If you think, as I do, that all cameras are really good these days then now is the time for bargain shopping.

Or, how to make your hobby (or business) less of a financial drain...

Olympus OMD EM-5 with 17mm 1.8 lens, and hand grip.

Can we talk? You and I love to buy cameras and lots of other photographic stuff. I actually write about new gear on my blog all the time so you'd think I'd be racing to the poor house with my incessant gear purchases, right? Well, maybe not so much. You see, I like to wait for everyone else to buy the gear first and work out the bugs, then use it for a while and figure out the best workflows. Then I kinda hang around until they get a whiff of the newest stuff and get the urge to upgrade. At that point I get interested in the gear and buy it used. Never for more than fifty cents on the dollar.  If I don't like it I can almost always sell it a bit further down the road for more or less what I paid. 

Now, I don't always work like this. I ran out and bought the new Panasonic GH4 when it came out because I had specific video projects that I knew I wanted to use that camera for (and make money with) and, being the first real user 4K camera on the market it's not like I had older, cheaper options to consider.

But more often than not I try to love old cameras more than the latest cameras. Especially the ones that earn universal kudos before they are put out to pasture. One of my favorites was the Sony a850. It was an almost identical copy of the a900 full frame, 24 megapixel camera but in came out about a year later, cost $1999 instead of $2799 and was the absolute cheapest way to get into a full frame and 24 megapixel cameras at the time. I probably had a sales associate pull one off the shelf twelve times so I could play with it and even though I wanted it I knew I didn't "need" it. Not at the full price. 

Early last year I found one in great shape for around $850. Now this was before the launch of the Sony A7 cameras and, for a Sony user, the full frame choice of the moment was the a99 at $2799. I bought the a99 and paid the new toll but I couldn't see paying that again for a back up camera. If you aren't a professional user you might not need a back up. I do. It's total paranoia on my part but I can't go out on a shooting assignment without one. My brain just won't let me. Too much liability...

So I finally plunked down money for the a850. It was a great camera. The used one I bought was half the price of a new, APS-C, Sony a77 at the time. It was an amazing bargain for a studio photographer. When I bailed out of the Sony stuff this year the a850, used for another year, brought me exactly the same amount of money back when I sold it. Even Steven. I basically got to use, play with and leverage a fun, full frame and very professional camera for a year----for free. 

I don't always make such good bargains but then again I generally only lose money if I need the new technology (thought I needed the a99 for video---I was wrong) or if a camera is so lasciviously captivating that I can't extinguish the flames of desire and have the money in the bank. I lost as much money when divesting of the a99 as I initially spent on the a850. That's the price of having the camera of the moment. 

If you look back two years in the VSL archives you can read my high praise of the Olympus EM-5. I think it's the camera that really made mirror less cameras legitimate in the eyes of the center of the Bell curve consumers. But I was over equipped at the time it was launched with various Sony cameras and couldn't justify paying the "opening season" premium for the camera and the requisite lenses. Since that time I've watched legions of photographers gush about the quality of the files, the colors and the incredible in body IS. I envied them but I bought practical stuff like the Panasonic GH3's that I've used for a dozen video projects and nearly a hundred still shoots. I also knew I needed the video capabilities of the GH4 before I needed the particular attributes of the EM-5 for my style of business shooting but I never lost my admiration for the product and the engineering. 

A friend recently upgraded to a brace of EM-1 cameras, and a GH4 to keep his GH3 company. Feeling a bit overstocked he was ready, after two years of  EM-5 ownership, to lighten his inventory and sold me the two cameras at an amazing price. Less than half of the new price and paired with some great accessories which further sweetened the deal for me. Wow. These are great, low mileage cameras and I'm enjoying them as though they were brand new to me. 

Essentially what I'm getting at is that we've pretty much reached the consensus that cameras have hit a point of quickly diminishing returns. The stuff that was on the market two years ago isn't just half as good as today's products it's something like 98% as good as today's products and in some cases (many cases?) you'd have to be practicing pretty damn precise and careful techniques to see the difference. So----why pay for incremental improvements you are hardly likely to perceive?

I was motivated to write this after a trip yesterday to purchase a cheap lens at Precision Camera. There I saw several fervent photographers getting ready to trade in Nikon D800's and D800e's in order to purchase the new Nikon D810. Now, I know that the new camera sports the same number of pixels and most of the same features as the cameras it is replacing but I also know from reading what smart, experienced shooters have posted about how small and incremental the actual, visible quality differences are. Most will be obscured by lenses that aren't of high enough resolution to resolve those differences.

How old is the oldest D800? Is it two years old? Has anything in the 35mm format come out that trumps the performance by a discernible amount (and I mean discernible to mentally healthy people...)? Not that I know of. So I marveled at the folks who would willingly lose about $800 to $1,000 on the trade. What is it that they are seeing that I don't get? Doesn't matter. If they can perceive the difference, and value it, that's all that matters. 

But going forward here's my suggestion for truly enjoying the gear end of the practice of photography:  Buy stuff used! There are tons of used lenses and used bodies that are wonderful to work with but have been replaced by newer models, most of which don't add much to the spec list. 

I was combing the web and looking at bargains last week. Here are some I found:

The Fuji EX1 with the 18-55mm zoom lens (the fast one), in almost new condition for $600.
The difference between the EX-1 and a new EX-2? The finder is a bit better in the 2 and the screen on the back is two tenths of an inch wider. The sensor and the imaging pipeline, as well as the lens, are identical. And both of those camera have the identical sensor and imaging pipeline you'll find in the Pro-1.

You need a faster, more traditional body with class leading performance? Smart guy, Thom Hogan tells me that there's only 22% difference in resolution between a Nikon D7000 at 16 megapixels and the newer D7100 at 24 megapixels. His take? Not enough discernible difference for most people to care about at the final file sizes 99% will use. A new D7100? About $1100. A lightly used D7000? About $500. The difference in operation? Minimal. 

If you are mostly a mirror less shooter or APS-C shooter but you've always wanted to play around with the full framers (not for the resolution but because you know that perspective and depth of field is different) you could ante up for a D610 or a 6D from Nikon and Canon respectively or you could pick up a lightly used original Canon 5D for a whopping $600. My friend Paul and I were fondling one yesterday at the camera shop and it looked as though it had just been taken out of the box for the first time. The tariff? $600.  All the depth of field magic with the nasty depreciation already sucked out of the camera. 

The 17mm Olympus 1.8 lens above retails for around $500. The one I bought is in great condition and cost me less than $350. It works just as well as the new ones. 

We could go on and on but it's not like the old days where the jump from three to six megapixels was amazing and career changing. It's not like the days when Nikon and Canon jumped from six to twelve and then to 22-24 megapixels. The changes are a lot more subtle and they are happening at a slower pace. For all intents and purposes we're at the point where skipping generations of our favorite products doesn't make us feel like we're falling behind. 

Just a few thoughts on keeping the passion affordable. Now, who's got a lightly used Leica S they'd like to sell me at half the going new price? I might want to take a look at that...


Ken said...

Once again, a great post filled with sanity and common sense. Thanks! I agree 100%.

The only recent camera I've paid full price for (then watched the $400 price drop a couple months later, thank Panasonic) was the Sony RX10. It's video has been worth it and it's so convenient and meets most needs.

My X-E1 has not been replaced yet and the used 35mm f/1.4 I have for it stellar. Right now, I could turn around an sell my whole Fuji X mount kits (35, 18-55, 27 and 55-200, plus the X-E1) for about what I paid for it. That's a nice feeling.

I view cars the same way. I tend to buy used, or at best certified used vehicles. Let someone else take the depreciation hit for me :-) Same with cameras and lenses.

At some point, everyone needs to get a hold of their G.A.S. and find a happy medium where they can stick with what they have for a while (not 3 months, LOL) and get the full value out of the kit. Then upgrade the body to a gently used or close out model (because that new super-duper camera is coming out).

Not only is there a financial benefit, but the bigger benefit comes from being incredibly familiar with your gear and getting the most of it.

I've had a Fuji X100 since November 2011. It was my work horse everyday do anything camera for general stuff and travel. I finally upgraded to a X100s for the AF speed (big improvement), usable MF, a bump to 16MP (vs. 12, I know, I know) and there is zero learning curve. It's like an old glove that just fits.

Peter Teoh said...

It's also worth looking at manufacturer refurbished equipment. I bought my refurbished 17mm f/1.8 directly from Olympus for under $350 and it's been perfect.

G Gudmundsson said...

So now that the Sony RX10 is eight months old and is down from $1299 to $999, or something like that, do you recommend that, for outdoors, general photography...?

Ron Nabity said...

Glad to hear you are enjoying the E-M5 cameras. I did the same, waited at least a year before purchasing one (the first one).

The upgrade inertia is often irrational, for the reasons you mentioned. It is also hard to stop.

In the book, Your Money or Your Life, the author talks about "how much is enough" and, often times, the acquisition of much-more-than-enough leads to dissatisfaction and, even depression. I feel the same applies to photo gear upgrades.

Ron Nabity said...

Here's a current example: I just checked out craigslist and spotted a used Olympus E-M5 black body for $500. Seller claims to have shot about 2500 frames, but a quick check in the diagnostic menus should clear up any questions about actuations.

And that camera did not suddenly stop working when a newer model came out....just sayin'.

Kepano said...

Funny to read Rockwell's recent Nikon comparo (including the new D810 and D3) and accompanying suggestion that pros must use the best to stay ahead of the competition just after reading this contrarian blog post. I guess that's the difference between someone who makes money using cameras vs. someone who makes money talking about cameras.

For my work, 12mp is good enough. Most of it is destined for one-time use on the web, though one of my photos was blown up huge and hangs as a mural sized image in the lobby of NOAA's newest building here in Hawaii. That was shot on a 12mp camera.

As you suggest, I bought my D700 and D3 used. Both have served me well and will continue to do so for years. I bought a D3s new primarily so I could have a similar body to pair with my D3. That, and for video, which, in the end, is what made me put a foot in the Panasonic camp.

Tired of waiting for Nikon to get serious about video, I got great deals on GH2s a couple years after launch. They were really hard to get a hold of initially, but by the time I did, they were almost half the price at launch. Great cameras for video, but lack of an earphone jack meant no ability to monitor audio, which ultimately had me wanting to upgrade to GH3s. But, by the time I was ready to upgrade, the GH4 was announced.

Having booked enough business to pay off the GH2s many times over, I have no guilt upgrading to GH4s. The improved codec and 4K video were welcome updates along with the earphone jack. The GH4s have already turned a profit, so I'm happy with my timing. GH2 to GH3 and GH3 to GH4 are not huge upgrades, but GH2 to GH4 is.

I fully expect rapid depreciation on anything I buy new (glass being a possible exception), but then, I only do so after careful consideration on how the tools will pencil out in my business.

The main exception being Fuji's X100s. That was purely an emotional purchase, even if I could (did) justify it to my internal bean-counter. Having a small camera for event candids was the logical rationalization for picking up the X100s. But, really, I just wanted it. I've used it for paid work - even some short video clips for my client, however, I never really expected it to be a revenue generator.

So, I'm not sure where I go from here. I have a lot of good Nikon glass (two of each 2.8 zoom as my wife shoots weddings with me). Metabones have really made my Nikon glass sing on my GHx cameras, so I haven't felt the need to go crazy on m43 glass. I have the 12-35mm and 25mm, and they do 90% of the lifting as far as native glass is concerned. Any of my fast Nikon glass in front of the Speed Booster is really quite special.

Video has really taken over much of my work, so Panasonic and Sony are getting most of my attention these days. And audio (Audix SCX1 is the microphone equivalent to my Nikon 85mm "Cream Machine"). And lights (busting my brain on flying with enough light/grip while not killing the client with excess luggage fees).

As always, I enjoy reading your blog posts. That we are on similar paths makes your writing even more pertinent. Ignore the video-haters. We're in the image making business. Whether they move of not, the image capture still requires a good mix of technology and technique. I, for one, look forward to your video discussions.

Dave Jenkins said...

I'm a big-time, long-time user of used equipment. I bought a Canon 5D new in 2006, but then used it for seven years. Its replacement was a used, low-mileage 6D, and it is backed up by a 60D from the Canon refurb store. Of the seven lenses I own for the Canon system, only one was bought new, and that was in 2007.

I did pay full price for an OMD-EM5, but that was a direct step-up from the E-PL1, not something that was done in many incremental steps through the Oly system, like a certain photographer I know of. My second EM5 was bought used, and all my lenses for m4/3s are refurbs.

Everything works well and does the job I need it to do. There are a few additional things I would like to have, but I don't need them enough to spend actual money on them!

James Pilcher said...

The last two used camera bodies I purchased ended up in the shop due to problems not discernible at the time of purchase. There is a reason a camera ends up on the used shelf, and it's not always because of the original owner's desire to upgrade to the latest and greatest. I am gun-shy of used equipment at the moment. I am more likely to wait for new body prices to drop, than to look for a "pennies on the dollar" used bargain.

Of course, that's just me.

AlexG said...

I have been a massive fan of buying used and really there is little on new cameras that I need. I do little video, the G3 is good enough in low light to not worry about it. I bought my second G3 body for £40, hell that less than a peak travel card to London. There are things that I would like; faster shot to shot buffer is one, mainly as I shoot say 4 images and the G3 won't let me review until the write finishes, a couple of seconds at most. Now I am pondering a G5 as I have seen them for £130 and it is supposed to balance better with the 14-140. Instead of later bodies money has been invested on the lenses I know I will get good use out of, they will be used for years but even they were used so someone else takes the hit on depreciation.

Claire said...

I totally function the same way too ! So I'm now happily shooting two obsolete camera, the NEX7 (that hasn't be bested by any mirrorless AFAIK, and I've tried them all) and the Nikon D7000 (tried it alongside the 7100, and liked the older camera metering better). Go figure ;)

Anonymous said...

"I was motivated to write this after a trip yesterday to purchase a cheap lens at Precision Camera."

As a former employee of such a camera store I should probably remind/warn you about the risk of such trips and justifying the purchases of yet more gear to yourself. You see, the used gear GAS may not be much different from the new gear GAS.

Sure, the single purchases may be cheaper, but hey, they're cheap, and the barrier to buy is lower, so why not, and the same thing again next month/week. After all, it's a bargain. You may end up having a closet full of used gear you hardly ever use. ;-)

"There I saw several fervent photographers getting ready to trade in Nikon D800's and D800e's in order to purchase the new Nikon D810."

Don't worry about the gearheads and wealthy gadget geeks. They do serve a purpose of financing the research and production of newer, genuinely better models, and they help keeping those few remaining brick&mortar shops alive. They also provide you with those slightly used pieces of gear for half the price.

I'd also add that in many cases looking for the few 'last season' unsold stock can also result to a good bargain. At least if you're okay with buying non-mainstream stuff, and if you buy gear to actually use them, rather than for their social acceptance / resale value.

In a way it's sort of sad that most cameras, too, have become quickly ageing digital gadgets with no upgradeable parts. Back in the film days a 10 years old quality camera was not obsolete. Can't say the same about 10-yo digital cameras today.

Rufus said...

Friend of mine is looking to unload a Pentax 645D and two lenses at a great price. Good lord it is tempting..

Rufus said...


Are you managing to establish some kind of truce regarding your battle with Olympus menu's? I had an EM-1 on loan and while I liked the camera I swear I wanted to throw it in the river on occasions, simply because of the menus. Do they become less obtuse with greater familiarity?

Mike said...

If you buy smart used you're actually making an investment that can pay off financially.

This is especially true if you're in a big city. I live in NYC, and there are regularly people who get rid of piles of gear for little money.

I once got an Alien Bees B400, an umbrella, a light stand, and $50 worth of gels for $100.

Another time, I picked up a 50" softbox with speedring and a 7 foot light panel with 3 different fabrics for $50.

Maybe my favorite: when a rental house closed down, I got two Plume Wafer Hexoval softboxes for $300. They would have cost over $1300 new.

At another rental house closeout, I got a Chimera softbox and strip box for about $35.

And after reading about Kirk's experience with the Sony R1, I got a mint condition one for $200. It's one of my favorite cameras.

Gato said...

The vast majority of my camera equipment has been bought used or at some kind of discount. Both film and digital. Even when buying new I can usually contain myself until the price drops - sometimes until the close-out sale.

Most recently I was lusting after a GH4, but realized at my current video skills 4K would be overkill. Two GH3s seemed like a better deal for about the same money, and eventually I talked myself down to a pair of used G6s for half the money. I wound up with the pair of bodies, one kit lens, two Sigma primes (30 and 60)and money left over. I squandered most of the savings on the electric bill, but did have enough left for a nice date night.

I remember the days when we saw a real improvement with every new model, but the only times I remember paying full price for a camera were my Nikon CP900 - my first 'serious' digital - and my Sony 828, but but I bought the Sony only because my older camera quit shortly after they came out. Otherwise I would have waited.

Michael Matthews said...

A guide to buying and selling used / refurbished equipment would be an interesting blog entry. How and where to find it, how to determine a reasonable price, how to avoid getting burned...

Anonymous said...

There is, of course, the issue of finding a good purveyor of used camera equipment in your area. The one "real" new camera store remaining in the metro area I live in doesn't deal in used cameras much, and the one dedicated used shop is still dealing in film cameras for the most part.

I did a web search for online used camera vendors, and one well known site dominated the search results, but browsing through their inventory wasn't too encouraging. Much of the equipment isn't priced that much below brand new, and in some cases they appear to be selling used equipment for *more* than the same items new from B&H (e.g. the Sigma 19mm and 20mm lenses in E or m4:3rds mount.)

RFS said...

Yes. Used is the way to go, and don't forget used is a great way to acquire all the clamps and scrims and pins and stands you need to make a studio. I feel like I am king of the cheapskates....but my current camera was near death and I worked hard at convincing myself to buy a used D800, but the D810 is so much nicer in terms of the video, the autofocus, and the shutter sound so I took the plunge....(cheapskatery in other areas is why I was able to save the money to buy it) and I plan to use it for at least my next 300,000 images or till it falls apart.... and it's an amazing step up from the D800s I've used. The video is really gorgeous, though in a different way from the GH4.
But at $600 used, the Fuji X-E1 is an amazing deal and for stills it really is 99 percent of a leica...

Dave Jenkins said...

Michael Matthews wrote: "A guide to buying and selling used / refurbished equipment would be an interesting blog entry. How and where to find it, how to determine a reasonable price, how to avoid getting burned..."

That's not a blog entry, Michael, that's a book!

shooter said...

I always enjoy your style of writing Kirk, have long been a fan of your narrative and its style.

I lol at the mental health quip so true, I have always been canny about the purchase of new kit, I waited before getting my OM-D5 I love it especially when you use that gorgeous glass on the front. I ached for the new OM-D1 but figure what do I get for my hard earned dollar, as you perfectly point out not a great deal.

I have yet to try the 17mm I have though got the 25 1.4 panny, the 60mm macro awesome and sharp enough to shave, the 12mm lovely, the 45mm even better.I also got my bargain 19mm sigma following your praise of it, so pleased i did. I saw some images from Robin Wongs site taken with the 75mm christ that thing is super sharp, now where's my chequebook...

Nick said...


There *is* a stonking Leica S promotion - here in the UK!


I wonder if any Leica dealers have it your side of the pond?

Great blog!


Kevin Mayo said...

I had a bag of Nikon lenses just sitting there collecting dust along with a F4 and a D90. I looked into getting back into film and the cost has become prohibitive. I ended up grabbing a D300 from KEH on sale to bring those lenses back to life.

Anonymous said...

Shhhhhhh. .......we need peeps to buy gear at full price so we can pick them up half price a year later.

Ed Waring said...

Couldn't agree more Kirk! Just waiting what looks like a lightly used X-E1 and 35mm 1.4 to arrive that I got for just £50 more than the RRP on the lens by itself. My other bargain was spotting a barely used Pentax k30 in a pawn shop window for £200. Got it for £170 with some bargaining. £170 for a very very usable camera that dx0 rates as pretty much the same image quality as a 5d mk iii!

alexander solla said...

Used is definitely where it's at. No question. The hardest part for me, living in the middle of nowhere, is that finding used equipment means ebay or Craigslist. Not necessarily the best options. The dearth of camera stores that carry used equipment in central NY is brutal.