This article delves into my personal experience of spending £1,000 on a secondhand lens, which turned out to be faulty. This cautionary tale will open your eyes to the perils that come with the world of preowned or gray-market camera equipment.
Replacing and upgrading gear is a natural part of the lifecycle of your photography kit, as technology moves on or in this case, through wear and tear due to regular use. I wanted to upgrade from my Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G to the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens. My trusty old lens had served its time over the years, and it was time to replace rather than send for a service.
Spending a hefty sum on a top-tier lens like the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is a decision that was grounded in the pursuit of technical excellence. The lens boasts stellar optical performance, solid build, and huge versatility. Hearing fantastic things about the benefits of buying lightly used rather than new, opting for a secondhand lens was my way of balancing quality with budget, given the substantial price difference between new and used units at almost half the price. Upon researching various secondhand sellers, I settled on a lens from a well-regarded online retailer specializing in preowned camera equipment. The lens was graded as "excellent," suggesting minimal wear and optimal functionality. This lens came in at just over £1,000, including the cost of next day early morning delivery.
When the lens arrived, just after 11:30 am, I was impressed with the near-perfect cosmetic condition externally, and I packed it in my kit bag after a very quick point and shoot test at the trees across the road. I did notice when reviewing the images on the back of the camera that there was a small amount of movement, but I honestly assumed that in my haste I had selected a slower-than-necessary shutter speed and didn’t have time to give it a second thought as I made my way to the shoot location — later than arranged, but happy to properly test out my new toy.
The shoot went really well. There I was, lying on the ground on a yoga mat in Glasgow City Centre, shooting up at my subject (who also happens to be my daughter), with a pair of high-rise buildings as the backdrop, thinking to myself how great these shots were going to turn out. They certainly looked fantastic on the back of the camera as I lay there on the ground. Upon returning home after the shoot, I made a cup of tea and loaded the images to begin the usual culling process when I noticed an issue that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
These images show movement.
Is that camera shake?
What have I done?
I began to kick myself, thinking that I had done something wrong and ruined these images. After all, as the saying goes, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools, so I automatically blamed myself in the first instance. I just couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong as I listed off potential clues. Some images were better than others, but all were affected. My shutter speed was at or above 1/320th throughout the session, which would normally rule out camera shake, the VR switch was on, my subject was posed still for each frame, and although I wasn’t using a tripod, I was lying on the ground! I can have issues with cramping in my hands when shooting, but not on that day. On closer inspection, I noticed that the blurry areas were inconsistent with depth of field, and the issue was worst in the same area in every shot, which was mostly visible on the bottom left quarter of every horizontal image, which moved around the frame in all vertical shots.
Could it be that my tools were to blame here, rather than human error? I remembered back to that quick shot across the road before heading off to shoot. Unfortunately, I had formatted my card before beginning my shoot, so I no longer had that to look back on, but remembered recognizing some minor camera shake.
I have seen a variety of lens issues in my time, but this had me completely flummoxed. I began investigating and gathering evidence from my raw files to get to the bottom of the issue. The depth of field is inconsistent in some of these shots. The center of the image is always in focus, even when the subject is not in the middle. I needed a new subject to photograph to put this lens through its paces to figure out what was going on.
In order to eliminate user error, I mounted the camera on a tripod to rule out camera shake and looked for a suitable flat surface to shoot. Although specific products are available to calibrate camera lenses, I was fault-testing and wanted something large and flat, so I popped out to pick up a newspaper, which I then tacked onto the wall. I shot at a variety of focal lengths and a variety of apertures to put the lens through its paces and repeated the exercise with the VR switched off. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I loaded the images onto my MacBook for a closer look. The results were awful, and the lens was indeed faulty. I must admit, I felt a huge wash of relief come over me to confirm that user error had been eliminated.
So, What Was Wrong?
Astigmatism in a camera lens can manifest as distorted or misshapen areas in the image, particularly towards the edges. This occurs due to uneven curvature of lens elements, causing light rays to focus at different points in different meridians. Here's how to spot astigmatism in images
Blurry or Stretched Shapes
Circular objects in the image might appear elongated or stretched in certain directions. This distortion can be more prominent towards the edges of the frame.
Different parts of the image might have varying levels of sharpness, with some areas being sharper than others. You can see that this is evident in the test images, where portions of the text are legible and others are not.
Smearing or Stretching of Details
Fine details, such as text or intricate patterns, might show distortion, appearing smeared or stretched in certain directions. As one person looking at these images put it: "This is what my migraines look like."
Astigmatism can sometimes create comet-like artifacts, where points of light at the edges of the frame appear distorted with tails extending in a particular direction. Whilst this isn't immediately obvious in these examples, this can be a sign of astigmatism in your images.
The out-of-focus areas of the image (bokeh) might exhibit asymmetrical shapes due to the uneven focus characteristics caused by astigmatism.
General Image Softness
The overall image might appear less sharp and clear, with a reduction in overall image quality. This is very evident in the f/2.8 aperture example.
2. Potential Spherical Aberration
In addition to astigmatism, I believe that the lens was also suffering from a secondary defect called spherical aberration. This occurs when lens elements are fractionally out of alignment, causing light rays to enter a lens at different distances from the optical axis focus at different points. This creates blurriness or distortion in the resulting image. This can happen due to unevenness in the spherical shape of lens elements, causing the light to converge at different points. Spherical aberration is more pronounced in lenses with larger apertures, which lines up with what I saw in my test images.
What Happened Next
As soon as 9 am Monday rolled around, I contacted the customer service helpline of the online retailer where I purchased the lens and explained the issue. After sending over my test images, I was offered an apology along with the option for a full refund, including the express shipping I had paid for. I was assured that equipment is usually tested during the grading process, and they apologized that this lens slipped through the net. To the untrained eye, it looked externally like a brand new lens, so I wonder if that got in the way of full testing on that occasion. Whatever the case, they confirmed that the lens would not go back up for sale on their website under the same “excellent” grading, so no one need worry about anyone else falling foul in the same way that I did. I haven’t named the company which I bought the lens from, purely because the situation was dealt with so swiftly and to a satisfactory conclusion. Where there are humans, there will be errors. A courier was sent to my home to collect the lens the following day, and a refund was in my account within five days.
I count myself lucky that I purchased this lens from a reputable retailer rather than buying used from a private seller or buying a new gray import without a manufacturer's warranty. Both of those scenarios would have left me a grand out of pocket. I’ve bought various gray imports over the years without issue, but I’m glad that I learned this lesson the easy way rather than the hard way. Let my tale be a warning to those of you who purchase secondhand or gray imported photography gear. It's too big of a gamble without a robust warranty or refund policy to fall back on.
For photographers, equipment failure goes beyond monetary setbacks. The fallout from this incident extended to wasted time, huge disappointment, and momentary questioning of my entire career and life existence before realizing that this workman did indeed have defective tools. The failure to deliver due to technical shortcomings could tarnish hard-earned reputations, client relationships, and future prospects, although my daughter asked me to shoot for her again a few days later, so I think our relationship is safe. She is still going to use some of the images on her socials, disregarding the errors as a creative hiccup. They're still impactful images; just don't zoom in too much.