Camera lenses are an excellent way to expand the capability of your camera. But buying a new lens can be expensive, for the budget conscious, second hand lenses or pre-owned lenses are a good way to get the lens you want at a fraction of the price.
Buying second-hand can also give you the opportunity to purchase a branded lens for your camera rather than a third party lens from Sigma for instance, if money is tight.
Compared to camera bodies, lenses can keep their value a lot more. So the perfect time to buy a second-hand camera lens is when a new model is being announced and everyone is trying to offload their perfectly good lenses so they can buy the latest and greatest.
If having one or two models behind the current model doesn’t phase you. Then you’re in the perfect position to get a good bargain.
10 tips when buying a second hand lens
- Try to buy in person
- Check for any visible body damage
- Check lens accessories
- How to check the glass elements for scratches
- How to check the lens for dust and mold
- Bring a camera to test the lens
- Has the lens been repaired in the past?
- Does it have warranty
- Don’t be forced to buy anything
- Compare price
Today’s question is from Tom who is asking how do you avoid getting ripped off when buying a second hand camera lens? He wants to add another lens to his event photography kit, but can only afford a 2nd hand lens.
Buy in person rather than online
To avoid any disappointment I would highly recommend you buy the second hand lens in person. I’m not saying that you will be ripped off if you buy a second hand camera lens from an online retailer.
It’s just sometimes the photos don’t always show the true condition of the lens, such as does it have noticeable dust in the glass elements, does it have mould, or even a scratch on the front glass element.
This is why it’s important to be able to physically handle the lens and see for yourself. Does anything sticks out as a red flag when it comes to the purchase?
You could always ask the sell questions about damage, If it’s been repaired in the past, and the general conditions of a second hand lens if the online product description doesn’t give you all the information you need, but still not the same if buying in person.
How to check for visible damage on the exterior
The first thing you should do is to check for any visible damage on the lens.
It’s natural for a lens to have some scuff marks or even a couple of dings depending if it was a professional that was used for everyday work if the lens is a few years old.
If the previous owner was a casual user that only took photos on the weekends would less likely have scuff marks on the exterior of the lens unless it was dropped or misused.
What you really looking for is for the 2nd hand lens to be as perfect as possible for its age. That means if the lens is only a couple years old and if it looks like it’s been through a war zone, I would personally think twice about buying the lens. One or two light scuff marks are ok, but when you see deep gouges or dents should rings alarm bells.
If you’re looking at buying an L series lens or a professional grade lens that are working professional used every day. 99% of the time you are going to get some sort of scuff marks and Dings. Even though some people put protection on top of the lens in the form of covers sometimes these things happen especially if they are used on a daily basis.
- Start at the front of the lens, making sure the front element does not spin and that there aren’t any noticeable dents at the front part of the lens body.
- Working your way down when you get to the zoom or the focus ring make sure when you twist the rings that there is no crunching sound which is a good indication of sand for excessive dust, make sure it’s nice and smooth and it doesn’t catch.
- Keep on working your way down to the back of the lens where you’re going to come to the mount you’re naturally see some markings made from the lens being attached and removed from the camera body. Make sure that the pin on the on the lens he’s not missing and that it’s not too stiff when you press down.
- The lens mount are made out of metal for the professional grade lenses and most consumer lens should be the same. Make sure there’s no chips or pieces of metal that have broken off, the last thing you want is to have any metal filings getting onto your sensor.
- Lens from manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon have weather seals on their pro grade lenses. The rubber gasket or an O-ring will make a tight seal on the camera. Make sure the O-ring hasn’t got any missing rubber and the rubber is soft and not hard and stiff. If it’s hard and stiff it means that it’s dried up and more than likely needs to be replaced.
- If the 2nd hand lens you’re buying has image stabilization, make sure the button works and is not loose and the same also applies for the manual and autofocus buttons.
- For longer lenses such as a super telephoto they often have attachments for a camera strap to be used to carry the lens around when not attached to the camera. These usually are simple little eyelets that allow the camera strap to go through. Make sure that these are not loose, if you don’t use the attachment it’s a good indication that the lens has been mistreated.
Check lens Accessories
All camera lenses come with some accessories as standard, such as the front lens cap and a rear lens cap has a minimum.
Higher end lenses will also come with a pouch or case of some sort. For bigger lens such as a super telephotos, they also come with straps similar to your camera strap so they can be carried when not on the camera.
Even though lens caps are relatively cheap to buy you don’t want to have to outlay more money for something that should come standard with the second hand lens
- Make sure you check the front lens cap fits correctly and it’s the right size for the lens. You’ll have a squeeze mechanism to remove the lens cap at the front, test this is working well, and there’s no broken bits of plastic that is a good sign the lens cap has been dropped.
- The rear lens cap has a quarter twist or a half twist action to put it onto the back of the lens. Make sure that the action is nice and smooth and there are no broken bits of plastic.
- Almost every lens comes with a lens hood with the exception of some of the consumer lenses as these are extra add-ons. If your lens has a few scratches it is fine, but does indicate how the lens was treated by the previous owner. A lens hood other than shielding the front element from light it’s also a great way to protect the front element.
- So check the lens hood fits the lens correctly and snuggly and it doesn’t simply fall off. check that there are no broken pieces of plastic work connected to the front of the lens.
- I will note that some lens hoods have gone through redesigns and some of the older style lens hoods didn’t always stay on and word fell off with the slight bump. so it’s not a complete deal-breaker but definitely frustrating.
- If the lens is meant to come with a pouch or a strap, sometimes these get misplaced as more than likely the lens will be carried within the camera bag, not a deal breaker if it doesn’t have them.
How to check the glass elements on the lens
The Next Step would be to check the front glass element and the rear glass element for any scratches or markings.
- If the second hand lens comes with a polarising filter for protection, remove the filter and look at the lens for any scratches.
- Also remove the rear lens cap and inspect the rear of the lens and see if there are any scratches there also.
- For a more thorough look, hold up the lens to a bright light source such as window light or a light fixture in the ceiling. and just look through the lens with one of your eyes and see if you can notice any noticeable scratches
- Zoom the lens in and out stopping at different lengths make sure the lens is free from any damage that may be either a defect or from the lens being dropped.
Checking for dust and mold
So you’ve checked the lens for scratches, next would be to check for dust and mould within the lens itself.
- checking for dust is relatively easy and it just requires a bright light source, such as a window light or ceiling light and simply looking through the lens and concentrating on any specs of dust which look White.
Zoom lenses, depending on how they zoom, can suck dust into the lens and so depending on where the lens was used it may have some specks of dust which depending on the age can be acceptable.
What you don’t want to see are large clumps of dust or lots of specks of dust or sand for that matter.
- Once you’ve looked through the lens zoomed in and out at different lengths try to see if there’s any dust particles behind the front element as that’s where most of the dust will enter from.
- Pay particular attention towards the edges of the glass elements and then work your way towards the centre.
- The rear lens element is also a place where dust can so make sure you also take a look there aswell.
Next would be to check if the camera has mould and if it does, don’t buy the lens.
- Mold inside the lens can be black, green / blue on the inside and even look like a water drop on the inside of the lens element.
- Check the walls of the lens which are black so take your time and be thorough
- If there’s mould inside a lens that means that it’s been stored in a high humidity location or has been used in a damp and humid location for long periods of time and somehow moisture has gotten inside.
Testing the lens on a camera
After you have visibly inspected the lens and are confident that there’s no scratches on the glass elements and that there is definitely no mould and if there’s any dust in the lens, it’s very minimal or not at all, the next step would be to test the lens on a camera.
Simply bring the camera body with a memory card to test the lens.
What your actually testing for is when the camera is set to auto focus mode will the camera focus correctly, using both the centre point focu and all autofocus points. You are also testing image quality of the lens.
Depending on the type of lens. If it’s a premium lens, auto focus will be quick and the motor with in the lens will not be too noisy
Iif you hear crunching sounds or a very loud motor sound especially, if the lens is more that 5 years old it could mean that the lens has been used quite a lot and potentially abused as well.
Older style lenses motors that drive the autofocus are known to be quite loud. So if you’re buying an older second hand lens then it will more than likely sound quite loud you just don’t want to hear crunching sounds as if there’s sand in the gears.
If the lens has image stabilization when you focus and half press the shutter button or the rear autofocus button, you will hear the giro sound that lasts for a few seconds as the Giro is trying to keep the lens or the image still.
- Try the lens with and without image stabilization on. You will notice the difference in the sound the lens makes.
- Also don’t forget to switch the lens to manual and see if you can focus using the manual focus ring making sure there is no crunching sounds when you turn the focus ring.
- Next would be to test the image quality, ideally your you would try to take photos indoors and outdoors if that’s a possibility.
- Put the lens into autofocus mode and take photos indoors and outdoors making sure that you properly expose the photos and review the images on the back of the LCD screen making sure that the image is sharp, the colours a good and crisp and there is no purple fringing if you are photographing Outdoors or when there are bright reflections off objects.
- Also make sure that you take photos at different ” f stops ” from the biggest to the smallest to give you a good idea lens sharpness.
It would be great if you could review these images on a computer to get the best idea if the lens is free from any defects, but the seller may not allow you to do that.
Has the lens been repaired?
You should question if the lens has been repaired as from my experience when I had repaired a few of my lenses repaired, they were never the same again.
Once you open up the camera lens, depending who doing the work it’s never going to be perfect.
I had dropped my camera and the lens mount was ripped off the lens when it was repaired the lens, even though it performed fine. There was added dust inside the lens and I noticed that there was mould growing inside. The lens was repaired at Canon’s repair centre.
So this is why it’s important to ask about the history of the lens.
If it’s a private seller, if they made the purchase as brand new or they may have also purchased it second hand.
- Knowing how long they’ve had it and where they’ve used it is important as it will help you make your decision.
The same applies when you’re buying from a second-hand photography store. The lens may be sitting in their display for a long time and the person selling you the second hand lens may not not know where it came from so just be a little bit cautious.
Does it have warranty
Some camera stores offer 3-month warranty with the second-hand camera gear they sell.
This is something to take into account as it gives you that piece of mind.
Unfortunately buying from a private seller, you don’t have that luxury as they are obviously trying off-load the lens for various reasons and they’re not going to take the lens back, since your are purchasing the camera equipment as it.
Don’t be forced to buy anything
Don’t be forced into buying any second-hand camera equipment if you don’t feel comfortable.
If you have any concerns however small, you need to proceed with caution.
Some buyers may say they have a lot of interest to speed up the purchase. But you should keep in mind that if you’re meant to buy the lens then it will happen.
I also should note that if you are going to test the lens and the buyer tries to give you excuse as to why they don’t want you to bring a camera or limit the amount of time you have in handling the lens. That should be something that rings alarm bells as they may be hiding something.
Go with your gut feeling, if something feels off do not buy the second hand lens
The best time to buy a second hand lens is when a new model is announced or released. All the photographers that like to keep up with the latest and greatest will be trying to off load their equipment.
It’s best to shop around for a while before you jump in to buying a second-hand lens. Checking photography forums, eBay, Amazon and your local photography store to compare prices and find an acceptable price for your budget.
Prices will more than likely differ anywhere from a few dollars to a couple hundred dollars depending on the condition, In some cases it could be a lot more.
You just need to know the full price for the lens brand new, how old the lens is, and what the current second-hand market is willing to offer that lens.
As the saying goes. “If the price is too good to be true, then it more than likely is.” So stay away from deals that are too good as the camera equipment could be stolen.
So I hope these tips on how to avoid getting ripped off when buying a second hand lens, have given you confidence for your next purchase.
Just keep in mind that you don’t have to buy the lens just because you inspected it. Look over the lens thoroughly and if you can’t see any scratches on the glass or any weird sounds coming from the motors or inside the lens. Test using your camera, checking the image quality, then you should have the confidence in knowing you won’t get ripped off.
If you have any doubt, ask questions to get answers, and if the answers don’t tick the right boxes, simply don’t buy the second hand lens and move on to the next seller.
FAQ to buying a 2nd hand lens
Where can I buy Lens if my local camera store doesn’t sell second hand?
A good place to start would be your local camera club. Also local camera markets or local classifieds. If you don’t get the lens you want then going online to get something specific.
How often do second hand lenses come on to the market?
Second-hand camera equipment is constantly being put on to the market.
But you will definitely notice a big flood of equipment in the second hand market when a new model is released or has been announced.
Manufacturers update lenses less frequently than camera bodies. Depending on the type of lens, such as professional grade or consumer lens may be updated more frequently than others.
Some lenses were first released 20 years ago, maybe on their third revision, of which the last update made 5 or so years ago. Lenses such as the 24-70 and 70-200 have been around for awhile but recently updated.
Is buying a 10 year old lens worth it?
Buying a camera lens of any age, it doesn’t matter, 2 years old, 5 years old or 10 years old. It’s still worth buying the lens depending on the condition that it’s in.
But what you should know is that when a lens is upgraded to a new model there will be slight improvements in technology of the motors, images stabilisation technology, the optics and also the general image performance of the lens.
Personally as a general rule if I’m going to buy second-hand camera equipment, such as lenses I will try to buy 1 model old because that will be technology wise still current and the lens will perform almost like new.