How to Buy Used Lenses

With new lenses getting more expensive all the time, many photographers choose to purchase used gear and save money. While certain lenses can only be bought new (at least for a while), like the just-released Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8, used lens market is quite often an important aspect to consider when choosing a system. In this article I will try to explain the benefits of buying used lenses, as well as give you some tips on how to buy used lenses on-location knowing you’ll get a high-quality piece of equipment you will be happy with for years to come.

How to buy used lenses

Why Buy Used Lenses?

The obvious reason is to save cost, of course. Used lenses (in fully functional condition) can be bough for as much as 30 percent cheaper than brand new ones, and sometimes even more than that. This especially makes sense if you choose to switch systems – you can often buy lenses for as much as you sold those of previous brand, making the switch painless. Of course, newer lenses will be a bit more expensive, but still cheaper than what you’d get if you bought retail. In any case, this is down to each person’s opinion if he’s comfortable buying someone else’s lens.

The common question, however, is whether used lenses can be bought with full confidence. In short, no, unless you have a chance to thoroughly test it yourself before making the purchase. There are plenty of ways to make sure you’re not buying a dud, and to protect yourself from a serious financial damage. I’ll let you in on a secret – I’ve bought at least half of my gear used, including my 50mm f/1.4G lens I use more than any other, ever.

If a Used Lens Is On Sale, Does That Mean It’s Defective?

There aren’t all that many untrustworthy people out there as you may think, and most sellers have logical reasons to get rid of their gear. Ask yourself a question: if you were to sell a lens of your own, would that necessary mean you wish to fool someone into buying a spoilt piece of equipment? There are numerous reasons – some sellers find they don’t use that particular lens enough to justify owning it, or they may have found an alternative they think is more suitable to their style of shooting. People sell zoom lenses in favor of primes, and vice versa, all the time. Others begin to prefer a specific type of photography, for example – bird photography, and thus sell off their wide-angle lenses. Others want to make a switch to a different system or have a frustration with that particular lens that you may not find all that annoying (many people find slow focusing of 50mm f/1.4G lens a deal-breaker, while I’ve found a way to live with it while I must). Either way, number of viable reasons exceeds number of tricksters and thieves by quite a margin, rest assured.

With that in mind, I’m afraid I must be fair and mention that some people do try to fool a buyer by selling defective gear, and I know that from my own experience (I bought a lens with AF defect serious enough to be unusable, and sold it to a person with a warning and for a lot less money). And that is why we need short, simple guides like this to make buying used lenses a much safer bet.

General Guidelines

Here are simple steps I take when buying a used lens:

1) Buy From a Trustworthy Source

It doesn’t mean you have to get to know the person you’re buying from, don’t get me wrong – no dates are necessary, you can skip to the important part as soon as you want. ;) But the place where you look for used lenses on sale matters. eBay comes to mind first, of course, and then there’s a section in Fred Miranda forums dedicated to buying/selling gear. Both these places have reliable ranking and feedback systems, so that you know if a person you are about to buy a lens from is worth your trust according to other people who have already bought from him. This alone is enough to know if the seller is likely to lie about the condition of a given lens or not.

Make sure you know how to contact the person you’re buying a lens from, as well as his full name. Having an option to return the lens is very useful, so check if there’s a good return policy.

2) Bring Your Laptop Along

A laptop will help you check for any defects and imperfections as you photograph, such as AF inaccuracies or centering defects.

3) Examine Optical Condition

  • Check The Lens For Fungus, Scratches and Dust: best way to do that is to shine some light through the lens (with a simple lightbulb if there’s one nearby, or a torch, possibly) – any imperfections should then be clearly visible. Small scratches and dust specs are nothing to be worried about – they happen and rarely have any kind of noticeable effect on image quality. Still, be sure to check both front and rear elements for such imperfections, and, if found, price should reflect this.

    Nasim has a few useful articles written on the topic:

    Fungus is more dangerous – once there, it’s more difficult to clean and it does damage to lens coatings, so avoid lenses with fungus inside.

  • Make Sure the Lens is Well Centered: a badly centered lens will perform better at one side than the other. This is actually where it’s a good idea to shoot brick walls or a stretched piece of fabric, where there’s a lot of detail. After you’ve photographed it, closely inspect the image – it should be as sharp on the left side off the center, as it is sharp on the right side. If you find that the lens is just plain soft while it shouldn’t be (according to samples and reviews you’ve seen, for example), it may also indicate a serious centering defect. These can only be fixed by an authorized, professional service, and not always, at that. Centering defects are easier to spot with the image taken wide-open or close to wide-open.

4) Examine Mechanical Condition

  • Scratches and Dents: the way a lens looks can tell a lot of how it was used. Does it have any scratches on it? If it’s nothing major, you shouldn’t worry, but the price should, again, reflect this. Things can get a little more serious once you examine screws holding it together – has someone tried to take the lens apart? That might indicate it had some electric or mechanical problems before. Unless fixed by a professional service, such a lens may suffer from bad centering, etc.

    Also, some professional lenses, such as 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 class, can have substantial wear and tear marks – pro’s usually use their gear without worrying themselves too much about cosmetic damage, because lenses are just instruments (many photographers forget that). If the damage is reflected on price, don’t worry too much. Some loss of paint or rubber can happen, as long as you’re fine with it, and shouldn’t affect optical properties.

    Dents are a bit more serious, as they can mean a lens has been dropped. If impact was strong enough, optical quality may be severely affected, so check carefully.

  • Cross-threaded Filters: both plastic and metal filter threads can easily be cross-threaded, and it’s not that simple to live with if you’re a filter user. Examine filter threads closely before making the purchase. If they are in fact ruined, but you don’t find yourself using filters, make sure, as always, that the price reflects any imperfections.
  • Check Aperture Blades: you will most likely have to mount the lens on your camera. Close down the aperture and use depth of field preview button if necessary. Are there any oil marks on the blades? Do they move freely? Don’t worry about perfect symmetry – it rarely happens even on most expensive lenses. You can expect better symmetry from Carl Zeiss and Leica lenses, but it doesn’t affect optical quality in any noticeable way most of the time.
  • Focus and Zoom Rings: depending on how long the lens has been used, the zoom ring should offer some resistance, but can never be wobbly and completely loose. If it’s very easy to turn, that may indicate the lens has been used quite a lot. In this case, check for zoom creep – if there is none, the lens is fine.

    Either way, both focus and zoom rings should be smooth. If they’re not, it may indicate there are dust or sand speckles inside, which is not good and may result in further damage. The lens should, obviously, be able to run through the whole scale of both focus and zoom rings. If a focus or zoom ring has a dent on it, it may affect precision and smoothness.

5) Autofocus Operation

While autofocus operation speed can be different depending on lens/camera used, it should always be smooth. If you’re buying a lens, it probably means you’ve read about it some and know what to expect, more or less. Make sure AF runs through the scale in an expected pace – while it can be faster than you hoped, it shouldn’t be much slower (the already mentioned 50mm f/1.4G lens can serve as a good comparison of a slow-focusing lens). Pro-grade zoom lenses, especially those with AF-S motors, are lightning fast – 16-35mm, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm class and so on. Most Canon lenses are also very fast, and that includes many of their prime lenses (unlike Nikon) with the exception of exotic 85mm f/1.2 lens (both versions).

Make sure it’s accurate (within AF Fine Tune scale) and locks on a subject well in both Single and Continuous focus modes. Check both minimum focus distance as well as infinity focus.

Last, But Not Least!

If you have a feeling that a particular deal seems too good to be true, as with many things in such a case, it likely is. Be as thorough as you can, and you will save yourself a lot of nerves, money and time in the process. Buying used lenses is great, and even professionals do it all the time – just make sure to get your routine right, and you’ll feel as confident as you are with retailers.

Happy shopping!

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Murray Foote
    September 24, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Other completely reliable places to buy second-hand are KEH and the second-hand departments of Adorama and B&H.

    • 19
      ) Misa
      October 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      Sure, B+H used are reliable. I used to buy new from them and I am realizing that used gear are also a good option. I often do not have to check, I think they do the job for me :)

  2. September 24, 2012 at 2:10 am

    Would be nice with an article the other way around. How do sell a used lenses, so that it is easy for the buyer to verify what kind of quality you are selling.

  3. 4
    ) FrancoisR
    September 24, 2012 at 7:32 am

    JUST my personal experience here:

    I purchased ALL my “L” lenses (16-35 USM II, 24-70 mk1, 70-200 f4 IS, 300 f4 IS and 400 5.6) used at generally 30-40% off the new price (plus saving sales taxes, not the least at 15% here). All were almost new except for the 300 which is 12 years old and they ALL work perfectly. Most of the gear came from pros and I found them to be very reliable (they usually take religious care of the equipment and know how to use it). I tend to stay away from merchants as they take too much profit, I buy only new stuff from them (bodies) and usually across province to save provincial taxes (10%). I bought many of my Nikon lenses used too and never had a mishap. I find lenses quite obvious to check. Nikon keeps a higher resale value (there are much less) except for the 300mm 2.8 IS vs VR 2.8. I never bought a used body, I always use the latest. One can make substantial savings and used lenses represent a great investment (better than the bank :D). For instance I purchased a 70-200 VR1 at 1250.00 which I sold for 1350.00 two years after within 2 days. I prefer my 70-300 VR for travel. I try to buy high end stuff and never after market unless I know of a particular model (they dont keep value and are harder to sell). Nikon pro lenses and Canon L lenses are the best. You wont get the best deal off eBay but regular sellers can be trusted. My best units came from Japan probably due to location (most of our lenses are made there: I just bought a mint 50 1.4D at 189.00 ). Europe is usually overpriced. One exception is France where the Mustang CF cards UDMA 6 are great but my 32gb does not work in the D800 which is very fussy :(. Yes I tried all the tricks. I’m very cautious with US sellers, they charge too much for shipping (US in US are great). If possible I buy canadian to avoid over the border hassles but asians are OK (no charge at all). I’m not being racist here lloll, I just speak of convenience for someone living in Canada. My best deals were local hand to hand transactions and I always carefully check the seller’s credentials (not keen on stolen goods). If they are patient and dont rush the deal, it’s a good sign. The same logic applies when I sell…

  4. 5
    ) Art
    September 24, 2012 at 8:48 am

    If you live in the USA and purchase a used Nikon lens or camera and ever hope to get it serviced; be sure that it is not a gray market version. Nikon service centers in the USA will not under any circumstances repair gray market items. Even if you use a local repair shop this also may be hit or miss because Nikon has now adopted an idiotic policy of not selling repair parts to non authorized repair shops. For manual focus lenses this may not be a problem, but for lenses with electronic parts such as VR or an AFS motor it would be a huge disappointment to spend a lot of money on a pro lens and find out a year later it is almost worthless because it cannot be repaired. Would highly recommend that seller supply the receipt with serial number and warranty card to prove that it is a USA version.

    • 10
      ) Rod Machin
      September 27, 2012 at 4:02 am

      Art

      From my experience in purchasing goods abroad, I was told that Nikon lens warranty is worldwide, whereas Nikon Cameras are restricted to the area for which they were marketed.

      • 11
        ) Art
        September 27, 2012 at 8:39 am

        Here is my experience with purchasing Nikon products overseas. If you can prove with a receipt ( with a serial number) that you personally bought an Nikon item in a different country and that it was an officially imported into that country then Nikon USA will honor any warranties and repair the item. But if you buy a gray market item in the USA which is not an official import Nikon USA will not repair the item or honor any warranties on that item. When I lived in Europe EU laws prevented Nikon Europe from having this sort of policy, so it was not a problem there but the US has no such laws.
        I found all this out because I recently had a friend who purchased a used 200-400 AFS VR lens at a very large and popular retailer of photographic products in New York City about two years ago. Last month the AFS motor in the lens was not working so he sent it to a Nikon USA service center. They stated that the lens was not an official import and would not repair the lens even though he was going to pay for it. He then tried to find a non authorized repair shop to fix the lens, this proved difficult because Nikon is not selling repair parts to non authorized shops anymore. After much searching he found a place in Ohio that would fix the lens with a used part from a salvaged lens they had. If he had not found a place to fix the lens he would have had to sell it at a greatly reduced price for parts or send it to Japan for repair which would have cost a fortune in shipping and insurance costs as well as dealing with language barriers, customs, etc. Also Nikon is very cryptic on how to get this service.
        Might want to check out Thom Hogan’s web site, he has a nice essay on the subject and probably explains it better than I do. ( http://www.bythom.com/warranty.htm )
        Regards’,
        Art

        • 12
          ) Murray Foote
          September 27, 2012 at 9:06 am

          It’s not a problem in Australia either but if you’re in the US what about Canada? Could you just send a lens there for repair?

          • 13
            ) Art
            September 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

            Sorry I did not mention it but my friend did call Nikon Canada and they seem to have the same policy that Nikon USA takes: they will not fix or honor warranties on any Nikon products that were not officially imported into Canada. I guess some countries have better laws to protect the consumer from having to deal with repairs to Gray Market items and the US and Canada are not one of those.

            Regards’,
            Art

  5. September 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Awesome article! I’d like to add my 2 cents here.

    Focus
    Make sure the lens will achieve both close focus and infinity focus.

    Screws
    Have a close look at the screws that secure the lens mount to the lens barrel. If the heads have any noticeable paint loss or finish mark, then the lens may have been serviced before.

    Flash light
    Use a super-bright LED flash light. Look into the lens with aperture wide open, then shine the flashlight from the other side. This will highlight fungus, dust, and any other anomalies.

  6. 7
    ) JR
    September 24, 2012 at 10:27 am

    I’ll throw this in the mix as food for thought…

    I purchased two lenses on Ebay, at different times, through different sellers and via different transactions: a Nikkor pro tele-zoom for a digital Nikon body and a Schneider Super Angulon large format lens for a LF field camera.

    The EBay transactions were well over eight years apart, but share ONE COMMONALITY that should be taken very seriously:

    The seller in each case said that they were selling the lens for SOMEONE ELSE(for a deceased “father” in the case of the Nikkor and for a “friend” in the case of the Schneider). Each seller claimed to be photography challenged but asked someone else who “knew photography equipment” to check out the lens and that the lens was in MINT condition.

    In both cases I’d asked, emphatically: “are you SURE that the lens is MINT? Mint means: no dings, scratches, blemishes on BOTH glass and barrel.” In both cases the seller replied: “…the lens is in PERFECT CONDITION…blah, blah, blah”

    In both cases, when the lens arrived at my home, I took a quick glance and within TEN SECONDS I saw scratches on both front and rear elements. The front had ding/s made by dust carrying rock granules, and the back your tyipcal scratches made by someone trying to clear out dust with a long finger nail.

    Were the blemishes enough to kill picture quality? Well, in very bright situations, where the sun hits the lens at that “particular angle”, there was some considerable flare. But, for most situations the blemishes were negligible.

    However…..as Roman pointed out in his case, when having to RE-SELL the lens, that’s where I took the hit. When I sell camera equipment I don’t lie and say that I’m a photography neophite or that I’m selling for “someone else”, when I’ve been shooting for 25+ years! But, unfortunately, there are enough dishonest people out there that would rather make a buck, or two, and shaft the next person than to live an honest life.

    Be forewarned about the “selling for someone else” EBay ad. I was bitten TWICE but I will not strike out!

    One more thing, Roman: shining a light through the lens will show dust and obvious blemishes. However, my favorite and first, test is to bring the lens to window light and move the lens around, while hodling it at a 30 deg angle, or so. That technique has never failed me and has shown me the most granular defects.

  7. 8
    ) Randall
    September 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I picked up a 28-300mm for my d600 for $800 on ebay. The description said like new and it sure was. It looks as if its never been used. Also the seller has a 14 day return policy so if I don’t like it or it has any issues I can return it. On the downside it is the only lens I own that is not covered on warranty by nikon. I think it was worth it in this scenario because I couldn’t see myself paying full price for that particular lens.

    • 9
      ) JR
      September 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm

      That’s a good deal, Randall. Congrats!

      When buying used equipment you may as well throw warranty out the window. To buy used and get warranty, beyond the 14 day return policy that you mention, simply doesn’t happen.

      In all of the years I’ve been shooting I’ve only had ONE lens go bad on me(a Canon zoom) and that was due to sand getting inside the gear work and messing with the AF. I didn’t need to repair it, but it made a grinding noise and I decided to drop the $ and get it fixed. Came back new. But, it was well out of warranty and I had to pay for the entire repair.

      That said, if your lens looks like it’s new, it probably hasn’t been used very much.

      Enjoy it and don’t even think about it going bad!

  8. 14
    ) Peter
    September 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Here’s how you can save tons of money on NEW lenses..and never have to buy used lenses.

    Buy only the lenses you NEED, not WANT, and buy NEW ones with a warranty.

    You’ll have fewer lenses, save lots of money, and all your lenses will be new.

  9. 15
    ) Randall
    September 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

    HELP!!! amateur alert…. lol….

    Im still just learning but Im hoping someone can help me understand something. I upgraded from a d5100 to a d600. I always used my 5100 in P mode and A mode with iso to auto and I have always thought the pictures look great. Now when I use these settings the D600 I find the pictures just do not look good. The only way I can get the pictures to look good to me is to go to full auto (which I hate). When in P mode on the d600 every time I look at the photo details the ISO the camera chose is in red as if the wrong ISO setting was chosen. I also noticed that full auto uses white balance auto1. But when in P mode I can only use white balance auto2. Even when I manually chose my ISO there is still a huge difference in the photos. My eyes prefer the white balance auto2 in most shots. I have tried all the other white balance settings in P mode an cannot seem to match this. Im sure its something I’m doing wrong. My biggest concern is why the auto iso chooses such a way higher setting then when the camera is in full auto. I have been reading the manual but I still can’t seem to figure out the problem. Im hoping this is a user error rather then a problem with the camera. Any of your thoughts or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

    • 16
      ) Randall
      September 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Correction: I prefer the auto white balance 1 over auto white balance two.

  10. 17
    ) Matt
    September 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Check the Auto-ISO settings. You should set ISO to 100 and minimum shutter speed to whatever you need. I like to Max ISO to Hi-1 but others might prefer lower or higher. I hope this helps!

  11. 18
    ) mayank
    October 1, 2012 at 5:14 am

    Dear Team
    Need your expert advises, I want to buy a lens but unable to decide which one to go for.
    I am not a pro but ameture , I already have 18-105 and 50 mm 1.8, now i am confused to either go for zoom 70-300 or some macro like 60 mm 1.8 G

    my usage is pretty open as well like normal crazy guy from macro to street to wild life as well.

    Looking for your suggestions.

    Regards
    MM

  12. 20
    ) Andrzej
    January 23, 2013 at 7:04 am

    Szukam obiektywów do NIKONA
    80-200 mm , f/2,8 ED AF-S
    35-70 mm , f/ 2,8 D AF

    proszę o podanie niskiej ceny z kosztami wysyłki do Polski . Proszę o info na maila.

    Andrzej

    • 21
      ) Rod Machin
      January 23, 2013 at 9:44 am

      Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D ED Macro (new) is still available in many countries. I bought from Hong Kong – awesome. Read http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/80200.htm for details (sorry for quoting the opposition)

  13. 22
    ) Shiraz
    September 11, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Thank you this information is very good. .but I will be better if give a video demonstration because beginners dont understand it properly so please give a video demonstration. ..

  14. 23
    ) laura
    July 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Guys if you want good lenses at cheaper prices the try the CEX website.. I work for them and use the lenses they are good. There is second hand stores all across the UK and Australia, India, Spain and US.
    UK website is webuy.com but if you search cex webuy in Google it should list country websites. :)

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