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Some of the benefits of buying used lenses are that you can often save considerable money, you may find lenses unavailable any more brand new, and you can acquire quality gear either for primary use or as a backup.
Here are some thoughts on what to know before buying a used lens, or any used photography gear for that matter.
How Will the Lens Benefit Me?
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Buying a used lens already has the benefit of being far easier on your bank balance than comparable new equipment. Which is why so many photographers like purchasing used photography gear in the first place.
Beyond that consideration, there are some other questions to consider before buying a used lens. Some of the factors to weigh in our thoughts are what do we need or want the lens to do for us and is it a good fit for my system and my type of photography?
Looking over a new or used lens buyer’s guide, we may see some things that sound nice, but may not really matter that much in the long run. Or, we might find a lens that has a feature we want more than another feature.
As an example, we may be looking at a medium telephoto lens with a fairly fast maximum aperture for portrait work, but it’s bigger and much heavier than the lens that is just a bit slower. So, what is more important to us? The fast aperture or compact size?
Perhaps we come across a lens in that range that is somewhat slower but it’s also a macro lens, specially corrected for ultra close up imaging. Now we have to think about that, maybe trading off the aperture for the gain in macro focusing.
Same thoughts apply to all types of lenses. Ultra-wide-angle lenses, long telephotos, zoom lenses in the various ranges. Just like if we were shopping for new lenses. If the item we just picked up at a great price ends up on our shelf or in that bag of “extra” gear we all have, then it really isn't that great of a bargain after all.
What Are the Most Common Problems to Look For?
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What should we look for when buying a used lens? When shopping online, pay close attention to the condition rating and the actual physical description.
The ratings of used lenses are important to have. Some sites use a numeric scale and some use descriptors, both are valid and useful. A lens with a rating of 10 or Like New will be virtually indistinguishable from an actual brand new item.
A lens with a rating of 6 or Heavily Used should be expected to function properly but have wear and tear showing, maybe even some light cleaning marks on the glass itself. One thing to consider is that not all marks on the glass are deal-breakers. Scratches, though, can be problematic, especially when significant or on the rear element.
Dust is an interesting thing to look at when buying a used lens. Even a brand new, straight off the assembly line lens will have some interior dust. Holding the lens up to a light might shock you, but a little dust is not going to be an issue.
What would be of concern is a heavy amount of dust, cemented elements separating, fungus or mold, or sticking aperture blades. All of these things can be seen when you hold a lens up to a light or a bright wall. (Don’t hold it up to the Sun, though!)
Another thing to be cautious about is the actual lens mount and camera type the lens fits. Not all Nikon lenses fit or work on all Nikon cameras for instance. The F Mount was updated several times for new features on newer cameras, FX lenses and DX lenses cover different formats, and now there is a mirrorless Z Mount in addition to 1 Series, Nikonos, and medium and large format lenses.
The same idea applies to several brands and models of cameras. Canon, Sony, Minolta, Fuji, Pentax, Olympus, and many others have had a lot of changes through the years. Be sure to verify that what you’re buying will fit and work on your camera.
How Do I Choose?
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You can use the latest pages of a used equipment store as a sort of used lens buyer’s guide. Check out this one from MPB.com with scores of lenses for Nikon, Leica, Hasselblad, Fujifilm, Sony, Canon, Olympus, and Panasonic.
Once you find a lens that looks good, look it up on PhotographyTalk.com to see if we did a review on it. A web search will show lots of reviews from magazines, testing sites, and customers of stores that sold that lens.
The other way to do it is to decide what lens you want and then search the used listings until you find that lens. Sometimes, you may have to wait a little while for your choice to be available and in good enough shape at the right price. One of the things I like about used photography stores is that I can often find a used example of a current lens, still in production, but at that great used lens price.
Is There a Warranty?
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Buying a used lens can be kind of scary, just like buying any other item of used photography gear. When you buy brand new from an authorized dealer, you get certain purchase protections. You can return an item, there is a warranty, and you can use various forms of payment.
In transactions between individuals, online or in person, you’re often at the mercy of the seller.
Now, there’s no need to think that any private seller is just trying to unload their problems on someone. Most photographers selling their own used photography gear are completely honest and dependable. They’re probably just trying to get some return on the investment of quality gear they don’t need anymore.
However, personal integrity can’t protect us against unforeseen problems. The person selling may not be aware of some particular issue because they never ran into it. Or, they or you may not know if that lens will actually work for your camera or your needs.
Which is why I prefer to shop for used photography gear from a reputable store that specializes in photographic equipment. Many dealers of new equipment also accept trades, or you can shop at stores specializing in used.
As an example, MPB.com buys and sells used lenses, cameras, and other gear. They concentrate on high-quality equipment and won’t even purchase something that doesn’t work properly, much less sell it to someone. Their expert equipment specialists rigorously examine all items and verify proper functionality.
This enables MPB.com to provide very accurate product descriptions and condition ratings. Plus they will offer a 6-month store warranty on virtually every item and a seven-day return window.
So, in addition to the very real monetary savings of buying a used lens, you also get some real peace of mind when you know what to look for when buying a used lens and choose a store that offers excellent service, a limited warranty, and return privileges on high quality used photography gear.