Monday, August 23, 2010

Lenses That Are Only So-So on the Used Market

Despite the fact that you can save money by buying a lens on Craigslist, it does not necessary follow that every lens out there is a good value for the money. This depends a lot on your own personal circumstance. For example, acquiring a Nikon 14-24 at any reasonable used price would still be too expensive a purchase if you shot with a Nikon D40.

Likewise, some lenses have been obsoleted by newer alternatives. Others were never really that good to begin with. Eventually, every lens is a bargain if you can find a good price for it, but that depends if there is a seller willing to let it go for that price. The following is a personal view of lenses that don’t offer good value for the money. By that, I mean that I think you would have to get significantly below typical Craigslist prices to consider these lenses.

Nikon 24-120VR Version 1 (Paper Specs Don't Always Live Up to Reality)

A much maligned lens that doesn’t live up to the standards of more modern designs. On paper, you have almost everything that you could want: useful zoom range for both DX and FX with built in image stabilization. The sticking point with these lenses is usage. Are you using it as a normal zoom or are you using it as a travel zoom.

My vote is that ‘travel zoom’ is a better use for this lens. It doesn’t develop the across-the-frame sharpness that you would expect for a normal zoom; this isn’t the lens that you will want to use as your “body cap”. However,  if you find one at a good price, it’s sort of the poor-man’s 18-200VR (which, by the way, is also not that sharp a lens). Most 18-200’s a priced competitively, you should really not be paying more than 65% the price of a used 18-200VR for a used 24-120VR.

Nikon 20mm f/2.8 (Usefulness Depends on Intended Usage)

On paper, this is one of those lenses that you think would be a keeper. The only problem is that it still sells new for a high retail price, which keeps used prices high as well. As I write this, typically used prices go for $400ish in my local area. That’s a lot of money considering all of the alternatives that would perform better on DX cameras like the Nikon D90.

The advantage to this lens is that it’s a prime. It’s smaller than a zoom and it’s optically more efficient. You can typically expect a 1/3 stop advantage in speed compared to a zoom at the similar focal length. That is to say, under equal circumstances, a prime will let you shoot with a shutter speed that is 25% faster than a zoom. The down side is that the distortion pattern to this lens is wavy and not as simple to correct.

On DX, this lens falls into neither nor territory… it becomes the equivalent of 30mm FX and is not truly wide for landscapes but is a little too wide for the classic 35mm equivalent street photography focal length. (35mm is a favourite focal length of Leica shooters). However, if you are using a D700, the price is affordable compared to something like 17-35 f/2.8.

Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 (Excellence is not Always Value)

Optically, this is an awesome lens. It’s very competent at what it does, all through the zoom range. It’s also one brutally expensive lens new. This inflates the asking price on the used market, but there are two downsides. The first is competition. Tamron makes a very competent 17-50 f/2.8 zoom for a fraction of the price. In fact, you could buy a new 17-50VC, which includes image stabilization, for less than a used Nikon 17-55. Granted, these two lenses serve different markets, but the Tamron (in it’s various incarnations) does 90% of what the Nikon does for a fraction of the price. I’ve seen older screw-drive versions go as low as $280 asking on Craigslist. The Nikon is better built and is better wide-open at f/2.8. The build quality matters if you shoot a lot, travel or get paid (e.g., wedding photography), but the image quality wide open is not as important as it might sound to be, as the plane of acceptable focus is very narrow at f/2.8 anyway.

The other negative is that the market is moving away from Nikon 17-55. It’s a competent pro-DX standard zoom, but the type of professional that would need a professional quality standard zoom (again, typically wedding photographers) is more and more likely to be using a D700 than a D300. This will also make it harder to resell this lens in the future.

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