A Guide to Buying Cameras on eBay

Guide to eBay

Buying cameras can be tricky. Once you’re bitten by the collector’s bug, it doesn’t take long to tap dry your local thrift stores, antique shops, and flea markets. The insatiable thirst for new cameras and vintage gear leads one inevitably to the internet. And while the internet offers limitless shopping opportunities, the world of internet commerce can be a strange and scary place.

Having earned something of a reputation as the “wild west” of online shops, eBay has the potential for both unbelievable bargains and fiscal heartache. Find the right seller at the right time, and you’re liable to get the deal of the year. Find the wrong seller at the wrong time, and you may come away with a worthless camera and an aggravated headache. Despite this dichotomous personality, eBay gives shoppers an unrivaled quantity of low-priced photo gear. The key is knowing what to look for, what to be wary of, and when to buy.

Here are a few simple tips to help you get the most out of your eBay camera hunt. With diligence, thoughtfulness, and a little luck, you’ll be on your way to a solid record of wins, and minimized losses.

Buy Cameras You Love

The most important piece of advice I can give to new eBay camera hunters is to buy what you love. Don’t get overwhelmed by the often amazingly inexpensive cameras and start buying everything in sight. Instead, buy the machines you personally enjoy, and you’ll end the day a happy hunter with a collection of cameras you love. It’s best to avoid trying to buy and sell to turn a profit. Try to be the “American Picker” of cameras and you’re likely to end up with a closet full of non-working junk, and cameras that you’ll never use.

I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to make money buying and selling cameras, I’m just making it clear that it’s not the easiest way to make a buck. Unless you’re willing to put in some long months of dedicated research, a substantial monetary investment, and suffer some losses, it takes a fair share of expertise to buy, repair, and sell every type of camera. If you are dead set on flipping cameras, try to start out by specializing in one or two brands. Knowing one or two brands very well will help things go smoother, and make it easier to pull a profit.

For buyers who are in it for the love of the machines and not the money, things will be much simpler.

Cameras from eBay

Know What You’re Buying

There’s nothing worse than spending money in an uninformed way. An old adage states that knowledge is power, and this is very true when buying a camera on eBay. If you’re completely in the dark when it comes to the actual value of cameras, then I suggest spending a couple of weeks simply observing listings on eBay, paying special attention to auction listings and their final sale price. If you’re interested in buying a Leica M2, put a handful of them in your Watch List and see what happens. After a week or two you’ll have a very good idea of how much money your desired camera should cost.

Aside from price-point, you should have a firm understanding of what makes or breaks any given item. Let’s say you find a Nikon 50mm ƒ/1.2 listed for a Buy-It-Now price of $130. Amazing deal, right? It is, unless the aperture blades are covered in oil, the focus is stuck, or the glass is loaded with fungus. Know what the common ailments to cameras and lenses look like, and study closely each listing’s photos and description.

Which brings up another point-

Photos and Descriptions

Being obsessively observant of photos and descriptions will go a long way toward ensuring you don’t get burned. It’s important to know what to look for, and to be able to read between the lines in sellers’ often poorly-written descriptions. If a seller says an item is being sold “As-is”, that’s a warning. A red flag should also fly whenever the word “untested” is bandied about. These kinds of responsibility-shirking words are tell-tale of a camera that is simply broken.

Numerous unscrupulous sellers know that they’ll never make a sale if they write “shutter doesn’t fire – not sure why”, but writing “untested – don’t have a battery” provides plausible deniability when the jilted buyer files a Buyer Protection Claim for an item that’s not working. Unless a listing states specifically that a camera is working as it should, assume it doesn’t work, and only bid what you’re willing to spend on a non-functional camera.


Be wary of listings in which the photos are few, or of poor quality. Not only does this preclude the possibility of a close visual inspection, it also indicates that the seller is the kind of person from whom one should never buy a camera. Listings that have only one or two photos, or photos that are out of focus or poorly framed, indicate a seller who doesn’t care to let you know the condition of the camera you’re buying, or worse still, isn’t even aware of the piss-poor quality of their photos. Do you really want to buy a camera from someone who can’t take an in-focus shot?

While there are a fair number of unscrupulous sellers who use these tactics to pull the wool over the eyes of buyers, their are many more who are doing things right. These are the listings on which to spend your cash.

When it comes to descriptions, the more words the better. A seller should mention everything they know about the item they’re selling. The best sellers go out of their way to make sure a camera’s in working condition. These sellers know that they’ll make a lot more money if they test the camera, include a battery, and guarantee it to be in perfect working order. Additionally it’s good to look for sellers who clearly state any special policies they may have. These can include handling time, whether the seller is currently away on vacation, and how cameras and lenses will be packaged for shipment.

A good seller will have excellent photos. These should be crisp, brightly lit, and numerous. If you can’t inspect every side of the camera, including battery compartments, film compartments, shutter curtain, and a shot through the viewfinder, be wary. Check for general physical damage, excessive dust, blown light seals, and corrosion in battery compartments. Lenses should have photos showing every side of the barrel, a shot of the aperture blades fully closed to demonstrate that they’re dry, and a shot of the front and rear elements with the aperture wide-open to show a lack of fungus, scratches, and cleaning marks.

Understand eBay’s “Condition” Descriptions

Another thing to be aware of is the camera’s “condition”. I’m not talking about the camera’s description or how it looks in the photos, but rather the “condition” as interpreted by eBay. It’s relatively obtuse, but eBay requires sellers to actually specify in great detail whether or not an item is new, used, functional, or for parts. These conditions vary by category, but with cameras it’s pretty clear what is what. Exact details can be found by hunting through the small print of any given eBay listing.

The condition in which the item is listed is important because this will determine whether or not you have any kind of buyer protection. Most people consider a used product to mean “all bets are off”. On eBay, however, “Used” explicitly indicates that the item functions as it should, but may suffer cosmetic blemishes, etc. Even so, oftentimes buyers will list cameras under the “Used” condition description and then specify that the camera is being sold “As-is” in their product description. Many sellers feel no qualms over listing an untested camera under the “Used” condition description, even specifying in the description that they don’t know anything about it. This is shady, at best, and may even violate eBay’s selling policies.

We’re not looking to launch a viral protest campaign; these sketchy selling practices will never go away. Instead, be a defensive shopper and know your rights. Buying a camera listed as “Used” gives a much greater degree of buyer protection, even if the seller writes “as-is” in the description. If the camera arrives as a worthless paperweight you’ll still be able to file a claim with eBay and get a full refund, since being listed as “Used” implies a fully functional camera. Buy a camera listed under the “For parts or not working” condition description and you’ll be out of luck if it doesn’t work. Cameras listed “For parts…” are nearly always dead.

Factor in Service on Valuable Cameras

Spending $30 on a Canon AF35M isn’t a very big investment, so if the camera ends up conking out after a few rolls of film it’s not a huge loss, but if you’re spending serious cash on a big-honking medium format Rolleicord or some other exotic machine, you’ll want to plan for a CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust). These services are offered from a number of reliable craftsmen, and finding one for your specific machine requires nothing more than a Google search. The best fix-it shops will have websites with transparent and fixed pricing. Take a look at the going rates for your camera of choice so you’ll know what you’re getting into before you bid.

This is one of the best way to get a very nice camera at a very low price. Many buyers won’t want to bother with the uncertainty, and many more won’t have the patience to wait for the repair. If you’ve got a budget and some patience, find a cheap, weathered camera and bid to win. In only a few weeks time your camera will be overhauled and you’ll have practically stolen an amazing machine.

box listing

Boxes and Papers

While it’s always nice to find a vintage camera complete with the original owner’s manual and boxes, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if these things are missing. For the most part, any camera manual can be easily found online in PDF form. If physical ownership is a personal priority, there are listings for manuals and boxes for nearly every camera out there. Usually these come in under $10.

Beware of Import Duties and Taxes

It’s pretty common to find a few listings speckled amongst the search results that have a price strangely lower than those around them. This is especially true when dealing with Japanese cameras. The reason being that these less pricey listings are usually based in Japan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, areas where the Japanese cameras are far more abundant and far less expensive than here in the United States or Europe. While it may seem pretty amazing to get a Nikon 35Ti for $150 less than the average price, keep in mind there will assuredly be import taxes, duties, and excessive fees assessed by FedEx, UPS, or whichever shipper the seller employs.

The bill will arrive via an innocuous little envelope a couple of days after your camera, and any savings on the purchase price will end up in the shipper’s pocket. While not the worst thing that can happen, it’s something to be aware of so you’re not blindsided by an unexpected import fee, which in some cases can reach nearly 25% of the sale price. Check the seller’s country of origin, which is prominently displayed in every eBay listing. If the camera you’re looking at is on the other side of the planet, pay the fees or finding a closer seller.

Some Final Tips

Check the seller’s feedback rating. This is located next to their username on every eBay listing, and can give you an idea of their past customer’s satisfaction. If you’re hunting for the lowest prices, the best bet is to stick to auctions and try to win the camera of your dream with a timely bid. Buy-It-Now listings tend to be more expensive than most auctions’ end prices, though this is a loose generalization.

Occasionally buyers may be contacted by sellers looking to make a deal outside of eBay, or before an auction ends. This is inadvisable. Doing business outside of eBay offers the buyer exactly zero protection in the case that something goes wrong. If you send a check for a camera outside of eBay, there’s very little recourse if that camera never arrives or arrives broken. It’s best to avoid heartache by keeping everything aboveboard and operating within the confines (and protection) of the system.

From Leicas to Polaroids, eBay has it all. You don’t need to spend a fortune to come away with a real treasure. Whether you’re browsing for a random camera or looking to score the final piece that will complete your collection, the tips listed here will help to ensure you get the most from your eBay hunt.

Have you scored an unbelievable deal on eBay? Make us all jealous by posting about it in the comments.

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No Comments

  • Reply
    Dmitri Popov
    January 10, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  • Reply
    January 10, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    My Canon EF (FD mount) had a malfunction so I intentionally bought another EF in “as is” condition at ten bucks, fifteen dollars more I think for the shipment to Peru. So I could blend the best parts of both cameras and shape one with a more advanced viewfinder and almost neat finishing, and if something fails I’ve pieces to repairs it 😀
    To buy the same camera in perfect condition could have minimum 150 dollars, that model wasn’t much popular.

    • Reply
      January 10, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      Yep. Parts cameras are crucial to keeping those shutters firing.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    January 12, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Ebay is a little like Gambling even if you are a Pro Gamer
    you sometimes get screwed.
    I bought Cameras were the owner claimed they are “excellent”
    and “in good shape” and after received them pieces are broken
    and full of Mould !
    Other Times they described them as broken or “for Parts” and
    all I need was to replace the batteries !

    • Reply
      January 12, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      You’re right. Sometimes you can get lucky.

  • Reply
    Adam Paul
    January 12, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    Outstanding article! Ebay can be a gamble, but as you mention, a little discretion goes a long way.

    I’ve had remarkably good luck on ebay for the most part, though nearly all of what I’ve gotten camera-wise has been older mechanically based items such as lenses and pre-electronic cameras, and I’ve rarely wagered more than $40 for any one purchase.

    Two tips:
    1 – Research models to see if there is a lesser known (but not “collector rare”) model of a camera that you want. Often, these have fewer people aware of them, and potentially fewer bidders looking for them. I kept getting priced out of most of the Yashica TLR’s I tried to bid on until I discovered the Yashica 12 that few others knew about, finally scoring it.

    2 – A bit of a gamble here, but consider generic or misapplied search terms at times. Some less informed sellers may not know what they are selling, and what might not show up under “Canon AE-1” might actually show up under “Canon Camera.” I managed to get an excellent condition Zeiss Super Ikonta 531/2 for half of what it would begin to cost because I searched on “Compur” (shutter) and it was there as an “IZEISS COMPUR CAMERA.” Yes please!

    • Reply
      January 12, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      Hey pal. Great tips you added. You’re right on with searching for bad spelling. I forgot about that. I often search “Minlota” or “Minolta Maximum”. It’s crazy how often people see a “Maxxum” camera and think it says “Maximum”.

      I can see Zeiss and Rollei being tricky ones for the uninitiated too. Great idea.

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