Tomorrow or possibly Monday I’ll resume my Twitter Experiment Series, and I’ll explain what I hope to learn from unfollowing 12,000+ people.  (Email me if you want me to know you aren’t a spammer.)  As I like to do on weekends sometimes, I’m taking a break to think about photography, and thought I would share my thoughts on how to avoid getting ripped off when buying a used DSLR (in this case a Nikon) used from a stranger 😉

As far as I’m concerned, buying a used DSLR camera and lens (which both get expensive) from a stranger on Craigslist is not a bad idea.  But if you do so, here are some tips to make sure you don’t get ripped off.  Bring a laptop and a newspaper with you, and snap a few pictures of the the newspaper with the camera.  Try to take a picture of the front page of newspaper, and take a few shots that fill the frame completely with text of equal size (this will let you see if there’s weird distortion or focusing problems).  See the images below for some examples. 

Then, if it’s a Nikon camera like the D80, upload the pictures onto a Flickr account while you’re with the seller.  Next, use Flickr to expand the photos to a large size, so you can check for distortions in the lens, or other quality problems with the pictures you just shot.

Then, click on “More Properties” from Flickr.  This will reveal the “EXIF data“, and if you scroll down the page and look for “Shutter Counter.”  This will tell you how many pictures the person took using the camera.  In other words, if the person says that it’s barely been used, but the Shutter Counter reads 100,000+ actuations, then the seller is a liar, and he’s probably lying about other problems with the camera too.  If you’re buying a Canon camera, do a quick Google Search on “shutter counter” and use the specific model of the camera.  It’s a little harder to extract this data on Canon cameras, but it’s generally still possible, and you should never buy the camera without first knowing if the seller is telling the truth about its history.

Most people are honest and won’t try to rip you off, I expect.  But whether your buying cameras, or anything else, it’s helpful to know the likeliest traps before you shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a product from someone you don’t know.

To give you my full opinion, however, I always recommend to new photographers that their first camera be a Nikon D40, which you may as well buy new (they don’t lose significant value with age), which you can buy without worrying about any of this on Amazon.

Will Marlow co-founded AlumniFidelity to help his clients reposition their fundraising to benefit from Web2.0 technology and marketing techniques. He’s working with clients such as UVA, the College of William & Mary, the University of Oklahoma, Bowling Green State University, Randolph Macon College, and he loves nothing better than a thorny marketing challenge.  Email him at