Matt’s Camera-Buying Tips for eBay

eBay LogoI’m no expert, but I sure feel like I’ve learned a lot in my crash course of camera-buying. It’s clear to see though that ebay has revolutionized collecting. No need to spend your weekends scouring estate sales, haggling with sellers at photo swap meets, or paying high used dealer prices. Everything you want is just a click away….sort of…

First of all

Get yourself a PayPal account at The accounts are free and they act as a payment broker for not only auction purchases but also other small-business online purchases. You can send money direct from your bank account like writing an electronic check or from your credit card. Get verified too. Yes the transactions cost money (a percentage) but it’s FULLY worth the convenience.

I used to recommend some of the others like BidPay, ccnow, etc but forget it. Paypal is the 800 pound gorilla and at this point I use it for other non-Ebay purchases online. If an ebay seller doesn’t accept Paypal at this point, I’d think twice.

Additional note: the payment options field in an item description page doesn’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes it says money order/cashier’s check only but then down below in the description the seller mentions he takes Paypal (or it’s not mentioned but there’s a prominent Paypal icon), or sometimes nothing at all is said in which case definitely email the seller and ask. I’ve even had the seller admit he takes Paypal even when it didn’t say it anywhere on the item’s page, I merely had to ask.

Getting Started

GETTING ACQUAINTED. Get familiar with the ebay interface, and then begin building your favorites page. Save your favorite categories for quick reference, save your favorite searches. When saving searches, be broadly specific. Don’t save the search ‘Kiev 4 in category film cameras > rangefinders’, save the search ‘Kiev Jupiter in category Cameras & Accessories’ and make sure the box ‘search titles and descriptions’ is checked. You’ll get more results to search through but you’ll get the overlooked items with misspellings and poor descriptions that may end up being bargains. A search for ‘Konica Hexanon’ in category : Cameras will turn up a lot of lenses as well as Autoreflex cameras, plus the C35, Auto S, Auto S2 rangefinders, etc., even if the title is ‘OLD KONICA CAMERA’, which is how I found my wonderful Auto S2.

BE PERSISTENT BUT DON’T OVERREACH. There will be another of whatever you’re looking for, I swear, unless it’s a true rare gem, like a mint vintage Canon 7s rangefinder with .95 lens OOOOH, then expect to pay exactly what it’s worth because you’re not the only one who wants it. Look days out and if you find something bid a small token maximum to get your name on the board. If you overbid early you’ll just run up the price for people trying to outbid you. Use your watch list. Treat bidding like gambling: set your upper limit and be firm. There will be another one. Trust me. And if you pay more than you wanted to, the next one will be cheaper, I guarantee it…

Don’t forget that SHIPPING IS LIKE A SURCHARGE. Some sellers charge exact shipping, some a resonable ballpark fee or token ‘handling’ fee on top of shipping. The average for a 35mm camera seems to be about $6-8 domestically, perhaps with insurance. However, other sellers will charge as much as $10-$12 (or more!), which then really does amount to a surcharge, so include this fee in the bidding price when estimating your limits & the camera’s value. Pay attention to the seller’s location, usually US but sometimes UK, or ex-Soviet Union and Australia where many of the sellers seem to only want direct bank-bank transfers, which itself has a surcharge ($30 for an international wire transfer, and that’s through my credit union!). Not to mention the actual shipping charges. Corollary: In my experience, anyone who obviously overcharges for shipping is the least likely to send your package quickly. Expect your package to come parcel post in 3-4 weeks, with the marked postage half of what you were charged by the seller.

SPEAKING OF SELLERS, make sure you look a little deeper than the seller rating. How many actual transactions does the seller have? It’s not hard to get a 100% rating if you only have 13 transactions under your belt and it’s mostly as a buyer. Likewise a 98% rating might not be that bad if the negative ratings are from chowderheads who slam the seller for something that the buyer should have figured out themselves or wasn’t the seller’s fault (yes, this has happened to me). Be extra careful of great deals coming out of New York or Chicago, these could be fronts for those shady grey market camera dealers you wouldn’t ordinarily do business with. Again, look at the transaction history, and see what previous buyers had to say about similar items from that seller. I got ripped off big time by a Chicago-based seller with a 100% rating from 100+ transactions, whose history on second look consisted primarily of ebook downloads that were mostly less than $1.00 each. In hindsight, I think it was a little network of associates that pumped each other’s rankings up with minor purchases to cover the tracks of a previous poor ranking, or simply a front for a complete scam. This seller is no longer on ebay under that name but these scammers are out there. Remember the old rule — if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. FOLLOWUP: PayPal reimbursed me the entire purchase amount with no hassle within 2 weeks, just had to go through the proper claim procedure. Yet another reason to use PayPal IMHO.

Tips & Tricks

DO YOUR RESEARCH. When deciding how much to bid on an item, click ‘show completed items’ under the field for the search you just performed. Note what other people recently paid for similar items. Bid accordingly. Pay close attention to the pictures, they tell a lot. Pay closer attention to the descriptions, regarding both what they say and what they don’t. Some sellers are incredibly knowledgeable about this and other cameras, some are completely ignorant of what they’re selling, and some are lying. You can get good deals from the first two, but be careful. Since you’re not handling the item, ask questions of the seller (hopefully enough in advance that they’ll have time to answer before the auction ends). Some sellers will take a camera back if you’re not satisfied. I’ve done this. Some explicitly offer a money-back guarantee. If the sellers say ‘as-is’ it means they won’t. Doesn’t mean it’s not a good camera, but find out one way or the other so you’re not surprised.

DO MORE RESEARCH. If you have time do an Google search to find out more about the camera (hey, there I am!, when was it made, what are its features vs. other similar cameras, user experience, known issues. Yes that $35 Kodak Signet 35 has a super-sharp Ektar lens, the Kodak equivalent of a Zeiss Tessar, but the shutters on these cameras are notoriously problematic. The more you know, the better. Is that ‘OLD ARGUS CAMERA – CLEAN NR’ a dime-a-dozen C3 (a good camera by the way, get one) or a rare Geiss-modified C4 with an after-market and highly prized Lithagon lens? If you’ve done your research you can often tell by the picture whether the seller knows what they’ve got or not. is a good place to start for research, excellent articles, the guy is super-knowledgeable. (On the other hand I think he’s personally responsible for running up the prices of certain classics by gushing about their collectibility. I guess I should talk — ouch!)

BIDDING. If you really want an item, babysit the auction. Seems like most of the items I want are ending during dinner (6-7pm Pacific Time) or after bedtime (10-midnight Pacific Time). Most bidding doesn’t happen until the day the auction ends when most people check the ‘items ending today’ in the morning. Do this yourself. Wait, did I say most of the bidding happens the day the auction ends? What I meant to say was that 99% of the bidding happens in the last MINUTE. I’ve won many auctions by slipping in during the last 45 seconds. I’ve also lost many the same way, especially by bids in the last few seconds. This is pure strategy. Coupled with reflexes, not unlike twitchers playing online games. My heart pounds every time as I reload, reload reload the browser. For god’s sake pay attention to the minimum bid amount! If there’s 9 seconds and you’re down by $.37 don’t bid $.59 if the minimum bid is $1.00! You’ll get the ‘problem with bid amount’ message and the auction will end before you go back and fix it. Of course you could use a third-party bidding service but what fun is that 😉

DON’T GET TOO CAUGHT UP though, this is when you’re likely to go overboard and try to win the bid at all costs. Suddenly you see you’ve spent too much and that the seller only takes personal checks or money orders, and charges $12 for shipping the item as is. Go back and re-read the above.

AFTER THE AUCTION. Be prompt, courteous. Pay promptly if you expect prompt shipment, this should go without saying. I (almost) always wait for the seller to contact me with an invoice, which can simply be an email saying ‘congratulations, yadda yadda, total amount with shipping is $LOTS and please respond with your shipping address so I can pack it up etc.’ Occasionally if it’s all spelled out in the description I’ll click on the PayPal ‘pay now’ button and get it over with. I always pay within 24 hours whenever possible. See my rating for the compliments this gets me. Makes me think there’s a lot of deadbeats out there, I just think it’s good business to do it right. I also expect the same in return, and usually get it.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. I’ve saved the best for last. Some of the best cameras I’ve bought were from camera dealers, with a few exceptions. This should come as no surprise. This doesn’t mean camera stores necessarily, just professional camera dealers – including ebay-only sellers – with reputations on the line and camera knowledge to spare. My worst deals, no exceptions, have come from antique dealers or people getting advice from antique dealers. They don’t know cameras, they only know old and think age=value. You can get very lucky with private sellers, though they’re pretty much hit or miss unless they either sound super-knowledgeable and offer a guarantee, used the camera themselves and are selling it to buy another one, or – best of all – selling off someone else’s prized camera collection which was well-looked after but is going for cheap. Avoid junk dealers. ‘Estate sale’ diggers are definitely hit or miss. Treat it like gambling. I’ll say it again. Some of my best cameras have come from camera dealers. Look at the pictures very very closely. They’ll tell you more than you think.

MISCELLANEOUS TIPS. Use the virtual contacts you make during the process, and check out all your options. Should you bid on that $6.50 user manual for the Yashica Electro GSN from manuals2go? Not if you know that you can go to his website and get it regular price for $5.99. But wait, now you see that you can get the GSN service manual from manuals2go, and you’ll likely need it because that ‘clean’ GSN you got for only $16.37 is full of corrosion and damaged wiring from an old mercury battery that was left in the compartment for 20 years…at least the beautiful 1.7 45mm glass is clean…. Sometimes dealers sell off overstock or slow-moving merchandise on ebay for much less than they’d sell it direct from their store or website. Smaller businesses use ebay as a regular sales forum. An example is, where you can get new lens caps in hard-to find sizes like a 40.5 snap-in to go on your Jupiter-8, Sonnar, or Elmar, so stop bidding on that vintage Zeiss 42mm slip-on cap and spend $4.95 on a new one. I found out about through an auction and have already purchased from them again directly since their prices are good and the guy is so nice, combining shipping on purchases etc….

LAST WORD. No question, ebay is revolutionary. This virtual fleamarket is a perfect barometer of the market value of an item. Here’s something for you to mull over as you click away. However much you pay for an item on ebay, that’s how much that item is worth at that moment in time. In a free market, an item is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it. On ebay, we’re not looking at a supply/demand curve over time, we’re looking at instantaneous market valuations. Are there bargains to be had on ebay? Absolutely. I’ve seen it happen, let it happen, been the lucky recipient of it happening. But remember, whatever you’re willing to pay for an item, that’s how much that item is worth. If there are three MIB (Mint in Box) Velbon 120 tripods for sale at the same time, they’re all worth the least amount you can get one for, regardless of their discounted retail value on amazon. Probably it’s only $10. On the flip side, if you missed bidding on that Argus C4 and it went for $12, it will be worth at least $15 to you next time you try. Cuidado con esto, you have been warned.

LAST LAST WORD. Speaking of warnings, I should point out that I regularly have ebay listings removed for ripping off my images and text. Do us both a favor, don’t do it. Yes, I know you wouldn’t, I mean that other guy, the one who’s peeking over your shoulder as we speak…

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