Home > photography, Users > How to Safely Buy a Used Lens

How to Safely Buy a Used Lens

For some, the kit lens is fine. But if you’re wanting to change it up and start shopping for new glass, the price tag can be a total dealbreaker. Today we’re featuring a guest post from our friends at BorrowLenses.com. These guys really know their stuff when it comes to buying, using and maintaining cameras and lenses, so we thought this would be a great time to share some tips about how to be a savvy shopper. The goal? Get the gear you want without spending top dollar.

By Josh Norem of BorrowLenses

It’s a sad fact of life that gear is expensive. A single Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II USM is in the ballpark of a fresh kidney and not everyone can afford to buy a few kidneys, much less a spleen or lesser organ.

Don’t judge gear by age; This lens is 7 years old and still looks and works like new.

Luckily, camera equipment doesn’t always deteriorate with age, so a lens that’s been cared for could theoretically perform exactly the same as a brand new one while costing significantly less.

Smart buyers know this, so everyone is always on the lookout for high-quality used equipment, including us. And because we buy so much used equipment (typically about 350 lenses per year) we have picked up quite a number of helpful tips along the way.

Here’s a few that will help you be a smart shopper when you upgrade from a kit lens, or when you just want to add to your collection.

Where to Shop

We all know you can find great deals on sites like eBay and Craigslist, but you have to be really careful about checking the seller’s feedback rating and past transactions so you don’t get ripped off. If you meet the seller in person, pick a public place and be sure to look over the lens very carefully before handing over your cash. (We’ll tell you how to do this below.)

A better place than Craigslist or eBay for used camera gear are photo forums with reputable commerce areas. Digital Grin has a great Flea Market section which is well worth checking out, and it’s free to join, buy and sell.

The Fred Miranda Buy and Sell forum is another great place. You need to open an account and pay a monthly membership to sell,  but it’s free if you just want to browse and buy. Fred Miranda is one of the best online marketplaces for photo gear:  Not only do they have a great feedback and ranking system so you can deal with established members, but they’re all photographers who know the lens inside and out. That’s a lot more than you can say for sellers on eBay or Craigslist.

In both, you’ll find many experienced photographers that buy/sell lenses and gear. Photographers who know their stuff can answer specific questions about its condition, history, functionality, etc. They usually provide lots of high-quality photos, too, so you can easily see the lens’s condition. Always a plus!

What to Look Out For

Here are some of the things you should keep in mind when examining a potential purchase:

  • Before you meet the seller, find out if they’re a smoking household. This doesn’t matter to everyone, but cigarette smoke can stick to gear and make it smell like an ashtray.
  • Once you have the lens in hand, check for scratches on the front or back elements. To do this, slowly move the lens back and forth under a bright light and look for scratches in the reflection on the glass.
  • Open the aperture blades and look through the lens to make sure there is no major debris (or fungus!) stuck inside. Nikon users will have to manually move a lever on the back of the lens to do this, while Canon lenses are always wide open when not mounted to a camera.
  • Don’t freak out if you see some dust inside the lens. This is normal even for factory-fresh gear and minor dust particles won’t show up in your photos or impact the performance of the lens.
  • While looking through the lens end-to-end, carefully and slowly rotate the lens in a rolling motion and look/listen for any loose elements shifting around.
  • Check around the rear mount for cracked or missing sections of weather sealing (if applicable). If there’s a hood, check that the hood stays locked on and is not cracked or damaged.
  • Be sure the filter threads are not dented or stripped and that a filter screws on and off easily.
  • Make sure you can zoom all the way in and all the way out without the lens getting stuck or stiff along the way. Also, make sure there are no sandy/gritty sounds as you zoom, or when turning the focus ring too.

Don’t discount a lens just because it has a few scuffs and bruises. The optics may still be flawless.

Test It Out If You Can

It’s a good idea to take the lens out for a test drive on your camera, whether it’s before you buy or if your seller offers you a trial period. Try these tips:

  • Mount the lens on your camera and make sure it stays securely locked.
  • Take test shots opened up all the way (like f/2.8) and stopped down all the way (like f/22) and at all focal lengths. You’re checking that the auto-focus works correctly and that the lens will perform at the maximum and minimum ends of its specs.
  • If applicable, turn on the Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) switch and make sure it sounds right and that the image you see in the viewfinder doesn’t “jump around” during focusing.
  • Consider using a focusing chart if you really want to test the sharpness. But if you don’t know what that is, a newspaper will do the trick.


Upon careful inspection we found that this lens had an issue with its front element – it was missing.

Use Your Judgment and Enjoy the Process

The important thing to remember is this: Don’t judge a book by its cover. The only thing that really matters are the optics inside. Don’t assume blemishes on the outside have any effect on auto-focus performance or optical performance. The number one rule when buying ANYTHING still applies: If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Don’t forget to have fun hunting and (most importantly) shooting with your new-to-you lens. If you’re unsure about which lens you want and want to try a few, hop over to BorrowLenses’s site for a huge variety of lens rentals. Finally, be sure to upload all the great shots you take to your SmugMug galleries and show everyone what a great deal you got.

Links you may like:

  1. August 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for sharing this! I could have used this info in the past week or so, however I can also apply it to future shopping decisions as well. I just pulled the trigger and bought some things from FM.

  2. Graham Crouse
    August 8, 2011 at 11:43 am

    You mention the aperture blades for Canon and Nikon. What applies to Pentax please?
    Thanks

    • August 8, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Hi Graham – Pentax lenses, like Nikon lenses, have a lever that has to be moved.

  3. August 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Did you forget to discuss how to hand over cash (which you hinted was “below”)?

    • August 8, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      Hi Aaron – Sorry for any confusion. That “below” line referred to the part about how to look over a lens. It corresponds to the “What To Look Out For” section.

  4. August 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    A great place for second hand gear (for people in the UK) would be Camera World. They have a shop in London and will show you the used lens and allow you to look around it/take some shots with it in store before you purchase it, so that you know it’s in full working order.

  5. August 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    I purchased a used 80-200mm 2.8 nikon a couple weeks ago from eBay and it has the light clicking/grinding noise you mentioned when zooming. What is causing this and is it an expensive repair?

    • ashraf
      August 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      This clicking noise for the 80-200mm 2.8 is normal. I have this lens and it does make this sound when zooming in with a motorized DSLR.

  6. August 8, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Helpfull article. I have bought used lenses before and it can be a good money saver. Good suggestions on what to check and look for prior to buying. Thanks

  7. August 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    almost all my lens are second or third hand you test it on your camera if the glass is good, clear and she is smooth you can work around the numbers

  8. August 8, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I would absolutely never, ever buy anything of significant value through Digital Grin’s “great” flea market section, nor would I recommend it to anyone. The site offers no assistance in the event of problems, and won’t even allow you to post negative comments about transactions. You are not allowed to tell your side of the story at all unless you have only nice things to say. There is a “positive feedback thread” but no equivalent for negative feedback. There is, therefore, no way to warn other members about dishonest sellers. On eBay you can at least tell when a seller has a history of problems.

    If DGrin’s policies have changed in the last few months, that’s great, but as of the last time I checked some months ago, this was how things stood, and the forum moderators didn’t seem to see anything wrong with it, despite complaints (which they simply deleted) from other users who claimed to have been ripped off. (I was not one of those users, by the way, but I saw some of the complaints before they were removed.)

    I’m sure most DGrin flea market sellers are honest, but it can be hard to tell which ones aren’t, and the moderators seem to be actively hostile to the idea of giving the users tools to protect themselves. Use of the flea market seems to be entirely “at your own risk.”

    I’ve bought many used cameras and lenses online, mostly through eBay but also from reliable dealers such as keh.com, bhphotovideo.com, and adorama.com. Aside from a couple of eBay sellers who I think were honestly just a bit disorganized rather than actively dishonest (they were helpful in resolving the issues, so I never had to file any complaints or ask for refunds), I’ve had no problems.

    • JP
      August 9, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      WOW! Thanks for this informed heads up.

  9. August 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    I bought a second hand 28-70mm L lens (discontinued in 2001) and am very happy about it. Just make sure to test it before buying.

  10. spike
    August 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I bought a gorgeous Pentax-A 70~200 zoom lens at a used camera store for $69. It’s flawless inside and out, and remarkably sharp for a zoom. The Pentax “A” lenses work very well with the Pentax DSLRs, except there’s no autofocus. Sometimes you just get lucky.

  11. Carol Lyons
    August 10, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Very strange that this is your topic in that I just invested in a “used” Tamron SP 2.8 90 Macro lens. Upon receiving it, I noted that it did not fit correctly on my camera body. Upon further research (which I should have conducted BEFORE I bought the lens), it appears that this lens was not produced for a DSLR. While I bought this from a reputable used dealer and am prepared to return it, my question, can I put a “non-digital” lens on my digital camera? Or could I possibly damage my camera? I have a Nikon D60 and have found an adapter for it based on the seller’s recommendation. Will I still get the results I am looking for in a macro — auto focus is NOT an issue for me.
    Thanks!

  12. BAFH
    August 12, 2011 at 10:28 am

    If you’re looking for a great place to buy used gear, I buy almost exclusively from KEH.com. Their gear is always MUCH better than they have it graded. I’ve NEVER been disappointed with anything I have purchased from them. The quality of their used equipment is as good, if not better, than B&H, at normally a much better price. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hesitate to buy new stuff from B&H, but all my used equipment comes from KEH. Yes, it will be generally higher cost than what you might find on Ebay or Craigslist, but for the piece of mind, you can’t beat the price.

  13. San
    November 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Hi, I recently bought a second hand Canon 70-200 f2.8 L IS. During autofocusing I hear a hold/release sound when I press/release the shutter button. Just wondering if that is normal with this lens. I didn’t see other issues with this workhorse so far. Is there any other way to check flaws for this type of lens? Thanks in advance for your suggestion.

  14. Justin Miller
    June 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve had mixed results with Craigslist and eBay. It all comes down to the accuracy of the folks rating the lenses. I’ve found the folks over at thelenswarehouse.com to be the most accurate with how they grade their used lenses. Adorama is solid but a bit too pricey.

  15. Roy Miller
    August 22, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Have you seen this http://www.techarp.com/showarticle.aspx?artno=194? They have pictures of what you described.

  16. bryan
    August 14, 2014 at 12:18 am

    i bought a 2nd hand 17-55 nikon 2.8 from a camera store here in france, at first seemed fine but after 3 months it fell apart so took it back to store as it is under guarantee, they send it to nikon that took three months !! got it back still problems so i took it back again this time after 2 weeks they said that it had been driopped and broken now they refuse guarantee and now i have to go to small claims court to try and get back my money ;o( for info the store is called image photo in france there after sales sucks !!!
    so now I’m going to look at a 70-200 2.8 vr2 sold by a pro photographer but am very wairry as to all the problems i had b4

  1. December 22, 2012 at 6:04 am
  2. March 5, 2013 at 5:24 am
  3. February 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

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