Is Buying a Used Camera Lens A Good Idea

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used camera lensI bought this used 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and it works perfectly.

We all like to save money and we all like to use camera gear that's in great working condition. That brings up the important question of whether it's okay to buy a used digital camera lens. New camera lenses are expensive and there's no doubt you can lower your initial investment if you get one that's not new still unopened in the original box. Is it smart to buy a 2nd hand lens online?

Provided you follow a few simple steps, it is a good idea to buy a used camera lens. Used lenses are more affordable to buy than new lenses. There are plenty of safe and trustworthy sellers who have a large supply of perfectly working, used lenses in excellent and like-new condition for photographers to choose from.

I'll give you my own personal experiences with purchasing used lenses as well as what you need to watchout for. Hopefully, it will help you decide the best direction for you to take.

Safety of Buying Used Camera Lenses online

The follow-up question is if it's safe to buy camera lenses online? I wondered about the dangers of buying lenses and other gear quite a bit when I first starting assembling gear to use in my portrait photography business. Although I got "clunkers" on two different occasions, I really didn't get burnt. I just had to go through the process of returning them and I received full refunds.

In today's matured online marketplace it is very safe to buy a used camera lens online. Encryption software makes any online transaction safe provided you select a trustworthy seller. Moneyback guarantee and solid return policies reduce the risks to almost none.

Internet encryption software has made online financial transactions of all kinds very safe. In fact, you're more likely to have issues when you go out to dinner or buy something with a human being handling the transaction at a cash register.

You're more likely to run into an issue when your buying your used lens from a private seller-Avoid Craigslist- that you don't know personally. If you stick with large photography retailers and high reputation sellers with good return policies you'll be fine.

How To Test A Second Hand Lens

Once you get your used lens you need to know right away if it's good. That way you'll be able to return it within the allowed return time . That means you need to know how to test your specific copy of the lens you just purchased. You can't go by those technical lens tests you see on photography gear review sites.

It's a good idea to take three simple steps IMMEDIATELY as soon as you get your lens delivered. Here is the 5 step method on testing a second hand lens to see if it is any good and worth what you paid.

1. Check The Packaging

Damaged packageCheck packaging for damage

Although modern lenses are built solidly, they may not survive undamaged if the box they were package in was somehow abused during its travels.

Whether you buy brand new or used lenses, you should take a picture of the package and contact the seller immediately for instructions if it appears to have been damaged during transit.

2. Visual Inspection

Step 2 is unpacking your lens as soon as possible. Look for dirt, smudges, scratches, and wear marks. The condition should match the grade description given on the website. Different sellers have different grading scales and you should familiarize yourself with the seller's scale before making your purchase.

I advise you to avoid "bargain," "fair," "ugly,' and "as is" rated lenses. I only buy "Excellent," "Excellent Plus," and "Like New" lenses.

Look through the lens from both ends as you move it around to change from light and dark backgrounds which will reveal any internal optical issues.

Rotate both the focusing ring and the zoom ring if your lens has one to feel how smooth or roughly it turns.

3. Physical Fit

The third thing to do right away is attach your lens to your camera. It should feel like a solid fit with no movement once it locks into place. The lens should not be overly tight and difficult to remove or to attach to your camera body.

Do not hold the zoom ring or focusing ring when removing or attaching your lens. Grip the lens barrel instead. The electrical contacts should appear to be clean and in good condition.

Steps 4 and 5 should be done within a week of getting your lens.

4. Sharpness Test

I'm not a fan of going overboard when it comes to technical lens testing, but there's a simple test that you can easily do.  Use a pre-printed lens sharpness target. You can find various versions of this test target all over the internet.

lens test targetTest your used lens sharpness with a printed target.

For your convenience feel free to use the same lens test target that I do: Lens Test Target. Just print it for your own use. Photograph the target, using a solid tripod, at various lens settings and evaluate them for sharpness on a large computer screen by zooming in .

If you purchased a used zoom lens, you should test the sharpness at different focal lengths, preferably, one at the widest setting, one in the middle, and one at the narrowest focal length.

Then test the sharpness at different apertures. Most lenses are sharpest when they're stopped down one to two f/stops from wide open.

5. Distortion Test

All lenses have at least some optical defects. Some quite a bit more than others. Zoom lenses, in particular often have some level of barrel distortion and pin cushion effect. Nothing to get alarmed about. You should just be aware that they exist and with some subjects can be distracting.

Most viewers won't even notice these two defects unless they're really pronounced. The easiest way to test your new or used camera lens is to photograph a brick wall or building with horizontal and vertical lines.

Lens barrel distortionPhotograph a brick wall
Barrel distortion appears with widest angle lens setting.

See the illustrations below. Both distortions have has been exaggerated to explain them.

pin cushion lens effectExaggerated
pin cushion effect

Barrel lens distortionExaggerated
barrel distortion

Just as with the test for sharpness in your camera lens, you should take photos at the widest, the middle, and the narrowest focal lengths. Then, look for the amount of converging or diverging lines in your photo.

Best Place To Buy a Used Camera Lens Online

Times have changed and will continue to do so. Over the years I've purchased used camera gear from quite a few different sources. I relied on the first 3 listed below in the early years of my career. The list includes several ways that don't even exist anymore.

  1. Used Camera Stores - They've gone out of business.
  2. Photography Trade Shows -  Don't exist anymore.
  3. Advertisements in the back of Photography Magazines, like Shutterbug and Pop Photo. 
  4. eBay - I started by portrait business using eBay.
  5. Private Sellers - not a big fan
  6. Major Online Retailers Like Adorama and BHPhoto - Definitely trustworthy.
  7. KEH - This is now where I turn to first.

There are too many good choices for where to buy your used camera lenses. I've made out well buying used camera gear from Adorama, eBay, and now I only use KEH. See the advertisement.

Since I've updated this post, I've had a few more experiences and they've been nothing but positive in terms of the excellent quality of the used gear I've gotten from KEH.

My last three purchases of used gear have all been made through KEH.

I saved a lot of money by not buying new and the condition of equipment was simply perfect. KEH is a camera and lens retailer that specializes in used equipment.

How do you know if a camera lens is good?

Both new and especially used camera lens models get rated over time as they've been purchased by thousands (sometimes millions) of other photographers. The best way to know if a camera lens is any good is to test it on your own camera, but research its buyer ratings first.

Websites of large camera retailers like BHPhoto and Adorama in NYC, and to a lesser degree general retailers like Walmart and BestBuy post buyer reviews on camera gear.

Amazon is, by a huge margin, the best place to read reviews on camera lenses. Even if you never buy from Amazon, you should take advantage of buyer feedback on just about any product you buy, including camera lenses.

Take a quick peak at the number of reviews on popular lenses sold on Amazon.

Conclusion on Buying a Used Camera lens

Not everyone is going to feel confident about buying a used camera. It's one of those personal choice things. I wasn't at first either, but I'm glad I returned to doing it. It's a good idea to be familiar with new camera lens prices too.

I now provide commentary on cameras, lenses, accessories, and techniques for two different websites. My test purchases add up quickly and I'm appreciative that I can avoid the higher prices of new equipment.

I hope you found this post helpful. Keep shooting and stay inspired!

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of this website. He is the author of the book "Improve Your Photography Instantly."  Read more on Bruce on his Bio Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since 1994. Read more about this website.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one-on-one photography coaching.

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