How to buy a used DSLR lens

Used lensesI have owned about 10 different digital single lens reflex camera lenses so far. Only one of those lenses was new, so you could say that I’m a fan of used lenses. Purchasing an older lens can be a very inexpensive way to explore new focal lengths, test new types of lenses, or simply get better lenses at a lower price.

Buying a used lens that still fits

Older lenses will not always work with newer cameras because manufacturers sometimes change the way autofocus is driven, aperture is controlled, etc. They sometimes change the whole lens-to-camera connection.

Here is a breakdown of what to expect for the main DSLR manufacturers.

  • Nikon – Nikon still use the F mount first introduced in 1959, so any lens with an F mount should still be usable. However some older lenses can cause mechanical damage to more recent cameras, so buyers should be wary of this (in particular for non-Auto Focus lenses and lenses manufactured more than 20 years ago). Some camera bodies, such as the D40 and D60, do not have a mechanical AF drive, so some autofocus lenses could lose this ability when mounted on these bodies.
  • Pentax – The K mount has also been supported and expanded since its introduction. Without exceptions, any K mount lens should mount and work on recent cameras. The much older, screw-mount (m42) lenses will also work when used with an adapter. Of course, lenses that did not offer autofocus or auto-aperture will not gain these abilities even when mounted on newer bodies.
  • Olympus – The company used many mounts over time, from the OM mount to the PEN cameras. Olympus worked to promote the Four Thirds DSLR lens format and helped create the Micro Four Thirds system. The latter can support Four Thirds lenses with an adapter.
  • Canon – The older FD lens format was replaced a few years ago with the EF mount. Both mounts are not compatible without modifying the lenses, a complex process.
  • Sony – Some support for older Minolta lenses is still offered but lenses should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

What to look for when shopping for a used DSLR lens

When looking at auctions or classified ads, there are a few things that must be taken into consideration.

  1. Is the asking price realistic? Compare it with other similar postings. Some people ask for the price they paid when purchasing the lens, others ask for extremely low prices.
  2. Is the lens part of a larger package? Sometimes it’s worth it to buy a package to get one particular lens. The extra items could even be resold.
  3. Does the lens come with accessories such as lens caps, boxes, cases? This should influence the price.
  4. Does the owner look like he knows his lens? It will be easier to get your questions answered if the owner is well informed.

Be wary of listings mentioning “oil-free, snappy aperture blades.” While this is desirable, it is sometimes written de facto and might not be true.

When you find an interesting used lens

After finding a lens that interests you, ask to see it in person (if possible) or at least look at pictures of the lens. Feel free to ask specific questions to the owner and make your interest clear.

If the pictures are not sharp enough, ask more questions or ask for better pictures. Also discuss eventual return policies before buying the lens.

Things to verify before committing to purchasing a used lens

  1. Obvious signs of use/abuse, scratches, marks, etc. Cosmetic damage lowers the value of a lens and could be a sign of internal damage.
  2. Damage to the front element, persistent cleaning marks on the glass, internal dust, damage to the filter ring. These are much more dramatic than damage to the body, as they can make the lens unusable.
  3. Oil on the aperture blades and haze on the glass are to be avoided. Cleaning in this case can be impossible, and will require taking the lens apart.
  4. Mechanical action: zoom/focus rings, aperture ring if present. Rings should operate smoothly but should not be loose.
  5. Fungus on the glass elements inside the lens. Fungus is caused by storing a lens in damp places and is near-impossible to remove. It there are any signs of fungus, do not buy the lens.
  6. Operation: if you buy the lens locally, mount it on your camera and test it. Listen to the AF mechanism, check the AF speed, and look to see if the aperture ring closes as it should.

If you are satisfied and decide to make a purchase, then you can start enjoying your “new” lens. There are some real used lens gems to be found, so keep your eyes open!

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