A Brief Guide to Buying Secondhand Lenses

By Jason Row / September 19, 2015

One of the biggest pluses to come out of the rapid expansion of photography from a fairly niche pastime to a mainstream high profile activity is the proliferation of second hand equipment that now floods the market. In part this is driven by the much shorter production cycles of digital cameras. A typical consumer mode now is updated every 12 months, pro models every two years. Whilst it is not necessary to constantly update, many of us do, and, in doing so we sell on our old equipment. Very often this includes the lenses. Today we are going to take a look at buying a used lens.

Why Go Secondhand?

The obvious answer is price. Depending on what you are looking for and where you get it from, you can make huge savings. Alternatively you can stretch your budget to purchase lenses that would normally be out of your price range.

Some of the more exotic lenses are virtually impossible, or prohibitively expensive to buy new but a careful trawl through the secondhand markets, either virtual or bricks and mortar can often uncover these rare gems.

Lastly some of the best lenses ever made are, no longer made. There are some older generation lenses, often designed in the film era that still eclipse their modern day counterparts. These optics often come up for sale secondhand.

Big savings can be had buying secondhand by John Benson on Flickr

Where to Buy Second Hand Lenses With Confidence

In a perfect world buying a lens should be a face to face transaction. There is no better way to buy a second lens than to physically hold it and test it on your camera. So what are the best face to face options?

  • A camera store. Whilst you will be paying a commission to the vendor, a good camera store with a well stocked secondhand section is still the best place to make your purchase. Problem is that real camera stores are a dying breed.
  • Local camera club. The members of camera clubs are always buying and selling equipment and as enthusiasts and peers are unlikely to sell you a pup.
  • Local Ads. Although you are unlikely to find more specific lenses, sometimes the local ads will turn up some interesting samples. Your local Craigslist is also an option but as always make sure you meet in a safe busy place and don’t let your heart over rule your head when purchasing.
Your peers at the local camera club often sell gear by John Spade on Flickr

Of course we don’t live in a perfect world and many of us, sadly, do not have the option to buy face to face. It is then that the internet comes into play.

  • Online camera stores. Although a dying breed, some real camera stores have thrived by embracing online sales. Many of these have active and well stocked secondhand sections. Look for stores that rate the lenses in terms of quality and that have a respectable returns policy.
  • eBay. Perhaps the world’s biggest resource when it comes to secondhand lenses is also perhaps one of the toughest ones to use. Look for vendors that are either photographers or sell photographic equipment. Always check their seller rating and what they have been selling. If they shift large volumes of photographic equipment, a 100% rating is unlikely but have a look through the comments and look for any trends that might flag up issues. Lastly, again, choose a vendor that has a return policy.

Used wisely, eBay is a treasure trove of secondhand lenses

What to Look For in a Second Hand Lens

Your initial look should tell you if the owner has cared for the lens. If the elements have not been cleaned or there is grime on the barrel this might suggest the lens has not been looked after. Beyond that carefully check the front and rear elements for blemishes and scratches. Turn the zoom or focusing rings to bring the inner lens elements closer to the front. Look for specks of dust that might have got into the lens itself.

Gently shake the lens, you are looking for things that might be loose or rattling. Have a look for dents in the barrel or loose screws and check for smoothness of the rotation in focus and zoom. Another important thing to look for is fungus. This can appear as small light spots on the inside of the lens elements and can easily spread. Reject any lens which appears to have a fungal problem.

Look beyond the obvious when buying secondhand, by Britt-knee on Flickr

Lastly, put the lens on your camera and take some shots. View them preferably on a computer screen where you can get a good one to one representation of the sharpness. If that is not possible, zoom the image to maximum on your camera’s LCD and check both the centre and edges of the frame.

There are so many secondhand lenses out there that there is a good chance you can get the lens of your dreams at a significantly lower price than new. Apply these simple rules when buying and the chances are high that you will bag yourself a bargain.



About the author

Jason Row

Jason has been writing for Light Stalking for over six years now and has 35 years of experience as a professional photographer. He now concentrates on producing travel stock photography and video from around the world. You can find his portfolio here. His work has been featured in numerous publications, both online and in print, as well as for major companies such as Virgin, Etihad, Tripadvisor and Booking.com. Jason has also produced a number of video tutorials for Light Stalking and Photzy. Born in London he now lives in the beautiful city of Odessa, Ukraine.


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