How to Buy A Used Camcorder And not get taken to the cleaners

By Doug Graham

Panda Productions

Email Doug

* 1. Determine how old the camera is. Units over about 6 years or so run the risk of developing leaky capacitors. Check for this by sniffing inside the camera, looking for a “fishy” smell. And check with the manufacturer. You could learn what Bill Celnick did.

Bill wrote: I was considering buying a used SVHS portable VCR from Panasonic. I used their web site to contact tech support who told me what years that particular model was made, and, very importantly, informed me that replacement parts were no longer available. So if you buy it, and can’t service it, you’re taking a big gamble, and what seems to be a great deal is a waste of money.


* 2. Check exterior cosmetic appearance. Scratches and dings may indicate a unit that’s been used hard or carelessly. Check that all case screws are present and accounted for. Lettering that’s worn away may simply be due to handling, and is not necessarily a problem.

* 3. Check appearance of lens. Is a clear filter installed? This indicates an owner who’s concerned about keeping his lens in good shape. Breathe gently on the lens to fog it. Does the fog clear relatively evenly, or are dust particles or fingerprints present?

* 4. If it is a tape camcorder, check inside the tape compartment. Use a flashlight and a magnifier if necessary. Check for lint, dirt, dust, or discoloration on any of the metal parts in the tape path, especially the capstan (a shiny metal post next to a dark rubber driver wheel), and on the tape drum itself. Ideally, the compartment’s parts should shine like fine jewelry.

* 5. Record some video. Shoot indoors and outdoors. If it is a tape camcorder, listen carefully to the camcorder as it records, rewinds, and plays. Do you hear any noises indicating things are rubbing, or gritty?

While playing with the camera, put it in manual focus. Zoom in tight on a subject and focus. Zoom out. Zoom back in. Repeat. Is the object still in focus? Many consumer cameras have a hard time holding focus through the zoom range. Put it in autofocus. Does the camera “hunt” focus excessively? Try this in good light and in low light.

Does the camera have the features, and the manual overrides you want? Particularly handy are earphone and external mike inputs, and manual focus, exposure, and white balance controls.

Play the tape or memory card back with the camera hooked to a color monitor or TV, and also play the same tape back in a deck or another camera. Picture and sound OK? Stable? No noise bars or other indications of mis-tracking?

* 6. Figure rechargeable batteries will have to be replaced. Replacements can run from $40 – $90. Figure on replacing the lithium “watch battery” as well.

* 7. Ask about the camera’s repair history. A camera that’s been serviced is not necessarily a lemon, but if it’s been into the shop two or three times for the same problem, I’d worry. Ask to see repair receipts. I’d also wonder about a camera that’s NEVER been serviced. Plan on paying a couple hundred for a cleaning and alignment if this is the case.

* 8. Is there an extended service warranty on the camera, and is it transferable?


* 9. Check for dead pixels. These are most easily seen in low light with gain set at maximum, and appear as tiny, non-moving white or colored rectangles which can’t be removed by cleaning the lens or the viewfinder. Sometimes they’re easier to see on a separate monitor. You might be able to live with a couple near the edges of the picture, but in the center they are most annoying. The cure involves replacing the CCD imaging chip(s).

* 10. Extras such as lens filters, tripod, case, spare batteries, tapes, mikes, etc. can sweeten a deal. Realize that you’d have to buy these things yourself, and figure cost accordingly.

Check out the VideoUniversity Trading Post for good Used Camcorders


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3 thoughts on “How to Buy A Used Camcorder And not get taken to the cleaners

  1. Jason J. Young

    Good advice–I’m in the process of purchasing a refurbished Panasonic AG-DVC20, the listing says it’s 100% like new, with a few minor scratches. As long as it works, I’m not worried. I try to purchase new equipment or close to it–better because you can be sure it’s good. I recommend this article to anyone buying anything used or refurbished, not just video equipment.

  2. nyc

    Also recommended is to check back focus, i.e. zoom in to max telephoto, get best manual focus, then zoom out and see if focus is maintained throughout zoom range and at wide end.

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