Sunday 14 June 2020

Buying Cheap Lenses

Barn at Laughlin Falls
D750, Nikkor 20mm f2.8 AF

Here's a little guide to buying lenses on the cheap.

First off, quit caring about cosmetic condition. Pretty lenses cost more. They don't work better (with 1-2 specific exceptions). Beat up lenses work as well and might even look cooler (brassing looks cool, worn plastic or paint on a non-brass lens not so much)

Second, don't buy zooms. If you want cheap and not junk, you want to be shooting primes. Cheap zooms are usually a bad deal, although there are a few exceptions. If you want to find those exceptions, be prepared to spend a lot of time researching them, and don't be surprised when the 'cheap but awesome' lenses turn out to be anything but. I've owned a good copy of the legendary Minolta 70-210mm f4 'Beercan'. It was a nice lens on film and 12MP APS-C. Stuck it on 24MP APS-C and it was a dog, just didn't have enough resolution. I've been bit a few other times by this. If you want cheap zooms, buy new designs, there's some surprisingly good lenses out there as current kit lenses, especially for f8 performance.

The flip side is sometimes you get lucky, I've gotten some great shots with my $50 Nikkor 70-300 f4-5.6 AF-D, which hasn't been considered a good lens since the transition to digital. My 24-85mm f3.5-4.5G AF-S non-VR was good enough that 10 years later I still regret selling it.

What do you want to care about?

The first thing is to pick a system if you are a mirrorless shooter (or looking to use manual focus lenses on Canon EF). If you shoot Nikon or Pentax, congratulations, aside from mount conversions you are stuck with native or semi-native (M42 on K) lenses. Buying 1-2 adapters is cheap, more adapters add up.

The next rule is simple. Everybody makes pretty good 50mm and 135mm lenses. While 28mm's are everywhere, that rule doesn't cross over to them. Most manual focus 28mm lenses are trash. You need to be using a popular system for something other than those 3 lenses to be findable for non-silly money. That means, Nikon F, Pentax K, Canon FD, Minolta MD, Olympus OM and M42 mounts. Beware Contax/Yashica mount. It sucks you in because ML lenses are cheap & decent. Then you find out that all the really good stuff is Carl Zeiss and expensive. Great...but expensive and that is not the name of this game.

Suggestions: For mirrorless shooters Canon FD and Minolta MD are the way to go, these are the least adaptable lens lines to DSLR mounts and both have a selection of excellent glass available. For Canon EF shooters it's Olympus OM because they share adapters the easiest, but they can be pricier than FD or MD due to the wider adaptability. Nikon and Pentax should stick to their native mounts (and m42 for Pentax).

In general, skip 3rd party lenses if you're looking for good but cheap older lenses. With a few exceptions old 3rd party glass isn't all that good, and the exceptions are largely well known and not cheap. Sigma and Tamron's 24 & 28mm primes are the main exceptions here, they're actually pretty decent and not very popular so they can be had cheap. I like Tamron's 28mm f2.5 better than the Sigma 28mm f2.8 Super Mini Wide, but I like the Sigma 24mm f2.8 better than the Tamron 24mm f2.5 (and yes, at some point I've owned all 4 of these lenses)

When picking a lens, check for 5 things.

1. Focus ring works well. Don't get it if it's grinding or sticky as the lens needs disassembly
2. Filter ring is in good condition. Don't buy a lens with a bad filter ring (dinged, chewed up), you will regret it.
3. No rear element damage. Mild front element damage usually just adds a touch of flare, rear element damage directly affects IQ. Note minor scratches and coating discoloration on the front element can lead to superb deals.
4. Functional aperture. if you shoot Mirrorless (or adapted to EF), then a slow aperture isn't an issue, but a sticky one always is because it will fail inevitably in the field at the worst aperture it could (usually stopped all the way down).
5. Fungus. Never buy a lens with fungus, don't take one even if offered for free. Fungus can infect the other lenses in your bag.

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