Always thought of buying a used lens but couldn’t quite make the decision? Audley Jarvis considers the pros and cons of buying lenses second-hand, and recommends some favourites
The second-hand lens market provides a great way to upgrade and expand your lens collection without having to pay top dollar. The savings on offer can be pretty considerable too. For example, buying a brand-new Nikkor 80- 400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR telephoto zoom in its box won’t give you much change from £2,500. A second-hand example of exactly the same lens in near-mint condition, however, can be yours for as little as £1,300, saving you over £1,000 – enough for another lens perhaps.
Of course buying second-hand isn’t entirely risk-free, so it pays to know what to look out for before handing over any cash. Buying from a specialist second-hand camera shop significantly decreases the risk of being ripped off, but comes at a higher cost than buying privately. Buying privately, on the other hand, is usually the cheapest way to obtain a pre- owned lens, albeit with a degree of added risk.
If you decide to buy via a camera specialist, then our advice is to stick with a reputable firm. This includes companies such as Wex Photo Video, Camera World, Park Cameras, Grays of Westminster, Camera Jungle, MPB and the London Camera Exchange. Specialists like these will generally offer a guarantee on all their second-hand lens stock – usually for a period of three to six months, although some offer up to 12 months. You can often choose to extend your warranty, but it will obviously cost you extra. Be sure to check your chosen retailer’s warranty and returns policy in advance of your purchase, and clarify anything you are unsure of before committing to buy.
If you decide to buy privately, you would want to check over the lens in person before handing over any cash. While minor cosmetic scratches to the outer body shouldn’t put you off, look for more serious signs of misuse, poor storage and drops. This might include things like dents to the front filter or excessive wear to the lens mount – something that cheaper lenses with plastic mounts are particularly susceptible to. Find out whether the lens has been fitted with a protective filter, and pay close attention to the front and rear elements to ensure they are not scratched. If it’s a zoom lens be sure to check the resistance of the zoom ring too, to make sure it’s not overly loose and susceptible to lens creep.
Given the nature of buying online over distance, physical inspections aren’t always possible, in which case you’ll have to rely on the integrity of the seller to a degree. If you are purchasing from a website with a seller rating system in place (for example, eBay) then be sure to check the seller’s previous feedback and prepare a list of questions to ask them.
Be wary of any sellers that use generic product images as opposed to photos of the actual lens they are selling. Honest sellers will generally list any defects in the item description; however less honest sellers rely on being deliberately vague in the hope you won’t ask any awkward questions until they have your money and it’s too late. Just be sensible about things: so long as you employ a bit of common sense and remain on your guard you should be absolutely fine.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
- Guide price £200-250
Until recently Canon offered two 85mm primes: the professional-grade EF 85mm f/1.2L (£1,730) and the more affordable EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. These have recently been joined by the 85mm f/1.4L IS USM (£1,380) which brings image stabilisation to the table. While the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lacks the ‘L’ designation of its more expensive peers it remains a fantastically capable lens that produces dreamy bokeh, making it especially well suited to portraiture. Originally released in 1992, the EF 85mm f/1.8 can still be purchased new for around £415, but it’s possible to source a well-looked after second- hand model for around half this price. While some users have noted that the 85mm f/1.8 can lack a bit of sharpness in the centre of the frame when used wide open, stopping down to f/2 or f/2.8 quickly fixes this.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
- Guide price £380-420
Released in 2005 and designed for use with full-frame DSLRs, the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM has since been succeeded by an IS II version that came out in 2016. The main advantage of the newer zoom is that it benefits from more up-to-date image stabilisation technology. In terms of image quality, though, there is little to choose from between the two; the newer version is slightly sharper at the telephoto end and also produces images with slightly less distortion and vignetting. In everyday real-world use, however, the differences are minimal, with the original 24-105mm f/4L remaining a highly versatile lens that’s capable of pin-sharp results at all focal lengths. Better still, good second-hand examples of the original 24-105mm f/4L IS are available for less than half the price of the newer version, netting you a tidy saving of around £600.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
- Guide price £450-730
Introduced in 1998 the Canon EF 100- 400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM established itself as a staple lens for professional wildlife and sports photographers thanks to its combination of optical excellence and tank-like build quality. In 2016 Canon released its successor: the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. While the newer zoom brings an all-new optical design and numerous upgrades to the table, they come at around a £1,400 premium. If that’s too much for your wallet to bear, then rest assured that the original 100-400mm is more than capable a performer. Constructed from 17 elements in 14 groups, the design includes the use of fluorite and Super UD-glass elements for greater control over chromatic aberrations, and while the lens’s built-in IS technology is a little dated compared to modern examples, it still offers up to two stops of shutter speed compensation. Externally, the lens features a push-pull zoom control with friction adjustment, and is partially weather sealed. For Canon users looking for a longer telephoto zoom on a budget the 100- 400mm is hard to beat.
Nikon Micro-Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8G VR IF ED
- Guide price £360-500
Released in 2006 and still available to buy new for around £849, the 105mm f/2.8 G VR IF-ED is a medium telephoto prime lens designed for macro enthusiasts. To this end it can be used to capture super-sharp life-sized images when set to its minimum focus distance of 31cm. Nikon’s own Vibration Reduction image stabilisation technology enables the lens to compensate for up to four stops of shutter speed at distances of three metres or more. Optically constructed from 14 elements in 12 groups, the lens benefits from an extra low-dispersion (ED) element to combat chromatic aberrations along with Nikon’s Nano Crystal coating to reduce flare. While the 105mm f/2.8 G VR IF-ED is primarily offered as a macro lens, it’s also a useful portrait lens when mounted on a full-frame camera. If you’re a Nikon user looking to get into macro photography on a budget then seeking out a decent second-hand example will not only secure you a great lens, but also save you a lot of money in the process.
Nikon Nikkor AF-S 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR DX
- Guide price £250-450
Released in 2008, the 18-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX is a standard zoom for everyday use that offers the 35mm focal length equivalent of 24- 127.5mm when mounted on a Nikon APS-C DSLR. This gives it a bit of extra wideangle spread over the standard 18-55mm kit zooms, as well as quite a bit of extra telephoto reach for more faraway subjects. Internally, the lens is constructed from 17 elements in 11 groups, including two ED glass elements and three aspherical elements. In terms of features, the lens employs a Silent Wave motor for fast, accurate and super-quiet focusing, while Nikon’s second-generation VR image stabilisation technology provides up to four stops of shutter speed compensation. A decent 16-85mm second-hand example can be picked up for around £250, making it an ideal upgrade for those who find their 18-55mm kit zoom a bit restrictive.
Nikon Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
- Guide price £900-1,500
Released in 2013 the AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR updates Nikon’s original 80-400mm zoom that came out in 2001. Designed primarily for use with full-frame DSLRs, the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR benefits from numerous improvements over the old zoom, most notably a Silent Wave motor that greatly speeds up focus performance (a notable bugbear of the original 80-400mm) while providing instant manual override. Nikon’s VR technology is also on hand, providing up to four stops of shutter speed compensation for handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds. Internally, the lens is constructed from 20 elements in 12 groups including one Super ED and four ED glass elements, along with Nikon’s anti-flare Nano Crystal coating. Externally, there are separate controls for MF/AF mode, VR on/off, VR mode (Normal/Active), a focus limiter (Full or infinity-8m), and a locking mechanism that locks the lens at its smallest length for safe transport. For sports and wildlife enthusiasts looking for a versatile telephoto zoom, the 80-400mm is undoubtedly a great lens. Better still, it’s possible to save well over £1,000 by hunting down a decent second- hand example.
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM
- Guide price £150-360
In early 2013 it was replaced by an all-new model in Sigma’s ‘Art’ line, but the original 30mm f/1.4 is still a very fine lens. It uses a hypersonic motor for silent autofocus, with full-time manual override available at any time. As usual for Sigma’s EX lenses, build quality is very good, and the lens is available for all SLR systems. The 30mm is the only third-party fast ‘normal’ prime for APS-C SLRs, offering a 45mm equivalent angle of view. This gives a very natural perspective for everyday shooting, and the fast aperture is ideal for low-light and shallow depth-of-field shooting.
Tokina SD 12-24mm f/4 (IF) DX AT-X Pro
- Guide price £150-250
Tokina’s 12-24mm f/4 was one of the earliest wideangle zooms for APS-C DSLRs, and offers an 18-36mm equivalent angle of view (19-38mm on Canon SLRs). It’s an extremely solidly made lens that features a focus clutch mechanism, whereby pulling the focus ring towards the camera engages manual mode. Nikon owners should note that only the later ‘II’ version has a built-in autofocus motor. Tokina has a strong reputation for making wideangle zooms, and the 12-24mm is impressively sharp at all settings. Its main weakness is quite strong chromatic aberration that’s visible across much of the frame, but can be substantially removed in post-processing.
Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC Macro
- Guide price £120-180
If you’re looking for a more versatile replacement for an 18-55mm kit zoom, the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC may just be the ticket. With a useful 26-105mm equivalent zoom range, the lens offers an unusually fast maximum aperture for its type. The minimum focusing distance is just 20cm through the entire zoom range, allowing close-up shooting. Current prices make this lens an absolute bargain. A later iteration of this lens adds image stabilisation and a built-in hypersonic autofocus motor for even greater versatility, but obviously this comes at a higher price. Both models are available in all SLR mounts.
Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro
- Guide price £150-210
Now replaced with an optically stabilised version, the older Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens is still one of the best macro lenses that you can buy, and one that we have used in the AP studio to test cameras for a number of years. The Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro consists of 11 elements in 10 groups, and its 460g body has a solid feel. Its minimum focusing distance of 31cm provides a true 1:1 macro magnification, and a good working distance for any budding macro photographer. While the optical stabilisation of the new lens is useful, and at £330 it is really good value, if you get lucky you can find the previous 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens for as little as half that price. In our tests we’ve found that at the aperture settings most commonly used for macro images, there is very little difference in sharpness between the old and new Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lenses.
Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II LD Aspherical (IF)
- Guide price £110-150
Tamron’s classic fast normal zoom has now been replaced by an image-stabilised version (at least in Canon and Nikon mounts), but it’s still a great choice for APS-C SLR owners looking for high-quality optics. The fast maximum aperture makes it especially useful for indoor shooting or when there is low light. The 17-50mm f/2.8 was always a popular lens, and this means it’s in plentiful supply on the second-hand market, which in turn helps to keep prices low. Nikon users should note that old models of the lens don’t have a built-in autofocus motor, which was added only in the 2008 version (model A16NII).
Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD
- Guide price £150-£200
Although superzoom lenses can receive negative press for being Jacks of all trades but masters of none, this shouldn’t really be the case. While the image quality may not be able to match a shorter zoom, and definitely won’t be as good as a fixed focal length lens, the convenience of having one tucked in your camera bag makes them ideal for travelling. With an impressive 15x zoom, the Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD is designed for APS-C sensor DSLR cameras, giving the equivalent of a 27-400mm on full frame. With such a huge range, it can cover the vast majority of images that you would wish to take. Tamron’s Vibration Control IS is particularly impressive, and is needed when shooting at telephoto settings. For a general-purpose all-round lens, it’s a good and affordable option, particularly for travelling.
Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG HSM
- Guide price £270-350
When it was launched, the Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 had the distinction of being the widest rectilinear zoom lens ever made for full-frame cameras. It also offers a useful 18-36mm equivalent range on APS-C cameras, which makes it particularly attractive to photographers who use both formats, and a built-in HSM motor offers silent autofocus. However at a hefty 600g in weight, it’s quite a bit bulkier than wideangle zooms specifically designed for the smaller sensor size. The 12-24mm has since been replaced with an all-new ‘II’ version that includes updated optics to reduce distortion and chromatic aberration. Both models have built-in non-removable lens hoods to protect their bulbous front elements.
Tokina AT-X Pro 50-135mm f/2.8 DX
- Guide price £190-320
The 50-135mm f/2.8 DX is a fast telephoto zoom for SLRs with APS-C sensors, and offers a 75-200mm equivalent range. Like the similar Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM, it was designed to complement a fast normal zoom of the 16-50mm type, giving a much more portable alternative to a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. It combines good image quality with Tokina’s usual bombproof build, and was made in Canon and Nikon mounts, with the latter lacking a built-in focus motor. The Pentax DA 50-135mm f/2.8 SDM is essentially the same design. Perhaps surprisingly this type of lens never really took off, despite its attractions, with photographers still preferring to buy 70-200mm optics. This means it’s relatively scarce on the used market, and prices are still quite strong.
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro HSM
- Guide price £300-350
Before its current image- stabilised model, Sigma made a long line of 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, with four iterations starting from the first 1999 design. The first ‘DG’ update added coatings on the rear element for use with DSLRs, and the 2006 ‘Macro’ version reduced the minimum focusing distance to 1m. A revised 2007 ‘HSM II’ model featured improved optics. All of these lenses are available on the second-hand market, with the most recent model not surprisingly commanding the highest prices. The slightly older ‘Macro’ model represents good value, at around the £350 mark in good condition.
Sigma APO 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 EX DG OS HSM
- Guide price £300-500
Now replaced with an optically stabilised version, the original Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 lens is a favourite among wildlife photographers. Like a superzoom lens, the 10x zoom lens may not produce images that can match the sharpness of a 300mm or a 70-200mm lens. But what it does provide is a lens that can cover most focal lengths that wildlife and sports photographers will want, especially if it is used on a DSLR with an APS-C format sensor. With 20 elements in 16 groups, and weighing a hefty 1.84kg, the lens has rightly earned the nickname ‘The Bigma’, and it has attained cult status among enthusiast wildlife photographers. Although the later version with optical stabilisation has obvious advantages, the original version can be found at bargain prices; however demand for the different Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax mounts means that prices can vary quite a lot.
Tamron 200-500mm f/4.5-6.3 SP AF Di (IF)
- Guide price £250-£400
If you don’t fancy the huge range of the Sigma 50-500mm lens, the Tamron 200-500mm f/4.5-6.3 is a good alternative. Like the Sigma 50-500mm lens lacks image stabilisation, though its simpler design means it weights a little less at 1.24kg. Another great choice for wildlife and sports photographers on a budget, the Tamron 200-500mm lens is available in Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony mounts. Although the lens is designed for full-frame sensors, it will obviously work on cameras with APS-C sensors, where it offers the equivalent of a 350-750mm lens. It is worth noting that due to the lack of a built-in focusing motor in the Nikon version, it will only work in manual focus mode on entry-level Nikon DSLRs.
Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro
- Guide price £180-250
Another lens that has now been updated with optical stabilisation is Tamron’s 90mm f/2.8 Macro. However, the older Di version (Model 272E) is still considered something of a classic. In the Di version the lens is a redesign of the classic 90mm macro lens produced by Tamron, featuring new optical coating to make the lens produce sharper images with digital camera sensors. With excellent image sharpness and the equivalent field of view of 145mm on a DSLR with APS-C sensor, it is one of the best macro lenses you can buy, and is available at a bargain price second-hand.