I have read an article, it's a review of a specific brand and model, but most of their reviews includes an expected "lifespan" of a lens.

↓10↑: 10-year expected life before being thrown away.

If lenses after the lifespan should be "thrown away", then why is it that there are a lot of decades-old lenses that are still usable today? I wonder if lenses really have lifespan, is it a definite lifespan or not? What are its major contributing factors "before being thrown away". Does the quality (glass) really decreases after time? Is it really definite that lenses after a specific lifespan should be "thrown away"?

  • I am really curios and looking for a quality answer. It's not a brand-specific question, it's about our investments that we're really concerned for. – Jez'r 570 Jul 19 '13 at 6:59
  • Oh, thanks for tagging duplicate. I've tried searching it here but what I first found was a brand and model specific. – Jez'r 570 Jul 19 '13 at 13:26
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    The "ten year" expectation is mostly based on the typical product life cycle of most lens manufacturers over the last couple of decades. When a "new & improved" version hits the market, the older lenses are seen as less desirable and sometimes repair parts for electrical and mechanical wear are no longer available (because the manufacturer would rather you buy the newer, more expensive, lens). – Michael C Jul 19 '13 at 18:26
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    Related: Do lenses lose sharpness when they age? – Regmi Jul 19 '13 at 20:36
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    I've got lenses for my Nikon F that are 40+ years old. They work fine. They do not work with the latest Nikon bodies. For a new DSLR user, they are functionally obsolete. But if you shoot with an old camera they work fine, close to 100% as good as they did 40 years ago. They are not as good as a decades younger lens, as the start of the art has progressed. – Pat Farrell Jul 21 '13 at 18:36

Other answers have addressed the key points here, provided the lens is kept free of mould and the mechanical parts are in good working order there's no reason a manual lens wont last for a very long time.

The comment about the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 being a lens you throw away after ten years was probably a reference to low end build quality and plastic construction. Modern "engineering" plastics are incredibly tough, but the cheaper plastics used on some products are nowhere near as durable as metal. If the lens is well cared for there's no reason to suggest the body wont last much longer than 10 years.

When it comes to modern autofocus lenses there is an additional concern, which is the failure of the electronic focus, aperture or image stabilisation systems. These will have a significantly shorter lifespan, I would be concerned about them still working after say 20 years (I know there will be counter examples, I'm talking on average).

Fixing electrical problems is not usually too difficult or expensive, provided you can get the parts. That is the kicker, as Canon for one like to discontinue the parts service for older lenses, particularly ones that have new more expensive replacements on the market...

Still with most lenses, even a complete breakdown of all motorized or electronic parts isn't necessarily the end of the road. A wide open only manual focus lens still has it's uses.

What I would be wary of is focus by wire lenses, i.e. those that don't have a direct mechanical coupling between the focus ring and lens groups. I almost bought a Canon 200 f/1.8L (a superb ultra wide aperture short telephoto, that was discontinued in 2004) but decided against it knowing if the autofocus broke, there would be no way to manually focus the lens. Such lenses are uncommon for DLSRs, but a lot of smaller systems, particularly mirrorless cameras have predominantly focus by wire lenses so I'd be concerned about making a significant investment in these.

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Glass doesn't really 'decay' per-se.

The following issues are common failures in lenses:

  • Scratched glass

  • Fungus/Mold on lens elements

  • Damaged moving parts/mechanics (autofocus motor, aperture controls etc)

All of the above (with the exception of perhaps the fungus issues) happen on lenses as time goes on and they are used. If you were to store them in the correct conditions for a long period of time i'd expect lenses to last almost indefinitely.

The reason why people won't use old lenses now on newer bodies is that they just aren't compatible, and this is what really 'kills' lenses. They die because manufacturers make them obsolete and as they break people don't bother getting them repaired because its cheaper to upgrade.

Naturally, the quality of the lens you buy will also affect your purchase (for example a full metal, completely sealed lens will presumably last longer than a cheap plastic kit lens.)

There are plenty of examples online of lenses that are DECADES old that have been well worn but still looked after and are still working perfectly like new.

Lenses, like all mechanical precision devices need to be maintained, make sure you do this and have it done professionally if you can.

You should also check this related thread here

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  • Ain't there a theory saying glass is a liquid whose viscosity borders infinity ? Given that, glass would slowly drip out of your lens, if the universe would still be there to witness it... – Berzemus Jul 19 '13 at 9:12
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    @berzemus check this out: io9.com/… – NULLZ Jul 19 '13 at 9:29
  • Also. Just in case you wernt aware, lenses are not entirely glass, they also contain crystal flouride elements which would not have that property :) – NULLZ Jul 19 '13 at 9:31

Older lenses have better quality and it's because of their made not like most of today's plastic technology. But it always depends on how you maintain and how you take care of it. You have to be ware of the issues in common with lenses.

  1. Glass - On my lens bag, I put Silica Gel, soft small pillows around them and the bag itself is placed on a plastic sealed cabinet to avoid moist.

  2. Electronic Parts - Also its electronic parts have contributing factors, the Auto-focus, vibration Reduction, and all others have shorter lifespan than the glass. They fades over time.

  3. The Build Quality - As I mentioned earlier, it's plastic build which makes it cheaper yet has shorter lifespan, is the most observable factor of depreciation.

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    You fail to mention that coatings can always cause problems. Old lenses for example run in to total internal reflection ghosting issues because they are not coated to prevent reflection off the sensor. This is the main reason why older lenses end up not being suitable for many applications in the digital world. – AJ Henderson Jul 19 '13 at 14:51

Moving parts inside the lens (especially if it has/uses autofocus or image stabilization) wear out over time. Glass can grow mold (or something similar). The better the build quality of a lens the longer it will typically last. A cheaper lens (more plastic, less metal, cheaper parts, etc.) will wear out more quickly with regular use. It's not so much about the glass, it's more about what surrounds the glass.

The estimates are far from definite, they are just ballpark figures. Actual mileage, as you know, varies wildly. I have lenses that are older than I am, and they work basically just as well as lenses I got quite recently.

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