Buying Camera Gear on eBay and ShopGoodwill: Finding Bargains, Avoiding Junk

Buying cameras based on images and brief descriptions can be rewarding or frustrating. Happily, even though I have purchased many items from both eBay and ShopGoodwill, my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with only a few duds. There was the person who sold me a Maxxum 70 that “probably worked,” which, when I received it, was clearly broken—wires were sticking out. The seller of a Minolta MD 28-85mm lens told me she had not tested the lens and thought it looked good. She somehow failed to notice the front element was full of fungus. In both cases, my money was promptly refunded.  

 The worst case happened when I decided to buy a Nikon set. It was for a camera and three lenses. I wrote to the seller and received absolute assurances that the gear was in top-notch condition. He even seemed peeved that I was asking questions since the listing said the items were in good condition. When the package arrived, there was so much fungus I would not even keep it in the same room as my other gear. I took multiple pictures of each item and demanded my money back. The seller warned me that he would double-check every item I returned to make sure I wasn’t cheating him (apparently, he had marked them with some kind of invisible ink). On receiving the package, the seller issued a refund and said he threw the entire set in the trash. Obviously, he had never looked at the stuff before selling it. This was a bad episode for me, but worse for him—shipping each way was 35.00. 

In many cases, those selling on eBay, and especially GoodWill, really know little about what they are selling. Observing this early on, I learned to ask specific questions before buying. I have even taught my share of sellers how to determine if a lens is good—check aperture response, shine light through, and look for fungus, haze, oil. For cameras, I have given instructions for buying batteries and how to test by firing the shutter at all speeds and watching the meter to see if it changes with the aperture. Some of these teaching sessions have gone over multiple days. One gentleman selling from his brother’s estate, worked with me over a few days to buy batteries and test an XD11, which he then able to sell for double the original asking price. (Not to me. Once, I had helped, it was out of my price range). Interestingly, there have been many times when I’ve told the seller the asking price was too low, and they still sold it to me for the lower price anyway! A teaching approach has worked with Goodwill as much as with eBay sellers.  

My efforts at teaching have been a learning opportunity for me as well because it has helped me spot potential bargains. I have learned to search for listings with vague, very brief descriptions of the items and their condition. Now, when writing to sellers with poor item descriptions, I find there are three types of responses. The first is something like, “Deal with it; that’s all I have to say.” These items I pass on. The seller doesn’t care and would be a pain to deal with if the item did not meet expectations. The second type is from those who want to sell and who have good intentions but know little about photography gear. They usually respond positively to suggestions for evaluating the item. I’ve found unbelievable bargains asking questions about items with poor descriptions. For example, I was able to buy a Maxxum 7 and a Maxxum 7000, both in excellent condition, with five lenses, bag, and batteries for less than what a Maxxum 7 usually goes for alone. How? The listing read “Minolta camera with lenses, bundle.” There was no mention of the Maxxum 7 or any of the lenses. I wrote to the seller, who was unfamiliar with Minolta products, and he still did not raise the price. Every item was in good to excellent condition. I even got free shipping! 

On ShopGoodwill, I won a Maxxum 9000 with motor drive and bag for very little because the listing said the camera did not work. However, the “problem” was actually a safety feature that was part of the 9000’s design. I had the camera working minutes after unpacking it. Another great buy was an XE-5 with 50mm f2 lens with a stuck shutter/film advance lever. I bought the set for the lens, thinking that if the camera didn’t work, it would be a shelf collectible. Here Google was my friend. After searching forums, a post popped up, mentioning that the problem could be in the mechanism in the camera’s base. Having nothing to lose, I removed the base plate and gently moved and oiled the lever mentioned. The shutter fired, and the film advance worked! Overall, I have had only one bad purchase from Goodwill—a lens with haze— and that was a case where the staff did not answer my questions. But it was only 14 bucks, so we’ll call it even; I have done very well so many other times. 

Consumer-level AF cameras—Minolta Maxxum 5/500si/5000 and lower-level models, Canon Rebels, Nikons N80, and below— were often starter cameras. Many times, one can find a listing with a lens that is far better than the camera. Since there is no significant demand for these cameras, sets go for almost nothing—30-40.00. This is especially true for Minolta, where few people these days are aware of the brand. My big score was for a Minolta Maxxum 400si with a bag and lenses that had gone unsold for weeks. Nowhere in the listing did it say what the lenses were. A note to the seller revealed that one of those lenses was an original Minolta 75-300mm (Big Beercan) lens I had been looking for. Another was an original Minolta 35-105mm AF. There were other items–a third Minolta lens, UV and polarizing filters, and a bag— all were in very good to excellent condition.  

Based on my experiences, the key to finding bargains and not getting junk is interacting with sellers and asking the right questions. Even so, when I need to be sure an item works, I buy from KEH, which, happily, is just across town. Minolta has excellent products, and now that film is back, seemingly everyone is going through attics, basements, and garages, and selling what they find. It’s a great time to get into Minolta! Here is a guide I put together for those new to Minolta products. Happy hunting!

2 Comments

  1. Solid advice! Thank you. I’ve found shopgoodwill to be an enormous crapshoot. I didn’t realize that the sellers would answer questions. This might change the game for me.

    1. Author

      Hi Jim, yes interacting with sellers has been very helpful. So far, I have never lost money on a bad eBay purchase. I always ask that if there is a problem will they accept a return. This is for sellers whose listing say they don’t accept returns. Anyone who says no, I skip.

      Goodwill people are helpful when they can be. The best Goodwills, so far, are Central Ohio, DC, Seattle, Willamette, Northern Arizona, and Greenville SC. They have answered questions, sent additional pics, etc. I have bought six lots from Goodwill, and the only bust was from one that said they could not offer any additional info.

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