Do You Need The Latest Kit Or Will Secondhand Gear Do?

John Duder is finding out just how good kit needs to be when you're on a tight budget and if 'good enough' secondhand kit can really cut it.

|  Second Hand
 Add Comment

Car headlight, shot with the Nikon at f/8 and 55mm.

Car headlight shot with a Nikon camera at f/8 and 55mm.

 

Searching For Excellence

A lot of my photographic life, I’ve been working away at simple quality issues. How can I make my pictures sharper, better exposed, less grainy? Very often, the answer has been a new camera, lens or light meter and up to a point, all the money I’ve spent has been worth it. My current camera and lenses are better than I used to use and I can prove it because I still have most of the cameras I've owned. For example, I can take pictures of the same subject with my 1976 Contax RTS and my Sony Alpha A7R III and compare them, if I want to.

But which picture will be better? Certainly, the Sony images will be sharper but variations in light, the subject's expression or position may make the 40-year-old film camera's shot better.  Either picture will be good enough to put on ePHOTOzine or to enter into a competition but winning a competition? Now, that's where the weak link is the component just behind the viewfinder (and not necessarily the kit you use).

This makes me wonder just how good your kit needs to be if you are on a tight budget?  Do you need the latest kit, or will secondhand gear do?

 

Street picture, Alpha 700 and Tamron 28-200. 1/80 @ f/8, 200 ISO.

Street picture, Sony Alpha 700 and Tamron 28-200mm. 1/80 @ f/8, 200 ISO.

 

Options

I am assuming that you want to take your picture-making seriously? That means, in my book, that you need a camera where you can take charge of the settings and that includes being able to change lenses. The larger-format sensor of a DSLR will also allow you to get the differential focus that isn’t possible with a compact or a smartphone.

 

Canon at f/1.8 giving differential focus that a mobile ‘phone or a compact could not deliver without adjusting in processing.

Canon at f/1.8 giving differential focus that a mobile ‘phone or a compact could not deliver without adjusting in processing.

 

Given this limitation, the cheapest option will be a well-used consumer camera and kit zoom lens but there will be a temptation to buy a really old professional camera because it’s nearly as cheap. Plus, there will also be some slightly unusual possibilities, as well as quite recent equipment that has been traded in for the very latest thing.

The aim of this article is to help you work through the logic of which of these options will work best for you. For instance, if you are very specifically interested in sport or wildlife, you may need the fast autofocus and high frame rate of a professional or semi-professional body. This may make the risk of very expensive repairs worthwhile, though I haven’t explored this avenue.

 

Traditional Black Country kitchen sink. Alpha 700 and 35-70mm.

Traditional Black Country kitchen sink. Sony Alpha 700 and 35-70mm.

 

Reviews rarely compare products across generations. So it’s important not to let your decisions be swayed by legends. The 'legendary' high ISO performance of a professional camera in 2010 will be easily eclipsed by a modern bottom-end consumer body.

For this article, I borrowed three different cameras and tried them out on a variety of pictures of the sort I normally take.

 

Age and Actuations

There are a number of considerations when you’re buying older equipment:

1. If it goes wrong are spare parts available and is anyone prepared to work on the camera?

2. Do you know how much the equipment has been used?  If there are obvious signs of hard wear, you’re probably best moving on. Some reputable dealers will check and guarantee the number of actuations and you can compare this with the design life - typically 100,000 for a consumer camera and 500,000 for a professional body. Once you have bought a camera – or if you are able to take test frames with it, you can upload a frame at camera shutter count or a similar website to get a reading of how many times the shutter has been used. Note, though, that the count is sometimes reset by a service department in the course of repairs and such sites won’t necessarily cover all cameras, especially more recent ones.

3. In terms of sheer quality, how much have things moved on?

4. Comfort and convenience – one of the requirements for professional equipment is that it is very durable: that ability to bounce from solid concrete comes at a price in terms of weight and size.

 

Nina’s Canon. Did the gaffer tape kill it? An even older replacement is next to it. I got it free, but it needed a new battery, and it’s not yet functioning…

Nina's Canon. Did the gaffer tape kill it? An even older replacement is next to it. I got it for free, but it needed a new battery and it’s not yet functioning…

 

Practical Test

My approach was unscientific: I borrowed a few older cameras from friends and contacts. I didn’t aim to do a comparison and each of them had a different sort of lens on the front.

I am not going to try to be scientific about it: my aim is to see if each of the camera and lens combinations I’ve tried is good enough for producing high-quality results. This doesn’t mean that I expect the results to match what I get from my expensive mirrorless full-frame Sony Alpha 7r but, if I had an equipment budget of £200, I now know I’d be able to take pictures that give me satisfaction and which I could present to others without embarrassment.

One further consideration should be if you like to manipulate images as some shots need more work than others.

 

Sony Alpha A700

The Sony Alpha A700 is a 12MP camera from 2007 and it cost around £140 from eBay.

The example I’ve used is actually one that I owned and has spent several years in the hands of a niece. I borrowed it back to see how it stands up these days and the 28-200mm Tamron on the front is also an eBay buy and it cost me £20 – so it’s not a costly outfit.

The build is solid, with front and rear control dials making manual operation easier. Of course, I liked the camera enough to buy it new, so I may be biased.

The 28-200mm gives a long tele effect, but the minimum focus distance is around six feet, which I found very tricky, so I swapped it for a 35-70mm Minolta lens that I have knocking around.

 

As close up as you can get with the 28-200 lens on the Sony.  200mm, and six feet. It doesn’t focus closer at wider settings, either.

As close up as you can get with the 28-200mm lens on the Sony - 200mm, and six feet. It doesn’t focus closer at wider settings, either.

 

This is smaller, better quality and far more wieldy, and shows off the slickness and usability of a camera that was lower-end professional in intention, facilities and build.

 

1/25 second at 45mm – decent image stabilisation on the Alpha 700.

1/25 second at 45mm – decent image stabilisation on the Sony Alpha 700.

 

A day out at the Black Country Museum showed me that it's a combination I could live with pretty easily. When I wanted to photograph a workshop that needed a wide lens, I shot six frames and left it to Photoshop to merge them. It wouldn’t work for a moving subject, and older software will make heavier weather of the joining, but you don’t necessarily need the wide-angle option.

The shot of a volunteer with a toy printed decently at A3, despite being taken at the maximum aperture of f/4.

 

Even with PS shake reduction, closeups are frustrating and unsatisfactory with the 28-200 lens on the Sony.

Even with PS shake reduction, close-ups are frustrating and unsatisfactory with the 28-200mm lens on the Sony.

 

Verdict: Good enough for most purposes, including competition and saleable prints and satisfying to handle. The metering system can be slightly wayward at times.

 

Canon EOS 450D

I borrowed a Canon EOS 450D from a model, Nee Naa: given to her by a photographer and she’d raided eBay for a Yongnuo 50mm lens – a lookalike for the Canon 50mm f/1.8. You can buy one now on eBay for £80 and the lens for £40.

 

12mp gives plenty of detail for web use – or for reasonable-size prints. Canon at f/5.6.

12MP gives plenty of detail for web use – or for reasonable-size prints. Canon EOS 450D at f/5.6.

 

It’s lightweight, definitely a consumer camera (much more recent than the Sony) and therefore easier to service and with better AF performance, though giving the same 12MP files. The example I borrowed from my model friend Nee Naa has a vertical grip, with a broken battery cover latch. I sorted this out for the duration of my use with some silver gaffer tape. Maybe less stylish than a Fujifilm X-series body – but I doubt anyone is going to be wanting to steal it looking like that!

 

Decent full-aperture performance from the Yongnuo lens on the Canon.

Decent full-aperture performance from the Yongnuo lens on the Canon.

 

More importantly, it stopped working completely after relatively-few exposures. Nina described it as ‘totally on its way out’. She was not wrong, sadly. Lesson: if it’s free and works, take it but don’t part with your valuable cash for a dodgy-looking camera, because it probably is on its last legs.

 

Good performance from the Yongnuo on the Canon at f/5.6, and good dynamic range from the body.

Good performance from the Yongnuo on the Canon at f/5.6, and good dynamic range from the body.

 

Nikon D3000

The Nikon D3000 came with a kit zoom lens and a wide-angle adaptor is borrowed from a friend here on ePHOTOzine. I thought it had disgraced itself with a malfunction of the autofocus and this meant I found out about a ‘rangefinder’ facility, and a viewfinder display can be used to confirm correct focus: given the short throw of the focus ring, it’s a bit fiddly, but it works. I then found that the ‘problem’ was that the camera was set up for back body focus. Problem solved.

Dynamic range didn’t cope well with fluffy white clouds and a dark building in the JPG, but a conversion from RAW allowed me to pull the detail back.

Lesson: You may have to work harder than with the latest kit, but doing so will teach you a lot about how to expose and process.

 

Nikon shot of clouds – in the JPG file, they’re burned out, though the stonework wasn’t overexposed.

Nikon shot of clouds – in the JPG file, they’re burned out, though the stonework wasn’t overexposed

 

Making The Best Of It

It really pays to cut your suit according to your cloth. Enormous prints of a fabulously detailed landscape are going to be hard work with a modestly-priced camera – but jewelled miniatures are perfectly feasible, as are impressionistic shots and (or course) ordinary family pictures. Remember, all the shots in this article are 1,000 pixels on the long side, which is quite enough for the web, and OK for an enprint.

 

Nee Naa photographed with her own Canon in low light – f/1.8 and 800 ISO.

Nee Naa photographed with her own Canon in low light – f/1.8 and 800 ISO.

 

Where Do You Get Your Cameras?

So, here’s the definitive advice: Don’t spend cash on a very old pro body but if someone gives you one, that’s fine. Use it, enjoy it, and don’t sweat it if it breaks down. If it’s free, and you can make it work, it’s a good camera. Don’t be afraid to use superglue and gaffer tape to hold it together, and enjoy having saved some money!

With your own money, but something mainstream and relatively recent – maybe five or eight years old. You want pictures, not to start a collection of classics that don’t work. Make sure it’s not been used hard or abused and be prepared to get it serviced if it needs it a few months into ownership. Take note of what the service company tells you – if it’s a clunker, move on and get something better.

 

If you like to process for an impressionistic look, the inherent quality of the shot matters far less. Nik Efex and Nee Naa, shot with her Canon EOS 450D.

If you like to process for an impressionistic look, the inherent quality of the shot matters far less. Nik Efex and Nee Naa, shot with her Canon EOS 450D.

 

Decide what you want to shoot, and gear the kit for doing that. Forget high ISO performance if you shoot landscapes or studio portraits, the frame rate doesn’t matter if you aren’t shooting wildlife or action and the range of lenses available isn’t important if there’s a lens that does what you need.

Beware of superzooms, especially if the super part is all long-end telephoto. While the quality compromise may not matter, the usability can be an issue. My problem was that a lens that won’t focus closer than six feet isn’t much use to me. However, modern software allows you to take a series of shots and paste them together very easily, as this composite from four frames shot with theSony  Alpha 700 shows.

 

4-frame composite shot – but this approach to getting a wider angle requires a static subject.

4-frame composite shot – but this approach to getting a wider angle requires a static subject.

 

A related question is whether to grab cheap, film-era lenses: I’d say that you should exercise caution and remember that most economy bodies are not going to be full-frame and so a ‘standard’ zoom will actually cover a range that is standard to short telephoto. I actually find that OK as a day-to-day lens, but if you want to shoot wide-angle shots, you will need to lens up accordingly.

 

Black and white mode from the Alpha – a film-era 35-70 kit zoom worked well for me.

Black and white mode from the Alpha – a film-era 35-70mm kit zoom worked well for me.

 

On the other hand, there’s a reason that any AF 50mm lens sells around the £80 mark or higher – they are excellent portrait and general purpose lenses on an AP-S format camera and will usually outperform a kit zoom by a good margin. But, again, if it’s free and it works, play with it – you may get some interesting results.

 

Good directional lighting always increases apparent sharpness. Alpha 700, 35-70 lens.

Good directional lighting always increases apparent sharpness. Sony Alpha 700, 35-70mm lens.

 

Be aware of manual focus lenses. They are tricky to use on a DSLR, which lacks the aids for really accurate focus that manual focus cameras have. It’s a mistake to think that buying an adaptor will give you access to millions of wonderful lenses dirt cheap.

 

Car taillight shot with the Canon and 50mm lens at f/4.

Car taillight shot with the Canon and 50mm lens at f/4.

 

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder is quite shocked to have been taking pictures as a hobby for fifty years, as he still feels like a lad of 17 when faced with a camera or a good subject.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

Now retired from his day job, he is keen to share his cumulatively acquired knowledge and experience (CAKE) with others: and who can resist CAKE? He runs lighting workshops at a couple of local studios in the West Midlands and offers one-to-one coaching.

Support this site by shopping with one of our affiliates: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, ebay UK, Save 10% with Eversure Insurance.
*It doesn't cost you anything extra when you use these links, but it does support the site, helping keep ePHOTOzine free to use, thank you.

Other articles you might find interesting...

5 Tips For Creative Product Photography
How To Photograph Cameras You Want To Sell
5 Euro Projector Lens Makes An Excellent Portrait Tool
Your Guide To Buying Vintage Cameras - Including A Shooting Guide

Comments


dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
31 Aug 2018 1:33PM
This was fun to research and write - not to mention scary when cameras failed to behave as I'd expected them to.

Please tell us all about your own experiences of bargain-basement and hand-me-down cameras...

Join ePHOTOzine for free and remove these adverts.

JackAllTog Plus
10 5.7k 58 United Kingdom
31 Aug 2018 2:17PM
Thanks for this article, its really refreshing to hear how pre-loved kit still takes good photos. The new stuff might make some photo taking easier and may way be needed for a pro when bidding for work next to another pro. But for the rest of us our current camera is still going to be fine almost all the time, and we'll do well to learn how to process its images properly.
JJGEE 14 7.6k 18 England
31 Aug 2018 2:38PM
Back in the last century I used to buy a lot of second hand equipment for my Bronica medium format camera, mainly bodies & backs but a couple of lenses as well.

I had a good " shop " just down the road so always went and inspected / handled the equipment beforehand.

Not part of your article but I wonder how good / relevant the quality ratings that shops give these items are ?
Can you trust them ?

Therefore I would only buy from my local shop so I could pop in and inspect / handle the equipment " first hand "
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
31 Aug 2018 2:42PM
That's absolutely right...

We get lost in pixel-peeping, and rave reviews. It's easy to forget the people who have severe budget restrictions, and be sniffy about (for instance) Chinese-made lenses.

But I remember when I had to save up for slide processing chemicals, and stabilise the temperature with a washing-up bowl of hot water in hte kitchen sink... I know we have junior members on the site, and people who have time but not a lot of cash. The playing field is - for many things - far more level than those of us with latest-generation equipment might like to think...
31 Aug 2018 3:31PM
I regularly use a couple of national companies who sell of '2nd owner' / secondhand / used / preloved - call it what you will - I have found their condition statements to be consistent within each company eg: so 'good' is 'good' and any issues noted whilst 'as new' means exactly what you would expect as a first time buyer. The discounts may not be as steep as those from 'Honest John994' but the risks aren't as great either - you pays your money, takes your chance.

I'd also second 'dudler's' comment regarding the sniffy, pixel mad, sharpies - they need to remember that most of the 'great' photographers people reference were actually using equipment far inferior to todays.
mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
31 Aug 2018 4:52PM
Interesting and though provoking article John. Having just purchased a new camera myself
I'm still trying to justify spending the money. My existing camera was perfectly adequate for
the photography that I did. As were all of its predecessors in their day.
Part of my reasoning was that I wanted to get the best out of the equipment that I had.
I was taking better pictures with my D7100 than with the D3000, and enjoying the results more. I suppose i thought the new
kit would push me even more. To get the best out of the new camera I have to take better pictures.
The same can be said for second hand or used kit. If it's new to the user then that person will want to get
the best out of it. The process will make them better photographers and hopefully, it will be an inexpensive and enjoyable experience.
One thing for sure though, the D3000 will have to come out of retirement now, It still has more to teach me.
31 Aug 2018 9:25PM
It is always worth considering getting a pre owned camera. Lenses are a more obvious and popular choice, but digital camera still can produce the goods and if you have specific old lenses, it is worth finding a digital body to use with them. For example, I have recently bought a Nikon D200 for a mere 100. It works very well with my Ai lenses and I have fun with it. Indeed, some product shots have been taken with the D200 and the Ai 50mm F1.4. Yes it is only 10MP but unless you want to cover the side of a building (for which my K-1 is more than capable of doing with 36MP) the D200 is still a very good camera. The only real downside is the battery. I had to get a replacement for it and it was end of life in reality.

Investigate, decide what you need and find a camera to suit. Then have fun with a body that probably cost up to 10x the price when new, but is still a tool that still makes cracking images.
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
1 Sep 2018 8:40AM
Dave - thank you, and your D3000 will return to you shortly - very many thanks for the loan, and my apologies for not crediting you in the article itself!

Steve and Iain - thank you for your extra information, and affirmation of the idea behind the whole thing: my own experience of buying from LCE, Ffordes and WEX has been very happy indeed.
ElSid 11 10 United Kingdom
5 Sep 2018 12:26PM
Interesting article - thanks for that.

Over the years I have only personally bought 2 new cameras (I have had 2 or 3 as presents though) and of those two one was actually an ex demo model from my local Currys so only technically new...

All were purchased from dealers, mostly my local indie shops, and so far I have had no problems with them and my oldest, and first, digital camera - a turn of the millenium EOS D30 - still woks fine although the rear screen is getting rather dim. As far as bodies go if it's not really old and doesn't look tatty you are probably OK - certainly with any reasonable dealer. I have bought older bodies that were cheap on the basis that the price was low enough to make it worth taking a punt. So far I have avoided pro spec cameras though however cheap...

Situation is similar with lenses and other accessories though I have bought more lenses new than cameras. Mostly I've not had problems but one or two bit's of glass have proved a disappointment, eg my 10-24 Tamron is showing signs of focus issues, but I have also had a few real bargains that make up for them.

Buying secondhand may not be for everyone but if you are prepared to put in a bit of thought and are prepared to accept a slight amount of risk you can build up your kit for less than you might expect.
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
5 Sep 2018 1:51PM
Absolutely, Nigel.

My main focus for the article was the people who actually can't afford to buy a camera, and who may be able to scrounge one from a friend or relative, or will need to look on eBay...

I remember being 15, and mad keen: but it took a while before I could buy an SLR.
ktog11 3 United Kingdom
18 Nov 2018 8:36AM
I'm still using lenses that I've owned for over forty years - albeit on modern mirrorless camera bodies. At normal print sizes and viewing distances, ANYBODY would be hard pressed to identify which images were taken with the older glass from those taken using my more recent examples.
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
18 Nov 2018 4:14PM
The best of kit from that far back was very good indeed, iwthin its own parameters. I still have Contaxes and Zeiss lenses (and use both, in fact, as I still use a little film), and they give very little indeed away to even the most modern kit. However, the very, very best of current equipment, such as Sigma Art lenses, Sony G Master glass, and equivalent stuff is ahead, now. You may be harder-pressed to see differneces in practice than in lab tests.

Zooms from the Seventies are generally pretty naff compared with modern zooms - that's where things have developed most, I think.
altitude50 15 16.3k United Kingdom
18 Nov 2018 5:48PM
I have a modest collection of cameras from the 50's 60's 70's & 80's. Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, Konica, Canon. I like to look for metal bodied manual focus SLR's mainly because they have 'character' and are normally more likely to increase in value than 80's plastic autofocus models. Favourite, to use, Nikon FE2 with basic 50mm Nikkor f 1.8.

The biggest surprise recently was the performance of my 1959 Voigtlander Bessamatic with a 50mm f2.8 Color Skopar. 24 exposure colour print film, 100% success with exposure, colour rendering, sharpness.
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
18 Nov 2018 7:03PM
I'm not actually surprised - I still have my Dad's Super Paxette 2BL and Retinette, and both are very decent performers. I've recently acquired an Exakta VX1000, the camera I wanted when I was 15, and it also delivers sharp and properly exposed negatives. The acid test, though, might be to try a roll of slide film, which is far more demanding of precise exposure...
21 Nov 2018 2:30AM
Im on a low budget and a beginner, I bought a new 1300d with kit lens, new Sigma 70-300 and a Canon 50mm 1.8 but I want a wide angle lens and a longer telephoto. Probably a few others later on and will more than likely buy used. Theres many reputable places now like Alex, Jessops, LCE, and MPB. They give you a grade which after asking friends and doing a little research have found that as said previously, what they say is what you generally get. Ive looked on Facebook marketplace, eBay etc and some are selling lenses for more than they cost new from a dealer. Plus its down to trust too, ok for a cheap piece of kit but when looking at some more expensive gear its whether its worth taking the chance.
21 Nov 2018 2:31AM
Should be WEX not Alex, bloody predictive text
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
21 Nov 2018 1:00PM
That's all useful information, Brian!

I'll add two mail order specialists that have served me well - Ffordes and Mifsud.

People selling new kit on eBay above retail price are beyond belief - ditto those asking more than the going rate for secondhand stuff - but there are also good and honourable people and firms trading there.

Good luck with the next couple of lenses you get - I can speak well of the Sigma 10-20, as I have oen that I bought for the Alpha 700 when I still owned it. It's the budget version, not the more costly, higher-quality one.
25 Aug 2019 9:31AM
Good article Brian, from memory I believe I've only bought 1 or 2 bodies brand new, my Canon 20D and M5, all the others 2nd hand, often with very low ( 9000 odd for my 5D III ) actuations.
Also instead of just selling an older camera, consider getting it converted to infrared or full spectrum, opens up a whole new area of photography.
Cheers
dudler Plus
16 971 1533 England
25 Aug 2019 11:18AM
Yes, Rik - I have a good deal of secondhand kit myself, including, amazingly, my Alpha 7R III, which can't have been more than a few months old when I got it, several hundred pounds below new price.

And I agree about getting an IR or full spectrum conversion, referred to in my recent article HERE.

Sign In

You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join For Free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.