Classic lens buyers guide


by Bellamy /

5 min read

Classic lens buyers guide
It is about time there was a classic lens buyers guide on the site. I have been meaning to do one for a while but always got sidelined. Now I have had the chance to recharge my batteries I have knocked up one for you. These are the things that I look at when buying a lens.

One of the good things about modern cameras (and even I will begrudgingly admit this) is that there are so many lens options open to you now. In the past it was that you were pretty much tied to one mount, unless you had some serious money and could afford the limited range of adapters. But times have changed and now with the M4/3 market in full swing it has never been easier or cheaper to put different lenses on your camera.
There are loads of different brands of adapter on the market now, some of them great, some less so. So nowadays you can pretty much put whatever you like onto your camera, and I have seen some pretty amazing things being put on to cameras. All those old Switar lenses, Olympus, Pentax and so many more fantastic lenses.

But there are so many different lenses out there it can seem a little bit daunting at first. I am not really going to tell you what lenses you should be buying ( I have done that elsewhere), plenty of other blogs have done that. I am going to give you some tips on what you should be looking for when you are buying a classic lens.

Check where you buy
Obviously the best way to buy a classic lens is to go into a store and check the lens out yourself, get a feel for it and check the condition. In a perfect world. But classic lenses are not everyday items for your local Jessops or Adorama, which leaves you with a few options. EBay being the most used (abused?) of them. If you are going to buy a lens there then you either need to trust the seller completely or be prepared to lose.
Forums, like Rangefinderforum, clubsnap, APUG and others are good places to find lenses. There are a lot of passionate photographers there who change their gear often and you can sometimes get a bargain. These also tend to be people who are not traders, so they are not looking for a large markup.
We have to mention Craigslist. You would have to be a bit mental to try this route though.  But you never know, stranger things have happened.
Large online camera retailers. There are a couple of larger places that sell used gear and some of them can be very good (KEH comes to mind), but you have to be in the right place at the right time to get the good items.
Or through me. I can source most lenses, it just depends on what you want and the budget. Japan is a lens junkies dream. Click here to find out more.

Checking the glass
When you are able to check a lens before (or even after) purchase there are a few things you should be looking at in your potential purchase.
Before you even get the lens on a camera you should get yourself a light source (a pen torch is an excellent idea) and check inside the glass. With this you will be able to see any mould, haze or separation issues pretty clearly. None of these are deal breakers depending on price or the lens you are looking for, but you should be aware of them, especially if not mentioned.
Mould will look like spidery fingers across the glass and haze makes the lens all foggy. Sometimes you may see yellow lenses, this is something that you see with early lenses made from glass with Lanthanum glass. Over time the glass yellows because of the radioactivity of the Lanthanum in the glass. This is supposedly remedied by putting the lens in direct sunlight for a couple of hours, although I have never tried it.
A little bit if dust never hurt anyone, and is pretty commonplace on very old lenses, but a lot of dust is not going to work, so you should look out for that. And whilst you are there, check the lenses to make sure they are not scratched or chipped. Sometimes something looks amazing until you see the lens itself.
Separation can be a more serious issue. You might see tiny bubbles or air pockets as the lenses literally separate from one another. A tiny amount is not going to affect images, but a large amount will. And in general terms, separation cannot be remedied (it can on some lenses, but mostly it is not worth it).

Lens condition
Have a good look at the lens itself and see how it looks. Has it been through a war zone? Or kept well? These again are not deal breakers, but you should be aware of the descriptions used. Many people bandy about the ‘mint’ moniker without actually knowing what it really means. It doesn’t mean scratched or marked in any way, it should be like a freshly minted coin, hence mint.
Check the focus and (if it has it) the zoom, make sure they are smooth and not sticky or slow. This can affect the value of a lens.
For me a major deal breaker is a dent of any kind on a lens. This means the lens has been dropped and that could signal the end of days for that piece of glass, even if it is not readily apparent.

Pop it on a camera
If you have access to the camera that the lens was designed for, all the better. If not then you should still get it on the camera. You do this to check everything is kosher with the lens. Check the focus (AF too if it has it) and the apertures. Are they clicking and tight?
If the lens has motors, now would be a good time to check them. If there is a squeak from the motor (especially on Nikon lenses) find another lens, as these can be incredibly expensive to replace.
This would also be a good time to gauge the weight and the heft of the lens. Some lenses become awkward when mounted (especially on cameras they were not designed for) and this may not sit well with you. Always give some though to the long term effects of using the lens.

Go and take some pictures
Now, after all this, take a picture. You should be able to see (presuming you are using a digital camera) the lenses characteristics immediately. If you don’t like them then maybe the lens is not the right one for you. But that is part of the joy, finding different things until you get the one that is perfect for you.
If your lens has passed all of the checks then you should have a lovely new/old lens to play with.

Of course, if you don’t want to go through all of this yourself then you can drop me a line and I will find the lens you want for you.


5 comments on “Classic lens buyers guide”

    B April 1, 2014 at 10:23 am / Reply

    As someone who uses Craigslist often I wouldn’t say you’d have to be “mental” to use it. The fact that you meet in person makes it better than eBay. Yeah there is risk but you just need to be smart about where you meet and have good knowledge of what to look for. I feel like outside of reliable online communities and brick and mortar stores Craigslist is the best place to go.

    chip April 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm / Reply

    I have had nothing but good luck over Craigslist as well.

    stevenjo April 2, 2014 at 2:59 pm / Reply

    apug is best. particularly this guy ‘nandemofoto’. sick japanese lenses.

    Manni April 4, 2014 at 4:02 am / Reply

    Thanks for the post! I’m missing one thing: you forgot to mention sticky aperture blades. To verify if the aperture mechanism works correcty: on manual lenses, slowly operate the aperture ring several times all the way up and down and look if the aperture follows every step without any delay. On manual lenses with auto-aperture, a little pin on the mount must be pushed in to close the aperture and see the effect. While the pin is out, the aperture does not close. On more modern lenses with electronic aperture (and usually also AF), the aperture should be checked with the lens on the camera.
    If anything sticks or is even a little bit delayed, don’t buy the lens, unless you can live with fail images or it is worth up to 200 Euros of repair cost.

    PauL June 1, 2014 at 2:33 am / Reply

    For now the most of my best business buying lenses (and cameras) was in the flea markets.
    And one time from a personal acqauintance.


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