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04-15-2009, 08:09 PM   #1
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PAWNSHOP LENSES - A Buyers' Guide

I recently received this query. Why me? My big mouth, I guess.

QuoteOriginally posted by Phil H:
I bought a used K20 about 2 months ago. I really like the idea of a pawn shop lens but could you please tell me what and how to look for and at in a "good used lens" Thank you in advance.
Hi Phil:

That's an excellent question, and deserves a detailed response. Here's what I know, or think I know. [I can only comment now re: the K20D. In a couple weeks I may be able to add an adendum re: the ZX-M.] Other Pentaxians are likely to improve and correct my efforts. Then it can become an article. Then I can become rich and famous. Eventually. UPDATE: On Cinco de Mayo 2009, I submitted an expanded version of this post as an article, complete with ZX-M addenda. It will hopefully be approved. I crave approval. Don't we all?

BRIEFLY: The quick-and-dirty approach.

I walk into the slightly seedy premises, wander over to the photo gear display, look over the Pentaxian offerings. I discard focal lengths I already have too many of. I pick up each lens, judge its build quality, twist and slide any moving parts, push any pins and switches, look into and thru it for cruddiness, see if the diaphragm blades move. I pull a M42-PK adapter ring out of my pocket, see if the lens mount looks/is compatible. Then I might offer ten bucks (US$10) for it. Or maybe not.

But this method won't work for everyone, so here's a detailed screening technique.

INTRO: Basics of lenses and mounts.

Lots of lenses will fit your (and my) K20D. Many will have some sort of PK mount, the bayonet twist-on mount like the lens that (hopefully) came with your camera. Many more will have a 42mm diameter threaded screw mount, known as an M42. To use an M42 lens, you'll need an adapter. I *strongly* recommend an honest-to-goodness PENTAX-brand adapter. (I won't go into fitting other lens mounts onto a Pentax camera.)

Some of either sort of lens, PK or M42, may say PENTAX or PK on them somewhere, and some won't. Besides all the more-or-less prominent third-party makers and branders, you'll also see some fine lenses from Sears and Ricoh. Some Ricoh-made lenses are branded as Sears. WARNING: a Ricoh lens with an RP designation on it has an extra pin that WILL jam the lens on your camera. Other Ricoh lenses are fine, just avoid the RP's.

And of course the *best* lenses say Asahi and/or Pentax and/or (Super) Takumar. Some that say Takumar Bayonet are not highly regarded, so don't be talked into paying a lot for those. Some older Pentax-made lenses are branded as Sears or Honeywell. I won't go into the pros-and-cons of other brands, except to mention the Russians - see the warning below on Russian lenses.

SCREENING: What to run away from.

When stalking pawnshops for lenses, be sure you have 1) your camera, 2) a PENTAX-brand M42-PK adapter, 3) a small flashlight, not too bright, and 4) a dust pen or lens brush. (Maybe mud-over the camera so you don't look too rich.)

Gross appearance shouldn't be a deciding factor unless you think beauty is critical. I bought a Vivitar 90/2.8 macro whose knurled rubber grab was decayed. I finally peeled it off and replaced it with duct tape. The lens, one of my favorites, with crystalline optics, cost me US$3; a 'cherry' version might cost 50-100x more. Minor dings, dents, scratches can be ignored or painted over. (Tell the girls you were a combat photographer.) Remove any filthy filters before assessing the lens. Major damage should be avoided - like, it should all be and stay in one piece. If it falls apart when handled, skip it.

To examine a lens, first shake it a little. If anything rattles sharply, skip it. Then try turning the focus and aperture rings. If they're too tight or loose, skip it. Make sure the diaphragm leaf blades open and close when turning the aperture ring. You may have to push the stop-down pin (if any) and/or move the M/A switch (if any). If blades or pin or switch don't move, skip it. If the lens mount is corroded, skip it. If you cut yourself on anything, skip it.

Now use the lens pen or brush to whisk away lens dust, and whip out that not-too-bright flashlight and look inside the lens, from both ends, shining the light both into and thru the lens. (You don't want to blind yourself when looking into magnified light.) It can be pretty scary in there! If the lens surface or interior is fogged, clouded, or just cruddy, skip it. If the glass is scratched anywhere near the center, skip it. Minor scratches around the periphery may not matter much, but they certainly lower the value. Dust inside the lens may be a problem; if you see much dust, skip it. You want to be looking at and thru rather clear, clean glass. If not, skip it.

Pointing the light into the lens, work the aperture. Look at the diaphragm blades. Are they clean, or oily? If oily, skip it. Check from both ends. NOTE: To get the most from this and all the above screening tests, you should go to a camera store and ask to inspect a new lens and/or superior used lens. This will give you an idea of just what a good lens' condition is, and thus what a prospective used lens should aspire to.

Other aperture tricks: some older and simpler lenses have no stop-down pin. The aperture can only be set from the ring, called a pre-set. Some lenses have two rings, on that lets you pre-set the smallest aperture you'll want, the other to actually (and smoothly) dial in the stop-down. Make sure the rings are easy to turn, not too tight or loose. And make sure they actually stop-down the diaphragm. If you have a problem here, skip it. And some modern auto-aperture lenses have NO aperture ring; with such, you can't check it at all, until trying it on the camera. I wouldn't trust one of these unless the pawnshop or seller guarantees that you can return it after purchase. Yup, that includes our fine Pentax DA lenses. Consider them guilty until proved innocent.

If the lens passes so far, check that the mount will actually fit on your camera or the M42 adapter. Don't force it - if it doesn't fit right on, skip it. WARNING: Some Russian lenses branded Helios and Jupiter and Industar (or anything with Cyrilllic characters) have 39mm threads (M39), not M42. Some of those M39s, fitted with a cheap adapter, will work fine on your camera. Most won't. And other lenses made for Leicas and their clones have M39 threads and WILL NOT WORK! If it doesn't thread smoothly onto the M42 adapter, skip it.

TEST-FIRING: Trying-out the candidate.

You will NOT be able to fine-check the optical quality of the lens now. Well, you *could* fire off some shots, then review and pixel-peep, but it's hard to judge quality on the little LCD screen. The best you can probably do is check the lens' mechanical operation, see if it actually works on the camera. WARNING: Unless the shop/seller explicitly states a guaranteed return policy, or the lens is REALLY REALLY CHEAP, you should ALWAYS try it out before purchase. I've failed at this a couple times. I then repeat my mantra: OWAH TAGU SIAM. Say it over and over.

FOCUS: Does the lens manually focus? Look at something and try. The K20D's focus-lock lights should help here. After getting it in focus, maybe look at the lens' distance scale and see if it's about right. Does it focus to infinity? Does it focus as close as the scale says? If it's an autofocus lens, does it actually autofocus? Is it loud, grinding, slow, hunting with futility? If focus isn't good, skip it.

APERTURE - PRESET: A lens with no stop-down pin and/or no M/A switch and/or no aperture-ring A-setting, will likely only work in Av mode. (Setting the mode to P, Sv, Tv, or TAv won't matter - the K20D will default to Av.) Set the M/A switch (if any) to M. Focus on something, half-press the shutter, note the shutter speed. Now twist the aperture ring a bit and repeat. Does the speed change? It should increase when you open up, decrease when you stop down. If not, skip it.

APERTURE - MANUAL: Otherwise, set the M/A switch to A, and the aperture ring to anything *but* A (if available). Set the K20D to M (Manual) mode. Focus on something. Hit the Green button. The lens should audibly stop down as the camera takes an exposure reading. Note the reading. Now manually change the aperture and repeat. Does the reading change, as with presets? If not, skip it, unless 1) the lens passes the PRESET test and 2) you'll be happy using it as preset-only and 3) it's cheap.

APERTURE - AUTOMATIC: Ah, the blessed PKA mount! Set the aperture ring to A. (If there's no A there, skip this test.) Set the K20D to P mode. Focus on something, half-press the shutter, note the reading. Try turning the front and/or rear e-dials. Do the aperture and speed change? If not, skip it.

ZOOM: Is it a push-pull or twist'em or power zoom? Does it push-pull, twist, and/or power smoothly, quietly, effortlessly? (Are there even any power-zooms made for Pentax mounts? I dunno.) Can you tolerate the zoom creep, if any? Does is seem to zoom from minimum to maximum of its range? If not, skip it, unless it's one of those huge obnoxious lenses and you just want it to show off. Camera bling, yeah sure. If it's a macro-zoom (or any kind of allegedly 'macro' lens) does it reach its close focus? If not, skip it, unless you just don't care.

OUTRO: Closing the deal.

That's all I can think of right now. I eagerly await constructive edits and psychotic rants. Meanwhile, you have some info on what to look for in a used lens that you can fondle before purchasing. It's *your* credit card and/or financial future; go for it!

I'll mention that pawnshops near major casinos are great places to look for used photo gear. Winners buy a new, upgraded outfit; losers go home naked. Or so I hear. My favorite pawnshop in a major Nevada city (I won't say which) has a great assortment, and sends a Sweet Young Thang out to show lenses to male customers. (I won't mention her name.) She volunteers that she's done some modeling. I suspect that she's rather effective in diverting some customers' attention from prices and other bothersome details. So yes, self-discipline is needed in this kind of shopping. Be strong, be wary, and don't spend more than you can afford. Yeah, right.


Last edited by RioRico; 05-05-2009 at 02:30 AM. Reason: correction, update notice
04-15-2009, 08:13 PM   #2
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Great post with a hilarious ending.
04-15-2009, 08:23 PM   #3
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Wowsa! I appreciate the effort you put into this as I recently started cruising local pawn shops with no freakin idea what to do if i found a lens i might like. At least now I feel armed with a plan. thanks.
04-16-2009, 04:12 AM   #4
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great post, very informative if you dont have common sense...which i dont!

04-16-2009, 04:20 PM   #5
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Superb reference article for every beginner and undiagnosed LBA
04-16-2009, 09:11 PM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by RioRico Quote
When stalking pawnshops for lenses, be sure you have 1) your camera, 2) a PENTAX-brand M42-PK adapter, 3) a small flashlight, not too bright, and 4) a dust pen or lens brush.
If you can, bring a laptop to view your test shots.

Nice post. I vote to move this to the Pentax Photography Articles.
04-17-2009, 03:14 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by song_hm Quote
If you can, bring a laptop to view your test shots.

Nice post. I vote to move this to the Pentax Photography Articles.
I second that motion. That is a great tutorial.
04-17-2009, 05:25 AM   #8
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I would caution you against taking an expensive camera or laptop into a pawn shop.

you will just add cost to the lens.

ask if you can try out the lens on one of the shops own cameras, surely they will have some. if you can focus to infinity, and if all the functions are smooth (focusing collar, apature ring etc) and the lens functions on a camera it was designed for it will also work on yours.

if the owner asks you what kind of camera you have (when looking at an M42 say a spotmatic, otherwise, K mounts say KX or K1000, don't tell him K20D. You need to appear that you can't afford the price he is asking, as opposed to looking for a bargin.

04-17-2009, 06:27 AM   #9
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I was thinking the same thing as Lowell..... Best to go into pawn shops looking like you need the best deal possible... and to avoid a final clue to the unaware clerk, dont whip out your Platinum Master Card to pay...

Mike
04-17-2009, 07:10 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by Lowell Goudge Quote
I would caution you against taking an expensive camera or laptop into a pawn shop.

you will just add cost to the lens.

ask if you can try out the lens on one of the shops own cameras, surely they will have some. if you can focus to infinity, and if all the functions are smooth (focusing collar, apature ring etc) and the lens functions on a camera it was designed for it will also work on yours.

if the owner asks you what kind of camera you have (when looking at an M42 say a spotmatic, otherwise, K mounts say KX or K1000, don't tell him K20D. You need to appear that you can't afford the price he is asking, as opposed to looking for a bargin.
So before I go into a pawn shop for a potential lens purchase I should first stop in the Salvation Army store, buy some clothes, press a little peanut butter in my hair and pull the wadded money from my sock when I ask if he will take $20 for this FA J 75-300?

I drive one of the perfect pawn shop customer automobiles as well. A good condition '97 Saturn SL. If you drive a turquoise '98 Beretta, '78 Cutlass or any model or pre 2001 production year Chrysler sedan, they also tend to cut you a break purely based on the crappy car you are driving.
04-17-2009, 07:16 AM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by Nowhere Matt Quote
So before I go into a pawn shop for a potential lens purchase I should first stop in the Salvation Army store, buy some clothes, press a little peanut butter in my hair and pull the wadded money from my sock when I ask if he will take $20 for this FA J 75-300?
exactly
QuoteQuote:
I drive one of the perfect pawn shop customer automobiles as well. A good condition '97 Saturn SL. If you drive a turquoise '98 Beretta, '78 Cutlass or any model or pre 2001 production year Chrysler sedan, they also tend to cut you a break purely based on the crappy car you are driving.
who drives to a pawn shop? poor people walk
04-17-2009, 07:24 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by Lowell Goudge Quote
exactly
who drives to a pawn shop? poor people walk
Or they get their wife to drive them 'cause they lost their license. Some people are fortunate enough to have a payday advance center, pawn shop and McDonald's all within a two hour walk from their broken down, Chevy van parked by the riverside they call home.
04-17-2009, 09:32 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by RioRico Quote
Gross appearance shouldn't be a deciding factor unless you think beauty is critical.
True! It's the optics that are critical. Can't tell you how many times I've looked at lenses which, upon casual inspection, seemed to have really rotten front elements when really it was only a filter that had a ton of fingerprints on it.
04-20-2009, 05:15 PM   #14
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another week, another pawnshop

Thanks for the kind comments! No technical mistakes pointed out so far, so I feel good! Rather, I wrote that in Arizona whilst a bit feverish; now I'm back in California recuperating, and I'm feeling better. I'll try to gin-up a version appropriate for the ZX-M (my Other Pentax) in a few days, soon as the desert dust exits my lungs.

[Bisbee AZ is great during summer monsoons and winter storms, but hard to breathe during this Mexican Summer dry season, between hurricanes. Cough.]

All the get-it-cheap strategies (appearance of poverty and mental incompetence etc) are good, but I was trying to present tests for usability on a specific camera. Hmm, maybe you should just tape over the brand/model lettering, use Dymo tape with SEARS or HANIMEX real large and visible. And/or turn away so the clerk/seductress can't see what you're shooting with. And/or splatter it with decals, mud, etc. And yeah, leave the laptop in the car, so you won't be burdened if you must quickly slouch off.

I've incorporated a couple of the above suggestions into the article, underlined. Please pick it apart technically. Thanks.

Last edited by RioRico; 04-20-2009 at 05:26 PM.
04-20-2009, 07:41 PM   #15
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The pawn shops where I live have no deals at all. In fact, when you look at the prices for the stuff they're selling--photo and other--they're totally nuts.

They sell most of it via eBay for real prices, and sell the store merchandise for the suckers that walk in to buy. These are the people that came into pawn, now have the cash on hand to redeem their item(s), and make these impulsive, overpriced buys.
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