Where to Buy Photo Gear

It has been some time since my last post. But the time was well spent: I built a small multimedia PC (I will post the story in the near future) with the goal of adding more features to my otherwise smart TV ;-)

Looking for computer parts, I realized that many of us seem somewhat confused about the places where these components can be purchased. The same applies to cameras and photo accessories. With the proliferation of the Internet online retailers, troubles came as well: scam artists and unscrupulous retailers pop up everywhere luring the naïve consumer with amazingly low prices beating almost every time the offers made by reputable and well established retailers (online or offline).

What should we do? Pay more for the peace of mind? Or take the risks, hoping for the best outcome – the lowest price for the goods that you intend to acquire?

The answer isn’t as straightforward as some of you may think. Why? Because between us there are risk takers on one side, and cautious people on the other side, with different views on this subject. However they have one thing in common: nobody wants to become a victim of scammers.

If you are just a casual photographer looking for a compact camera, things are less complicated because we are talking about a relatively small amount of money, usually below $500 (in most cases between $200…$300).

Buying Online or On-site

Some of us really enjoy the “buying in the store” experience. There is nothing like taking the camera for a short (in the store) test drive – i.e. feel it, play with it a little bit, interacting with the sales person, trying different models, etc. Even if you spent days researching online, reading reviews and real people experiences, studying sample photos, it is not the same as having this brief hands-on moments in the store. I’m sure, for some, buying a camera is like buying a pair of shoes: you want to try them first before committing to such a purchase (you never buy shoes online, or do you?).

The downside of the “buying in the store” experience is, of course, the higher price we have to pay at the counter. The reason is simple: keeping a real store in place costs money (rent, salaries for employees, stocking fees, etc.) and these costs are passed to the consumer in great part.

The online retailers use mostly virtual stores: they only have warehouses from where they ship the goods to the customer, in many cases the customer being charged for shipping and handling. If the retailer is located in a different country, customs, duties, foreign exchange and brokerage fees can add to the final cost. When you compare the prices, don’t forget to check for these additional charges before you place your order.

On a positive note, the online retailers may have better variety and a larger range of merchandise, very good online catalogue, access to more detailed technical data (where necessary) and, last but not least, customer reviews. At least in theory, all these tools will help you make a more informed decision.

Tips of the Online Shopping

If you decide for online shopping, I suggest think about the following:

  • How well do you know the online retailer? Has the retailer built a good reputation based on many years of mostly positive reviews not only online but also in the media? If the answer is negative, keep reading…
  • Almost always a scam presents as a very good deal – you see an amazing low price. Is it too good to be true? In most cases, this is what it is: too good to be true! Ignoring this warning may lead to disappointment: you do not get what you want for the price you see advertised.
  • Most online retailers post customer reviews of the goods they sell and testimonials about their services. Take them with a grain of salt, especially if you are dealing with an obscure retailer you never used before. Some scammers will post false reviews and testimonial trying to gain your trust.
  • Sometimes you rely on third party online tools and reviews to find out about a retailer. You may think that this is enough proof to lead to a decision. Things are not so simple. The so called “third party review” sites can be themselves deceiving. You need to rely on reputable reviewers that can offer unbiased opinions about the services of a certain online retailer.
  • If an online retailer has outrageous handling and shipping fees, keep looking. This is not a good sign. Think of those “seen on TV” commercials that promise a $10 item plus shipping and handling only to discover later that the additional fees are $20!
  • Another scam technique is to sell you extra goods or services you don’t need. For example, an extended warranty that will cost between 20 to 30% of the value of your purchase. Or additional insurance for dead or hot pixels, etc.
  • If you end up buying from a scammer, you may discover missing parts from the standard package (check good reviews online for the item you intend to purchase to find a list of all the parts included in the box). For example, your camera arrives without a battery or charger.
  • Sometimes you may find that you got a refurbished item for the price of a brand new one. Other times you may get a counterfeit item that looks very similar with the genuine one but it is not of the same quality. Unfortunately, when you realized what happened it’s probably too late.
  • Warranty conditions are important. Cheap cameras have at least 6 months warranty, the rest will benefit of the almost universal 1 year warranty. While unlikely that you will use the warranty in the case of a compact camera, the unexpected happens from time to time. Please be aware that when you buy online from a different country, your camera may not be covered by warranty in your own country. If in doubt, check with the camera manufacturer first. Reputable online retailers will disclose warranty information as well as terms and conditions for international buyers.
  • The case of being charged but the item not being shipped is probably one reason some of us won’t buy online ever. There are solutions for this, especially if you use PayPal for payments: if the retailer allows such payments on its website and PayPal covers you with Purchase Protection, if an item doesn’t arrive or is significantly not as described PayPal will help you to get a full refund. This is very important for shopping on eBay.
  • Shopping with a credit card is always subject to some risks. The worst-case scenario is the theft and reuse of your credit card information. I suggest you get a credit card with a lower borrowing limit ($1000 may be a good value) that you arrange with your financial institution. It is safest to disclose your intention of using this credit card for online shopping when applying for it (preferably in person); the bank may offer other safer options for online shoppers (like using temporary credit card numbers for shopping online with a short expiry term or with only one or two transactions).

There are other scams, traps and pitfalls for the online shoppers. Does it scare you? I hope not enough to make you pay more than what it’s fair for your toys. Here is a list of serious online retailers for photographic equipment that you can trust:

I would also add to the list your local stores: many of them have an online presence as well. There are few advantages you cannot ignore: you can always visit them and get a “taste” of their products, you won’t pay for shipping because most will allow you to pick up your online purchases in the store, doing business with a local retailer you will support your community as well, you can ask for help and support especially in the first month, some will also accept returns and others will match another price for the same product found online in the same country.

Finally, you can always keep an eye on the big retail chains with photo equipment departments like Best Buy, Costco, Walmart, Sears, Future Shop (only in Canada), London Drugs (only in Canada). Sometimes they have sale events that can be an opportunity for the deal hunter. Aside from the obvious advantages (in store experience, no shipping costs), the good thing about them is that you don’t have to worry about returns, exchanges and sometimes upgrades!

Buying Second Hand Photo Equipment

For the casual photographer looking for a $200…$400 compact camera I would say just this: please, don’t! It is not worth it. You can always find a reasonably priced camera brand new with intact warranty. If you still consider purchasing a used camera please try to use reputable retailers with a used photo equipment department. For example, B & H Photo offers used or refurbished photo gear that you can buy at a discount. Also, your local stores may sell used cameras and accessories.

There are several online stores specialized in used equipment. KEH Camera is one of the world’s largest used photo equipment dealers. However, for a casual photographer the selection may present some challenges as these stores are more targeted towards professional photographers and, eventually, amateur enthusiasts.

Buying privately through online classifieds like Craig’s list is a risky business. You may never know what you are getting into. If you still want to pursue this option, only look for locals that you can meet in person, preferably in a public place and carefully evaluate what you want to buy. Only if you are 100% satisfied, you should continue. Most transactions with physical persons are done in cash; however, you should never carry cash with you at the first meeting. Eventually, you could agree upfront with the seller (by an e-mail or a phone conversation) that, in the eventuality of a purchase, you will both go to a financial institution of your choice for the payment. If the seller is reluctant to such an arrangement, this is rarely a good sign: I suggest you walk away from the deal and keep looking.

Final Thoughts

Weather you want to buy an expensive camera or a very cheap one, I recommend you to use good sense and patience. Don’t rush into any deal just because it’s too good to be true or you feel that you will miss a huge opportunity. When it comes to gadgets, there will always be opportunities to choose from. Impulsive shopping will produce disappointing results and will leave you with some regrets at least. Don’t forget that next year there will always be something better for the money or something cheaper.

As a good photography teacher once said: the most important in taking a good photo is the eye behind the camera; the photo equipment comes in the second place.

I wish you good hunting and please leave a comment or a thank you note here if you think I helped a bit.

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