Considering buying a camera or lens? This article provides tips and information to help you make a good decision on your purchase. Focus here is not on specific brands or models. Rather, it is to inform buyers on other aspects such as selecting a vendor, choosing new or used gear, and other lesser-known topics. Being informed about issues such as Authorized Dealers and Gray Market items can make a big difference in the long run. After all, you want to be satisfied with your purchase and not have unwanted costs or unexpected hassles.
New vs. Refurbished vs. Used
Most people will opt to buy new photographic equipment, and understandably so. The camera or lens will be brand new and will come with a manufacturer's warranty and support (if it is not gray market - addressed later in the article). Buying new gear from a reputable vendor is safe and easy. Although the cost will be higher than refurbished or used gear, there will be no issues regarding condition, manufacturer's warranty, or support.
Many of the major camera and lens makers offer Manufacturer Refurbished equipment. Selection of products are limited but prices are lower than buying new. Descriptions of refurbished products can be found on individual manufacturer's websites. They can either be products that were defective and then repaired, or products that were simply returned by customers and cannot be sold as new. Refurbished products come with a manufacturer's warranty, but it is usually shorter than the warranty provided with new equipment.
Used equipment is another option for acquiring photographic gear. Buying used items can be a very cost-effective and reasonable way to purchase, as long as one carefully vets both the item and the seller. Used items generally do not come with a warranty, although there are cases when the item is still under warranty. If so, the warranty terms should be checked to see if it is transferable to a different owner. Condition of used gear can vary a lot, depending on how well it is cared for. It may show signs of wear or may even be damaged. The seller should fully disclose any problems or areas of concern. Buying used may be your only option if the item that you are searching for is an older or discontinued model.
Authorized Dealer vs Internet Scammer
As consumers, most of us take the time to compare prices from different merchants and see where we can save money. You might expect to go through the same process with purchase of new camera gear, right? Actually, it is not that simple. Manufacturers of photographic equipment keep strict pricing control on their products. They distribute their products only to merchants who are Authorized Dealers. These merchants have a business agreement with the manufacturers to sell their products. Prices are set by the manufacturer. While it may appear that the price control is restrictive, this system insures that the consumer will get genuine products and accessories, and manufacturer's warranty and support. Buying from an Authorized Dealer also gives much higher confidence that you are dealing with a business that has integrity.
An internet search will yield results showing many merchants offering a particular product. Search results will usually show sellers who offer the item at a lower cost. Beware of merchants who offer discounted prices. Discounted price is a red flag for a merchant who is not an Authorized Dealer. Merchants who are not Authorized Dealers cannot sell anything other than Gray Market items (described below). Many of these sellers rely on the buyer's lack of knowledge and routinely use deceptive practices, bait and switch schemes, strong-arm tactics, and upselling for overpriced accessories or non-existent upgrades. These internet scammers also typically have high restocking fees and poor after-purchase customer service. This article from Consumer Affairs discusses some of the common scams used by shady camera dealers: Online Camera Stores: Take A Closer Look.
Merchants inform customers that they are Authorized Dealers by displaying logos on their websites or in a prominent location in physical stores. On merchant websites, Authorized Dealer logos are typically placed on Home pages and on item listings. Merchants who are not Authorized Dealers cannot legally exhibit the Authorized Dealer logos.
What is Gray Market?
Gray Market items are listed at lower prices than the USA versions of the same products. Lower cost makes Gray Market items attractive, but one should be educated on what these items are and the implications of purchasing them.
Gray Market indicates any item that is not imported and sold by the USA business entity of a manufacturer, such as Nikon USA or Canon USA, or an Authorized Dealer. Another term for a Gray Market item is "international." Items that are meant for the USA market typically have "USA" listed in the product description. Manufacturers vary in their support of Gray Market items, and in many cases, they will not warrant the product. Some manufacturers will not even repair Gray Market items. Information on Gray Market products from four popular manufacturers can be read by clicking on the following links:
Some Authorized Dealers sell Gray Market products. These merchants can be expected to accurately describe the product.
Gray Market products purchased from non-Authorized Dealers come with an element of risk. In the best scenario, the item is a genuine product of the manufacturer, is in good condition, and arrives packaged with all of its original accessories. In other situations, Gray Market items are shipped with cheap replacement accessories, were not stored properly and suffered damage, or have some other problem. Non-Authorized Dealers may offer a "Seller Warranty"or "USA Warranty." How will you know if this warranty has any validity?
Customer feedback resources are helpful tools to evaluate vendors. Yelp.com is one recommended resource for finding customer reviews. You can also simply do an internet search on the company to find reviews. Pay attention to consistency when you read reviews. For almost any merchant selling photo gear, there will be a lot of positive reviews from people who received their order and are happy. In fact, dishonest sellers can actually have good overall ratings. Reality can be found in the details. If there are several negative reviews in which customers have similar complaints or issue warnings about the vendor, then it may be in your best interest to look elsewhere. The negative reviews may actually be a relatively small percentage, but if you find different people reporting similar problems, chances are the vendor is a scammer. Look beyond positive reviews that say the customer purchased their item for a good price - they probably don't know that they were scammed. Look for reports of bait and switch, upselling, refusal to ship unless customer buys additional products or services, and other practices intended to con customers. Be aware that some companies also populate feedback sites with fake reviews. A good rating is not enough - reviews need to be evaluated to avoid the bad apples.
Buying Used Gear
Buying used photo gear is a strategy for saving money and acquiring fully-functional equipment. Tips for buying used gear are shared here to help improve your chances of a good outcome on your purchase. Although you may follow every idea here and more, there is no guarantee that the item you purchase will meet your expectations. A good practice is to know the return policy up front, or to work out an agreement with a person who you are purchasing from if the item condition is not as described.
Item condition should be one of the first things to review when considering used photo equipment. You will need to decide what condition is acceptable to you and keep that in mind when you review used items. Condition is given on some kind of scale, which may be numeric, alphabetic, percentage, or descriptive. Whatever scale is used, there should be a description of what values along that scale mean. Be aware that your interpretation of a given scale may be different than that of someone else. Consider the described condition of the item according to the scale as one of several pieces of information.
As with purchasing new gear, check seller feedback from other customers. For businesses, online searches and review sites are helpful. If you are buying from a person, whether or not you can gain information on their integrity as a seller may be more difficult. For example, a Craigslist ad will not provide a way to vet the person selling the item, so you will need to rely on your interaction with them and checking out the item in person. If you are buying from an online site such as eBay, you can review feedback from other buyers, but also make sure that you review the description carefully. I have purchased a number of lenses through eBay and have had overall good experiences by being careful. That being said, two sellers, both with 100% positive feedback, sent lenses that were not as described. In both cases, I returned the lenses and the money was refunded.
High-quality images of the item should be made available to you. Photos are an important tool for evaluating the item condition. If images are blurry or taken in such a way that you cannot get good, clear views of the item from several angles, then it is usually best to look elsewhere. Images can show you if the item appears to be well cared for or if it has been worn or damaged. A responsible seller will point out flaws, even if they are small, so that there will not be surprises later. Wear does not denote damage, just use. Images of lenses should be provided that show the condition of the glass. Some items to look out for:
- Is the item clean?
- Does the item look beat up or abused?
- Is the lens glass scratched or pitted?
- Are the filter threads on a lens bent or seriously worn?
- Is the inside of the lens clean, mold free, oil free, and without dust that will interfere with the image? Note that a few small dust particles are common for a used lens and most of the time do not cause any image quality issues.
Note that many well-respected merchants that sell used equipment from their web sites may not show images of individual items. These merchants rate the condition accurately or possibly even a bit lower than the actual condition, which means that the item is in better condition than rated. Questions on items can be asked by contacting the merchant directly.
Responsible sellers will give accurate descriptions and will be willing to answer questions that you have. If a seller is vague, gives minimal description, or does not answer your questions, he/she should be avoided. Ask any question that you feel is important in your potential purchase. For example, has the item been kept in a smoke-free environment? People who buy used cameras often want to know the shutter count to know where the camera is in its life. With lenses, glass should be free from defects and the inside of the lens should be clean. Focus and zoom rings should turn smoothly. Auto-focus motors should work properly. Find out if the item is a Gray Market or USA model. Be aware that some items were manufactured before products were categorized as USA or Gray Market. For those items, the USA/Gray Market question is irrelevant and the manufacturers will repair the items if needed.
Another tip is to find out what is included with the item. Does it come with all of its original accessories? Is the original box included? Is anything extra included?
Additional Resources for Buying Used Cameras and Lenses
Here are links to a few other articles on buying used photo equipment. The authors present additional information over what I have covered.