Lenses are expensive. But used lenses are cheap. And thanks to their adaptability to today’s amazing mirror-less cameras, legacy lenses are becoming an ever more popular option for photo geeks looking for top quality at a fair price. But vintage lenses are inherently old and used, and finding one in great shape can be a tricky proposition, especially if you don’t know what dangers to look out for.
Running an online camera store has helped me sharpen my shopping skills to a rapier point. I’ve got the qualified advice that will help you know where to buy, how to evaluate condition, and what makes a lens a lemon.
Let’s get into it.
Best Places to Buy
As with most products, there are good and bad places to go shopping. What can I say about Craigslist and eBay… they are certainly websites that exist. And people do sell lenses there. And you can occasionally get some good deals. Unfortunately, there’s little else I can say to help you determine whether you’re buying a beautiful lens or a pricey paperweight. You’re just going to have to trust the seller’s description, and have a little luck (or a lot).
For the risk averse among us, I suggest that you buy your gear from a reputable seller that sells guaranteed products with accurate descriptions and detailed photos. I’m one such seller, and you can buy from me through my online shop. There are other sellers who do great work for us photo geeks, too. Need a Polaroid SX-70? Brooklyn Film Camera is your best bet. Want a rare Japanese or German masterpiece? There’s no one better than Bellamy. Looking for a giant selection? B & H Photo have massive inventory. And there are many more distinguished sellers who’ve kept this amazing hobby alive and well. Search them out and buy with confidence, if eBay gives you the willies.
The best case scenario sees you holding in your hands the very lens you’re interested in buying. Assuming this, here are some things to watch out for, and the best ways to test for defects.
What to Watch For
Physical Check of Focus, Aperture, Zoom – First, give the lens a quick visual inspection. Check with your eyes and hands that there’s no substantial damage to the lens barrel or to the various rings (aperture, focus, zoom). Check for dents, cracks, serious scratches, and previous owners’ engravings (these are often a person’s name or a company’s inventory number). Check that the filter threads are clean and unmarred, and that the lens mount is in unworn condition. Check that any electrical contacts are clean and shiny. Lastly, check the heads of any exposed screws for tool marks. This could indicate the lens has been disassembled in the past which, while not a deal-breaker, could be a point of concern.
Check External Functionality – Make sure the focus ring spins with smooth fluidity (and moderate weight in manual focus lenses), and that the zoom ring spins with proper corresponding optical functionality. Make sure the aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical precision (and that any click-less aperture functions operate correctly if applicable). If any of these rings spin stiffly or not at all, there’s a problem. Either the internal greases are dried and seized, the lens was dropped and is out of whack (engineering term), or something’s been disassembled and rebuilt incorrectly. In any of these cases, unless the lens is a very valuable one, it’s best to move along and keep shopping.
Check Aperture Functionality – Oily aperture blades are a nightmare, so be sure to test this out. The aperture is the iris in the lens that opens and closes to determine how much light is entering the lens. Oftentimes, grease from the helicoid focus mechanism liquifies due to heat or from age, and seeps out of its natural place and onto the extremely fine blades of the aperture assembly. This causes the blades to stick together and actuate slowly or not at all. Essentially, this makes the lens useless until it’s been disassembled and cleaned.
Testing whether the aperture assembly is actuating correctly and is clean and dry is easy, but different lenses will require different testing methods. Most manual focus legacy lenses of the SLR era are easy to test because they use mechanical couplings. Simply set the aperture ring to a small aperture (F/22, for example), and then actuate the aperture indexing post that’s typically found sticking out of the rear of the lens. While flicking the post, look through the lens and see if the aperture blades open and close. If they do, make sure they’re clean, dry, and free of wear.
On newer lenses, things can be trickier. Certain modern lenses use electromechanical couplings to actuate their apertures, most famously Canon’s EF mount lenses. In these cases, the only way to easily test for clean aperture blades is to mount the lens to a camera body and shoot it. Set the camera to Aperture-Priority mode, set the aperture to F/22, and shoot while looking into the lens. If the blades snap shut, you’re good to go.
Check the Glass – This seems obvious, but lens optics can suffer some hard-to-spot afflictions that make careful evaluation a necessity. We’re going to want to check the glass elements for a wide range of potential ailments, including balsam separation, scratches, haze, and the dreaded fungus (which is as disgusting as it sounds).
If the lens’ aperture is stopped down (closed), open it up. If you have a flashlight, shine it through one side of the lens as you look through the other. If you don’t have a flashlight, hold the lens up to the sun, or the moon, or a street lamp, or whatever. Next, look at the element closest to you and determine if it’s clean, clear, and free of fungus, haze, and scratches. Not sure what fungus, haze, and balsam separation look like? No worries – I’ve made a beautiful mosaic for you just below the next paragraph. Essentially, if the glass shows any ailments, there’s a problem.
Focus your eyeball to the internal elements and check for the same. If the lens is a zoom lens, be extra careful to check the innermost elements, as these often trap moisture and become hazy. Do this until you’ve checked all the elements on the near side of the aperture assembly. Now flip the lens 180 degrees and do it again. When you’ve checked all elements for these ailments, look for dust and particles. These won’t really impact your image quality, but if there’s dust or debris in the lens you may be able to haggle a better deal.
And those are the big things to watch out for. Aside from hard-to-detect situations in which someone may have disassembled a lens and reassembled it with optical elements installed in the wrong location (or backward), if you follow the guidelines listed above you should feel confident when buying a used lens.
Some of my favorite shots I’ve ever made have been shot with 40-year-old glass. Whether mounted to a classic film camera or today’s Sony a7, used lenses are a great way to get amazing optical performance in an inexpensive package. So get shopping.