How Badly Do You Have to Damage a Lens Before It’s Too Damaged to Use?

Protecting your lenses from damage seems like a necessary requirement to being a photographer. In those unfortunate cases where a lens gets damaged, how damaged is too damaged to get beautiful photographs?In this video, Benj Haisch presents us with his Mamiya 645 Pro and a pretty severely scratch 80mm f/1.9. Of all the lenses to damage too - the most sought after Mamiya 645 lens. As you’ll see in Haisch’s example photographs, you would likely never know the lens was damaged if you weren’t already aware. He notes that he has some weird flaring issues but without a before/after comparison, it’s difficult for me to make my own assessment. 

Admittedly, as an owner of a Mamiya 645 Pro TL, this video hits pretty close to home. Though it was with a different camera, years ago I was hiking in Asheville, NC shooting with my Sony a7 paired with a Minolta 55mm f/1.7 and I tripped and the lens went straight for the ground. I had a UV filter on at the time which I believe helped mitigate the disaster but the front element still took a slight bit of abuse. I kept it as a paperweight for a while but eventually tossed it. Looking back on it, I should have given it a trial run. While I hope to never have this happen to me, should it ever happen, I’ll be sure to share the results here with you.

Have you ever accidentally damaged a lens? Did you continue to use it? If so, I’d love to see some examples post-damage. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Ha! That's pretty wild. In all honesty, I'm more interested in how the fly got there than how the lens performs with it in it.

Pretty fly for a white lens

Highlight bokeh balls will also show a scratches, particularly out of focus lights. You'll get a dark spot the size/shape of the scratch in the bokeh ball.

Interesting... Are you speaking from personal experience.

I had some dirt inside my 135mm f2 (service center told me it was likely some small bit from inside of the lens?...). It was close to the front element and showed up as a dust spot in every bokeh ball.

Its not the same as a scratch, but wouldnt be surprised if the effect would be similar

Yep. Here's a picture from my sister's wedding and a close up crop of the bokeh. I don't have it any more, but this was a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 with two nicks in the front element.

When I first got my Fujifilm 16-55 f2.8 and took it out of the box, I noticed an enormous spec on it. The blower wouldn’t remove it and I really wanted to take pictures with the lens. Not even considering the potential consequences, I just reached for a tissue and removed the offending spot with a soft swipe. Now there a tiny mark on my lens. That was in 2017 and that 16-55 is still my “go to” lens for all occasions. And yes, that little mark still annoys the heck out of me.

So long as its your go to lens, it can't be too bad!

It’s noticeable when you look at it, so it’s annoying. Luckily, no obvious effect on performance.

A tissue scratched your lens?

Yes, I assume that something was on it which left the mark.

Fair enough!

Does the auto focus still work like normal? Is it still sharp? Weather sealing still good? Yes, Yes, Yes? Good!

I've bought a few not so good looking lenses to save money. Most worked fine. I had to clean out the dust in a Canon 17-55mm IS f/2.8 lens a few times but you can't beat paying $300 on a $800 lens at the time.

My most recent one is a Sony 55-210mm cracked lens. Only the front ring is cracked but the seller seemed to think it was worse than it was. Only $45 bucks. It's not a g master or anything but works perfectly fine.

This video and your example have been a great example of just how resilient a lens can be. At least when it's the front element that's damaged. I expect similar damage to the rear element would be a great deal worse.

Back in the 70s I was climbing up an irregularly surfaced concrete wall, and my F swung forward as I lifted and the lens scraped against it. I've only ever really noticed it aimed at a bright light source. I kept using the lens all the way into the 2000s...

I used to have that same lens! Tragically, it feel off of the roof of a parking garage while in my camera bag. Other than the front lens cap popping off, you would never have known it. Glad to hear you found yours to be just as useful following a mishap.

Some years back I ran across an immaculate 50mm SC (the gen that followed the S, same formula, but the first of the multicoated Nikkors) from a Japanese vendor on eBay for $125 with shipping. I have to say I have no idea what the Japanese do with their gear, because this thing looks like it was used ONCE. It arrived in it's original box with matching serial number! It replaced my shopworn S, but I kept the 'ol clunker as a memento of wild and crazy youth. :-D

Here's some video footage I shot with an old Olympus 50mm with a shattered front element on a C100. You can see the shape of the crack in the bokeh in the first shot. Also some interesting/weird lens flare/haze throughout

I scratched a Nikon zoom lens while on vacation. The scratch showed up on all the wide shots with small apertures (landscapes) as a ugly black line. At longer focal lengths it wasn’t noticeable. I was able to fix it in post for most of the photos, but it was more work than I wanted to do. With the wide end of the lens showing the scratch I decided to replace it. I’d be interested to see the results from a wide lens with a similar scratch as the author had.

My camera was knocked over during a storm, I had my Samyang 14 F2.8 on. It broke out mount of the camera and the inner barrel of the lens jumped off the thread where it was mounted.
The result was hard to notice at all at 14mm, but I do some astrophotography, especially with this lens. The stars on one side of the frame were always out of focus due to the crooked barrel.
Luckily Samyang is easy to repair, so I took it apart (a few times, because I always got one element in the wrong direction) and could eventually fix the problem.

The most important thing to know is that yes, most scratches and or dust will not effect your images in any meaningful way, if they are on the front element or stuck in one of the front groupings. Aperture also significantly plays a role in when and how much dust or damages will effect image quality. However large sized or amounts of dust, haze, fungus and some scratches on the rear element or in the rear grouping, WILL effect image quality. There is a long explanation to the reason, but basically if it's on the front element there isn't much to worry about, especially if you don't ever shoot past f5.6-f8 anyways lol.

An assistant was setting up a shot with my studio mate's 400mm Symmar on an 8x10. She didn't have it secured and it fell and got a 1/4" chip halfway between the edge and center. We did a quick Polaroid of a test chart and saw NO change. IFAIK he continued using it for years after.