Reduce Your Chances of Receiving a Damaged Camera Lens on Ebay
YOU SHOULD READ THIS BEFORE BIDDING ON A LENS ON EBAY - VALUABLE INFORMATION AND PHOTOS OF LENS DEFECTS ARE CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW!
An educated bidder is a smart bidder...
Don't get stuck with a hunk of fleabay junk! My experience and knowledge of camera lenses is based on the Minolta Maxxum autofocus line up, but most of the information provided in this guide is applicable to just about any camera lens. With a little knowledge and a few basic questions to your seller, you can reduce your chances of receiving a poor quality or DOA lens. If a camera lens has been abused, mishandled, or is just plain worn out, there are telltale signs that a knowledgeable buyer can look for to help appraise the value or lack thereof in a used camera lens. To bid on any ebay item with confidence, you should have a clear and precise idea of the item's condition and it is my intent in this guide to provide a systematic approach to help in that determination with used lenses.
First off, most listings will include photos of the listed item. In this digital age, I would be very skeptical bidding on any Ebay listing, particularly a lens listing (rather ironic to not post a pic!) that didn't include a photo (or better yet, several close ups) of the item. Carefully examine the photos in the listing. You can get a good idea of the overall cosmetic condition by carefully inspecting the listing photos. Occasionally, a seller may put the item "best face" forward, so consider that all defects may not be shown or that they may be too small or difficult to photograph. A good seller will always provide a photo of the notable flaws and describe them in the item description. However, some lens flaws (such as coating blemishes or fine scratches) may be difficult to reproduce in a photo, so a good item description is important, too. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nothing is more true on Ebay, but a good listing text is just as important. Don't forget to check your seller's feedback for any previous problems pertaining to "items not as described".
Read the listing description. The more detail provided by the seller on the overall condition of the item, the better. Be skeptical of a short, glowing "A+, Mint!" description coupled with a fuzzy cell phone picture of the item or one photo with the item on the dining room table, taken from 6 feet away. The item may in fact be a beauty, but this would be difficult to confirm before the item arrives at your home and you can inspect it up close. If the item isn't to your expectations, you will likely experience the Ebay dispute process firsthand. Be wary of the term "Mint" when a seller describes item condition. "Mint" is as overused on Ebay as "Stat" is by drama-queen physicians on TV. If the item is "Used" as most lenses by private sellers are, expect that it will show (sometimes only the lightest) signs of use, and really should not be described as "Mint", which implies "unmarked and in unused, new condition".
When assessing the condition/value of a lens, unless the following detailed information is clearly provided in the listing, the buyer should contact the seller to clarify the following issues prior to bidding:
- The condition of the lens optics (glass), both the exposed surfaces and internal components.
- The condition and function of the lens aperture.
- The condition of the mount and electrical contacts.
- The condition and action of the focus ring (and zoom ring if applicable)
- Overall cosmetics of the body
- Any other notable issue the seller may feel is worth mentioning.
When your item arrives in the mailbox, inspect the following components. It looks like a lot of information, but once digested, you can competently inspect your Ebay auction win in about 5 minutes:
The glass of a lens can have numerous problems. Most easily detected are scratches on the exposed glass elements. Sometimes, lighter scratches caused by poor cleaning technique can be present and are more difficult to detect, especially in listing photos. Bright reflected light is usually sufficient to see "cleaning marks": once you receive your ebay win, examine the lens with the light reflecting off surfaces at several angles and you should be able to tell if any light scratches are present.
Lens elements are generally "multicoated" with layers of nonreflective optical material. This minimizes light reflection and the resulting lens flare and ghosting associated with the multiple reflective surfaces of these complex optical devices. "Blemishes", areas in the multicoating where material has been smeared or removed by a bump to the glass, manufacture defect or a solvent splash are less critical flaws provided they are very small (< 1mm diameter) and few in number. A small blemish shouldn't affect image reproduction. For the sake of listing accuracy, they should be noted in the description if present.
A lens that has been stored in a dark and moist (and/or humid environment) or stored after getting wet can have a fungus bloom inside the lens. Fuzzy spots and mycelial filaments are both bad news. The fungus can secrete an acid that etches the multicoating of the lens elements, so even if you can disassemble and clean the lens, the damage is likely permanent and will to some degree, affect the sharpness of the lens' image reproduction. Examine the lens by peering through it from the lens mount side and look at a bright surface such as an opaque light shade (not the Sun!). Open the aperture to ensure you get a good look. (Read on for information on how to do this in the "The Aperture" section). If there is anything visible inside the lens, this is not good news. The light path inside the lens should be completely clear of any opacities. You can try the same technique looking from the front element into the barrel as I have in the next set of photos. Note the fungus deep inside this Beercan. What a shame!
Occasionally, a few tiny dust particles may be noticed when looking into a lens. Especially in older, larger zoom lenses (the beercan!), this is normal and won't affect lens performance. Consider that the dust will impede about 1/1000% of the total light travelling through your lens, and that the focal point of the lens is anywhere from 12 inches to 6 feet away from the lens. The net effect of these tiny particulates is negligible on image reproduction. Any dust should however be described in the listing. Looking into the front of the lens in bright sunlight will expose the presence of any dust particles. (Don't look through the lens at the sun, but rather, use the sunlight (or a bright halogen desk light) to illuminate the lens interior as you would use a lamp to read a book.) If you believe a few dust particles will affect lens performance, place a toothpick right in front of a lens while you are looking through your viewfinder - you won't even notice a difference in the image in the viewfinder, so you can see how a few dust specks won't affect anything!
2. The Aperture
When you attach a lens to a camera body, the lens is opened up to its maximum aperture. This gives you a bright viewfinder while you compose your photo. When the shutter is released, the camera allows the lens to stop down to the proper aperture for exposure and then opens the aperture back up so that the viewfinder remains bright, all in the blink of an eye. While the camera actively allows the aperture to close down to the required size during exposure, the action of the aperture is passive in that the aperture movement is "spring-loaded" within the lens to close down to the required size. When oil is present on the aperture blades, there is friction from the oil's viscosity and this impedes the quick closing action during exposure. (Normally you would think oil is good for lubrication, but in this case, dry blades move faster.) By the time the aperture has stopped down during exposure (if it even can, depending on the amount of oil present), the shutter action has long since completed, and every photo is overexposed from too much light entering the shutter plane.
A lens that has been subject to extreme heat can develop an oily aperture. Grease from the focus gear liquifies from the heat and works its way centrally over time into the aperture area where it wreaks havoc. This is a moderately expensive camera shop repair that requires complete disassembly and cleaning, and can double (or more) the cost of your ebay bargain. (Never leave your camera gear in a car in the summer sun, as this is the most common cause of this repair!) You can try to fix the problem yourself, but you'll need a few special tools and be adept at reassembly (the hard part!). Furthermore, certain parts, like the aperture assembly itself only fit in a certain orientation, so take notes during the job.
A clean, normal aperture (50mm f/1.7)
Using the sun or a bright light source, deep inside the front of the lens you should be able to see the lens aperture or "iris" - the circular opening that controls the amount of light that passes through the lens. It should be grey/black and have a uniform matte-like appearance, not wet or shiny looking. A six or seven petal flower pattern or black blotches are a dead giveaway of a problem (see next 2 photos).
If you note any of these conditions, you have oil on your aperture blades:
Oil on a Minolta 28/2.8. Note the classic dark "petal" pattern.
Oil on a Minolta 50/1.7. Not as much, but still slow and sticky.
The same 50/1.7, stuck in the open position.
On a Minolta Maxxum lens, when looking at the lens mount, you should be able to find a small metal tab located in a narrow 1/2 to 1" curved slot near the gold contacts, between the glass rear element and the stainless outer ring of the mount. This is the Aperture Control Rod.
Aperture control rod location.
With a toothpick, you can slide the tab along its track towards the gold contacts and it should snap back quickly when released. You should notice the movement (opening) of the aperture blades as you do this. If the blades do not return to the closed, pinhole position, or are sluggish, you likely have an oily aperture. This check would help confirm that oil is affecting your aperture's movement. If you have already visualized oil on the blades during your inspection of the front elements this check is redundant.
Occasionally, the aperture slot picks up grit and oil and can become sticky over time. It may require cleaning if oil on the aperture blades is not the cause of the sluggish aperture. On Minolta Maxxum prime lenses, cleaning is easily done by removing the stainless mount via the 4 philips (+) screws. Then rinse the stainless mount under warm water with a bit of dish soap, and finish with an alcohol rinse. Thoroughly dry the mount (use a hair dryer on low) and reassemble the mount, ensuring the aperture control arm connects with the internal aperture assembly, and the AF gear and its washer are in place. This is a very simple procedure to complete. If your lens aperture is sluggish and you can't visualize oil, it's a good procedure to try before having the lens serviced.
Most Maxxum zoom lenses have a delicate ribbon cable connecting the gold contacts to the ROM chip and other ciruitry deep inside the lens. If you are removing the mount from a zoom, you need to remove the tiny screws on either side of the contacts, plus the 3 or 4 tiny screws on the retaining ring that is located between the stainless mount and the central glass rear element. You need to remove the plastic retaining ring and tuck the contacts through the opening created as you remove the mount. The ribbon cable is very fragile and can easily become detached from the soldered contact on the back side of the gold contacts. Furthermore, the aperture control rod inserts deeply into some of these lenses and it is tricky to reestablish a mechanical connection between the control rod and the aperture upon reassembly. Need I say more? Kids, don't try this at home!
3. The Mount
The mount should be clean and undamaged, and the gold contacts should be clean and unworn. 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 in excellent condition pictured.
4. Focus and Zoom Rings
The focus ring should turn smoothly, (no significant "bumps" or grinding sounds) with a slightly dampened movement so as to not turn too easily and "creep" when not touched. The focus action of AF lenses by design is not dampened very much to minimize load stress on the AF motor.
The zoom however, should have a relatively dampened feel. Older or heavily used lenses will be a little looser due to wear, and older, heavier push-pull zooms will likely creep in or out when pointed straight up or down. They shouldn't slide out like a dropping stone, however. Any deviation from normal function should be noted in the listing. A slight loss in dampening action is acceptable and is expected in older lenses, much like the steering of your car is a little sloppier after a few years of use, but you don't want your zoom collar sliding into the ditch!
5. Body Cosmetics
The overall cosmetics of the body should be adequately described in the listing. Classification of condition is entirely subjective, so this is where photos come in handy. Any major dings or scratches should have been detailed in the listing, and/or photos.
Finally, when looking at an ebay lens, factor in whether the lens caps and hood are included in the auction. Caps cost about $5 each, and a dedicated hood can cost $10-20 (plus shipping on ebay if they aren't available at a local camera store). It can be difficult or expensive to obtain the dedicated hood separately of some lens models, and OEM caps are a little more expensive to replace. The classic silver Minolta logo lens caps aren't made anymore, and next to impossible to buy separately. Personally, when I look for gear for myself, I put a bit more value on a lens being sold with these original caps - but that's just me.
A competent seller should have the items' condition and what's included or not included accurately described in the listing. When you contact a seller for additional information, you should receive an accurate reply that answers your question(s). Be wary of the seller who replies "I don't know much about cameras, but the item looks good to me" or "I'm selling it for a friend." The seller may be in fact truthful, but they may be missing important details about their item or they may be off loading their junk in an "AS IS - No Refunds" auction, leaving you with a big Ebay headache, lots of paperwork and running around collecting appraisals to meet Paypal/Ebay criteria for a Dispute refund. There is also the emotional grief of being ripped off and waiting for Paypal's dispute decision to find out if you will be able to get a refund. It's an unfortunate side of eBay that does occur but chances are it won't happen to you now that you are reading this article.
Upon receipt of your ebay lens, you should closely inspect the lens to assess if its condition is "as described", using this guide as a reference. For lenses other than Minolta AF, a few differences in the manufacturer's engineering of lens mounts, electronic aspects, or the lens/camera coupling of exposure controls can easily be assessed with a quick visual inspection and on-camera testing which should verify their proper operation. Furthermore, if the lens in question is manual focus, the optical and mechanical principles will essentially be the same.
It's always a good idea to contact the seller immediately upon item receipt if you feel you are disappointed with the transaction in some way. A responsive, ethical seller will try to work with you to resolve any issues in a timely manner. You have 45 - 60 days to file a dispute with Ebay/Paypal if you cannot personally resolve your differences, but it is better to get the ball rolling sooner than later and better to give the seller the opportunity to "make things right" for you prior to filing a dispute. Communication is the key. It is best to file your dispute with Paypal (rather than eBay) so that you have financial recourse should you not be able to come to terms with your seller.
After doing all your research, if you are satisfied that the lens in an auction is in a condition acceptable to you, then it's time to get bidding! After all your leg work, don't be afraid to submit a good bid if you really want the item. Patient ebayers will enter a last minute bid or use a "sniping" program or proxy bidder to submit a bid in the final few seconds of an auction to scoop the item from you at a great price. If you've put in a solid bid beforehand, you'll still get the item. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Sign up with a sniping service.
You can save a lot of time checking auctions and resubmitting bids by hitting the "Buy It Now" if it is available in an auction and you feel the price is acceptable. No waiting, time wasting or missing out at the auction close and starting over with your search. The auction process is fun, but it can be very time consuming and frustrating when you repeatedly lose out on "your" nice item by a dollar. When I shop on eBay, I temper my enthusiasm for bidding in auctions with the realization that my time is worth something to me and invariably I just hit the Buy It Now when I've found a suitable item at a suitable price. In many cases, I have my item before or around the same time another auction of the same item is just finally ending....at about the same price or maybe for just a little bit more money. Finally, some lenses are one-of-a-kind items that just don't show up on eBay often or in the fine condition you are looking for - again, make sure you have an adequate bid. Good luck!
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