You want to buy new? I say buy perfectly used! / by Joseph Donzis

Old is bold and beautiful

Everywhere you look, something is telling you to buy yourself something new.  "Buy the newest phone!"  "New: this watch will CHANGE YOUR LIFE!"  "Get the latest camera with all the newest features!"  The only time you ever see anything about buying something old, it's glued onto some piece of furniture a hipster found on the street as fall semester came to  an end.  Even then, the item is STILL marketed as a new concept.  Today I'm going to tell you something amazing you can do with old camera equipment: take great pictures for a very reasonable price.

A couple years ago, I made some drastic moves in my life and ended up selling most of my camera equipment.  At the time, it seemed like the best thing to do, and I held onto some of my better pieces of equipment; over time I realized that there was something missing in my life.  I was missing holding a nice camera between my hands.  After much deliberation I finally got a Nikon D5300 (Check back next week for how I came to that decision) and quickly got back into photography.  I had a couple of kit lenses which came with my camera, but I knew there were better lenses out there.  I checked the internet and confirmed that indeed there were better lenses, but after I checked my bank account I also confirmed I couldn't afford them.  My friend suggested as an alternative that I purchase a ¹Super Takumar 50mm 1.4 (Check image above for numerical reference guide)- he shoots on old film cameras and said this is one of his favorite lenses.

I was able to buy a VERY well maintained lens on eBay for around $60 USD, over $100 less than a new Nikkor 50mm 1.8G AFs.  Of course, this lens was not built for for my camera, so I needed an adapter.  I purchased a ²lens adapter for less than $10 here and as soon as I started shooting, I noticed an immediate difference.

The compression of my subject was tighter, the background was more blurred out, the image looked more professional overall.  And there was something else, something less identifiable.  Using this lens felt good.  It's made almost completely of metal, so it feels indestructible, the movement of the focus ring is smooth and silky while the aperture ring is snappy and responsive, and the lens itself just looks... amazing.  The lens even seems to make pictures taken with it look a little more vintage and distinguished.  Using this lens and my inexpensive little flash didn't just make me feel professional, I felt like a professional photographer in the '70s snapping a quick photo of a friend while they were distracted by the latest magazine cover.  This lens made me feel special, and I liked that.  I knew I needed more used lenses.

Not everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorn kisses, though.  Buying used lenses certainly comes at a cost.  The first issue was glaringly obvious: this lens didn't have autofocus.  On the ⁷Pentax Spotmatic SPII, the camera for which this lens was built, there is a focus assist which goes from a diamond pattern to clear to let you know when you've found focus.  On the Nikon D5300, there's a little green light in the corner which lets you know that you might have possibly found focus, or maybe there's not enough light to find focus, or it could just be notifying you that you're currently holding a camera up to your face; I still haven't completely mastered the randomly flashing green light in my camera.  The manual focus became a bigger issue as I tried to shoot using a lower aperture, since my depth of field was so greatly reduced.  The second problem is that the lens was made for a camera with a more narrow body.  Because of this discrepancy, the lens cannot focus to infinity- although on the plus side, it can now be used for macro.  The third problem was less obvious at first, but when I found it, I was immediately and deeply saddened.

There were traces of condensation and fungus in the lens.  It's not enough that you'd ever notice!  That is, until you try to get a picture of bokeh.  It's a minor issue, but I have to admit that I felt a little crushed when I realized this lens's issue.  On the other hand, though, I spent less than $70 on a lens which made me feel amazing and still was capable of great pictures.

After I started using the Super Takumar 50mm, I realized I wanted to take better portrait photos.  Any portrait photographer worth their weight in salt (which, when you think about it, that much salt actually seems more like a bummer than anything else) knows that the ultimate portrait lens is the 70-200mm 2.8.  That lens is big, it's beautiful, it's even a little sexy.  It's also over $2000.  Let that sink in... It's a lens which costs more than my camera does.  Don't get me wrong, it's worth every penny!  Those are unfortunately the same pennies that need to go to the landlord, internet provider, and energy company though.  I knew that most of the time when you're shooting portraits on this beast, you're keeping the lens around 200mm.  Even though lenses claim to have certain focal lengths, those numbers often turn out to be a little bit off.  In the case of Canon, the focal length on a 70-200mm often is found to max out closer to 170-180mm.  On Nikon, it can go as low as 140mm depending on who manufactured the lens (shame on you, Nikon!)  With this knowledge, I purchased a ³Sears 135mm 2.8 for $20.  For this, I needed another ⁴adapter, fortunately this time I was able to get an adapter which would allow my lens to focus to infinity.  At the time, the adapter cost about $30, and it gives an old lens a very cool and modern look.  With these two hooked onto my camera, I was taking all new portrait shots.

I'd like to both thank and compliment my sister on her patience while she froze to death waiting for me to take this picture.

This lens is really great at compressing the subject and the background absolutely fades into bokeh, which are both wonderful qualities in a portrait lens.  Also, this lens was made by Sears!  When was the last time you said "Sears" and it wasn't preceded by "hey, remember" or followed up by "still exists???"  Unfortunately, this lens probably has more faults than advantages.  The focus ring turns for what seems eternity, making focus a long and arduous process, the lens itself feels overly heavy and makes your camera unwieldy on lighter tripods, and the front lens itself really isn't that big which often finds you debating whether you'd prefer higher ISO and more grain or slower shutter speed and possible motion blur.  This isn't my favorite purchase, but considering I still occasionally use it for portrait shoots and paid nearly the same price as renting a modern portrait lens for one day, I'm not quite ready to discredit it.

Now for my absolute favorite used lens: the ⁵Sigma 28mm 2.8 mini-wide.  I'm honestly not sure how old this lens is, but it certainly looks and feels well over 30 years old.  Even though this lens uses manual focus, it manages to make nearly everything look amazing.  

Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I even shot my sister's save the date pictures using my trusty 28mm mini wide.  The wide angle function of this lens generally serves the purpose of widening the scope of the lens, yet it shows barely any of the distortion you so often find in other wide angle lenses.  The focus ring on this lens is like butter and the aperture ring is snappier than a fresh carrot.  This lens is also TOUGH.  
Sure, it came to me with a slight and unidentifiable rattle- but if I were under attack and had to choose to defend myself with a rock or this lens, I'd probably use the lens to fend off my attacker and then to chisel the rock into a new miniature statue.  Out of all my used lenses, this one was the most expensive, costing me just over $75.  Fortunately, I was able to find a lens actually made for Nikon, so I didn't need to purchase an adapter.  Also, for such an old manual everything lens, this thing sure gets a lot of use.  I've used this photo for every single one of my panorama pictures and cannot express how much I'm in love with this little thing.

To see this image in its full resolution, click here.  Caution: image is 48.5MB, you may want to view it using wifi.

HDR Panorama from Napa Valley

The pros and cons list for the Sigma 28mm mini wide is very simple.  Cons: No autofocus, no vibration reduction, has issues with lens flares.  Pros: everything else imaginable.  This old lens is probably in my top 3 most used lenses, which is really saying a lot with my strange little collection.

This is why you should use a tripod to take these sorts of pictures.

On the topic of strange collections, I'd like to quickly discuss my old ⁶teleconverters.  Together, they cost me around $30, and together, they can optically magnify what I'm shooting by 6x.  Unfortunately, there's a lot of light lost using these teleconverters, and they disable all auto functions my newer lenses have.  On the positive side, they are fun little toys which allow me to zoom in really close on the moon and use my camera like a little telescope.  I've yet to take any really great pictures using them because their amazing magnification abilities also magnify how much I shake my camera.  So, without further ado, nor even proper introduction, here's a bad picture of the moon which I probably shouldn't show you and you probably don't want to see.  The teleconverters do have one huge positive point: they look like they're part of a lightsaber.

As a final note before concluding, I need to address my little ⁷Pentax Spotmatic SPII.  That was an extremely thoughtful gift the same friend, mentioned above, bought for me at an estate sale.  The thing was jammed and for the longest time, I was just using it as decoration.  One day, I realized I was no better than some hipster gluing a vintage treasure onto a junked piece of furniture and right then I knew I had to repair this camera.  I've gotten the camera working perfectly now and have found that film photography might quickly become a little side-hobby of mine.

I think what I find most impressive about all these items is that none of them is probably less than 30 years old, and yet every single item still manages to be useful in some form or another.  I just got my Nikon D5300 in November, and no more than 2 months later was I inundated with advertisements about the ALL NEW D5500.  Now lighter, smaller, and probably able to do something else better!  Even if I did decide to update to the D5500, every single one of these lenses would have remained exactly as relevant; they don't care about megapixels, frame rates, memory card size, nor poly-coated aluminum with carbon fiber settings.  All these lenses care about is giving you the best image possible as long as you continue taking care of them.  Sure, sometimes I wish these lenses had autofocus, and yes, I often long for vibration reduction- but for nearly a quarter of what I paid for my Nikon D5300, I was able to upgrade to a veritable arsenal of lenses.  That is definitely something very big to consider.