Few would question the statement “good glass holds its value better than camera bodies.” This is even more important today where cameras are basically little computers. Nobody wants to buy an old/used computer.
Few would question the corollary, “invest in good glass.” Lenses outlive camera bodies and don’t need to get replaced every few years. Additionally, buying cheap glass that is not sufficient for your needs is shortsighted if you wind up upgrading lenses in a few months or years when you realize that it isn’t sufficient. Finally, it is generally easier to sell Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, etc. lenses than third party lenses.
In the vintage and manual focus camera lens world, however, the statement “invest in good glass” seems to have morphed into the recommendation “good glass is an investment” which, unless you are a camera lens collector putting your lenses on a shelf, or you plan to only use your camera in your backyard taking pictures of garden gnomes and parked cars, following the advice that “good glass is an investment” might be a dumb thing to do.
The “good glass is an investment” recommendation is utilized by commentators or guys (always guys – never women) in the forums helping people with purchasing decisions regarding camera lenses when they advise that because good glass is an investment and will hold it’s value so people should buy….
- the name brand (e.g. Leica) over a less expensive competitor (e.g. Voigtlander)
- a more expensive lens (e.g. a summicron) over a less expensive lens by the same vendor (e.g. a summarit)
- a mint copy over a lens with some blemishes
- a lens that comes from Germany rather than Canada.
I offer a contrarian opinion. If you are a normal person with a life outside of buying, selling, or collecting camera lenses, this may be well-meaning but bad advice that encourages you to unnecessarily spend too much money on camera lenses.
Good investments don’t get moldy or fall off a table
If your lens is destined to go out into the real world with real people, be taken in and out of a camera bag, taken into weather, handed to an assistant or your spouse, and maybe (gasp) taken on vacation – things happen. I have had lenses of mine go flying off the edge of a table, dropped in the mud, dinged, bent when I tried to catch a falling light stand. and debilitated by errant sand in the focusing ring.
It is important to note that catastrophic lens damage is not required to scuttle your investment. All it really takes is some blemishes on the lens barrel to take your lens from “Top Mint” to “EXEC++LQQK” condition. With expensive lenses, like Leica, the drop can be precipitous and the price difference between mint and anything other than mint is significant. If an investment is that fragile it might be worth owning but it might be better identified as something other than an investment vehicle.
The investment situation is worse if you don’t live in New York City
If you live in a place with millions of people and a vibrant photographic community, like New York City, this section might not apply to you. You have access to independent buyers with whom you can meet and do a deal when you go to sell a lens.
If, however, you are like millions of other people that don’t live in a photographic hub with millions of people who could potentially purchase your lens, you need to consider how you are going to recoup your “investment” when it comes time to sell the lens. For example, I have seen Leica lenses sit on Craigslist in San Diego and Utah for months without getting sold. Although there is a big worldwide market for vintage and manual focus lenses, the local market in many cities is small and it can be difficult to find a buyer.
When it comes time to sell, this leaves you with two primary options. Neither of which are ideal.
- You could sell your lens to a retailer like KEH, Adorama, or B and H Photo. If you go that route, your investment just dropped by at least 30% because they pay below-market prices so they can mark things up and sell them to the next guy.
- You can sell on eBay. Going that route, your investment just went down by 10% (eBay service fee) and you inherited some potential headaches. There are all sorts of issues selling with eBay including scams such as the “I didn’t receive the item” scam, the “it broke in shipping” scam, getting your insurance claims turned down by USPS because you didn’t document your packaging correctly, and learning that fully insuring your expensive lens for shipping is more than you expected are all issues I have run into. In my experience, it is seller beware. When it comes to selling expensive items the probability that you may encounter an issue at some point is non-zero.
The stress of carrying around your investment.
Even though I can afford my Leica gear, I have at least some background anxiety about scootering around San Diego with a $5000 camera body around my neck. The anxiety is compounded when I travel. I don’t need any more anxiety from having a camera bag filled with super expensive camera lenses. In the real world, having camera lenses that offer me 99% of the enjoyment, take images of a good enough quality that only myself and some photo nerds will be able to differentiate between a more expensive lens, but carry only 30% of the replacement cost is, if you are a normal person like me, like taking Xanax before a photowalk. Anxiety induced stress about taking your camera lenses in public is a cost that needs to be factored against your “investment.”
An example of why less expensive lenses can be a better investment.
You should never ever purchase something that you don’t want just to save money. Do it right the first time or you will regret it. Don’t buy junk. The following analysis is not intended to encourage you to buy anything you don’t want to buy.
If, however, you can get 95-99% of the performance for 1/3 of the price that might be a better investment than buying 100% of the performance for 100% of the price.
For example, I recently purchased a Voigtlander 50mm F2 Heliar Classic lens for $550. My summicron-m 50mm V5 lens cost $1800. For this exercise just assume that I get 95% of the enjoyment using the Voigtlander compared to the Leica.
If I put them both on the shelf and never used them, I could probably sell both of them for at least what I bought them for, recoup 100% of my “investment,” and, if I am lucky, even make a few bucks. Maybe one will go up a bit. Maybe one will go down. I have no idea. I am not a collector. Leaving lenses on a shelf does not spark joy for me.
If, however, I use both of them to my heart’s content, even if I promise the universe that I will be cautious when I am out in the real world, I am certain they will both accumulate some dings and blemishes from normal use. It is unavoidable. In this case, both lenses will go down in value. The loss of value is not equal or proportional between the two lenses.
In my experience, when you take a Leica down from mint or near mint to anything else, the prices drop precipitously. Nobody seems to covet a Leica lens with blemishes. The horror of blemishes. Let’s say the Leica lens drops by $400 which is a reasonable estimate. That leaves me with a resell value of $1400 for the Leica lens.
If the Voigtlander accumulated a similar amount of wear, the loss won’t be as bad since it wasn’t as expensive in the first police. The resale value might go down by $150 and have a resale value of $400.
The real non-investment investment fun happens if I sell both lenses on eBay. In doing so, I would incur an eBay fee of $140 on the Leica lens and $40 on the Voigtlander. On top of that, I would ensure the Leica lens with the post office for an additional $20.00. Conversely, I would risk sending the Voigtlander with no insurance since I get a free $100 of insurance from the post office.
When all is said and done my $1800 Leica netted me $1235 and my $550 Voigtlander netted me $360. Which one is the better investment?
Two more examples of how lenses are not good investments.
1. The Canon RF lens mount.
2. The Nikon Z mount.
However much you thought your Canon EF and Nikon AI mount lens “investments” are worth, they are worth less than the day before these new mounts were announced. Maybe you are not seeing the resale price drop today. Maybe not tomorrow. But it is coming. Technology changes. Things happen.
Leica fanboy moment: kudos to Leica for using the same mount since 1954.
Investing in good glass is critical but good glass is not always good investment.
The bottom line with all of this is that you should always, always, always buy what you like. Don’t ever go cheap on a lens and find you have to replace it in a year because it wasn’t sufficient for your needs. Get what you want the first time. That is what they mean when they say, invest in good glass. If you want the Summilux and it makes you happy. Good. Buy it. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
Just don’t get confused and believe that your Leica lens is a financial instrument and don’t mortgage the rest of your life to invest in good glass when you should be investing your money elsewhere (including food, your retirement, your relationships, travel, continuing education, maintaining your house, etc.) If you are going to be out in the real world taking real photos of real people in real weather, a lens that is 95% of the quality but 30% of the cost might be an investment that gives you a better return and has the added benefit of decreasing your anxiety along the way.