Gear Week: Where to Buy

Throughout the week, I’m going to write a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets. This is the first one, following will be entries on the types of cameras out there, lenses, specific bodies, strobes and random accessories.

It may seem odd to start here with a where to buy entry, but it’s critically important that you get this part right. Trying to buy the right gear from the wrong place will only cause heartbreak and financial loss. Developing a relationship with an organization is just as critical in commerce as it is in journalism.

Law of All Fingers: If the deal seems too good to be true, it is.

Let’s start with where not to buy. Once you’ve figured out what you need, a quick online search will start bringing up prices. Some of them will seem stratospherically high and some will give you that warm fuzzy feeling – Sweet! I’m totally about to score the greatest deal ever on this camera!

That warm fuzzy feeling when you find an item for 30% less than everywhere else is the slimy hand of a thief slipping into your pocket, fishing funds out of you and leaving you with a really sleazy feeling.

There are numerous web sites that show phenomenal prices, massive discounts from the mainstream retailers. They look fully professional and have on-site reviews praising the gear and customer service. And they are all lies.

If you fall for their ruse, a few days after placing your order, you’ll get an email asking you to call in to verify your credit card number. During that call, you’ll be asked if you want the battery for your camera. When you point out that it comes with a battery, they’ll tell you it doesn’t. What you bought is the body only. No battery, no charger, no strap, no manual, no software*. In most cases, there’s no warranty on the item, either.

What they’ve done is purchased the item on the gray (or black) market and emptied the box. By the time they’ve finished the hard sell, they will have charged you more than what everything would have cost you from a reputable dealer. If you refuse all the add-ons, they’ll tell you the camera is now back-ordered and they’ll ship it when it’s available – and you’ll find they have already charged your credit card.

To cancel the order, you’ll get a long run-around. And sometimes be charged a cancellation or restocking fee.

Later in this post, I’m going to list what I think are the top retailers. If you choose to order from another one, please, for the love of Oskar Barnack and all that is good in this world, do some research on the retailer. A simple search of the store’s name and “review” will tell you a lot about them. Some retailers have long lists of complaints out there.

How Local is Too Local?

If you don’t live near a major metropolitan area, the chances that you’ve got a great local camera shop are pretty slim. Not nonexistent, but slim. And if you do, you may have a strong desire to go showrooming.

Don’t.

If you go into a store to manhandle their demo models, don’t then walk out to your car and order it online for a few bucks less. That’s not fair.

Granted, sometimes small, local shops charge a lot more than online retailers. They aren’t selling in volume and can’t make up the price differences of larger places. You can always ask them to price match and some of them will.

Before you ask to see something, know what you can pay for it online. Be upfront with the sales staff – if you know their price is higher, ask them before you start pressing buttons and spinning dials if they’ll match an online price. If they say no, say (kindly) that you’d rather be putting money into the local economy and building a relationship but that a couple hundred dollars (if it is that much, and it can be) is too much of a gap.

Then, politely, thank them and depart.

Don’t be sleazy and tell them you need to think about it.

If I had a good local shop, I’d buy there and I’d be willing to pay a little more – probably 10%, but beyond that I’ll take my chances with an online order. If the item isn’t what I needed or wanted, the hassle of a return will make up the 10% price difference for me.

Which brings us to private sale ads like your local publication’s classifieds or Craigslist. If you really know equipment, buying used can be a huge benefit.

But, you have to know what you’re doing. If you buy from a private party you will have no warranty or recourse if there’s a problem. If you’re comfortable with fully testing everything, you can score a great deal. But today’s gear is so complex I’d be very hesitant to go this route. (More on new versus used in a future post.)

Online: So Many Choices

And this brings us to online retailers. In my mind, for new gear, there are three big ones: Amazon, Adorama and B&H Photo.

The latter two are the big, massive, everything-in-stock New York City stores. If they don’t have it, there’s a pretty good chance it doesn’t exist. You may be tempted to say you don’t trust anything in New York City and I’m with you on that – aside from these two places and a cousin who is a New York City firefighter, there’s nothing else there I trust.

But these two places have impeccable reputations amongst professionals. If you wander into their physical stores as a tourist, you’re going to be overwhelmed. These places are massive, high volume shops – the help is there (and phenomenal), but these are high caliber businesses. They will sell you something.

That said, their staffs are amongst the best trained in the world. They know product, they know what works and what doesn’t. They also know that selling you the wrong item will come back to haunt them.

Do I have a preference? Yes, but it has nothing to do with either store and entirely to do with one person. I have know Jeff Snyder for years and, when I need something, I turn to him. He has been a huge supporter of photojournalists for decades – he knows what we do and what we need.

Most of the time when I order, I do it online and on one of the last pages there’s a little pull down asking who helped me – even if I didn’t talk to him about that one particular item, I always give him credit. Knowing I’ve got a guy, even if I didn’t use him for that order, is truly valuable.

Next up is Amazon, which has deals with both Adorama and B&H Photo, so sometimes you end up ordering from them anyway. Amazon has a lot of stuff which they can ship you fast. On the big-ticket items, you’re not likely to see a big cost swing amongst the three as the manufacturers pretty tightly control the prices.

Note that Amazon is now collecting sales tax in many states and, while I’m okay with paying my fair share of taxes, you may not be as ethical as me.

Amazon’s real value can be in the reviews – their system is much more robust than anyone else so you can do a great deal of research on their site before adding something to your cart. (For me, the same showrooming standards apply.)

Other Options

There are some other options out there. If you live in the northeast, EP Levine has been an excellent source for years. If you’re in the midwest, Roberts Imaging has a stellar reputation. Out west, Samy’s Camera seems to be the standard. Another option is Calumet Camera, with locations across the country.

All of those places have supported what we do as photojournalists – support them as retailers whenever you can.

* As a heads-up, all of the mainstream manufacturers post their software online for download in case you lose the DVDs they shipped with the item.