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PAWNSHOP LENSES (and other used lenses) - A Buyers' Guide
Posted By: RioRico, 05-05-2009, 02:27 AM

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. This guide applies to the K20D dSLR, and the ZX-M 35mm (135) film camera. All others must extrapolate at their own risk. I call this the PAWN SHOP LENS GUIDE, but the screening process can apply when checking out any used lens at a thrift or junk shop, garage or rummage sale, etc.

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, to avoid all sorts of grief, both in focusing, and in removing the 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 whom I won't list here, 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, or the ZX-M's split focus screen, 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 anything but B or M won't matter - both the K20D and the ZX-M will default to Av.) Set the lens 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 lens 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.

* ZX-M: The ZX-M works differently. Rather than the Green button, there's the DOF (Depth-Of-Field) Preview button, which only works when the ZX-M has power ON. Many (all?) M42 lenses with M/A switches, set to A, will NOT stop down to the selected aperture when DOF Preview is pressed, nor will they when the shutter is pressed. This includes fine Pentax glass! You'll have to decide whether you like the lens enough to use it with aperture presets only. A K-mount bayonet lens should ALWAYS stop down to a selected aperture. If it doesn't, skip it.

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.

* ZX-M: With the ZX-M, set both the camera Shutter Dial and the lens aperture ring to A. The LCD panel should show that you're in P mode. Now focus on something, half-press the shutter, and twist the aperture ring. The speed indication should change. If it doesn't, skip it. At a selected aperture, push the DOF Preview button. Does the aperture stop down? If it doesn't, 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? Can you tolerate the zoom creep, if any? Does it 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. This should be sufficient 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; 07-04-2011 at 11:23 AM.
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05-06-2009, 02:21 PM - 1 Like   #2
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Article approved- thanks a lot!

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05-14-2009, 04:31 AM   #3
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Great article RR and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Thanks!

NaCl(especially enjoyed the part about the 'sales associate' )H2O
05-24-2009, 08:53 PM   #4
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Good stuff... I'm on the prowl of a good manual macro lens.. and this will come useful!

thank you!

11-13-2009, 06:50 PM   #5
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A fine article -- not simply informative, but well-organized, so that the reader can comprehend and assimilate your information.

This piece should be required reading for anyone going beyond fully automatic lenses!

Thanks again.
11-21-2009, 06:23 AM   #6
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sweet article.

i walked into a pawn shop the day after i read this, and found a pentax mz-6 sitting in the display shelf. i thought i'd have a go at checking out the glass, it was priced at 130 cad, a bit pricy for that set-up but then he pulled out a bag with the 28-90, 75-300 and a 360 fgz flash. i asked for 10% off, bought it and then ran like mad. 2 lenses, 1 film body, 1 pttl flash, 1 camera bag, 128 after taxes! i never would have even looked at the camera if i hadn't read this article (my wife wishes i hadn't) thanks!
01-29-2010, 04:35 PM   #7
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Great guide- I was just out looking at a lens today and to my disappointment there was lots of oil on the blades, when I flicked it, it was like slow motion. Do you know how hard it is to clean the blades or is it probably just too much hassle? Anyways good read!
03-26-2010, 07:58 PM   #8
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Great article. A fine read. I have several old M42 lenses most of which I got off of ebay. but some off of this forum and from a member. This article confirms most of what I looked at in my lenses. I prefer clean examples but for a 20mm or 24mm wide angle takumar I'll take a scuffed up one. Still looking...

04-08-2010, 12:28 AM   #9
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Excellant article from RR. I have fun reading it from top to bottom.

The article gave me ideas when I scrutinised most used cameras, lenses and other photography accessories in shops selling used items.

Last edited by Pentaxie; 04-08-2010 at 12:29 AM. Reason: typo error
04-08-2010, 12:39 AM   #10
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Great article, been thinking of hitting up some pawnshops soon too, will keep this advice in mind!
04-11-2010, 06:28 AM   #11
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Now if only we had pawnshops here. Or any used gear in stores at all!

Nicely done article.
09-01-2010, 05:51 AM   #12
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great article. Thanks for sending it my way!
09-13-2010, 08:04 AM   #13
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Excellent read, thanks!
10-31-2010, 06:59 PM   #14
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Great Read

Excellent article, it makes me wonder what you do for a living with that gift of word! Maybe-Professional Photogrowriter? As we have no pawn shops and only one camera shop (a good one though) in my immediate area, my dream is to go to a yard sale and find somebody that just switched to Can,Nik,Min, etc. and just wants to get rid of all his/her really cool Pentax stuff:ugh:
I certainly agree with you in that buying used at pawn OR camera shops is something to be ventured into carefully.
11-01-2010, 06:51 AM   #15
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jonhock I bought a 50mm 1.7 AF at a yardsale for 4$ !!! It was on the front of a 35mm camera. the kids obviously didnt know what they had! It is now my favorite lens... for 4$ !

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