If you own a cheap older lens, go back to the first set of images you captured with it, then compare those to images shot recently with that same lens. You might be surprised by how much better those old images look.
Not all lenses are created equal, and unfortunately for photographers, quality lenses are quite expensive and necessary to creating great work.
Hobbyists who only post photos to Facebook might not notice how much a lens can degrade over time. But for those of us who shoot professionally, having tack-sharp photos with enough resolution for large printing or detailed display is a must.
Inspecting Your Used Lenses
You can use a bright light to inspect the aperture of your lens for signs of wear. A magnifying glass can improve your inspection. If you can see either scratches or oil buildup on the aperture blades, your resale value might not be so high. Mold or excessive dust inside the lens body is another sign to either schedule a repair or clean it yourself if possible.
There is the option of going DIY and cleaning your dust out manually, but beware that this would immediately void your manufacturer warranty if the lens is new. Here's a how-to article if you're comfortable with the idea of taking dust into your own hands: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/05/a-few-easy-lens-dustings/
Regular cleaning prevents buildup on your glass. So before you go selling equipment due dust buildup, make sure you're keeping your lenses and filters squeaky clean. I like to keep an eyedropper-sized bottle of lens cleaner plus a microfiber cloth in my camera bag at all times.
Unless you've kept a UV filter over your lens for the entire course of its life (good thinking, you clever shooter!), you likely have at least a small scratch or two on the front element. Assuming they're minor scratches, image quality will actually suffer little or not at all.
Smudges on glass can trick you into thinking your lens is seriously damaged; anyway, such a smudge tricked me once. Early on in my career, I had an issue with image sharpness on one particular photo shoot. After the company subcontracting me noticed a slight "fuzziness" to my photos, they told me to check the lens I was using.
I held the front element up to a bright light. “No,” I replied. “The lens is clean.”
"Look at the rear element. Is that clean too?”
Then I inspected the rear element of the lens and discovered to my horror that I had smudged it while switching it out from the body, leaving a greasy fingerprint on the glass.
Trying to juggle lenses is never fun or efficient, which is why shooting events with two bodies is a good idea.
Lens Wear and Tear
The biggest mistreatment that causes image degradation is mishandling or dropping a lens. This can cause internal or external damage, both of which can affect sharpness (though mainly from the former). Several components within the lens can come out of alignment after a jostle, which in turn creates sharpness issues. It can also be expensive to get a professional assessment on internal damage.
Over the years, I’ve repeatedly noticed one characteristic of low-end lenses: They seem decently sharp out of the box, but they wear poorly. Edit: this article is referring to low-end lenses that have been treated poorly. Good lenses can and will last decades or longer, which is why I'm building the case for them.
The Case For Quality Lenses
If you're a professional shooter or even a serious hobbyist, buy quality glass and take care of it. Many photographers have similar stories about the steady and premature decline of lower-end glass, something that isn't an issue with quality camera lenses. Cheap zoom lenses simply aren't built sturdily enough to withstand the inevitable repeated jostling. And they also tend to have less high-quality protective coating on the glass elements.
Other Signs of Wear And Tear
If your lens' zoom or focus rings have become stiff, chances are it's from damage like being dropped or even debris inside the mechanism from situations like shooting on a windy beach. The autofocus mechanism on a lens can also malfunction after a lens is mishandled, causing separate sharpness issues. While the lens may still be operational, oftentimes, the cost to repair these issues outweighs the resale value. Ask a local camera repair technician for an assessment and quote.
What's A "Cheap" Lens?
What constitutes a "cheap" versus an "expensive" lens? If you’ve shopped lenses, you know that’s a tough question with no easy answer. The price of a (used) low-end lens can be as inexpensive as a meal at a restaurant whereas a new one can be as expensive as a new car (less common). Of course, most off-brand lenses made for crop sensor bodies are low end, and full frame lenses running into the thousands would constitute the higher end. Still there are some exceptions, involving function, brand, and production. There’s no substitute for careful research and informed second opinions.
What have your experiences been with wear and degradation of camera lenses? Share your experiences and comments below.
Lead image by Tookapic via Pexels