What to look for when evaluating used and new equipment

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Sample variation abounds in both cameras and lenses, and that’s before we even talk about the second hand markets and all of the possible complications that use can introduce. With the increasingly complex nature of cameras and optics, it’s important to know what you’re buying is going to perform the way you expect it to. It doesn’t help either that the megapixel race is pushing ever higher demands on optics, too; these levels of performance can only be reached if the manufacturing and assembly tolerances are sufficiently tight. And frankly, the more handmade a camera is, the more difficult it is to achieve these tolerances; machines are both more consistent and more precise than a human, providing of course they were set up correctly in the first place.

First note: I’ve received so many emails asking “is this a good copy of x or y” that I have to make an upfront disclaimer: there is no way for me to assess the results of a test without knowing how that test was conducted in the first place – if you didn’t focus it properly, or the camera wasn’t locked down on a tripod, etc – how am I going to know if it’s lens softness or user error? I don’t always do this myself when evaluating equipment, but knowing then precise limitations involved in the test make it easier for me to derive some form of meaning to the results.

Second note: When testing and forming an opinion on lenses, I will frequently test many copies to make sure the results I’m seeing are consistent; if the performance deviates significantly from the expected level, then I’ll make sure I test more than one. If I didn’t, I might be drawing (incorrect and unfair) conclusions based on an exception. This of course means that when I state something delivers good quality or quality at a certain level, you can be fairly sure that if you go out and buy a good sample, it will perform at the level I report.

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Okay, that aside, there are a number of things we need to check for both lenses and bodies; some apply to both new and used gear, some apply to used gear only. Let’s begin.

Lenses
Important: don’t overlook a lens just because the external cosmetics are poor; if you only intend to shoot with it, use it and not collect it, then there are some great bargains to be had – and you’ll worry less about denting/ scratching the barrel when you do take it out. Plus it’s unlikely you’ll lose very much on it when you get bored of it. Note: this is not a guide to how to assess if a given lens is good or not optically; that’s a much more complicated topic for another day. 

Both new and used (and fixed-lens cameras)

  • Zoom/ focus rings should be smooth and not gritty or sticky
  • Hold the lens up to the light; there should be no fungus (spidery tendrils, or splotches) inside the elements
  • Coatings should appear intact (it will look like a peeling film if it isn’t)
  • No scratches on the glass
  • Optically, it should at least be sharp in the center; test with a camera that has live view AF, locked down on a tripod at base ISO. Look at the four corners and center for every major focal length, start with wide open; they should all be reasonably sharp (especially the center). Note that you must use live view AF (or magnified MF) to rule out any possible issues with the camera. And it’s also important to move the focus point to the intended corner, because the lens may not be flat-field – this means that the subject distance in the corner will have to change in order to reach optimum performance. It’s best to check this on the largest format the lens was designed to cover, i.e. if full frame, use a full frame camera and not an APS-C one.
  • The left/ right sides of the lens should be symmetrically sharp or soft (if it has field curvature, or is just a soft lens)
  • Focusing motors should not squeak or make grinding noises, this is a sign of imminent failure.
  • For CPU lenses, check the contacts – they should be clean and not corroded; and of course the lens should work properly with the intended camera!
  • A warranty of some sort. This means that the seller is confident in their product – but don’t expect it from individual private sellers.

New

  • Warranty cards, papers, manuals etc.
  • Check the mount for signs of use – there shouldn’t be any if it’s a new lens.
  • Internal dust – yes, it does happen.
  • Dry/ loose rubber parts – that means it’s been sitting on the shelf for too long.
  • Aperture rings should have clean, crisp detents
  • The point about optics applies too: there is a lot of sample variation, even in new lenses built to modern tolerances.

Used

  • Although barrel cosmetics seldom affect optics, they can sometimes serves as an indicator of more serious damage; if the barrel is dented or stiff, avoid this lens because there’s a good chance the helicoids are damaged, and the internal elements could be misaligned.
  • Oil on aperture blades – there shouldn’t be any. It could spray inside the lens as they open and close, especially at high speed with an SLR.
  • Marks on aperture blades from use are a non-issue.
  • Coatings: are they intact? Are they scratched?
  • Aperture rings should have clean, crisp detents.
  • There should be no missing screws.
  • Caps, hood, case? Especially for period lenses where these items can be difficult to find.
  • Some brassing on the mount is normal. None is a bonus.
  • Dented filter rings are a giveaway that a lens has been dropped.

Bodies
These are the opposite of lenses: hard use on the outside almost certainly means hard use on the inside. Avoid anything that looks like it spent some time in the ring with Mike Tyson.

Both new and used

  • Accessories: batteries (especially for older cameras), finders, port covers, eyepiece covers
  • Autofocus and shooting functions work properly
  • No sticky or unresponsive buttons
  • No dead pixels on the LCD
  • Scratches on optics – finder, focusing screen, mirror, eyepiece, LCD etc
  • Camera writes to card properly

New

  • Everything that should be in the box is actually in the box. Some shady dealers will try to sell you the original charger as an ‘optional accessory’ or replace it with a non-original one. Beware.
  • Since the D800/ D800E fiasco, I’ve had to check the edge AF points on all new bodies. Yes, poor focusing can be fixed, but you’d rather not have to send in a brand new camera to correct something that should have been right in the first place…

Used

  • Accurate shutter speeds – especially for film; expose a roll if they’ll let you, if not, time the slow shutter speeds with your watch.
  • Check the shutter count if you can. A JPEG file plus a program like iExif will show you the count, or alternatively, it’s often embedded as a ‘unique image ID’ hex code, which can easily be viewed with Bridge and converted.
  • Film advance is smooth
  • Dust inside the prism or finder – some can be cleaned, some can’t
  • Desilvering of the mirror (dark spots) or prism; separation of the rangefinder patch (flare, poor contrast)
  • Bent pins in the CF or SD slots
  • Peeling grips – they can frequently be replaced for little money, but it’s just annoying to have to send in the camera.
  • A warranty of some sort. This means that the seller is confident in their product – but don’t expect it from individual private sellers.
  • Mirror alignment. This is much tougher to check with film, but basically if you focus on something with manual focus through the finder, it should be in focus – this isn’t always the case as the mirror alignment or zero return position might be off.
  • Rangefinder alignment – same deal as the previous item, but for rangefinder cameras. Bottom line: with a rangefinder, if you can’t consistently focus on your intended subject, chances are the alignment is off. Watch also for vertical alignment – the RF patch should overlap perfectly vertically, and only move left to right. There should not be a vertical double image.
  • This seems obvious, but with the lens off and the mirror lifted (if applicable) the shutter curtain should appear pristine. Even on an older camera.

Accessories

  • Flashes can be very high mileage but look new. Check recycle time and power with new batteries; if it’s slow or underpowered, chances are the tube is on the way out – avoid.
  • Tripods should have smoothly operating legs and heads/ ball action; the head should not move at all once it’s locked down. Check for excessive grease; metal filings dirt etc. can easily get trapped, causing things to bind, or worse, damaging internals.

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