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Camera Purchasing Advice

Now that you have some photo equipment in mind, where do you buy it, which model or brand? With the internet, you have a lot of choices available, and especially with photo equipment, and not all of the choices may be good.

Customer service
First and foremost, ensure where you purchase the items offer good customer service. If you buy something and everything goes OK, customer service is no issue. However, when things do go wrong is when you want great customer service. This usually means the lowest cost retailer you will find doesn't always have good customer service. There are always exceptions, but customer service does cost the dealer a few dollars, so don't expect low-margin dealers to provide the same level of service. That does NOT mean that the higher-priced retailers provide better service.

You need to research a bit or rely on past experience of your purchase history. For this reason, when I find a retailer that has done a good job in the past, I usually rely on them for future purchases.

Gray Market

You may not encounter this term until you start purchasing photo equipment. Some large dealers, especially those in the New York City area, directly import camera equipment into the US from the off-shore manufacturer, rather than through the USA distributor. In effect, they become their own distributor. The advantage of purchasing gray market is cost, as you will save 5% or so over the cost of the US distributor-imported equipment.

There is nothing illegal about purchasing gray market equipment, but the equipment is warranted by the dealer, not the US distributor. Many reputable dealers sell both US and gray market versions of the same item, and will indicate which version it is in their catalog. But shady dealers may sell gray market goods without advertising them as such, or even be deceptive in their description.

While you may save a few dollars, I never buy gray market equipment. Photographic equipment is highly complex these days, and a service department at the retail store may not have the capability to fix the problem. Also, for cameras, you may not be able to obtain firmware updates, as these typically come from the US distributor. You'll likely be working with the foreign manufacturer directly for firmware updates. For these reasons, I can never justify the small price savings of gray market when I make my purchases.

The Caribbean

Since the topic at hand is Cruise Vacation Photography, what about purchasing equipment in the Caribbean? Recently I purchased a MB-D80 Battery Grip for my Nikon D90 in Philipsburg, St. Maarten; a foreign country. It was around $100, so if it was foreign market, no big deal on that kind of item. But to my surprise, it had a US warranty card, and the warranty coverage was the US and the Caribbean Islands. If you need something on a cruise, don't hesitate to buy on an island, but make sure it carries a US Warranty prior to purchase. While Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Johns, St. Croix) are US Territories, there is no guarantee that these locations sell US warranted vs. gray market items. Always ask!

In the Caribbean you will often be in bright sunlight. Unfortunately, that does not bode well for LCD only screens, typical of most compact Point & Shoot (P&S) style cameras. All too often, you will not be able to even see the LCD screen due to sunlight. To alleviate this problem, consideration should be given to cameras that have an optical viewfinder. Unfortunately optical viewfinders have all but disappeared from P&S cameras. Nikon's CoolPix P7000 and Canon's G12 may be the only P&S cameras that still have an optical viewfinder, but they are hardly entry-level cameras. Of course, this may be the justification needed to purchase a DSLR!

One possible alternative is to use a screen hood. I have one for my Canon FS20 Camcorder, and while it is an improvement, it isn't ideal. Unfortunately, the orientation of the rear screen to the front lens on many cameras may prevent you from being able to use a screen hood on a P&S camera.


Video Screen Hoods

 

Product Reviews

Product reviews can be a great tool in determining what item you want to buy. Reviews range from magazines and commercial websites, customer opinions, such as those found on Amazon and other on-line retail operations, and independent reviews such as YouTube. There is no one source better than another; it is hard for a magazine to have an un-biased opinion when advertising dollars are at stake; customer opinions can sometimes include those with an axe to grind, and YouTube may be downright inaccurate. The best thing is to use all of these avenues, and make your own collective judgement.

For customer reviews, some retailers may only let customers that actually purchased the item write a review, while others allow anyone to write a review; purchaser or not. Amazon has an identifier that lets you know if the reviewer actually purchased the item.

When you run across a customer review, you will invariably find a bad review. I don't think I have ever not found at least one or two bad reviews on any item I wish to purchase. Are they wrong? Not necessarily so, but remember you are looking at someone else's perspective. Perhaps they just didn't like the item, or maybe they could not get the software to work on their computer because of some incompatibility... or they might just be right. If enough reviews were written, you will get a good idea from the average rating. One or two low mark reviews doesn't tell me much, but if 100 people gave the item low marks, that may be something to consider.

YouTube can be useful if you are interested in a particular feature of the item; for camera bags, many reviews have someone stuffing their bag with all of their equipment. At least you can find out how much stuff a bag you are interested in will hold.

Camera Manufacturing

Used to be, photographic equipment was made in Japan (or Germany for some of the esoteric brands). Now days, a lot of equipment, even from the name-brand manufacturers, is made in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and other locations as well. More than a few customers have purchased a lens, found it to be made in China, and incorrectly determine they have been ripped off with counterfeit goods. But this is just the way it is in today's Global Economy, and where it is made is not a determining factor whether the item is well made or counterfeit.

Purchasing Choice

The retailer I always go to first is Amazon, because while not always the cheapest, they always have the best customer service. Other retailers I like are:

Don't forget your local camera store, if you still have one. To stay competitive, many camera stores also have an internet operation. However, sometimes the price is higher in the store (but you can always ask for the internet price). One thing you should never do is walk into a store, look at the item, take the salesman's time, ask questions, then buy it on-line. To me, that is dishonest. If I use the store's resources, I'll buy from the store.

Fortunately I have a good camera store about 30 miles away: Norman Camera. They also sell on-line with their own website, and through Amazon, and many of their prices are the same in the store. I generally check their on-line price and stock before purchasing; if they are in the ballpark, I'll drive to the store and purchase it there. Nothing beats being able to buy locally from a reputable dealer.

I will use other avenues, such as eBay, for goods that are not likely to be complicated or expensive, such as Camera bags, tripods, and other items at low risk of malfunctioning or needing repair. You can often get used camera bags in like-new condition for half the price (I know this because I have sold several that way). It just depends on the cost savings potential and risk I am willing to take. Several of the retailers I have listed above have eBay operations as well. Even then, I will still go through Amazon rather than eBay if I can so that I can obtain Amazon's customer service. Lastly, I do not buy equipment on eBay from off-shore sources regardless of the savings.

Used Equipment

With the rapid model changes in digital cameras these days, manufacturers would have you think a camera that is 2 years old is obsolete. While a 2 year old camera may not have the latest features (some of which may have dubious value), its almost certain to take satisfactory photos. And in some cases, the camera has been setting in someone's closet for most of those 2 years.

There is also a good used market for lenses, however, lenses do not tend to change models as rapidly as bodes, so the used lens may be significantly older. Still, if you know what you are getting, its not necessarily a problem. I know of lenses 20 years old or more that still work satisfactorily on a new camera body. Generally lenses outlast camera bodes anyway, so you should not avoid an older lens; but the asking price should reflect its age.

So should you consider buying used? From a reputable dealer such as Adorama or B&H Photo ... yes. Obviously the best avenue here is if you have a local store so you can inspect the item prior to purchasing it, but the reputable on-line dealers will usually offer a 30 day money-back guarantee, 90 day warranty, or some combination of both. However, I have seen used equipment go for almost new prices. If the used item is less than 50% of the price of the new item, I'll consider it. Otherwise, I'll purchase a new one.

Many times, private citizens sell their gear on eBay. Most of the time its legitimate. Perhaps they have lost interest, are upgrading their gear, or dad just passed away and they have all this camera stuff. Be absolutely sure that anyone you buy from will accept a return. Never buy from anyone that sells AS IS, or no returns accepted - unless of course its almost free.

Anytime I have sold used gear on eBay, I fully describe the item, judge it's condition, fully disclose any defects or wear, and offer a time period whereby I will accept a return (minus shipping of course). Consequently, I have never had an instance where anyone was dissatisfied with the purchase or returned the item. Full disclosure of condition is the key.

eBay does have a mechanism whereby they will attempt to resolve any issues you have with a seller, but that does not always work if the seller is an individual, as they can simply ignore all attempts to resolve the issue. Contrast that with Amazon, where sellers are businesses, and need continuous sales. It is to their advantage to fix what is wrong.

When I purchase equipment, I always keep the original box it came in and all those styrofoam and cardboard dividers. It just presents a better product if you decide to sell it. And if you keep it long enough to become a collector's item, having the original box may bring a significantly higher price.

Refurbished Equipment

Refurbished is another way to go, especially with lenses. Canon and Nikon both sell refurbished equipment from their own websites, or dealers such as Adorama or B&H Photo. Normally, you can expect about to save about 20%, but they only carry a 90 day warranty.

What is refurbished equipment anyway? Here is a statement from a major retailer's Customer Service Representative:

All refurbished units sold by ***** are factory refurbished by the manufacturer, for example, Canon cameras are refurbished at their manufacturing plant in Newport News, VA.; the room that houses Canon's entire refurb process is said to be completely dust-free, and with every employee working in there being required to wear special booties!

They can have simply been pulled from the production line if something appears faulty, or if it hasn't passed the final inspection. Most of the time it is a very minor issue that needs correcting, nevertheless, once it is pulled from the normal flow of production, it gets flagged as a refurbished model, so you may get a unit straight from the factory that has never been used.

A refurb may also be an ex-store demo, possibly used in field tests or sales displays, or it may have been ordered in error and returned to the retailer (who can't then sell it as 'new' so it has to be sent back to the manufacturer for refurbishment). All refurbished items will have been checked over by the manufacturer by hand, inspected very thoroughly, diagnosed, and calibrated by experienced technicians, and could therefore turn out to be more dependable than a new item - which will only have been checked by a process of systematic quality control protocol (ie by random sampling as it comes off the conveyor belt).

As to the individual history of a single item, the honest answer is we have no way of knowing. Refurbished equipment is not like new inventory; the manufacturers contact us when they have a batch to sell, and the availability is unpredictable.

I have purchased refurbished equipment before, and they looked new, and performed like new.

Summary

Purchasing from the right source is going to make your photo hobby more enjoyable. You get enough stress from work, so you don't need any from your hobby. So establish a favorite vendor or two and buy from them whenever you can. You may not always get the best price, but you should find they are at least competitive.

In my photo reviews, you will find select examples of equipment and a link to Amazon. When clicking on that link, you are redirected to the description page at Amazon, where you can purchase the item if you desire to. First and foremost, I provide these links as I like to buy everything through Amazon myself. However, if you purchase the item via the Amazon link on my web pages, I get credit for your purchase. It does not cost you any more to purchase your equipment by using the link, and it helps me keep this website running. So if you have found value in the information you have read on this website, won't you please consider making your next purchase through these links?