An Introduction to Buying Used Lenses

An Introduction to Buying Used Lenses


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Let’s face it– photography is an expensive hobby and an even more expensive profession. Camera bodies, speedlights, reflectors, memory cards, lighting equipment, backdrops, batteries, stands, hard drives, tripods, back-ups, gear bags, hard cases, the latest gizmo or gadget-that-you-seriously-cannot-possibly-live-without…and don’t forget the glass. Next to the camera itself, quality lenses make up the most expensive part of just about any gear closet.

In an ideal world money would be no object and pesky things like gear budgets would be non-existent, paving the way for me to purchase all of the shiny, brand-new lenses I could possibly want (“Hi, Nikon? I’ll take one of everything!”). The reality, though, is that I have to balance my lust for gear against how many meals my rapidly growing 12-year-old son gets to eat each week. The truth is, the buying and selling of used lenses has almost become an industry unto itself. There are a lot of high-quality second-hand lenses out there, which means you can satisfy your “need” and still save a good bit of money if you’re smart.

Where to begin? Well, there’s nothing for you to buy if you don’t hook up with…

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The Right Kind of Seller

Even though it should go without saying, I’m going to say it. Do your homework! It’s not enough to know everything about WHAT you want. You may have read all about the sweet spot on the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8, or the minimum focus distance of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L-Series, but when you’re getting ready to drop a significant chunk of your hard-earned money on a lens, you need to find out everything you can about the person selling it.

If you’re contemplating a face-to-face transaction, ask around. Get references or referrals if you can. In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, chances are good that buyer and seller each know someone in common. If you’re buying on ebay, carefully check the seller’s feedback and ratings, particularly the comments. Also take a few minutes to compare the price against other auction sites and even that of a new lens.

Although I have purchased lenses on ebay with excellent results, it is generally not my first choice. After all, the first time you are going to have the lens in your hands is after you’ve already paid for it. Unless the seller has blatantly lied about the condition, you’re stuck with it (and sometimes even if they have). It’s entirely possible that what has been advertised as “minor wear” is actually a much larger scratch than you’re willing to overlook. I tend to be kind of nitpicky in that department, which just one of the reasons why I recommend buying used lenses in person whenever possible.

Try buying locally if you can. First, if you and your seller travel in the same circles, you exponentially increase your odds of an honest, above-board transaction. Nobody is going to risk their reputation over a used lens. Another important benefit to purchasing locally is the fact that you can have an actual visual and physical examination of the lens before you buy it. Being able to check it out and– more importantly– put it on a camera and test it are going to be the two most important factors in your decision to actually buy the lens. Never, ever underestimate these advantages.

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The Physical Exam — What to Look For

For starters, a quality lens is just going to feel good in your hands. Take a minute or two to look for anything obvious– dings, scratches, or any places where the finish may have rubbed off from excessive or careless use. Are the rubber grips on the zoom and focus rings snug and intact? Do the rings turn smoothly? How are the filter threads? Are switches intact and functioning properly? Only you can decide for yourself how much is too much, but remember that what you see on the outside is usually indicative of the care with which the original owner treated the lens. Also keep in mind that the finish on a quality lens should not rub off, regardless of age and proper use.

Next check the front element, preferably in bright light. Hold the lens against the light at different angles, checking the glass and coating for any scratches or other imperfections. Some of these imperfections MIGHT not necessarily affect image quality, but they should absolutely be a factor in negotiating the price. If the lens has an aperture ring, open it all the way and try looking straight through it like a telescope. Do you see any dust, mold, or anything else that shouldn’t be inside your potential investment?

Now turn it around and check the mount. Is it clean? Are there any scratches? Is it bent or seemingly out of alignment in any way? Are the contacts clean and in good condition? Remember that this point of connection is the only thing that lets the camera communicate with the lens. This is where it can all go wrong if you’re not careful. Any of the imperfections discussed so far might not necessarily be deal-breakers, but any problems whatsoever with the mount should be. Just walk away.

The Fungus Among Us

If you’ve read enough ebay auctions or classified ads for used lenses, you’ve been assured that the object of your lust and desire is free of not only dust and other particles, but fungus and mold as well. That’s great, but how would you know? The fungus/mold issue comes up most often in the case of older lenses in particularly humid climates. Early stages will resemble those dried water spots on your bathroom mirror, while more advanced stages can look like spider webs. If you see this, do not even think about attaching this lens to your camera. Fungus and mold are living organisms and can spread, both to your camera and other lenses that are subsequently mounted to it.

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Test It!

If you’ve purchased used lenses before, chances are you either didn’t test it at all, or if you did test it, you probably took a few random shots in the parking lot where you met the seller to make sure the auto-focus was working and that something actually showed up on your camera’s LCD. Don’t sell this part of the process short. Take a methodical approach.

You’ve changed lenses enough times to know how it should feel. Does the lens turn smoothly or does it feel like you’re forcing it? Is it too tight? Too loose?

Now shoot. I’m not talking about two or three shots. I’m talking about 100 shots. To really put this potential purchase through its paces you need to take close, mid-range and far focus images at multiple apertures, and in small increments along the entire zoom range of the lens. Was that spot there at f/16 or only at f/2.8? A problem that shows up at 200mm might not manifest itself at 70mm. Try manual focus. Listen for strange noises. Shoot something dark. Shoot something light. Does the auto-focus sound right? Do you hear anything rattling around inside the lens?

Check The Images

Even people who are careful about testing used lenses before they buy them hardly ever think to bring a laptop with them so they can get a good look at the test shots. We all know that the LCD is an unreliable indicator of image quality when we are photographing for our clients, so why should you automatically trust it when you’re about to hand over your cash to a stranger? If the seller really is on the up-and-up they won’t mind sticking around for a few extra minutes while you check the image quality against the only standard that really matters– your own two eyes.

A Special Note to Vintage/Film Camera Collectors

When lenses sit unused for an extended period of time, the special oil used to ensure that aperture blades move smoothly can leave shiny spots on the blades and cause them to stick. It will usually be visible on the blades as you adjust the ring, but if the lens has a depth-of-field preview switch, adjust to the smallest aperture and press the DOF preview button. Properly functioning aperture blades will snap smoothly into place without sticking.

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The Bottom Line

I know we all love the excitement of opening new boxes from B&H and Adorama. It would be a mistake, however, to avoid well-cared-for lenses just because they’re previously owned. Nikon, Canon, Tamron, Sigma and the others spend a great deal of time and money researching and producing lenses which are made to last. If you take a smart, methodical approach there is no reason why one of these previously used lenses can’t find a valuable, productive spot in your camera bag.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

Some Older Comments

  • Seymore July 25, 2013 06:09 am

    I only ever bought one cam body new... a D70 when they first came out. Every other body/lens I've bought over the last decade and a half was used. Most are MF ol'school Nikkor glass.

    One other thing that was not mentioned is to check the focusing helicoil of the lens. If stiff, it's prob not been used in a very long time (read years) and/or the grease has become hard. If loose, the grease is not longer there, the helicoil was cleaned and not properly re-lubed, or the grease has become liquid and flowed to other areas inside of the lens. This can also cause problems with the blades of the aperture. Oil/grease on the blades are not good.

    I've also discovered that some MF 3rd party lenses have poor contrast and can be hard to find the focus point. This doesn't mean they are no good, just means you need to play with them to discover their strong/weak points. They are usually cheap enough to take the risk... if for no other reason but to experience

    Don't hesitate to ask questions of the seller and request more PICs you want to see. (there is no such thing as a stupid question, just a stupid answer) If a seller is less than forthcoming with anything, consider looking elsewhere. There are many more fishes (lenses) in the sea... most often.

  • Paddy July 5, 2013 01:42 am

    Ive bought pretty much all of my photography stuff preowned and I'd just like to chip in my bit. When you do buy and take those test shots pay specific attention to those taken on uniform backgrounds. For example a white wall. Look for what looks like water spots. Change to one of your own lenses and see if it appears there, if it does its likely your sensor needs cleaning. If it doent the chances are there is a significant dust clump on one of the elements. Also there are dedicated pre-owned photography businesses. My favourite is MPBphotographic. Perfect customer service when the ribbon cable in a pre-owned lens failed with a no questions asked replacement.

  • Mridula June 29, 2013 12:40 am

    I desperately want a 10-20. Maybe used lens is the way!

  • Brian Fuller June 28, 2013 11:29 pm

    ALL of my lenses were bought off Craigslist or eBay. (SIgma 50mm f1.4 ; Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 ; Tamron 28-75mm f2.8)
    This is a great article as I did NOT fully scrutinize my purchases. Fortunately, I did not get any lemons, but I could have easily missed some mold & fungus because I didn't look hard enough. I did much of what is suggested - but when spending that much money, I should have been more thorough.
    I think checking out the seller is huge. Often their phone # or email or a unique name + city can get you Google results (at least here in the US). One of the sellers, was a professional wedding photog. Another was a respectable businessman with a significant photography hobby. I didn't learn this from them first. I learned it from Google. The way their emails or texts were written and their demeanor and conversation at the purchase meet really allowed me to feel I could trust them and they knew their stuff. I think checking out the seller is just as important as checking out the lens. Totally recommend used. Saves money that can be spent on other gear.
    And sell your old gear on Craigslist in order to upgrade. Several times I have bought a used lens, used it for a year or more, and then sold it for the same price (or even more!) that I bought it for. Then used that to buy a better lens (or camera).


  • jennie June 28, 2013 11:10 am

    I have found one of my lenses (purchased with camera about 3 yrs ago) has mould/fungus inside (spider web stage).
    Can these be sent to repair place to be cleaned inside or are they ruined? I previously was unaware that they could mould up inside as i assumed they were made in a clean room environment and were sealed. How is the best way to store lenses (in humid environ)?

  • Andy June 28, 2013 04:03 am

    Or you could just go to

  • Rich Maher June 28, 2013 03:13 am

    I buy and sell cameras and lenses on ebay with an outstanding feedback score. I give a 14 day money back guarantee, with free shipping. If the seller does not give a return policy run away. The crap is probably untested from a garage sale or an estate sale. I learned the hard way when I I first started. Ask questions from the seller, that way you have a record of your communication. Remember, the seller has a no return policy for a reason. Beware.

  • Tim Gray June 25, 2013 10:05 pm

    I agree if you are paying near retail for a used lens. But 90% of the time I am paying 30% of the new lens price so the seller is not going to hang around for an hour while I take 100 shots and inspect them carefully in lightroom.

    Do basics, check it for mechanical and look for known failures (I.E. research your lens fully before buying it) and understand that the "dust and scratches on the primary" are in fact a big deal even though people try to pass it off as if it was not. take nearly 50% off the asking price if there is any internal dust. IF they will not, then let some other fool buy that lens. Scratches in the primary = bad lens flares if used outdoors, so again reduce the price again...

    Last, if it is a zoom that has an extending barrel, extend it and check for up and down play. if it has play, the lens needs a lot of service, about $300 in service.. ask for $400 off the price because you have to send it in.

  • Jim Donahue June 25, 2013 12:31 pm

    Never..ever buy a used Zoom Lens, It doesn't take much of a bump or drop to knock it out of wack.