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There are loads of ratings and tests for how long DSLR bodies last, but I have never really seen much that describes the expected lifespan of lenses.

Recently, one of my cheap-o lenses (Nikon 18-55mm, ~10,000 exposures) started making some funny noises and the focus ring jams up occasionally. It has been through a lot (got frozen in China, and bounced along trails on the back of a motorcycle in the Rockies), but I expected it to last a little longer than a couple years, especially next to my 20 year old 80-200mm which gets twice the usage.

Anyways, how long it is reasonable to expect a lens to last before needing to be serviced or replaced? Are there any brands/lines of lenses that do better than others (and vice versa)?

Thanks!

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2  
Great question! –  Reid Aug 11 '10 at 15:07
    
Till they make a new, "more-better!", and inevitably incompatible mount. –  beggs Aug 12 '10 at 8:14

6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted

This doesn't quite answer your question, but it's relevant: there is value in using your equipment in the way that best serves your photography, even if it's not ideal treatment for the equipment. So for example the freezing and bumping along on a dirt bike aren't super great for the lens, but it sounds like those things were essential to having the equipment in those situations at all. It's not an expensive lens, so maybe you got your money's worth.

In other words: treat your equipment as well as you can, but a little abuse may be the price you pay to get a given shot. And maybe that shot is worth the price.

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Lens longevity is something that is very hard to nail down, as there are countless and often unpredictable circumstances that affect it. Generally speaking, however, there are two major factors that will affect how long a lens lasts:

  1. Build Quality
    • Not all lenses are created equal, and build quality matters
    • A cheap entry-level lens uses cheaper parts, and are rarely weather sealed
    • A top quality lens will use much higher quality, precision parts, and are often weather sealed, which further protects them from harmful environmental compunds
  2. Maintenance
    • Just like any other mechanical device, a lens must be maintained
    • Proper lens maintenance and treatment will help improve its lifetime

All that said, any lens can break at any time, for many unforseeable reasons: being dropped or crushed, manufacturing defects, improper use, being frozen, bounced along trails too much, etc. Barring any of these things, a high quality lens should last for decades. I honestly couldn't say how long a cheap lens should last...maybe a few years, maybe a decade...it entirely depends on the quality of the parts, and you really can't expect terribly much from the bottom of the barrel.

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1  
One issue... "... simple old age, etc. Barring any of these ... should last for decades." might want to change that ;) –  chills42 Aug 11 '10 at 10:19

Lens life isn't measured in exposure time. Camera bodies will fail before a lens will, if properly cared for.

It sounds like your lens was abused a bit too much for it's quality-level. A more rugged lens would have likely fared better.

I'm a Canon shooter, so I can only speak to Canon lenses, but their L lenses are made to take some abuse.

You can find manual-only Canon FD lenses that still perform like champs some 20+ years later.

So to answer your question, your lens should be easily good for 10k exposures. It's likely due to the abuses it's suffered.

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A lens will outlast your camera, easily, if treated with sensible care and respect. I have two lenses (A Vivitar 100mm f/2.8 macro and the Vivitar 70-210 f/2.8-4.0 3rd edition) that are about 30 years old, give or take a couple of years. Both are considered to be amongst some of the finest lenses ever made, especially the 100mm, and are at zero risk of falling apart. My camera will fail long before they do, so unless the mount changes such as it kills backwards compatability, I expect to dramatically increase the camera count, beyond the two that has already been attached to them, as I go along.

Now, that's the world of old, manual, lenses. Modern lenses with specialized motors, image stabilization, and such? Hard to say. The more moving parts, the more likely failure will eventually kick in, it's simple reality. Even then, if those features die, the lens may still be usable in manual mode, the glass isn't going to fail unless you really trash it. Nevertheless, as with many things, you pay for quality. A $200 lens is a consumer throw-away lens because, as far as lenses go, that's practically free and I wouldn't expect a whole lot from it. Now, a comparable lens (in terms of focal length) going for $1000 or more? A different story. For lenses, you get what you pay for.

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Cheap lenses like Canon EF 18-55mm IS are not too long lasting. Mine failed after two years with AF problem. But the more expensive models and some older ones are built to last. For example I had Canon EF 70-210 f4 from 1987 for couple years with my 450D and it worked fine. I eventually sold it after L-upgrade.

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It depends on the lens. The cheapest lenses are simply not built to last very long as you usually exchange them for something better over time, while more expensive lenses could last for decades.

I have a Canon EF 29-90mm kit lens where there is a band of connectors that bends every time you change the zoom. After several years it has bent too many times, so the electronics fails. More expensive lenses doesn't have parts that wear out in that manner.

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