Thursday, November 17, 2011

Buying Used Lenses, An Experience

Lenses can be expensive. We all know that. Not all of us can afford every lens we think might improve our shooting or let us capture that elusive shot the way we want to. At the same time, there are photographers all over the world who are getting new equipment and looking to get a few bucks for their old stuff. Like anything used, camera equipment and lenses in particular can be a great investment or a bad way to throw away good money.

I recently found myself wanting a new lens. For me, a new lens wasn't so much about trying to get a shot I felt I was missing with my current equipment it was to have a new way to look at the world. I'm sure there are many photographers who know the shot they want and figure out how to get it. I'm not one of those. I go to where I think interesting shots can be found and look for them. Each lens gives me a new window to look through. So I wasn't necessarily looking for a specific lens, I wanted to find a quality lens at a reasonable price that gave me a new window.

The first step is to determine where to look. There are plenty of places to find used lenses and where you look will depend on your budget, the popularity of your lens mount, how quickly you need the lens as well as your risk aversion. In order by price:

Physical Camera Shops
Photography Forums

Camera shops tend to be the most expensive but also the safest. With everything going big box, your local camera shop will be run by professionals and they'll know exactly what their used lens is worth as well as it's exact condition. They also have a reputation to protect and likely aren't going any where.
Amazon sells more than just new items, they also offer plenty of used ones as well. You can bet that anyone who has a bad experience with a seller will leave negative feedback, so that gives you a good idea of whether a seller can be trusted. Sellers also have Amazon watching over them, and Amazon is also worried about reputation. Still, Amazon is taking some off the top of each sale and most sellers on Amazon are professionals so there won't be many discounts here.

From here the risk increases. Ebay has many reputable sellers and probably has the largest inventory of used camera equipment. You'll likely find dozens of sellers for the lens you want each day, with sellers ranging from very reputable to unknown. Be wary of sellers with no reputation and also ones who don't accept returns. While some of these are just new sellers looking to exclusively get rid of this one thing, others are fly by nighters who are looking to rip people off. The other issue with Ebay is that unless you're using a Buy Now option, you're likely bidding against others. That means you have to have the last bid or you're not getting your lense. Ebay is also concerned about it's reputation and if you buy using PayPal, you'll get additional protections. The biggest issue you'll find with Ebay if you're careful is that your purchase is not what you expected and resolving the issue will take a while.

Photography forums are similar to Ebay but without the bidding process. If you're an active participant in these forums, often you'll know the reputation of the person you're dealing with and you may even find that this comradre offers you a discount where helping a fellow photographer is factored into the cost of the lens.
Now for the highest risk/reward seller, Craigslist. Craigslist is kind of the Wild West of the after market world. Reputable sellers see it as a free outlet shop while criminals and con men and women see it as an easy and unregulated way to make a quick buck. I would highly recommend that you only use Craigslist for face to face purchases. Talk to people over the phone. Do some research to make sure you're not in an obvious scam (ie, many scams copy and paste the same offers, so if you do a google search for a key phrase in the offer, you shouldn't get tons of complaints about this being a scam). If someone's name is posted or you get it via email conversation, do a google search of that too. Make sure that at the least, the person is in the town they say they're from. The reward is often high as well. You can often times find very good bargains here, especially on older lenses. Every day it seems like someone digging through their or stuff finds a camera and lenses that they haven't used in years. Or parents are asking their kids to help them get rid of some of their old stuff and a camera is discovered.

Now to my experience. Through research when I bought my camera, I found that Sony had purchased Minolta and were using their A Mount, a design which went back over 25 years. I was in no rush. I looked around Amazon and everything was very close to retail in the used market so I moved on. Checking inventory at local and mail order used camera outlets showed the same almost new higher cost for all but the worst conditioned lenses. I turned to Ebay and found some bargains. The Buy It Now prices weren't much cheaper than what I had found previously. One of the things I did find was that one of the Minolta kit lenses happened to be a 50mm 1.7 prime lens and it was experiencing a renewed life on the after market. I focused on finding this lens. Compared to the Buy It Now price of around $100, bidding seemed to stop around $60-$75 depending on reputation of the seller and the condition of the lens. I tried to get in on a few by came up empty. In the meantime, I was finding some complete outfits that offered a number of different lenses along with the camera body and flash units. While the price was higher, it wasn't significantly so. I tried a few of these as well, but still hadn't won anything.
I had also been searching Craigslist locally. The pickings were much, much more slim. That same Minolta 50mm 1.7 popped up from time to time, but it seemed like it was always people or shops that knew about the resurgance so the price was always around $100.

That's when I came across a long post explaining how a young man was trying to sell not just an old Minolta Camera and four lenses (one of which was the 50mm I was after), but a black and white enlarger with all the trimmings as well. The seller's story recounted how he and his father had fond memories of capturing and developing their black and white prints together decades earliear and that his father had moved on to digitial and had no use for the equipment any more. He indicated that he would not sell individual pieces, but might consider packaging the camera body, the four lenses and two flash units (one broken but repairable) separetly. He only mentioned a combined price of $475 for everything.

Some of the hopeful signs for me is that this is obviously someone who loved photography. You don't set up a dark room in your basement if that's not the case. I'm hoping that means he took very good care of the equipment. He had indicated that the one lens I was interested in the most was never used. This jived with the stories I'd heard in my research that it was not a popular lens at the time because zooms were all the rage.
The pictures on Craigslist showed original boxes for everything. This is a camera that came out around 1990, 21 years ago. Having all the boxes shows care. He also mentioned that one of the flashes was broken. This indicates a desire to give the most value and information possible. The flash could have been thrown out or the condition could have been stated as unknown. Instead, they included the flash in case someone wanted to have it fixed.

I emailed him and waited almost a day to hear back. When I did, he offered the camera equipment with out the enlarger for $150. As I was willing to pay half of that for the one lense, I felt that it was a good offer so long as the equipment was in good condition. We set up a meeting for me to examine the lenses and if I was happy, to purchase them. I did some research on the other lenses to see what they were going for used and also about how to test used camera equipment, primarily lenses.  You can find some useful sites I discovered on it in our Resources section.

We set up a date an time to meet over email and I got his phone number.  I called prior to leaving for one last confirmation that this was the real deal.  I packed up my camera and headed out.  It took about a half hour to get to his house.  After knocking on the door I was greeted by a young man in his 20's who welcomed me inside.  His father was with him and extended his hand which I shook.  They led me into their kitchen.  On the table was everything from the photograph.  

I asked if they minded if I tested everything and they responded that it was fine.  We bantered as I carefully examined and then mounted each lens.  Everything was very clean and functioned properly in both automatic and manual modes.  I made sure that each lens allowed me to adjust the aperture through the camera.   I shot some pictures and examined them through the view finder, zooming in and scanning through each shot to make sure there were no obvious defects.  

I only found a problem with one of the lenses.  A Phoenix 19-35mm Wide Angle felt a little fragile and clicky when zooming/focusing.  It still auto focused and shot reasonably well from what I could see, but I had to re-asses whether this would be a deal breaker.  I decided that it wasn't and completed the purchase and said my goodbyes.

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