Buying a second-hand DSLR can save you serious amounts of cash, but the world of used products can be full of pitfalls and duds. Here are some things to consider when choosing your next purchase.

Screen

LCD screens have progressed almost as much as image sensors in their size and resolution, so the screens on older cameras may now look very small and be of low resolution. While a smaller screen may be a little trickier to use for menus, it is not the end of the world.

However, the resolution is more limiting as it will be harder to check the focus and even the colour/exposure of the image. This is more of an issue if you work in bright conditions. If you are using the camera in a studio, a tethered link to a laptop makes this almost irrelevant.

Memory card

Unless you are buying something truly obscure, the chances are your chosen camera will take CompactFlash cards. These are relatively cheap and easily available, although higher capacity cards tend to use newer specifications of software and may not work in older cameras. This may limit you to cards below 4GB but, considering the smaller file sizes produced, this will be less of a problem.

Battery

Always check that the battery works and comes with a charger. Replacements can be relatively expensive, although third-party versions are now available for most cameras at much reduced prices.

Software and manual

The lack of supplied software and a manual can be a little annoying, but not too much of a problem. You can easily download the relevant software in most cases from the manufacturer’s website and www.oldtimercameras.com provides manuals for most cameras.

Resolution

More pixels don’t always make for a better image. Although older cameras may have low-resolution sensors, the larger photosites mean they are still able to capture great tonal range and colour depth.

Unless you are intending to print on a large scale you won’t really see the benefit of the extra pixels on newer models, but you will feel the strain of the larger file sizes.

Screen

LCD screens have progressed almost as much as image sensors in their size and resolution, so the screens on older cameras may now look very small and be of low resolution. While a smaller screen may be a little trickier to use for menus, it is not the end of the world.

However, the resolution is more limiting as it will be harder to check the focus and even the colour/exposure of the image. This is more of an issue if you work in bright conditions. If you are using the camera in a studio, a tethered link to a laptop makes this almost irrelevant.

Memory card

Unless you are buying something truly obscure, the chances are your chosen camera will take CompactFlash cards. These are relatively cheap and easily available, although higher capacity cards tend to use newer specifications of software and may not work in older cameras. This may limit you to cards below 4GB but, considering the smaller file sizes produced, this will be less of a problem.

Battery

Always check that the battery works and comes with a charger. Replacements can be relatively expensive, although third-party versions are now available for most cameras at much reduced prices.

Software and manual

The lack of supplied software and a manual can be a little annoying, but not too much of a problem. You can easily download the relevant software in most cases from the manufacturer’s website and www.oldtimercameras.com provides manuals for most cameras.

Resolution

More pixels don’t always make for a better image. Although older cameras may have low-resolution sensors, the larger photosites mean they are still able to capture great tonal range and colour depth. Unless you are intending to print on a large scale you won’t really see the benefit of the extra pixels on newer models, but you will feel the strain of the larger file sizes.

A five-million-pixel sensor can deliver a 300ppi print at 9x6in in size, while an eight-million-pixel sensor will produce an 11x8in print.

Lens mount

All the main names have a wide variety of compatible lenses, although if you already have lenses in a certain mount – particularly premium optics of any age – you might want to continue with it. Nikon and Pentax have the longest back catalogues, while Sony (due to the company maintaining Konica Minolta Dynax compatibility) also has a large back catalogue.

Canon’s mount was changed more recently with the introduction of EOS in 1989, so an adapter is needed for the older manual-focus FD lenses, but the new range is extremely extensive.

Test Drive

You wouldn’t buy a second-hand car without taking it for a drive and so you shouldn’t buy a camera without first taking some pictures with it. Check exterior wear and tear, as this will hint at how much wear there is on the inside.

Place the camera in bulb or sensor cleaning mode and take a good look at the sensor and check it for any serious marks – small bits of dust can usually be removed. Take a memory card with you and ask if you can take a few shots with the camera.

Shoot at a small aperture (f/22) and fill the frame with plain white and grey, as well as taking some general shots. Check the results on a computer and look for dust marks, then zoom into 100% to look for hot or stuck pixels, which will appear as white or coloured dots.