Answering the question, ‘When Is It Time to Retire a Camera Lens?’ is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string? There are so many factors and variables that dictate if a camera lens is still usable or not. In theory, a camera lens that has been carefully stored and looked after should last a lifetime. There are plenty of examples of camera lenses out there that are over 100 years old and still very usable.
However, not all lenses are stored correctly, properly maintained, or they just get damaged through the course of use. We will go through some of the most obvious points which may dictate when your gear is at the end of its usable lifespan and it’s time to retire a camera lens.
Camera lenses, especially high-quality versions, should be built to last. You’re not just paying for the best optical quality, but also build quality which can take the bumps of everyday use and weather conditions. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t develop faults along the way. This could boil down to an inherent problem with the lens or it has become damaged at some point.
Internal parts can fail from time to time. On older all-mechanical lenses a bump or knock can dislodge some of the internal workings. These can be fixed depending on the fault, but camera lens repair is rarely a cheap endeavor. The same goes for newer lenses, which have more electronics in their internal workings.
Switches can stop working. The functionality is broken or a switch could just be jammed. A visit to your local camera shop can quickly determine how much work is needed to fix the problem.
Focus and aperture rings can stick. If you can’t focus your lens or use the aperture ring if your lens has one, it’s generally time to repair. The evaluation here is if the lens is still usable. A past 24-70mm lens I owned got sand and/or grit into the focus ring mechanism. Not a problem in autofocus mode, but when trying to manually focus, I could really feel the grit move around. Surprisingly, the lens still worked fine, so a cleanup job was the best route forward as I couldn’t sell the thing and I didn’t really want to retire a camera lens which still worked.
The main takeaway here is general faults on a camera lens can usually be fixed, but you will have to weigh up the cost of the repair against the worth of the lens. For cheap lenses, it is usually the course to buy a new version. An expensive top of the line lens can be worth the expensive repair bill.
If you’re a regular working photographer, it’s inevitable that your camera lens is going to take a few knocks and bumps along the way. They just happen in the heat of battle. Damage can happen anywhere from the front to the back element and everywhere in between. Broken filter threads to damaged back elements. It’s happened to somebody, somewhere, at some time.
If a lens has suffered some sort of damage, the first course of action is always to test is the lens still usable. Can the lens still fit on the camera body, can it auto and manual focus, are the lens elements intact and you’re still getting sharp images? If something isn’t working on the lens, then the damage is more than superficial and a trip to your local camera repair shop will be needed. If the damage is beyond repair or over your budget, then it could be time for the retirement home.
Old or new lenses, some people are fine at tearing them down and fixing a lens on their own. I don’t recommend it, but I regularly hear of people watching a few YouTube video tutorials, taking their lens apart, and performing a reasonable repair job. I simply don’t have the guts to do that, especially to an expensive piece of equipment.
Mold and Fungus
These nasties usually crop up inside a camera lens, most commonly on older versions which have not been stored in dry environments. Any type of mold or fungus which starts to build on lens elements is a sure sign that it’s time to retire a camera lens. Prevention is always better than cure, but once that stuff is in there, it’s hard to get it out without a total strip down.
The Next Big Thing Arrives
Many photographers will retire a camera lens simply because they bought the latest and greatest version. This isn’t always a negative. A newer version of a lens may bring better optics, faster operation, image stabilization, etc. The old lens then gets sold or sits on a shelf forevermore. If you do upgrade and keep an old lens, make sure it is stored in a dry environment, has a few silica gel packets nearby, the lens caps attached, and it’s ideally stored in its own case.
Upgrades are inevitable in the camera world, but keeping those old lenses in tip-top condition means you can revisit them in the future. Newer lenses may have better quality coatings for handling flair and can be sharper wide open, but some old lens also have a particular ‘look’ to them which makes them old but not obsolete.
A new version of a lens doesn’t always mean improvements across the board. A new lens may have more sharpness wide open, but the old version is just as good stopped down. Image stabilization may be on a new version lens, but the older lens has better bokeh and contrast. If a lens isn’t broken and has just been upgraded, it can always act as a backup lens.
Is It Time to Retire a Camera Lens?
The general rule of thumb is if a lens isn’t broken or damaged and the elements are clear, its still usable and doesn’t need the old folks home just yet. Many lenses have sat on shelves for years, been put into semi-retirement, or forgotten about. This is when you can snap up an old lens which is still in good working order. Retirement for some is a new lease of life for others and this also applies to camera lenses.