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As I understand it, 3rd party manufacturers do what they do by reverse-engineering how 1st party lenses connect to the camera, and then designing their own lenses to do likewise.

That means that if you buy a 1st party lens, it's guaranteed to work with your camera. (Nikon aren't going to suddenly release a new lens or camera that doesn't work with their existing gear. They're going to test the hell out of that stuff!) But if you buy a 3rd party lens then theoretically it could stop working tomorrow.

On the other hand, you could argue that it's advantageous for a 1st party manufacturer to have lots of lenses available for their system, so they probably aren't going to break 3rd party stuff on purpose. Nikon surely knows that Sigma exist and that some Nikon customers have spent $$$ on Sigma lenses that they might like to actually use... even though, strictly speaking, Nikon make no guarantees that this will definitely work.

In reality, how common is it for a 3rd party lens to quit working due to an incompatibility? Is this a common problem or just a theoretical possibility? If your favourite 3rd party lens suddenly stops working, what can you do about it? Is the lens manufacturer going to care, or do you just have to toss the lens in the bin and go buy something else? (Presumably once everybody hears how this model of lens no longer works, its resale value becomes negative.)

For that matter, what's the worst thing that can go wrong with a lens? Presumably a total communications failure would mean the camera doesn't know what lens it has and the autofocus doesn't work any more. It's not like the glass itself can suddenly stop refracting light! (Then again, my camera body refuses to shoot if it doesn't detect a lens attached, so many I'd be unable to shoot anything? No idea how aperture control works without electronic communication either...)

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    "(Nikon aren't going to suddenly release a new lens or camera that doesn't work with their existing gear. They're going to test the hell out of that stuff!)" Well, at least they didn't until they introduced AF-P lenses... and E lenses... – Michael C Jun 11 '18 at 10:01
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But if you buy a 3rd party lens then theoretically it could stop working tomorrow.

Only if you try to use it with a camera model newer than the third party lens. If it worked with your camera when you first got it, it should continue to work with that camera. There's really no additional risk that it will suddenly stop working with a camera with which it currently works. Where the compatibility issues come in is when the camera maker introduces newer camera models that weren't available when the 3rd party lens company developed their lens.

That means that if you buy a 1st party lens, it's guaranteed to work with your camera.

Not necessarily, even though the risk is certainly much, much lower. But it does occasionally happen with first party lenses. When Canon introduced the 7D Mark II there was an initial compatibility issue with AF at focal lengths of around 100-130mm with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II. Canon issued a firmware update for the 7D Mark II a few weeks later that fixed the issue.

In reality, how common is it for a 3rd party lens to quit working due to an incompatibility? Is this a common problem or just a theoretical possibility? If your favourite 3rd party lens suddenly stops working, what can you do about it? Is the lens manufacturer going to care, or do you just have to toss the lens in the bin and go buy something else?

It seems you are assuming that a third party lens model can just spontaneously stop working with the same cameras with which it has previously worked. That is not the risk of buying a third party lens. I guess it's possible a firmware update to the camera could theoretically cause issues with a third party lens that previously was fully functional, but I've never encountered such a situation. The issue is usually only seen when trying to use an existing third party lens with a newly introduced camera model that wasn't available when the lens was being designed. Such lenses will continue to work with the cameras with which they previously worked.

Lens manufacturers, including third party makers, will vary with how much they stand behind and support their lenses. The two or three largest names in the third party lens market tend to support them very well. In the past firmware updates would often be made available but required a trip to a service center to be applied to the lens. Often these were offered at no or very little cost for a specified time period after issues were discovered and corrected through a firmware update.

Recently, though, Sigma and now Tamron have developed hardware docks and made them available to end users so that the firmware running in lenses can be updated by the owner without having to send the lens off to the manufacturer's service facility. It's as simple as downloading the updated firmware and using a USB dock to load it onto your lens.

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    "If it worked with your camera when you first got it, it should continue to work with that camera." True, but with the exception/addition that the risk of breaking compatibility is slightly heightened when the manufacturer provides updated firmware AND the user applies the firmware upgrade. – scottbb Sep 24 '16 at 20:30
  • In the case of the lens I'm looking at, one of the reviews specifically mentioned it having firmware update capability. I guess now I know what that means. Looks like that should do a good job of reducing the risk. (I imagine the likelihood of firmware updates being made available if needed also varies depending how expensive the lens was in the first place?) – MathematicalOrchid Sep 24 '16 at 21:36
  • @MathematicalOrchid not sure if the likelihood corresponds with lens cost per se. I think it's more that for manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron, once they started building the firmware upgrade ability (by buying a special USB dock), they started incorporating it into each of their future lenses. At least with Sigma, it started with their 120-300mm Sport and 35mm f/1.4 Art lenses. Everything released since then, their Global Vision line, can be upgraded with their USB dock. – scottbb Sep 25 '16 at 0:56
  • @scottbb That possibility is mentioned later in the answer. – Michael C Sep 25 '16 at 2:27
  • @MathematicalOrchid Ultimately it varies by what the maker decides to do with each lens when there is an issue. With the recent offerings by Sigma and Tamron, for example, their strategy recognizes that for their new higher grade lens lines to be acceptable to most buyers the commitment by the manufacturer to keeping those lenses up-to-date when compatibility issues crop up must be clear. It also must be as painless as possible, and that is what the USB docks offer. Those docks are also sold relatively cheaply - if Canon offered such an accessory it would probably cost 10X what Sigma gets. – Michael C Sep 25 '16 at 2:32
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They're going to test the hell out of that stuff!

So do all lens manufacturers. It's not like Sigma (or any other) is going to gamble when releasing a lens.

If your favourite 3rd party lens suddenly stops working

If a lens suddenly stops working, it's more likely due to some hardware failure of the lens instead of the lens becoming incompatible with the camera.

Is the lens manufacturer going to care

As far as I remember, Sigma and Tamron offer ways to update firmwares for lenses. Others might do the same. This should allow them to tweak the software of the lens to make it compatible with the tweaked software of the camera.

Other than that, if you are owning such lenses, you should be careful before you update any new firmware for your camera, because it has a (low) chance of making your lenses incompatible. Contact the lens manufacturer's support and ask for compatibility issues. If in doubt, don't do the upgrade on your gear. If you want to be sure, you could rent the same camera model with the new firmware and try it for yourself, although that sounds like overkill.

  • "... Sigma and Tamron offer ways to update firmwares for a limited number of their lenses." – Michael C Sep 28 '16 at 4:50
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TL;DR: It depends on the age of the lens and whether or not you can update the firmware.

In reality, how common is it for a 3rd party lens to quit working due to an incompatibility? ... For that matter, what's the worst thing that can go wrong with a lens? Presumably a total communications failure would mean the camera doesn't know what lens it has and the autofocus doesn't work any more.

Bingo. Many lenses are still usable even if made incompatible electronically, but certain functions may cease to work properly, typically autofocus. Incompatibility doesn't mean the lens is rendered completely unusable, just that it may not communicate with the camera body correctly.

Is this a common problem or just a theoretical possibility?

If you're buying a new third-party lens that has some way of having its firmware upgraded, it's typically not that risky. The only thing you can't really be future-proofed against are physical mount changes (e.g., Canon FD → Canon EOS), in which case even first-party lenses are probably going to have issues.

Where the danger comes in is buying older used third-party lenses. There are reasons that lens may be going for super-cheap. Older third-party lenses had no way of upgrading the firmware at home, but typically had to be sent to service to physically have the chip on the lens replaced. And the third-party manufacturers would only offer to do this for a limited amount of time and may not have offered to do it for all lenses. If that chip-swap window was missed, there may be no way to get that lens 100% compatible again.

  • Good point about 2nd hand lenses. I'm not considering that, but other readers might be. – MathematicalOrchid Sep 24 '16 at 21:34
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This risk does exist. My friend and I had first hand experience of this, but we made our best with it. He bought a used Sigma 70-300mm with a Macro setting at 300mm, that worked with the older Canon EOS models, and then suddenly on the Canon T2i, it stopped working. We called Sigma, and they said that sometimes, with newer camera firmware or after firmware updates, this tended to happen.

Luckily, I found out, the lens still worked with the T2i, only in the No-Flash, Manual and Sports Settings and none of the others. This worked perfectly for my needs, so I just bought the lens off him, and he moved on to a new one.

Also, you cannot say 1st party lenses will become unusable, just because of a bit of history. A few decades ago Canon did make the mount change and the old Canon FD lenses did stop working with the new ones. But such incidences are rare.

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The risk of a 3rd party lens not working or to stop working with a camera is low, assuming the lens is made to work with that camera model in the first place. Third party lenses like Sigma and Tamron are major players in the industry, even if they are not as big as Canon or Nikon. Buying one of their lenses is safe. I tend to buy Canon lenses but I do have one Sigma lens, and I would buy others in the future.

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My answer largely addresses your final point:

For that matter, what's the worst thing that can go wrong with a lens? Presumably a total communications failure would mean the camera doesn't know what lens it has and the autofocus doesn't work any more. It's not like the glass itself can suddenly stop refracting light! (Then again, my camera body refuses to shoot if it doesn't detect a lens attached, so many I'd be unable to shoot anything? No idea how aperture control works without electronic communication either...)

Lenses don't stop working. They stop having all of the features you expected.

You can use a 60 year old lens on a modern camera and with the right setup and manual know-how it'll still take great photos.

This risk everyone is talking about is only in terms of electronics and ease of operation. Its why I routinely am on here encouraging people even beginners to get well crafted lenses with aperture rings on them. It may not give me all the features a newer lens will but when a lens with no aperture ring no longer has a way to connect to a modern camera its a real pain to change the settings on. If you have a non-electric aperture ring this problem is solved.

It's the same reason the Nikon F2 is such a prized 35mm camera. The lack of electronics makes it incredibly long lasting and resilient. Electronics fail much quicker than mechanics.

A lens is a mechanical system of glass. It cannot fail unless you crack it, get significant haze or dust in it, etc. What will either fail or stop being compatible over time are electronics.

I'd also be very surprised if your camera can't shoot without a lens. Generally all you have to do is set everything to manual to shoot without a lens. There are a few cameras (Fuji for example) that require you to locate and change a setting first to allow the camera to perform this.

In the event you don't have an Aperture ring to change than you can either keep an old camera around just to change the Aperture or change it once to a decent aperture like 5.6 say and not worry about it much.

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Since you asked for the theoretical worst possible things that could happen:

  • An unexpected protocol incompatibility leads to a software crash that causes some microcontroller to operate itself or peripheral components in a fashion that is outside thermal and/or power consumption limits, damaging hardware and/or damaging data stored on connected media. For example, a program could get stuck in a loop around an instruction that has particular high power consumption, overheating the microcontroller and/or the power supply. Or, such a software crash could end up in behaviour that writes garbage to an SD card.

  • If you had/have an interface design that leaves much of the protocol keeping to software (so called bit-banging), combined with hardware that needs strict discipline about the roles of combined input/output lines to be kept, there could likewise be problems leading to crashes or even damage: Two combined input/output lines that both think they should output make a short circuit.

  • There might be undiscovered and undocumented features in every OEM lens that allow them to conform to demands only later equipment generations will make of them, regarding eg interface voltages or power management. This could be software commands ("you lens go slower now, you are blowing the power supply sky high otherwise!") never observed on older cameras. This could be hardware considerations ("Of course we built all the lenses so they will work on 2.7V supply and logic levels on future hardware, instead of the 3.3V we are using now! And don't worry about that metastability issue or this crosstalk issue, all the lenses can be relied to be in this range of signal rise times for their output lines...").

  • There could be tight tolerances or material properties specified but unpublished for the mount parts in OEM lenses for the reason of not wearing the matching part out of tolerance. An out of tolerance design could work but cause increased wear. For example, an incompatible metal used could cause wear, corrosion, failure of lubrication...

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