Setting up as a professional photographer, or expanding your existing selection of pro kit, can be expensive. It's easy to get caught up in the marketing campaigns of the big camera manufacturers but, as the professional digital photography market has come of age, buying the very latest camera bodies and lenses is not always necessary. Move up to medium format and there are even some second hand film-based models that can still do a great job for you. The 'pre-loved' market is stacked full of bargains, including kit that might have been out of your price range when it was new, but which is now affordable.
The important question to ask yourself when deciding to buy new or second-hand is this: "Will spending more on new kit, or the next model up, make me any more money as a photographer?" Chances are the answer will be no, and at that point you need to start thinking long and hard about what you really do need in your kit bag to be able to do your job properly.
Take, for instance, a Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. The current version, with ultrasonic motor and Vibration Reduction, costs around £700, whereas an older version is available on the used market for around £350. Macro and product photography is nearly always carried out on a tripod, so you won't be needing VR, and you should be manually focusing such pictures too, so ultrasonic focusing is of little use. A quick try of the older lens will show you it is fantastically sharp. It's a no-brainer: £350 saved.
Of course, the second-hand market is not for everyone. Low-light shooting and expanded dynamic range are recent developments, so you may be drawn to the newer cameras that can do this if your style of photography requires such features. But even in this situation, newer used cameras are worth looking at. Used kit often comes with a warranty of six months or a year, and a reputable dealer will usually let you compare a DSLR or lens against a new model (if it still exists) so that you can scrutinise the pictures at home.
Here we've outlined six cameras that are suitable for professional use and that are commonly found on the second-hand market. You might be looking for a second back-up body for something you already have, or a camera that will be your workhorse for years to come. Either way, miss looking at the second-hand market and you could be ignoring a bargain.
DSLRs are not the only things you can buy second-hand. Lenses are replaced with newer versions far less often than camera bodies, meaning there's a good chance you can buy a still-current optic for much less than the new list price. On the surface, check for signs of knocks, bangs and drops, and have a good look at both the front and rear elements for scratches or marks in the optical coatings. Using the camera's depth-of-field preview button, check that the lens stops down properly at all apertures, and reopens promptly without sticking.
Also check for fungus, which can grow inside the lens. Look through the unit at a well-lit white wall or piece of paper; you should see fungus as small black blobs. It can't be repaired economically.
A good bang or knock to the lens can result in a misalignment of the optics inside the unit, which affects sharpness. This is repairable, but you'll want money off in order to pay for it. Check for alignment by shooting a flat, detailed surface square at a variety of apertures.
Check the sharpness across the frame: if it's sharper one side than the other you have a problem, and you might want to look for another unit.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Good for: general commercial, wedding, landscape and portraits
Bad for: action, sports
Expect to pay: £1000-1300
To say that the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II was a game-changing camera is something of an understatement. At a time when professional photographers were deciding whether to make the move from film photography to digital capture, the EOS-1Ds Mark II persuaded more to migrate than any other DSLR. For the first time, digital photographers could produce prints that were better than those available from 35mm film with a camera that was robust, reliable and offered top-flight specifications.
At the heart of the EOS-1Ds Mark II is a full-frame CMOS sensor packing 16.7 megapixels - a sensational specification for the time - that produces a 47.5MB TIFF file. That's enough for stock, travel, editorial and even fashion and landscape work. It's no surprise that the camera became ubiquitous amongst professional photographers very quickly after its introduction.
A 45-point autofocus system is backed up by 4fps continuous shooting (not the fastest in the world, but this was never really aimed at the action photographer). Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to 1600, and is expandable to an ISO 50-3200 range, again a figure that has been way surpassed in recent years.
Image quality from the EOS-1Ds Mark II still holds up well today for many applications, providing the conditions are kind to you. In terms of resolution, 16.7 megapixels is plenty, especially if you're working with some of Canon's top-of-the-range lenses. Progress has been made in the years since the EOS-1Ds Mark II in the areas of dynamic range and noise control at high ISO sensitivity, and here one should not expect this eight-year-old design to be quite up to the performance standards of today's flagship pro cameras. Having said that, results are not disappointing, but you might not want to shoot at much above ISO 640 if you are looking for images that will be published at a decent size.
You'll recognise the look and feel of the EOS-1Ds Mark II from the EOS-1 series cameras available today; Canon's approach to the series has been one of iteration and evolution. Operating the EOS-1Ds Mark II involves lots of holding down one button (or a pair of buttons) and twiddling of separate dials, and this is to ensure that a two-handed approach is required to change the camera's major functions, which avoids accidental adjustment of settings.
This is a professional camera through and through, and this is further backed up by what you'll find in the box: a DC adaptor lets you run the camera from the mains, while an included FireWire cable enables very fast tethered shooting via the also included EOS Utility software.
As with any second-hand professional camera, you'll find examples of the EOS-1Ds Mark II in a variety of conditions. Some may be near mint, having amateur use only, while others will have been to the four corners of the world and taken a battering. Make sure the condition of the camera you are looking at is comparable with the price it's being sold for.
Good for: action, sports, wedding, press, portraits
Bad for: landscape
Expect to pay: £1500-1700
If the EOS-1Ds Mark II was Canon's game-changing camera, then surely the D3 was Nikon's. This DSLR was Nikon's first full-frame offering, and it leapfrogged the competition, offering 9fps continuous shooting at 12 megapixels and ISO sensitivity up to ISO 6400 with a push setting to take this to ISO 25,600. What's more the quality at the ISO settings was like nothing anyone had seen before. Quite simply, the Nikon D3 changed the way we think about low-light photography.
In the years following, successor cameras included the D3s, which raised the maximum ISO up to ISO 25,600 (push to 102,400) and added HD video capture. The D3x then raised resolution to 24.5 megapixels at the expense of speed of capture. But the original D3 is still well worth looking for in the second-hand market if you are shooting fast action, or if your approach to wedding or travel photography makes use of low light, and you'll value the ability to shoot good quality at high ISO settings.
The D3 is not a small camera, and you'll certainly know you've been using it after a day's shooting, but the build quality is self evident. Everything is sealed against dust and moisture and anecdotal stories from press photographers the world over suggest the D3 can take its fair share of knocks. A 100 per cent viewfinder helps composition too.
Full-frame photography means using full-frame lenses, and this can be an expensive prospect when using Nikon cameras. The company was later to the full-frame party than Canon, meaning the lens range is still slightly skewed to small sensor, DX lenses. There are some great zooms around (like the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G), but you'll need to budget for them. On the other hand, the use of the Nikon F mount on the D3 means you can use almost any Nikkor lens on the camera, though its full-frame sensor is good at revealing their faults.
There was not an awful lot wrong with the D3 at the time of its launch, and that still holds today. You'll see many press, sports, wedding and travel photographers still using the same D3 bodies they bought back in 2008, which is testament to how long they keep working for. As with all pro cameras, check the number of shots fired on the camera's shutter to date and always take some test shots to examine at home.
Also consider the Nikon D700, which contains the same electronics as the D3 in a smaller body. It's slower, and doesn't have a 100 per cent finder, but it is a great camera in low light and superb for weddings. You can expect to pay between £900 and £1200 for a good one.
Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro
Good for: wedding, portrait
Bad for: landscape, sports, action
Expect to pay: £350-500
Once upon a time, Fujifilm made DSLRs. The FinePix S1 Pro, S3 Pro and S5 Pro all received pretty good acclaim from advanced amateurs and semi-professionals alike, and many examples of these cameras are to be found on the second-hand market today. The best of these was the S5 Pro, which used the body of the Nikon D200 with Fuji designed electronics on the inside. The S3 Pro used much the same electronics in the body of the Nikon D1, and is likely to be even cheaper than the S5 Pro.
The FinePix S5 Pro used a Super CCD sensor exclusive to Fujifilm, which contained six million dark-sensitive pixels and six million light-sensitive pixels, combining the two sets with some clever interpolation to produce a 12-megapixel image with expanded dynamic range. It was a trick that only worked in JPEG mode, with Raw image files coming out at six megapixels, but if you are a JPEG shooter tackling weddings, the FinePix S5 Pro still has a lot to offer today, as a second body for a Nikon shooter or as a main body to those just starting out.
A range of film mode presets (Velvia, etc) lets you fine-tune the look and feel of your photography and a max ISO 3200 is surprisingly useable, though you may want to stick to no more than ISO 800 if image quality is at a premium.
It's not all roses, of course. The camera's AF system is not the most responsive in the world and its 1.5fps continuous shooting rate is positively pedestrian. But this is a camera that is best suited to a specific purpose: capturing detail in shadows and highlights simultaneously, perhaps in a situation where there's a white wedding dress and dark suit, for example. Skin tones are also handled extremely well - better than by many DSLRs made today in fact.
Using the Nikon F mount, the S5 Pro is compatible with all Nikon DX and FX format lenses, as well as decades of older second-hand manual focus stock. This could be a great addition to the Nikon shooter's bag, and it can be picked up for an absolute bargain price.
Hasselblad V system
Good for: studio portraits, product shots, landscape
Bad for: sports, action, weddings
Expect to pay: £700 (body and 80mm lens) + £2000-2500 for Hasselblad or Phase One back
For many of us, medium-format digital photography could be one of those things that never happens. The superlative image quality delivered by such cameras is matched by a high price tag: Hassleblad's entry-level, medium-format camera is currently ┬ú8000 excluding VAT, and if you want some of the higher pixel-count cameras you might need to double this.
A more cost-savvy way of getting into medium-format digital is the second-hand route. Older film-based medium-format cameras are available at good prices, and if you can find a used digital back to fit there's no reason why you shouldn't go medium-format digital for around three grand.
Take, for instance, a Hasselblad 500C/M. A camera first produced in the 1970s, it's not a model that was upgraded drastically in the later 501 and 503 series. It's mechanical, easy to service and repair, designed to keep going forever and is compatible with a massive range of lenses, finders and accessories. Expect to pay between £400 and £900 for a good one, and don't be put off by signs of use. The worst thing to do with a mechanical Hasselblad is to put it in a box and never use it - it will likely seize up. Better to use it regularly and have it serviced. This is the Land Rover Defender of the camera world.
Medium format is not for everyone though. Noise at even medium ISO sensitivities is awful, focusing and frame rates are slow and poor handling means that the camera is often useless on location. But if you are shooting in a controlled environment and want the very best in digital picture quality, this might be a good approach to check out.
When it comes to selecting a digital back for your new (old) 'blad you could look for Hasselblad' own CFV-16. This 16-megapixel back features a square chip, in keeping with the V-system format, although it is 1.2x smaller than the area of a 6x6cm piece of film, leading to a crop factor that can be handy in portraiture. While 16 megapixels is not much at all when it comes to modern medium format, the quality of the images from the combination is impressively sharp and film-like in appearance.
You could also look for backs from PhaseOne and Leaf. Both make units compatible with Hasselblad V-system cameras, and can convert backs made for other brands for a small fee. When choosing a back, produce test shots and scrutinise them in detail for any dead pixels or artefacts. They are expensive to repair.
Other medium-format kit to look at includes Mamiya's 645 and 67 systems. PhaseOne recently bought Mamiya too, and supports their legacy products well. The RB67 and RZ67 cameras are legendary with studio photographers, thanks to their bellows focusing mechanisms. Expect to pay £700-900 for a good condition used 645AF and the same for an RZ67.
The most affordable medium-format system of all is Bronica, whose cameras soldier on for years without a grumble. They are cheapest, though, because there are very few options for digital backs. There are used Leaf backs on the market that fit the system, and such a combination would represent great value for money.
Canon EOS 5D & 5D Mark II
Good for: portrait, wedding, commercial, studio, fashion, press
Bad for: sports, action
Expect to pay: £600-800/£1200-1300
The Canon EOS 5D was the first full-frame DSLR to be relatively affordable and, as such, this made it attractive to enthusiast photographers, but this didn't stop professionals buying it and using it for everything from landscape to weddings and fashion. The EOS 5D was a big seller, so there are loads of second-hand examples on the market, ranging in price from £600 to £800.
The EOS 5D packs 12.8 megapixels onto its CMOS sensor and has a sensitivity range of ISO 100-1600, which can be expanded to ISO 50-3200. That's not much by today's standards, but the relatively low pixel density of the EOS 5D's sensor always meant that levels of digital noise were very low compared to the competition at the time.
The camera's autofocus system used nine AF points (with six invisible 'assist' points) arranged in a diamond pattern. This was never the fastest in the world, meaning this is not a camera suited to fast moving subjects. A paltry 3fps continuous shooting speed doesn't help either.
In 2008 Canon announced the successor to the EOS 5D, the EOS 5D Mark II. While most remember this as the camera that revolutionised the shooting of HD video, it's also a camera you'll find in a huge number of professional stills photographer's bags. The combination of 21-megapixel resolution and a vastly increased ISO sensitivity of 100-6400 (extendable to 25,600) make this a very capable camera indeed. It-s been hard for Canon to beat the Mark II with the recently announced successor, the EOS 5D Mark III, which currently makes the older camera a bargain on both the new and second-hand markets.
Expect to pay £1400-1500 for a new 5D Mark II, and anywhere between £1200 and £1300 for a decent used model (though in light of the Mark III, the number of new Mark IIs on the market is pushing down used body prices, so shop around). As well as the number of shutter actuations, check the memory card door is closing properly. There are many tales on the internet of Mark II bodies developing a fault with the microswitch that confirms the door is shut, which stops the camera working.
What to look for
Before you even set eyes on the piece of kit you want to buy, have a think about where you are buying it from. The best bet is always a reputable local camera dealer as they will usually offer a guarantee of six or 12 months and will let you try out the goods before you buy. Many dealers will also take your name and give you a call when an item of kit comes in, which is good if you are after something specific.
A popular option is eBay, of course, where you can often get a slightly better price, but you take your chance with service, condition and warranty. You usually can't try before you buy (though you can request a refund if the goods turn up and are not as described). This is still the more risky option though.
When buying camera bodies, do some research on the model you are looking at. Are there any common faults to look for that are known about in Internet forums? Scratches and wear and tear are OK; signs of dropping the camera are not. Do all the controls function freely without sticking? Is the viewfinder clean and bright?
Take some pictures and examine them at 100 per cent magnification on a computer screen if you can. Look for sharpness at the point of focus - is the camera focusing accurately? Is the exposure consistent with other cameras or a hand-held meter? Are there any dead or hot pixels, or other artefacts?
No one can predict how quickly a camera will wear out. Sometimes shutters are rated to a certain number of actuations, but this is only a guide. The Canon EOS 5D was guaranteed to 100,000 shots, but there are photographers out there that have clocked up three times this number without incident. Nevertheless, it makes sense to see how near the manufacturer limit a second-hand camera is. A new shutter can be a costly repair.
You'll usually find the 'guaranteed' number of actuations in the camera's specification, and the number it has shot in total can sometimes be shown through a menu command. If not it can be found out at a service centre if you get the camera checked over by a technician. Alternatively, for Nikon cameras, try snapping a picture and uploading it to www.shutteractuations.com. It will tell you the current shutter count of the camera. Or try ExifTool by Phil Harvey (www.sno.phy.queensu.ca/~phil/exiftool/), which can get this information from the EXIF data of a JPEG file.
Taken from the August 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine