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.
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.
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