Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Guide to Buying Lenses on eBay

Yup, that's my Sigma 600mm f/8. The review is coming... slowly. I just realized today that the back panel is loose, but I don't think it is anything that I can't fix with some jeweler's screwdrivers. Too bad I don't have any here! Needless to say, I have to postpone the comparison shots I was planning on doing today (since it was the first sunny day that I'm home in two weeks).

Instead, I'd like to provide a brief guide to buying used lenses on eBay. I've bought a total of six lenses on eBay (Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 (new), Tamron 19-35mm f/3.5-4.5, Sigma 600mm f/8, Nikkor-H 50mm f/2.0, Canon 100mm f/4 Macro) plus countless other items (extension tubes, a 20D, FD converter, reversing ring, SB-20 flash, etc). So, I'd like to think I know a little about researching and purchasing lenses in auctions.

Please note that this isn't a guide to using eBay; there are plenty of good resources out there. So today, I'll focus on how to avoid making a mistake when buying a used lens. The good news is that 90% of auctions are good deals and you won't have any regrets. It's avoiding that other 10% that is key.

Before You Bid:

Before you bid, make sure you do your research. What research is needed? Well, follow these steps:

  1. Know your camera brand and mount. A lens is nothing more than an expensive paper weight if it doesn't fit your camera, and this is the number one mistake new buyers make (for example, buying a manual focus Canon FD mount lens instead of an autofocus Canon EF mount lens, for example). It is also worthwhile to look at the mount of one of your existing lenses so you can quickly spot the correct mount in auction pictures.
  2. Know what your are willing to pay. Lenses are expensive, so know your financial limits. An F/4 lens longer than 300mm isn't going to happen for under $500.
  3. Know what lens(es) you want. This is probably the hardest thing, but take some time and do a broad search for available lenses based on your needs. For Canon EOS shooters, LensPlay (by Bob Atkins) has a searchable database of most of the available EOS mount lenses including approximate costs. Ken Rockwell has a similar database for Nikon lenses.
  4. Look up reviews for the lenses. Google is a great tool, just plug in the lens name and add review to the search string and you'll get a pretty good list of available reviews. Ideally, you'll find a review that directly compares the lens to competitors and provides example images. If the lens is available new, it is worth checking on Amazon (Lenses at Amazon). Amazon reviews are sometimes junk, but you can usually figure out the basic quality of common lenses. I've also got a number of reviews of common budget lenses on this site.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you've got a short list of used lenses that will meet your needs. The better informed you are before you bid, the less likely you will be to win an auction and regret it later.
  6. Know the going rate of the lenses you are interested in. I used to use the completed listings search at eBay, but it only searches the previous week. I've found Terapeak's free search is much more useful because it lets you search listings for the last month! Get an idea of the average selling price, the maximum, and the minimum. Ideally, you'd only bid up to the average selling price unless you needed the lens in a hurry. If the lens is available new, check that price too; sometimes new lenses are only slightly more expensive than used lenses (like the Canon 70-200mm f/4; you should probably buy that one new since used prices are so high).
  7. Know the rarity of the lens. For very rare lenses, you need to be willing to be more aggressive with your bidding because another one might not pop up for months. Luckily, few budget lenses are this rare.
  8. Write the information down. This seems silly, but you never know if you'll stumble on an auction right before it ends and you'll need to make a quick decision (like my Sigma 600mm 'oops'!).
This seems like a lot of work, but it doesn't actually take long once you know what you are doing. Plus, if you are a gadget guy like me, it is kind of fun! Obviously, the more expensive the lens, the more research you should do. My overview of super telephotos can give you an example of the type of research I go through before I make a purchase (although I usually narrow down my options a lot more). The main thing is to have a written record because bidding sometimes lasts weeks and you can easily forget what your conclusions were.

When You Bid:

My general theory of bidding on eBay is this:

Factor everything into the maximum amount I'm willing to bid.

Or, put another way, everything about an auction has a monetary value. For instance, suppose my research tells me that a Tokina 400mm f/5.6 AT-X SD sells for between $200-$300. So, for a mint lens with amazing pictures and a seller with perfect feedback, I might pay $275 or more. If the images aren't clear enough to see anything, I'll lower my max bid by $20-50. If the lens has dings or usage issues, I'll lower it further. If the seller doesn't answer e-mails, I'll lower my max bid even more. If the lens is very rare and no other lenses are posted, I'll be willing to bid a little more.

Of course, I establish this maximum bid for each auction as soon as I can and update as I get each piece of information. There's no set equation I use, just a general sense. And, of course, I don't actually place the bid until close to the auction end time because I want to be able to change my mind and not be locked in to the bid. Usually, I'll go through the searches and add items to my watch list, making a note about my maximum bid as I go.

So, here's a list of things to take into consideration when you are determining how much to pay for an item:
  • Lens condition. This one is obvious, but many sellers won't explicitly mention no scratches or fungus. If they don't, ASK THEM. Unless the auction has perfect pictures and states the glass is completely clean, I'll always send them a quick message like, "Hi! Does this lens have any major issues, like fungus, mold, cloudiness, or dust?" If they don't answer me, I always assume the worst and downgrade my estimate accordingly.
  • Seller responsiveness. Even if everything is listed on the auction, I'll still ask a quick question of the seller. If they don't respond or have an off-topic response, I take that into consideration. Remember, once you send the money, you are at the seller's mercy. If they can't even respond to e-mails, how quickly do you think they'll pack up the lens and mail it out?
  • Obvious mistakes in the auction. I've gotten a ton of deals from eBay because sellers don't know camera lenses. But that can hurt you too -- they may not know that something is wrong with it. Many, many lenses are sold by relatives who know nothing about photography. Again, I'll ask questions (about fungus or scratches) and explain what to look for if needed.
  • Crappy pictures. Sellers are supposed to be photographers, right? Well then, why do they often put up near-useless pictures? If I can't see the lens, I'm not willing to pay as much for it. I will ask to see higher resolution pictures and examples if possible.
  • Poor or very little feedback. If someone has substantial negative feedback (more than 1%) or very few sales (especially if all were recent or all were far in the past), I'm going to adjust my maximum value downwards. Even though PayPal gives you buyer protection, it is not a fast system and the hassle costs you money. More risk to me = less value to me.
  • High shipping costs. A favorite tactic of many sellers is to add profit into the shipping and handling charges. Unless the lens is a monster, shipping costs generally aren't going to be much more than $10 for priority mail or similar within the continental United States. Question anybody who has S+H charges over $20. Remember, a $0.99 lens with $20 shipping is basically a $21 lens to you.
  • Sales tax. Usually not an issue for used lenses, but you will have to pay tax is the seller is a business in your state. Five cents or more on every dollar can add up quickly!
  • International sellers. (USA-centric here) There is inherent risk with international sellers -- poor package tracking, exchange rates, longer delivery time, etc. If you can find a deal overseas, great! But don't pay too much! Obviously, if you don't live in the USA, then most of your purchases will be international.
Of course, some times I'll decide to avoid a certain lens and take it off my watch list (or leave it on with a note so I don't mistakenly go for it later). The main reasons not to buy a lens:
  • Any major drop damage. Includes major dents or bends in the lens which could change the straightness of the lens. Also includes cracked glass. If the drop was hard enough to bend the filter threads (which I see often), it could have damaged things inside the lens too.
  • Anything marked 'for parts'. Unless you are like fixing small mechanical things and are willing to buy another lens for parts to fix the first.
  • Excessive scratches, fogginess, or almost any fungus. A few minor scratches aren't a big deal, they won't change image quality. Likewise a few dots of fungus. But, remember, fungus will spread and if you can't kill it, you'll have to clean it. Fogginess or oil leakage inside the lens is also just as troublesome. This is where a clear image through the lens will make you feel safe. Remember: lenses don't lose value over time as much as cameras or other items. In a way, each lens is an investment, and these blemishes will significantly impact resale value.
  • Anything that looks suspicious (like crappy images that seem to show scratches or fungus) and the seller doesn't respond to questions. I'm willing to downgrade my price for the risk, but sometimes the risk is just too much.
  • Any time you get a bad feeling about a seller. We have little voices in the back of our head for a reason (well, most of us). If you aren't getting good vibes, wait for another auction.
  • Anybody who doesn't accept PayPal. PayPal allows buyer protection (you'll get reimbursed if the seller tries swindle you). Almost every seller takes it, so when a seller doesn't, you should be very suspicious.
The last part of this section will be a checklist for bidding and winning auctions. Remember, the key here is to know what you're willing to pay for the lens, then the rest is easy:
  1. Go in knowing what lens you want and for what price.
  2. If possible, wait until the last minute to bid and bid the maximum amount you'd be willing to pay for that lens. This will prevent you from getting locked in to an auction and then seeing a better deal. It might also save you some money (by 'sniping'). If you can't be at the computer when the auction ends, just pop your maximum bid in earlier.
  3. Don't worry if you lose some auctions. You'd rather it take a little longer than regret a high price. Also, clumps of similar items selling at similar times seem to get the lowest prices.
  4. Consider insurance and tracking. If possible, insure the lens and get a tracking number. For cheap lenses, don't bother, most carriers offer $50 of insurance anyway. Anything over $100 I'd recommend insuring for sure and get a tracking number. This protects you and your new investment.
  5. When you win, pay immediately. The last thing you want to do is risk losing the item.
  6. DON'T LEAVE FEEDBACK YET! Wait until you receive the item and check it out. More on that in a little bit.

After You Win:

Assuming you won, insured, and added tracking to your lens, now you wait. And wait. And wait. Again, don't leave feedback yet!

eBay is a very buyer-centric auction environment. After all, the seller gets the money before you even touch the lens. The possibility of negative feedback is a powerful motivator and prevents many sellers from trying to do shady things (read Freakonomics; about 10% of the population will cheat regularly if given the opportunity). If you give positive feedback immediately, suddenly the seller has no motivation to get your item out the door and could even try to not ship it at all or replace it with a defective item. If there is a problem, the motivation to fix it is also decreased. The more 100% positive feedback a seller has, the more motivation they have to keep it perfect!

Track the item, and if it doesn't arrive (or the tracking doesn't update beyond getting entered into the system) e-mail the seller. Do it both through eBay and their e-mail address (if you have it) -- these types of e-mails often get automatically culled out by SPAM filters and you want to make sure you aren't waiting for that reason. I've noticed that sellers are much more likely to respond to a question if it is sent through the eBay system, but not always. Don't be afraid to send more than one note (not on the same day though, that's just rude).

With luck, the item arrives, and you are almost done.

First, give the item and packaging a thorough inspection. Was the item packed well? Was there any damage to the package, the lens, or the material. If so, document it! Take a picture!

Then, get the lens out and before you put it on the camera, give it a thorough check-up. Some things to do:
  1. Check external condition. Are there any dings, scratches, dents, obviously displaced lens elements? Especially if they aren't noted in the original auction.
  2. Rotate anything that's supposed to rotate and check out the zoom, manual focus, aperture if it has one, etc. If anything binds, makes noise, or feels too lose, make a note of it.
  3. Check internal condition. Look through the lens, pointing at a bright light source, and look for dust, scratches, fungus, cracks, and/or fog. Rotate the zoom and focus wheels through their range of motion too (often oil leaks and fungus problems will start on the edges). You should see a perfectly uniform, clear, bright circle. Any spidery lines or blotches on the edges usually means fungus (or oil). Scratches on the front element aren't generally serious, but if they didn't mention them and they are obvious, that's an issue. Scratches on the rear element are more severe but rare. Make a note of everything!
  4. If mechanical operation seems good, slap it on the camera and try it out. Don't put it on your camera if you hear grinding or worse! Then, take a few shots with it, making sure it acts as you'd expect.
  5. Make sure there isn't excessive slop in the different barrels of the lens. Cheap lenses tend to have more slop than expensive ones, and all lenses have a little space to move between barrels. But if it can move a lot (more than the tiniest bit on good lenses), you've got a problem and it may have been damaged by a drop. Make sure the mount seats well and doesn't move.
  6. Use it for a few shoots spread over different days. This gives intermittent problems a chance to pop up while you still have a chance of getting some remuneration.
Once you've completely checked out the lens, contact the seller about any major things that weren't as listed. For example, fungus, cracks, serious scratches, excessive slop, basically anything that could hurt your resale value. If there are any problems, contact the seller immediately and ask for a remedy, be it a partial refund (for minor problems that hurt resale but you're willing to deal with them) to a full refund (for major damage). Keep in mind they might ask you to pay to ship it back to them, which may be a huge hassle for a cheap lens.

But, this is why you withheld positive feedback. The feedback gives you leverage to get them to remedy the situation. Be willing to compromise though with a fair solution.

And, once you are satisfied, leave positive feedback, and enjoy your new lens!

Originally, I was going to add some stories from my experience (nothing horrible) but I've run out of time and space. So much for a brief guide. I'll do a follow-up in a few days detailing my problem lens purchases.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions or want some advice, leave a comment!


Anonymous said...


A very informative post.

Joshua said...

Thanks. This was just what I was looking for. All fairly obvious things, but it's nice to hear them from someone with some experience.

Anonymous said...

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