Camera manufacturers release new versions of the same cameras, mostly point-and-shoot models, as frequently as Detroit's auto industry upgrades minivans. They also add new lenses regularly, upgrading previous models with adjusted zoom ranges or the image stabilization feature. The same goes for tripods, portable flashes and even camera bags.
And there are a lot of photographers out there that are more obsessed with this new gear than with taking pictures—thank goodness! Why are we thankful? Because they tend to sell their recently acquired gear to upgrade to the latest and greatest.
So, used is definitely the smart way to go when growing your equipment stockpile. The discount for used gear is dramatic and the difference between new and used—well, it's dramatically small. This especially applies to lenses and film equipment, but also for last year's model of consumer point-and-shoot digital cameras.
There are several places to find camera gear online, each with both benefits and risks involved. Below is my personal list of places to find cheap gear, beginning with my favorite sites. And it's not just limited to the Canon EOS 5D or 5D Mark II. You can find great items at these shops no matter what digital camera you're looking or shopping for.
B&H's used equipment is a separate department from their new gear store, and what's awesome about the website is that you can check a box next to the search bar that will permit you to search the used store only. Searching for 'tripod' with the 'search used story only' box checked yielded 63 items for me just now, ranging from a $1,750 Cartoni F132 FocusHD system to a $1.97 Induro Allen Key for tightening the mounting plate. You can modify the results by price, relevance, brand, rating and more, which makes it easy to find exactly what you're looking for.
Lenses and cameras are rated for condition, an excellent way to decide how low you can go and still have the quality you want.
The best part of ordering used from B&H—you can return it within 30 days of purchase.
Adorama does not feature the same 'used only' search option, but the structure of links on their 'Used/Open Box Equipment' page is very useful for narrowing down your search. Adorama also has an 'Overstock' page and a similar return policy for returning merchandise, but used equipment is not specifically addressed within. If you read their Condition Notice (the rating system for their used equipment), they have a category labeled as 'Final Sale, Sold As-Is' suggesting that returns are possible for everything buy items sold as 'For Parts Only'.
Basically, it's best to ask if you think you might need to return something. However, they do offer a 90-day warranty on all used equipment.
I love KEH. It's hands down the best place for finding old cameras and has the greatest number of lenses for older, film cameras. It's also the best place to find last year's hottest point-and-shoot cameras for a great price.
One way they get all of their used gear is by conducting 'Buy Only' camera events around the country, where they purchase old gear from local photography communities and also perform estate sales. Below is what the rest of the 2011 road schedule looks like.
On the KEH website, you can search both the latest arrivals and the biggest markdowns on things they want to get rid of. If you ever thought about going back in time and shooting on film or trying out a medium format system, this is the place to go.
The website search system works well and their rating system is excellent. KEH also has a blog you can follow and even solicits contributors for articles, photography projects, DIY tips, and for a photo of the month. I've ordered many things from KEY, from cameras to flashes to tiny parts and have had nothing but excellent results.
One of my least favorite places to grab used gear is Midwest Photo Exchange.
First off, finding it on their site takes a bit of digging. I got to 'Used Gear' by clicking on the en dash (two dash marks) underneath 'Home' and above 'Accessories'. You'll then see 'Used Gear' in the list. But who on earth would know it's there? None of the other options on the front page help you find it except 'Strobist'—and not the first one—the second one—the one after 'Specials'.
They have some good deals, but their site is hard to navigate. They have a rating system for their products, but I couldn't even find a description of the terms.
They often have a 'Call or email for stock status' link, which means they could or could not have what you want. They don't want to say. I tried that once after not getting their email sale flyer and got the runaround about whether it was in stock or not. Not a good experience.
But if you're going to buy from Midwest, I recommend buying used outright—things with the 'Add to Cart' button—and skipping the items that require contact with the company. They are best for used on-camera flashes, which may be why the used category reveals itself in one of the 'Strobist' links on the homepage.
They offer a return policy of 15 days from the receipt of the goods, used or new.
On eBay, people can wind up paying more than retail value for things after getting into a bidding contest. If eBay is the only place you can find something, be sure to go to 'Advanced Search' and search the 'Completed Listings' so you can see what other people have paid for the same item.
Even though most sellers are honest and most of the time you can return things that are truly defective, you can still get screwed. If you want to buy something from a private party, I'd recommend Craigslist over eBay.
On Craigslist, you have the option of meeting the seller and inspecting the item and possibly getting a really great deal—but you better know the gear well enough to perform an adequate inspection. Obviously, you won't be able to return something you buy used on Craigslist if you later discover a problem. If you do know what you're doing, such as how to check out the glass on a lens, how to listen to a shutter click to figure out if it's slow, how to inspect a monolight's electrical connections, then you can get the best deals on Craigslist.
I have photographer friends that buy used gear and sell their old equipment on Craigslist, and I can guarantee that they are getting good deals and selling quality stuff. The reason Craigslist offers the best deals is that all the retailers I listed above buy used gear as well as sell it, but when they buy your old gear, they offer a fraction of its value. So, if you have a great lens that you just don't use, you're better off selling it on Craigslist than to B&H or KEH—which is why you can get awesome deals on great stuff via Craigslist.
Good luck and happy shopping!