Everyone loves a bargain, and you can save a substantial wedge of cash on a camera by buying it second-hand (or ‘nearly new’ or ‘pre-owned’, in the parlance of our times). Sites like eBay, Gumtree, and Amazon as well as Facebook’s marketplaces make it easy to buy and sell items privately, while many online camera stores now feature extensive second-hand sections.

If you’ve decided to buy a camera and want to get a little bit more for your money – or perhaps get your hands on a particular model of camera that’s no longer current – then buying second-hand might be the way to go.

Why buy a second-hand camera?

Brand new digital cameras aren’t necessarily prohibitively expensive, and as well as coming with that box-fresh feeling, they also have a full warranty, which means any problems that occur during that period can likely be fixed for free – or result in a you being given a replacement.

Camera with strap

There’s much less recourse for you to obtain a refund or replacement if you buy a camera second-hand, so the old adage of ‘buyer beware’ should be observed. However, some second-hand cameras may still be under warranty when you buy them, so do check.

If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Likewise, use caution if a seller seems unusually keen to be rid of something, or willing to accept low offers.

Use common sense when shopping for a second-hand camera  – but we do have a few specific tips which should help you sort the wheat from the chaff…

[Read more: Do you really need a DSLR?]

Buying a second-hand camera: Features to check

Shutter count

DSLRs have a finite number of shutter actuations, after which their shutter mechanism will need replacing – so one of the most important steps to take before buying a used model is to check just how many times its shutter has been fired. To do so, you can ask the seller – but if you’d rather be totally certain, you can use a third-party app or website like EOSInfo (for Canon DSLRs) or myshuttercount.com (for Nikon and Pentax models).

Some cameras embed shutter count info in a photo’s EXIF data, so if you obtain a recent photo from the seller, you can use a program like PhotoME to check the EXIF and see if the actuation info is available there.

The sensor: Dust or dead pixels?

Because DSLRs and CSCs have removable lenses, sometimes dust can get inside the body and on to the sensor. While this can be cleaned professionally, it’s better to buy a camera without the problem to begin with.

Ask the seller to take and send photos of a bright, flat subject like the daytime sky or a well-lit white wall with the aperture stopped down low to something like f/22 – this should reveal any dust specs, hairs or fungus (see the lens section below for more on that) that could affect image quality. Dead pixels on the sensor – which are ‘stuck’ and unable to capture light – can also be identified this way.

How’s the lens?

No matter if you’re buying a DSLR, a CSC or some kind of compact camera, always make sure you get some nice clear photos of the front (and back, for those removable DSLR and CSC lenses) elements of the lens (or lenses if you’re buying it with more than one).

Camera lens close up

Specs of dust can be cleaned off, and tiny marks may not have any discernible effect on your images, but look for any scratches, rub marks, hairs or signs of fungus – all of these can cause unwanted apparitions in photos and videos.

Fungus is probably the worst possibility, as it’s nigh-on impossible to remove and will get worse over time. It’s indicated by a spider web-like pattern in any images – if you spot that, best leave well alone.

Does autofocus work?

More likely to be a problem on removable lens cameras like DSLRs and CSCs, autofocus errors can result in frustrating shooting sessions. If you are able to, test out how the camera’s autofocus performs (in good lighting conditions) with two or more lenses

[Read more: How to buy a cheap laptop]

Physical condition

This might seem like a no-brainer, but a camera’s physical condition is a solid indicator of how it’s been treated by its current owner. If a relatively new model of camera is in poor condition – look for scratches or dings to the body, marks on the LCD screen and (if necessary) viewfinder, and wearing of rubber grip areas – it’s may have been poorly looked after, or suffered a bad drop, which could shorten its useful lifespan for you.

If a camera’s lens mount is damaged in any way, that can affect how well lenses fit and work, so make sure to check the mount area for any bends or dents.

If the camera is a few years old, then expect at least some wear and tear to be present. An older camera in nearly new condition might be rare, but indicates it’s been well looked after (as a consequence, of course, the seller might be asking for more money).

Accessories included?

If the camera being sold is missing peripherals and accessories – like a lens cap, charger and any relevant cables – then it’s advisable to steer clear. At best, you’ll need to hunt down some replacement gear; at worst, the camera’s stolen.

Conversely, a camera that’s being sold with the above as well as a box, manual, strap and other useful bits and pieces suggests that the seller has taken good care of it. Look out for ‘bonus’ extras like additional batteries, memory cards, carry cases, flashes, lens filters and the like too, as that can save you a lot of time and money later.

[Read more: How to win on eBay every time]

Camera accessories

Final tips

  1. If you’re meeting a private seller in person, try to do so during the day, and in public if it makes you feel more comfortable.
  2. Camera shops and places like CEX often sell refurbished or ex-display cameras, which will be under warranty and in almost-new condition. They won’t necessarily be as cheap as an eBay find, but the peace of mind might be worth a few extra pounds.
  3.  Once again, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is – don’t get suckered by your excitement at grabbing a bargain.
  4. If buying through eBay, check the feedback of the seller. If they’ve got a high overall number (i.e. if the account has sold and bought a lot of items) and if the positive feedback percentage is high (at least in the high 90s), it’s a sign that they’re a genuine seller. If their number is below 10 or if the positive feedback score is below about 95 percent, tread carefully.

Read more: 11 questions you need to ask before buying a digital camera