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How to Shop for a Used Camera Lens

Updated on August 16, 2015

Buying a Used Camera Lens

Buying a used camera lens can stretch your budget a long way. In many cases by buying a used camera lens you will be able to afford a lens that would normally be out of reach or at least hurt you pocketbook to a degree. So buying a previously enjoyed lens for the most part is a good thing in photography there are a few pitfalls that you need to know about. If you make a mistake whe buying a used camera lens it will cost you more than if you bought it new.

So what are the main differences from buying a new camera lens compared to a used camera lens?

Advantages of Buying New Lenses

Let’s start by listing advantages of buying new:

Warranty: A new lens comes with a warranty. In many cases the lens comes with up to a 10 year warranty against defects. (But not against damage) If a focus motor burns out or something breaks that shouldn't, you are most likely covered for the price of postage.

The ability to return a bad copy. Occasionally a lens will come from the manufacturer and for some reason not focus as well as it should. Professional grade cameras often give you the ability to make a minor adjustment to compensate for a lens that may be a bit out but for most of us you have a short time after purchase to test out the lens and ensure it is working and focusing like it should. Most used product comes with the warranty statement “You bought it, you got it”

Along with warranty and returns the other thing, less tangible that a new lens has over a used one is knowing that the lens has not been abused or the vendor is hiding a problem.

Buying a Used Lens is Not Without Pitfalls

So now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s talk about used lenses

Price: I described the benefits of buying new above so you would understand what a reasonable price for a lens is. You’re not getting a warranty. You’re not getting the ability to make returns and you don’t know if the lens was just dunked in the lake and it’s only a matter of time before it quits working. There are many owners of gear that somehow think their product is better than new and want the new price (but you don’t have to pay sales tax) or close to it. I say there will be other deals along so don’t over pay. If it is high end glass an (like an Canon L lens) and relatively new I would be tempted to pay up to three quarters (3/4) the price of new. Older lenses I would pay closer to half price. If you can’t get it for that price hold out until you can find a better price.

Fraud: Unless you know the owner of the lens personally and know it’s history don’t pay any more. If you’re buying from Kijiji or Craigslist talk with the seller in person. Get a name, address and telephone number. Verify it by asking to see ID. You want to avoid buying stolen merchandise. If you buy over the phone and pay in advance or even though eBay you could end you the victim of fraud and never receive you merchandise.

Service: In the event that you need service was the lens bought within your country? In many areas the lens maker contracts to a distributor who is much like a franchisee. If the lens was gray market (meaning bought off shore) the distributor may choose not to service the lens at all.

What to Watch For

So let’s look that the physical condition of the lens. Possible problems include

  • A scratched element. Some minor scratches may never be seen in our finished product but be careful. Scratched glass may be a sign the lens was dropped and has intermittent problems, like a failing aperture motor.
  • Fungus: You can recognise fungus because the lens looks like a lab dish growing bacteria or like there is a spider web inside the lens. Unless you are buying a high end lens there is poor sealing and moisture can get in and start growing things. Once this happens you must have your lens sent to a repair depot. If you’re lucky the bill will only be $250 plus shipping but you can probably count on more. This is a deal breaker for most people.
  • Aperture blades stick or do not work. The only way to test this is by placing it on your camera and using both AV settings and pressing the manual preview button. You should see the difference as you change the aperture value.
  • Cross threaded filter ring. Examine the filter ring threads carefully and look for distortion or mangled threads. You won’t be able to use a filter with the camera after this happens.
  • Lens attaches poorly to camera. This is usually a sign of wear and tear. There is no way to fix this unless the camera is sent into a repair depot.
  • Contacts are not making contact. It may be a simple cleaning is all that’s needed or it could be a sign that there is internal damage to the lens. Question the owner. Don’t settle for “it must be your camera”
  • Excessive dust. All lenses have a bit of dust which usually does not affect quality. Older lenses that aren’t sealed may acquire more dust. Take a few shots and see what they look like before you lay your money down.
  • Excessive wear on the zoom or focus may mean you will never get a sharp image. Best to bring your laptop along and load he SD card into you computer and check for blurry shots. Shoot something you know to be sharp like a barcode or a lens test card which are available in many places on the net.
  • Eroded coatings. This may be a minor nuance or it may be a sign that you will experience excessive flare or a change in the amount of light through the lens.

To Wrap UP

Don’t be scared away from purchasing a used lens. You will save a lot of money in the long run and most of your purchases will go off without a hitch. Just go in with your eyes open and make sure you know what you’re getting.

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