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), the used lens market is often full of great lens choices, especially for someone on a tighter budget. 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.
Why Buy Used Lenses?
The obvious reason is to save money, of course. Used lenses (in fully functional condition) can be bought significantly cheaper than brand new ones and if you are lucky, you could get a barely used lens at a fraction of its original retail price. This can be especially important when switching systems – you can often buy lenses for as much as you sold those of the previous brand, making the switch relatively painless. Newer generation used lenses and those in excellent condition will obviously be quite a bit more expensive compared to the older ones, but still noticeably cheaper than what you’d get if you bought them brand new. In any case, buying used gear is a personal choice, as not everyone is comfortable with the process. While I have personally had good luck with buying used gear, I have heard of all kinds of horror stories, with people getting mugged or scammed when buying lenses and cameras. Unfortunately, cameras and lenses do attract all kinds of bad people due to their high value, so one has to practice extreme caution when dealing with potentially unsafe sellers.
And even if one knows the seller or knows how to be safe when buying and selling gear, another concern is whether used lenses can be bought with full confidence. Unless you have a chance to thoroughly test the lens sample yourself before making the purchase, the answer is “no”, which is why as a smart shopper you should be very open about your intentions with the seller and let them know that you are planning to test the lens sample before committing to a purchase. Don’t let statements such as “lens barely used” or “in pristine condition” lean you towards buying a lens without first checking it out. If you find something wrong with the lens after you buy it, it will be too late and you will most likely not be able to return the lens back to its previous owner.
Fortunately, there plenty of ways to make sure that you are not buying a dud and to protect yourself from potentially serious financial damage.
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 good 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 that you are trying to fool someone into buying broken or malfunctioning piece of equipment? There are numerous reasons why people sell – 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 for their style of shooting. People sell zoom lenses in favor of primes, and vice-versa, all the time. Some start to get into a specific type of photography, for example – bird photography, and thus sell off their unused wide-angle lenses. Others want to make a switch to a different system or have a frustration with a particular lens that you may not find all that annoying. Either way, there are many good reasons to sell used gear and there are plenty of great and honest people out there willing to part with their gear, outnumbering tricksters and thieves by quite a big margin.
With that in mind, I’m afraid I must mention that some people do try to fool buyers by selling them defective gear. Unfortunately, not every photographer out there is going to be honest about issues related to their lenses, which is why it is a good idea to be familiar with simple techniques to quickly evaluate lenses before making a purchasing decision.
Here are simple steps I take when buying a used lens:
1) Buy From a Trustworthy Source
The place where you look for used lenses on sale matters. While many prefer to buy used gear from places like eBay, there are plenty of busy forums where photographers hang out and buy / sell used gear. Some forums even have a ranking and feedback system, so that the buyers and sellers can quickly check each other’s history before committing to a purchase or sale. If you can check a person’s selling history, it is often enough to see if they are going to be trustworthy enough or not. And if you can see their previous ads for selling used gear, you will be able to figure out if they are honest about their gear condition or not. Things such as dents, chips and cracks should always be reported by the seller, along with high resolution images of the gear on sale, preferably from multiple angles.
Another place where people often buy used gear is Craigslist. Unfortunately, that’s where you are more likely to come across scammers and thieves, so you have to practice extreme caution when dealing with sellers there. Make sure that the person who is selling the camera gear is knowledgeable about what they are selling and they provide all the necessary contact information. When arranging a place to meet, make sure that you do it in a safe environment for both of you. A good rendezvous point would be near a police station. If the seller refuses to show up, it is best that you avoid that transaction, even if it sounds like a deal of the century. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is…
Make sure you know how to contact the person you’re buying a lens from, as well as their full name. Look them up on Google, Facebook and other social media sites to see if such person really exists. In this day and age, most people will probably have an online profile somewhere.
Having an option to return the lens is certainly useful, so check and see if the seller is willing to take the lens back if something goes wrong.
2) Examine Exterior and Interior Condition
Before conducting any detailed tests with a camera, always make sure to examine the exterior and the interior condition of the lens.
- Scratches and Dents: the way a lens looks can tell a lot about how it was previously used. Does it have any serious scratches on it? If it’s nothing major, you shouldn’t worry, but the price should reflect this. Things can get a little more serious once you examine screws and rubber pieces holding the lens together (if they are visible) – if you see visible marks, it might be an indication of disassembly / reassembly and potential mechanical or electronic problems in the past. Unless the seller indicates that the lens was repaired by a professional service technician (in which case they should be willing to provide a receipt / invoice), you might want to stay away from such lenses.Also, some professional lenses like 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 might have substantial wear and tear marks – professionals usually use their gear without worrying too much about cosmetic damage, because lenses are just their everyday tools (many photographers forget that). If the damage is reflected on the price, don’t worry about those too much, since pro-grade gear is designed to withstand abuse. Some loss of paint or rubber can happen, as long as you’re fine with it, and it shouldn’t affect the optical properties of the lens in question.
Dents, however, are a bit more serious, as they are often an indication of physical damage in the past (due to being dropped). No matter what the seller says, you will need to inspect lenses with dents thoroughly, since optical quality might be severely affected.
- Cross-threaded Filters: both plastic and metal filter threads can be easily cross-threaded, and it’s not that simple to live with such a lens, especially if you rely on filters a lot. Examine filter threads closely before making a purchase. Ideally, find out what the filter thread size is in advance, and bring your own filter to test with (a cheap filter is ideal for this). If the filter thread is busted and you still want to buy the lens, make sure that the price reflects this. Repairing a filter thread is not easy, as it often requires replacing the lens barrel.
- Buttons and Switches: if they lens you are buying has buttons and switches, make sure to examine them and test if they actually work. Switches should not be stuck and buttons should be fully functional.
- Check Aperture Blades: before you mount the lens on your camera, inspect the aperture blades from the front and the back of the lens – do they appear normal? If there is an aperture lever on the back of the lens (as in the case of older Nikon lenses), move the lever with your hand and see if the aperture opens and closes properly:
Are there any oil marks on the blades? Do they move smoothly and freely? If the lens has an electronic diaphragm, you will need to test it on your camera, as instructed below.
- 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 and some of the bearings might have worn off on the inside. Check for zoom creep – if the lens is not supposed to have it and it does, it might be time to get it serviced. Ideally, both focus and zoom rings should be smooth and offer some resistance. You should not hear any grinding sounds as you rotate either ring, since that might be an indication of dust or sand inside the lens, which is certainly not a good thing. 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 of operation.
- Lens Rattling: while some lenses (especially those with image stabilization in them) will naturally rattle, it is still a good idea to give a slight shake and make sure that you don’t hear any crazy rattling sounds coming from the inside of the lens. You do not want any lens parts to be loose.
3) Examine Optical Condition
Once you physically inspect the lens, it is a good idea to examine its optical condition.
Check the lens for fungus, scratches and dust. The best way to do that is to shine some light through the lens (with a simple flashlight – even the LED light from your smartphone should suffice) – 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.
However, keep an eye for the following:
- Damage to front and rear elements (damage to rear element is especially serious)
- Damage to lens coating
- Large dust or other particles inside the lens
- “Cloudy” appearance of the lens elements
- Fungus / mold
If you find anything wrong with the lens, the price should obviously reflect this. Dust particles and some scratches are OK (see our article on what to do with dust inside lenses), but if you see damage to rear lens element, damage to coating or anything to do with fungus / mold, stay away from that lens.
4) Quick Tests With Your Camera
Always make sure to bring your own camera when buying used lenses. Ask the seller if they are going to be comfortable with you mounting their lens on your camera before the purchase and thoroughly testing it. If they refuse, it is probably best to avoid that seller, as they might be trying to hide something.
The reason why it is important to test a lens on a camera, is because you will be able to quickly see if there is any potential problem with the lens. A lens might appear perfectly normal on the outside, but it might have mechanical, electronic and other problems that can only be identified when it is mounted on a properly functioning camera. It is also beneficial to bring your own camera, because some lenses might do well on some camera bodies and not so well on others. We have explained this in detail in our Lens Calibration guide, so make sure to give that article a read to understand why lens AF calibration issues can be painful to deal with.
Once you mount the lens on your camera, turn the camera on, set it to Aperture Priority mode and take a picture. The first test is to make sure that the lens works, so a quick picture should reveal any serious problems. If the lens has an autofocus motor, make sure to test its autofocus by focusing on a close object, then an object in the distance. If you are testing a zoom lens, do this for all focal lengths to make sure that autofocus does not lock up at any focal length. Don’t worry about inspecting each image at 100% zoom at this point – you are simply testing how well the AF motor works.
If the lens has an electronic diaphragm or a mechanical diaphragm that is controlled through the camera, make sure to test the lens at different apertures. I prefer to shoot at least two images – one at wide open aperture and one fully stopped down. Inspect the images and make sure that they look properly exposed. If the images come out very bright or very dark, the diaphragm / aperture might be malfunctioning.
If the lens you are interested in buying has image stabilization / vibration reduction, make sure to give it a thorough test. Turn image stabilization on (usually a switch on the side of the lens) and try taking pictures while hand-holding the lens. Make sure that stabilization works and there is no crazy jumping around of framing in the viewfinder.
5) Detailed Optical Tests
This is the part that will most likely get the seller quite a bit anxious, since it is rare to come across anyone who would perform detailed lens tests. However, given how much variance there can be in lenses, I always recommend to properly test them, no matter if the lens is brand new or used. If the used lens you are buying has gone through all the previous tests and it looks good, this is one area where it might fail miserably. Let’s go through the steps I would highly recommend before committing to purchasing a used lens:
- Test for Lens Decentering: ever heard of a lens with a decentered lens element? Those could be nasty lenses to deal with, since you will never be able to get the whole frame sharp when taking pictures. While most lenses suffer from decentering (and yes, it is normal), you should make sure that the lens sample you are looking at does not have any serious decentering problems. Decentering is something you can test for very quickly – photograph a distant subject from a hill or a tall building, stop down the lens to f/5.6-f/8 and analyze the corners. If all the corners look relatively the same, you have a good sample. If one corner looks very sharp, while the other looks very soft, you probably have a decentered lens element. If you cannot be on top of a hill or a tall building, you can try to photograph a flat wall (such as a brick wall), but you will need to be very careful – if the wall is not perfectly parallel to your camera, your results will not be accurate. Slight differences in the corners are fine, but if you see significant blur on one side of the frame, stay away from such lenses.
- Autofocus Accuracy: this one is also very important to check. Once again, see my article on how to calibrate lenses to understand the process in more detail. The idea is to focus on a subject with AF Fine Tune settings turned off and see how accurately the lens focuses when compared to a shot focused in live view. If the lens focuses accurately and the subject appears sharp, you have a good sample. If the focus is way out of whack, you might want to stay away from the lens, unless it is a lens that you connect to a console and fine tune later yourself (such as the Sigma Art series or the new generation Tamron lenses that are compatible with the Tap-in console). Generally, if a lens requires dialing more than ±10 in AF Fine Tuning, it needs to be sent to the manufacturer for adjustment.
- Test Sharpness: before you buy the lens, make sure to check out its reviews first, to see at which apertures and focal lengths the lens performs the best and the worst. For example, if you know that a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens should be very sharp at f/5.6 at all focal lengths, stop the lens down to f/5.6 and take some pictures at different focal lengths and see if it is capable of yielding sharp images (this is especially an important test for landscape photographers, who need edge-to-edge sharpness on such lenses). Make sure to focus precisely via live view, so that you avoid any potential focusing errors from the phase detection autofocus system. You should take note of any significant differences in sharpness at different focal lengths.
Be as thorough as you can when buying used lenses – you will save yourself a lot of nerves, money and time in the process. Given how much camera gear is out there, buying used lenses is a great option today – just make sure to get your routine right, and you’ll feel as confident as you are with camera retailers.