Foreword: This post is aimed at people who are just getting into vintage lenses, but maybe even a seasoned vintage lens user will find some useful info here.
When it comes to buying lenses, things can get pretty confusing, especially at the start. There are so many brands, models, types, focal lengths, etc and there are also many other factors that will determine what is right for you, but one factor a lot of us look at first is the price!
One of the main reasons why people choose vintage lenses is their cost when compared to modern equivalents, because vintage ones will often cost as much as 10 times less than their modern equivalents. Such lenses allow many filmmakers (and photographers) add different focal lengths to their kit bag and experiment without breaking the bank.
So which are the best bargain lenses? Of course there are a few well-known gems like the Helios 44-2 58mm F2, which has remained affordable even with its massive popularity, but generally the best bargain lens might be the one you will stumble upon, so here are some general pointers.
The most common vintage focal lengths are the 28mm, 50mm, 135mm, 35-70mm and 80-200mm. There are a lot of such lenses from long forgotten third party brands that aren’t really worth paying more than $10-20 for, so don’t overpay for these unless you find (quick ebay links):
Some other less known/third party brands that are worth looking at include:
A good mount to go for is the M42 screw mount, because M42 mount lenses are generally quite cheap and are adaptable to just about any other popular camera mount. Other easily adaptable mounts include Olympus OM, Pentax K and Nikon F, but only third party lenses with these mounts will be super cheap (unless you get lucky).
Canon FD, Minolta MD and Konica AR mount lenses can often present best value for money. They work great with the “mirrorless” style cameras, but keep in mind that they have a poor compatibility with SLR style cameras, so don’t buy these if you have a 5D/etc.
If you are still lost, here are a few 3x lens sets that are great as a starting point for anyone getting into vintage lenses.
The “Character” set:
This is an absolutely incredible little set for anyone who likes the vintage character, like the dreamy flares, low contrast look, unusual bokeh, etc. and as you go along there are other Russian lenses you can add to this set to make it even better. Such set will set you back around $200-250 and while it doesn’t sound like the biggest bargain, it’s totally worth it! You can learn more about them in this post.
The “Allrounder” set:
This set covers wider focal range, very cheap to buy (around $100) has great optical performance and images produced are also very cinematic! There are loads of other affordable FD lenses to fill in the gaps when you are ready to add more lenses to the kit, some of them are mentioned in my Canon FD Buyer’s Guide.
So where is the best place to find a bargain? Flea markets/carboot sales and thrift/charity shops are some of the best places to find a real bargain, because prices in such places are generally low, especially at the flea markets/car boot sales when you can also haggle the price down. Often a seller or shop doesn’t even know the real value of the lenses and price them based on assumptions. Sometimes a small, but fast, sharp prime will cost much less than a slow telephoto zoom, just because people who don’t know any better, often think big lenses must be better and more expensive. That is how I bought a little Pentax 20mm F2.8 twice cheaper than a Sigma 400mm F5.6 from the same charity shop, even though that Pentax is 4 times more valuable than Sigma.
Another good reason to check out these places is ability to see and inspect lenses yourself to see if they are really worth their price. It’s a good idea to check are all the rings, aperture functionality, external optical condition and if possible internal condition too by pointing the lens at a bright light source and looking though it to see if there is any dust and more importantly fungus. Almost any vintage lens (unless just serviced) will have dust inside, so don’t let that put you off. Just make sure it’s not a whole layer of dust or haze that will most likely affect the sharpness and contrast to a certain extend.
Another obvious place to find a bargain is of course the Internet. Some websites are better than others, but all have a potential for a bargain.
A web market place that is specific to your country and even city/town is a great place to find a bargain, because you have less competition than you would on global web market places, but even the biggest global giant, EBAY is still a great place to find a bargain. Some of my best bargain finds came from ebay and about 90% of my own lenses were bought on ebay, so it’s certainly a great place to buy lenses and find bargains. The eBay site that is relevant to your country or closest to your country is the best start because you are more likely to find lenses that seller will be willing to ship to your address. It’s also likely that seller might not want to ship to another continent, so again, this way you have a bit less competition. If you fail to find the lens you want on your “local” ebay site, then ebay.com can be great place to check out. Even though you have more people looking at the same stuff, there are thousands of listing starting/ending every day and some manage to get overlooked, which can increase your chances of snapping up a bargain if you play your cards right. One of the ways I would often snap up a bargain on ebay was by buying “camera kits”, which often consisted of an SLR camera, some accessories and most important 2-3 lenses. The actual words that you use in the search box are very important, but you don’t want to be too specific. When searching for a camera kit, writing “camera kit” into the search box will return fewer results than writing “camera lenses” or “slr camera”. You need to think about what words a seller who isn’t too bothered about his camera kit would use for listing title. One of the best ways to snap up a lens bargain on ebay is to look out for listing with basic or even misspelled titles, poor descriptions and bad pictures, Many people will not bother with such listings, so this is where you step in. There is of course a risk that you will win a paper weight or two, but as long as the camera/lenses aren’t sold as faulty, you are protected by Paypal and in case of any fault not mentioned in description, you can always make a claim and get your money back. I’ve had to deal with such situations on many occasions and although it can be disappointing experience, I’ve never lost any money this way.
Lastly, let’s talk about the best time to snap up a bargain. If you are going to visit a flea marker/carboot sale, you have to get there as early as possible, because on lenses get snapped very quickly on such events.
It’s kind of the same thing with ebay, when looking at the “buy it now” listings. You want to be one of the first to see your desired lens/camera kit, so type in the name of your desired lens or chosen key words and sort the listings by “newly listed”. If you do this often enough, you will eventually find something at a bargain price, I know I did on many occasions. If you get overwhelmed by the amount of irrelevant listings you get when searching for something general, like a “lens”, then narrow your search down to “photography category”, choose only “used” items and set the highest price to “$10, $20”, etc. and suddenly listings will become much more relevant to what you are looking for.
Same rules apply to “auction” style listings, only this time you need to sort the listings by “ending soonest” being first. Best times to check out soon to end auctions are the times when not many others will do the same. Early mornings, late evenings, weekdays rather than weekends are the best times to snap up a bargain. Again you have to do it more than once if you are hoping to find an amazing deal.
Word of warning: hunting down bargain lenses is fun, but can become quite an addiction. Before you know it, you have 100s of lenses in your watch list and potentially buying at least one lens per day, because once you work out what look, there are way too many good deals and if your mentality is – “I still don’t have this one”, then you will never have enough, because there is an incredible amount of various vintage lenses; I know as I’ve been there 🙂
Ideally buy only what you feel you will really need, a focal length or specific look that is missing in your tool bag.
Lastly, if you are already a vintage lens user, what is the biggest lens bargain you have ever snapped up and where? I’d love to hear your stories and I’m sure other readers will find such real life examples helpful, so please comment below!
I do my best to make this website a great resource for people interested in vintage lenses for video use, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this & other posts. I hope they will help you save some money on your future lens investments too. I’ve joined the ebay affiliate program to help me run this website, fund my tests & lens giveaways, so if you found this content useful and would like to help me produce more similar content, please use the ebay links in this post if you’re planning to buy one of these lenses or bookmark or use this link if you want to buy anything else on eBay.com or this link if you shop on eBay.co.uk. You will not be spending a penny more using these links, while still helping as eBay will pay out a small percentage from any purchase or successful bid, which in turn will support new content on www.vintagelensesforvideo.com. Thank you.
Great article, learned some new tricks 🙂 My best lens buy (out of the ones I want to keep) would be my jupiter-6, i randomly thought of ‘hey let’s go on to ebay and type in jupiter 6 lens’ and there it was… for 70 bucks.
Thanks MAX. Didn’t know there where any new tricks left for you to learn 🙂 Jupiter-6 for $70 is an absolutely amazing deal. Still hoping to find a cheap one for myself 😀
Another great Jupiter lens is 37A – relatively cheap as its a maximum aperture of 3.5 but stunning clarity – colors etc. Some old vivitar lenses are also a bargain (not just series 1). I have a 90/2.8 macro – can focus from 3 cms to infinity. Another is 29/1.9 and 24/2 or 2.8. The 2.8 actually goes down to 2.5 – was the cheaper version but great optically. The canon Fd 100/2.8 is also gem – light and very sharp. Other hidden gems – pentacon 30/3.5 (preset) and the 50/1.8 – my versions are very sharp. Much cheaper than the Meyer Optik versions and identical with them. For M42 mounts Takumar 50/1.4 is special but I have several in the range all who have their own signature – konica – minolta – yashica – pentax also several in the 55/57/58 range. Its really like have light brushes for each is different. Best bargain (actually a gift) the pentacon 30/3.5 in 2 pieces and 2 old aluminum versions of zeiss 50/2.8 (eagle eye). My principle so as not to but every vintage lens is only to buy and keep lenses that I use
Best vintage lens deal- a Meyer-Optik Gorlitz Primoplan 58mm 1.9 attached to a non-working camera for $20.00 at an antiques mall. I bought the camera without paying too close of attention because I thought it was pretty, and didn’t realize until later that I had a little gem of a lens. 🙂
What is a great Wide Angle option that you would add to your “Character” set? I’m looking for something around 18mm.
With vintage lenses anything under 28mm starts to get more expensive again, but i think Tokina RMC 17mm F3.5 fits the purpose pretty well in terms of look and price: http://www.vintagelensesforvideo.com/battle-of-cheap-vintage-17mm-lenses/
Here’s also the Tokina review with some test footage: http://www.vintagelensesforvideo.com/tokina-rmc-17mm/
An interesting story of mine regarding buying legacy lenses was during July 2015. While out of town, I successfully bought a Vivitar Series 1, 70-210 F/2.8-4.0 (version #3 – Komine made; Nikon mount) from an eBay seller. We were just about to leave our motel parking lot when the auction ended. I paid $114 with the shipping. Later that day, we stopped into a small photo store in our travels. My son saw a small display of old lenses, and told me that he saw a Vivitar 70-210 lens. I looked it over, noticing it was version #2 (F/3.5, Tokina-made; Minolta MD mount). It was super clean inside and out, and the mechanics were great (easy and smooth focus, aperture, and zoom), and the handling was great. Got it for only $25, plus a Vivitar 2X teleconverter with a helicoid, for only $25. It, too, was in wonderful condition. All this for $50 for the two items in this small shop. So now I had versions 2 and 3 of the famed Vivitar Series 1 trio of 70-210 lenses, all within 3 hours. When we finally got to our next motel, I got on eBay and found version 1 (F/3.5; Kiron-made; Minolta MD mount). Won that auction past midnight for $40 and free shipping. So within one day, I had acquired all three of these lenses. Fun to own and use. What a day! By the way, the version 3 lens from eBay was beautiful inside and out, and the focus and zoom was easy and smooth, as is the aperture.
I’ve also found the “infamous” Nikon 43-86 flare-king zoom (first version!; less than 57xxxxx number; mine was 45xxxxx) at larger photo store for only $45. Great condition in and out, and yes, it delivers the goods with the long and cool flare effects. A line of flare coming right at you, or to the side if you move around. Also picked up the Tokina 17mm F/3.5 and Tamron 90mm F/2.8 1:1 (72B model) at stores. When you’re not looking for anything specific, it just seems to pop up and surprise you!
[…] one of my previous posts, I’ve shared my way of buying bargain vintage lenses, but there are of course downsides and risks when trying to hunt down a bargain lens on ebay, […]