About 8 years ago, my wife and I were planning vacation to Hilton Head Island and I talked her into letting me buy a new lens for the trip. I went with a Sigma 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 Contemporary DC Macro OS HSM because it gave me a nice range of wide angle and telephoto options. I purchased the lens on Amazon for around $400. At the time, it was easily the most money I’d ever spent on a lens but, given the versatility of the zoom, I assumed it would be the only lens I’d ever need. And it was...until my grandson started playing sports.
MISTAKE #1: POOR MOTIVATION
Let me be clear, the Sigma lens I had been using is a perfectly capable lens for sports photography. It served me very well for the first few years of my grandson’s athletic career and likely would have continued to be just fine if it weren’t for NGL disease. “What’s NGL disease?”, you may ask? NGL stands for “New Gear Lust” and it’s very a common disease among photographers.
My brain tried to remind me that it’s the person holding the camera and NOT the equipment that makes all the difference. Unfortunately, my heart quickly swatted that reasoning down (Pfffft, sound logic is sooooooooo boring) and eventually convinced my brain to help us research awesome new lenses. In all honesty, it’s not the first time my brain’s logic has taken a loss. Probably won’t be the last either but let’s just move on, shall we?
THE SEARCH BEGINS
The first thing I had to figure out is what I wanted from a new lens that I couldn’t get with the Sigma. For me, it came down to two options: a longer zoom lens or a “faster” lens.
Without getting too technical, a “fast” lens has a large aperture—the opening that lets light into the camera. The faster the lens, the more light going into your camera, which is critical when shooting sports photography in poorly lit gyms.
You may be asking “Why not just look for a long zoom lens that’s also fast? Duh!” The answer is pretty simple: cost. Sure, there are lenses that do both but since my last name isn’t Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos, I won’t be buying one of them anytime soon.
NARROWING THE OPTIONS
After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to focus my search on a longer zoom. A fast lens would be nice but my grandson plays a lot of baseball and since that’s obviously an outdoor sport, I usually have all the light my camera needs to freeze action without raising the ISO settings.
The next step was to start evaluating specific lenses, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Have you ever tried to decipher the super confusing naming conventions for lenses? It’s crazy. For instance, one of the models I considered was the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (pictured above). Huh? I understood “150-600mm f/5-6.3” but I was lost after that. Luckily, I found this handy guide that explains the lens naming conventions for Canon and Nikon as well as most of the major third-party lens brands. Trust me when I tell you, I used that guide a lot. And before you ask, yes, it would definitely be helpful if all the lens manufacturers got together and developed a simple, easy-to-understand, universal standard for naming lenses but I’m not holding my breath.
MISTAKE #2: NO HANDS-ON TESTING
One of the best pieces of advice I found while researching lenses was to try a lens with your own camera before buying. Photography retailers aren’t going to let you just walk out of the store with a brand new lens but many have lenses available for rent. Rates will vary by retailer but they’re usually pretty reasonable.
Don’t have a photography store close by? No worries, the site Borrowlenses.com offers an extensive range of photography equipment that can be reserved and shipped almost anywhere. Bottom line: You can read all the reviews you want but there’s nothing like handling the actual lens, attached to your own camera and then seeing the resulting images. It’s the ideal method for evaluating almost any kind of photography equipment.
I’m lucky enough to have a local retailer, Roberts Camera with an impressive selection of lenses for rent, including several of the models I was considering. Of course, I didn’t take the time to rent any of them during my evaluation. Why? Probably because I’m an idiot who was blinded by NGL disease. I have no other explanation.
AN E-BAY NEWBIE
I have a confession to make. Until recently, I was one of only a handful of people left on the planet that had never bought anything on eBay. The whole idea seemed a little suspect to me. I’m supposed to bid on someone’s else’s used stuff against a bunch of strangers and bots with no idea what the final price will be until the end of the auction? No thanks. I prefer the certainty of a fixed price. Of course, that was before I got a good look at the “certainty” of retail pricing for some of the lenses I was interested in. Suddenly, eBay didn’t seem like such a kooky idea after all. (In fairness, I should mention that eBay has a Money Back Guarantee and seems to take fraud very seriously.)
MISTAKE #3: NO PLAN OR BUDGET
At this point, I only had a vague idea of how much I wanted to spend, how soon I wanted to make a purchase and how I wanted to approach the bidding process. About the only thing I was sure of is that I had 2-3 lenses I was interested in. Beyond that, I was pretty much just wandering around eBay randomly assigning “watch” tags to auction items that looked like a good deal.
It should be noted that, despite my many missteps, I did manage to do a few things right:
Bottom line: make a point of finding out as much as you possibly can about any item you’re considering on eBay. If the information isn’t already listed, seems vague or if you think there’s a mistake, take the time to contact the seller. Having all that detail will not only help in the purchasing process, it’ll give you plenty of ammunition if the item doesn’t turn out to be what the seller claimed it was.
THE “ACCIDENTAL” PURCHASE
Once I started searching, it didn’t take long for me to place bids on items that seemed like outstanding deals. And as any experienced eBay user can tell you, it’s fairly common to be outbid almost immediately, especially for popular items and/or when the auction still has several days to go. Unfortunately for me, those initial experiences eventually led to my final mistake in this process (although it turned out to be a happy mistake in the end).
One weekday afternoon at work, I got an email notification from eBay, informing me that an auction I was watching would be ending in a few hours. This particular auction was for a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens with case. It had an extensive and extremely positive description as well as an opening bid price well below similar lenses I’d seen online. Over the course of the next few hours, I talked myself into placing a last minute panic bid, fully expecting to be outbid by someone at the very end.
When the auction finally counted down to zero with no one outbidding me, I was torn between excitement at having gotten such a fantastic deal on a great lens and guilt about having just spent hundreds of dollars on something without ever consulting my wife. (Luckily for me, I have an awesome wife who was very understanding about the whole thing.)
BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN SMART?
In the end, I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out despite all the mistakes I made along the way. It was an excellent bargain on an awesome lens. I’ve been very happy with the extended zoom when shooting my grandson’s games and most importantly, the resulting images have been outstanding.
All that said, I was extremely lucky my bonehead blunders didn’t come back to bite me. If you find yourself looking for new photography equipment (on eBay or anywhere else) give some real thought about whether or not you really need it. If you decide to go for it, make sure you test out the actual items if at all possible. Finally, develop a plan and a budget for finding the best possible deal and stick to them. Due diligence can be time consuming but it’s definitely more reliable than luck.