Someone brought up the topic of used cameras recently. What can I say but, "Yes. Please."

Remember when we thought $1995 cameras with 12 megapixels and 
great ISO 400 performance rocked our photographic world?

I was just thinking about this the other day. One of our readers suggested writing a guide to buying used cameras. I think the market is too chaotic to write a piece that will stay timely for very long but it sure got me thinking about how far we've come and how cheaply one can buy a really, really good camera these days. 

My experience as a digital camera buyer might be much different from that of an amateur because in the early days of the crossover we really did need to spend significant cash to get usable cameras for professional work. I remember that the new price of a Kodak DCS760 (six megapixels) was around $7,000 while the newer Nikon D2X I bought brand new was right at $5,000 for 12 megapixels. It shot fast and handled well but if you ventured over 400 ISO it was noisier than a UT football game. 

The first camera from Nikon that had wide appeal, both among struggling pros and whimsical amateurs was probably the D100. For your $2,000 you got a six megapixel camera with a four frame raw buffer and nice performance all the way out to about 250 ISO. Yes, you could use Nikon lenses and flashes and yes, thought it was a pretty good back up camera. In its time...

The first sixteen megapixel camera is another one that I've owned. It was the Canon 1DSmk2 and it clocked in with a breathtaking new price of almost $8,000. But just look what you got!!! A massive camera that would shoot a real SIXTEEN megapixel file. And it was able to shoot those files at a whopping 4 frames per second!!!! It was actually a very good camera for its time and collectively it was a model of camera that was responsible for many full page magazine spreads and wonderfully detailed, printed brochures. Plus, you could hammer nails with it. You just couldn't really shoot with it over ISO640 if you wanted images without technicolor snow in them. 

I guess my point is that we were able to make wonderful images (as long as we took the limitations into consideration) with lots of previous technology cameras---if we were willing to pay the price. 
But I'm now officially tired of paying more money for a camera body than I have to. I get that lenses are pricey but they can be more or less permanent as long as you stay in the same system. Not so recent models of digital cameras. Now I want to pay about what I used to pay for good, solid, middle of the road film cameras and I want great results. Not ultimate, bleeding edge results, but really good results. Image quality that would have seemed magical just a few years ago. And to re-emphasize, I'd like to be spending between $400 and $600 on a camera body. That would be so cool because we could revert back to the way we shot cameras in the film days----a different prime on three different bodies. All with the same controls and set up. Imagine it... a fast wide angle on one, a fast short tele on the second and a longer, fast telephoto on the third. Or, one camera set up for color and one for black and white! The world of $400-600 camera bodies opens up more opportunities for us as shooters than you might imagine if your world camera view has always been about having the one (expensive) camera that has to do everything.

So, I am sure you read my blog where I mentioned buying a couple of the EM-5's recently. I would have loved to go straight to a brace of EM-1's but the price isn't dropping on those yet and, with the exception of one of the most beautiful EVFs on the martket, the actual I.Q. of the EM-1 isn't much different than the EM-5. I know, I've tested them. 

I've had a good run of being able to buy used EM-5s for around $400 to $450 in really good condition. With low mileage. And one of them came with the HLD6 grip!!! (Thank you kind benefactor). Yesterday I was at Precision Camera and I couldn't help but notice (diagnosis: hypervigilant) a used EM-5 with a battery grip sitting on their used shelf. It was marked at too high a price but a bit of lighthearted haggling meant that I left the store with a pristine, chrome, EM-5 with grip for a little over $600. If you factor out the grip price it adds up to another $450 camera body for me. 

Now, the way I figure it, I've essentially got three wonderful shooting machines for the price of one current EM-1. Give or take. 

I have a job to photograph kids at a private school tomorrow. It's an all day gig and there's lots to cover. The school will use the resulting images for their new website. They hired me because I've worked with them before and they love the images I make of the kids. They said something about my emotional maturity being a good match for the younger students but I don't know what they meant. 

The way I like to jobs such as these is much the same as the way I like shooting jobs like the math conference I was lucky enough to shoot this Summer in Denver. I work best when I go in three cameras deep and no swinging camera bag over one shoulder. In Denver it was all Panasonic but this time I'm going all Olympus. All identical camera models. All set up exactly the same way. (Yes, I have finally mastered the menus!). 

I'm putting the 17mm f1.8 on one body, the 25mm f1.4 on a second body and the 45mm f1.8 on the third body. I've also still got a loaner 75mm f1.8 and I'll keep that in the bag along with the Panasonic 35-100mm just in case (the bag stays in the office until needed). This gives me a nice variety to work with and the ability to interchange cameras without stress. No lens changing required. 

I would never have spent $3600 to buy three EM-5's at once, new. Maybe if I'd been starting from scratch but as disjointed as I am in camera inventory it just never pans out that way in real life. But used? Over the past two months? No brainer (and you can decide how to take the "no brainer" label...).

Right now the EM-5 is in the same I.Q. ballpark as nearly every APS-C camera but it gains an advantage with the really good image stabilization. It's not full frame we have fast lenses for it that work very well nearly wide open. At $400-$500 at two years old, used, they are a  bargain for people who actually want to use them to, well, take pictures. 

With prices like that we are now in the ballpark that we used to play in during the days of film and cameras like the Nikon FM, the Olympus OM1,2,3,4, the Pentax Super ME and MX, and quite a few more. I can hardly wait to start photographing tomorrow. We'll all have a great time!

And that starts my series about buying used digital cameras. It's even more fun that buying new. 

(Props to Precision. Their policy is a 10 day return on used gear. Buy it. Use it. Test it. and if it doesn't work as specified, return it for a refund.)

Stock up on extra copies of the novel, The Lisbon Portfolio, the holidays are just around the corner!!!!!


Wataru Maruyama said...

Hi Kirk, when you are carrying around three cameras, are they hung off their original neck straps or are you using some sort of black rapid-like strap system?

Cpt Kent said...

Isn't it a shame, with all this wonderful stuff, that there's still no easy way to copy settings between cameras, or back up our hard earned configuration.
Why can't we configure a camera using an app (bigger screen, better menus, etc), save the settings then copy them between bodies? Should be simple "in this day and age"... End rant.
On the subject of multiple bodies, I thought having an E-M5 with 12-40 and E-M1 with 40-150 would work, but the jury is still out. Having the on-off switch in another location may end that dream. Really, the M5 and M1 should be closer in layout, just more in M1. Me he's work like that, why not hardware? (End rant #2)

Bill Beebe said...

I'm following a similar path for some of the same reasons, one of them being cost. I received a new E-M10 today because it was on sale for $650. That's the high end of you used range.

I was pleasantly surprised at all the essential controls are in the same place. I was also pleased I could set it up like my older E-M5.

The only downside to the E-M10 is it uses a different battery from the E-M5. But I think I can live with that.

When I use two cameras it's with a zoom on one body and a prime on the other. Any more than two cameras and I get easily confused :).

Carlo Santin said...

A timely post. Just yesterday a nice used Sony RX100 arrived in the mail. I paid $250 for it, with the Franiec grip already installed. Brand new I think they went for something like $700 or more but now they retail new for about $550 alongside the RX100ii and iii. I'm actually a little stunned at how good the images are. The camera literally fits in the palm of my hand and gives me images that are not very far behind what my Nex 6 gives me. In fact, I think I like the jpegs from the RX100 just a little better...and the RX100 shoots squares! So I'm more than pleased and I'm curious to see where this little gem takes me with my photography. I feel something fresh and new on my photographic horizon.

Maybe an RX10 for me once the RX20 is released? Used gear is definitely a whole lot of fun.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Wataru, When I use three smaller cameras like the EM5 or the GH4 I hang one over each shoulder and put one on a shorter strap around my neck. I do not like and do not use Black Rapid Straps. My dislike might be misguided but early on I had a friend whose D3x and a $$$$ lens were destroyed when one of those straps gave up holding the camera. I don't think they are a step forward from the traditional strap. But thank you for asking. We used to do this style of shooting with 3 Leica M cameras and the EM5s and lenses are much lighter.

Dave Jenkins said...

Your photo session at the school sounds like a lot of fun. I did many of those with Oly OMs and Kodachrome 64 or Fujichrome 100. Available light was not often an option, so I had to drag around a 400-watt-second Bowens Monolite which I usually bounced off the ceiling. It should be a treat do that kind of work with OMDs and fast lenses.

Lee Mack said...

Hi Guys, I bought a Nex-7 for $670 just to throw some small Rokkors at, what a joy. The 58mm f1.4 gives my jaw hell, from smilling to much

Craig Yuill said...

I am glad you brought up this subject. Improvement in sensors has slowed down somewhat. That makes recent digital cameras more-desirable than would have been the case a few years ago. Your strategy of picking up multiple copies of the same model is a smart one. I don't have a back-up copy of either of my two main digital cameras. But if I decide to get one I would definitely buy a good-quality used or "new old stock" copy, and save hundreds of my hard-earned dollars.

atmtx said...

I get used cameras or factory refurbs all the time. It's a great way to go.

Wataru Maruyama said...

Hi Kirk, your description of carrying around 3 Leica M cameras reminded me of an image I saw awhile ago. I got obsessed with finding it and finally found the image I was thinking of in the May 2010 issue of Asahi Camera, a Japanese language monthly that is still running today and still clocks in over 300 pages per issue. It's great how small and powerful cameras like the E-M5 are bringing things back to a more manageable size. Look at the neck full of massive digital Canons! That doesn't seem like progress. https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3927/15416923665_b11b9afeda_b.jpg

Claire said...

As a camera freak and addict, I buy 98% of my products pre-owned. Unless I feel I NEED a hot new prodict fresh off the factory line, buying used is the smartest, most fun and most cost effective thing you can do in the camera market.

Ron Nabity said...

Nice collection you've got going there. There are several used E-M5s for sale in my town.

The E-M1 is not too far behind. I picked up a used one yesterday for $800. It has 496 verified actuations on it. The previous owner was overwhelmed by the menu options and bailed.

The Olympus menus aren't that bad, just deep. Having three similar or identical bodies, all calibrated the same, and sharing the same batteries and accessories, makes shooting events a joy.

cfw said...

I always liked the images I got from the EP-2 sensor, so I got a used E-P2 for $115 and converted it to infrared only. How can you NOT buy a camera you like at that price even if it is a few years old with "old" sensor technology?

Noons said...

I must admit I'm not into the old camera body thing - yet. Other than my D200, nothing else digital was bought old.
But lenses? Oh yeah!
One of the major advantages of the Oly m4/3 bodies is precisely any aged lens becomes fully stabilized!
So far, the sharpest ever is a Zeiss 50/1.4 Planar ZF. Not old but for some reason in my EM5, it is just incredible: nothing else compares. Manual focus but I can live with that in an EM5 with the EVF zoom.
For stitched panos, nothing else comes even close!

Duncan Holthausen said...

For those in the Panasonic camp, a new GX7 is now only about $700 and used ones are around $500 or a bit more. I love mine and am thinking of that a second body would simplify things greatly.

Lisa Scheuplein said...

Wondering how you are doing the flash component of the school shoot with the Olympus bodies? Guide numbers, on camera fill, speedlite in a hotshoe etc

Frank Grygier said...

One thing that is often overlooked is the Wireless flash system from Olympus. When using the Oly FL50R off camera with the FL600 on camera as the master you can obtain results every bit as good as Nikon. Maybe Canon not so much. You can do groups as well and control each group individualy. This is optical wireless. Each flash has to see the master in order to work. HSS is also there. Olympus cameras also work with any manual flash system just like any other PRO System.

Dave Thomas said...

That was first thought, too. Have someone take a picture of you so we can see how you carry three cameras!

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Kirk - thanks for the article.

Bill - I'm waiting for a comparison re EM-5 / E-M10 on your site. I want to get a camera with a built-in viewfinder for these external flash sessions where I want to have both a viewfinder *and* a flash remote. Can't however make up my mind which one of the two I should get.

neopavlik said...

Sounds like it'd be a good article and you can break it down to a bunch of different categories and then update the pieces when needed ( maybe every 3 - 6 months ). Hardest part would be doing the original post/breakdown.

You could also take some pleasure in seeing how much you adjust prices of the things you recommend.