the electronic viewfinder?
You’ve probably already confirmed that the internal display works when taking test shots and checking for defective pixels. Now it’s time for a more thorough check for internal dust, moisture, and scratches on the eye-facing lens.
Additionally, make sure the IR proximity sensor activates the EVF when you move your eye towards it, and turns it off when you lower the camera.
Does the viewfinder’s diopter control work?
The diopter adjuster allows you to set the viewfinder to match your eyesight. It’s typically a wheel or switch located somewhere near the viewfinder. To check that it works, or whether it’s strong enough to correct for your eyesight, look through the finder with your unaided eye and adjust the diopter control until the viewfinder indicators come into sharp relief.
Alternatively, on a mirrorless camera, you can adjust the diopter while looking navigating the camera’s menu or reviewing an existing photo within the EVF.
Is the viewfinder eyecup included and in good condition?
Check whether the rubber eyecup is included and inspect its condition. It’s typically made from soft rubber that can wear with time or start to separate from the underlying plastic frame. Your goal is to ensure that the camera you’re inspecting fits the advertised description. If the camera wasn’t described as “like new,” don’t nitpick the eyecup since it’s easy to replace.
Is the camera sold with all accessories?
Most camera manuals list all the accessories included in the box. Go over the list to ensure you’re getting everything advertised by the seller. And if the battery charger is included, ensure that it works.
Now you should know what to check for when buying a used DSLR or mirrorless camera in person. If you have requests for topics, let me know in the comments, and I’ll consider them for future articles.