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.
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.
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:
- “How to Remove Dust From Nikon 24-70mm Lens”
- “What To Do With Dust Inside Lens”
- “How to Clean SLR Camera Lenses”
- “The Effect of Dust on Lens Bokeh”
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.