and Where to Buy Photo Equipment
New: How to Afford Anything.
I've gotten my digital cameras and accessories from Ritz and Amazon.com since the 1990s and from Adorama and B&H Photo-Video since the 1970s. I've also used J&R since the 1970s, who are a huge retailer of music and electronics in addition to cameras.
I'm a native New Yorker and a cheapskate who's been shopping for my photo gear for over 35 years.
Today I buy everything online. I buy my cameras, lenses, memory cards and film online. I also buy my computers, stationery, cell phones, soap, mousepads, books, pens, hard drives, blank CDs and everything I can online. One click and it shows up at my door.
I wrote this page back in 1999 when it only focused on getting a great deal. The Internet wasn't popular enough to attract the con artists.
Today in 2008 there are so many frauds working in broad daylight by buying ads from the big ad wholesalers used by most websites, including mine, that a lot of this page explains the basics of how to spot a fraud. Thankfully it's easy.
Excellent: Adorama and B&H Photo Video have always had the lowest possible prices that will get you what you think you ordered. I've been buying from them personally for 30 years, each. Ditto for J&R, another NYC landmark. They compete so heavily against each other that their prices are always the lowest legitimate prices for any current new camera.
Bad: Places like Express Cameras and Best Price Cameras are bad news. Just click those links to see their real-world ratings and who got ripped off today so far. Sure, the prices look lower, but they'll never sell you what you think they're advertising at that price.
Anyplace offering prices lower than Amazon, Adorama and B&H have always been a bad deal. They prey on innocents by trying to sell you pieces that come included with your camera, like the charger, for hundreds of dollars extra. They also try to switch you to high-profit-margin off-brand lenses like Sigma that they've deliberately overpriced, hoping you didn't research them. It's not illegal, but these are not places with which an informed shopped would ever want to deal.
How to get the best price
Back in 1999, film gear stayed current for 10 years. There were always deals to be found, since most of what we bought was already out and in good supply.
Today we all want the latest, not-even-on-the-streets-yet digital cameras.
No legitimate dealer has any incentive to discount any hard-to-get hot new digital camera since they will sell all they can at full price. Now more than ever, if anyplace is offering a hot new camera for significantly less than you can get from the places in my text above, it's either a bait-and-switch if you're lucky, or a complete fraud if you're not.
The ads immediately to the right and at the bottom are not from my website, they come to your screen from 3rd parties, and could be places you'd not want to use. Beware; I use Adorama, Ritz, Amazon and B&H. I've also used J&R in NYC, Calumet, Crutchfield and Costco, all of which are excellent. Any other ads you you see on this site I have not seen, I don't see them before they appear on your screen, and I cannot endorse them personally.
If it's too good to be true, its a scam! I'm not kidding. Otherwise intelligent people read this page, then see ads for the Nikon D300 for much less than $1,799 or a Nikon D3 for less than $4,999, and believe them. Don't.
Photography is the international language, but English and US Dollars aren't.
I'm an American and live in the USA. Life is good. I write from my perspective as an American.
I can't vouch for what happens if you're not a US citizen or if you're outside the USA.
This site gets read heavily in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and even the Marshall Islands and research stations in Antarctica! I have no experience buying there, although the FNAC stores in France had good prices when I was there.
Most US dealers will ship to Northern and Western Europe, but you'll have to figure out how to pay them in US Dollars.
US dealers rarely ship to places like Romania, since so many shipments get lost.
Scams and Frauds
The Golden Rules:
1.) DO NOT EVER SEND ANYONE ANYTHING OTHER THAN A CREDIT CARD NUMBER TO PAY FOR ANYTHING ONLINE. IF YOU DO, YOU PROBABLY JUST GOT RIPPED OFF!
Legitimate businesses take credit cards, and with credit cards you usually can get credited back if it was a scam. With money orders, the scammers have your cash and will never be heard from again.
Hot new digital cameras, unless they are obsolete or refurbished, sell as fast as the makers can produce them. No dealer needs to dump the price to compete, so any dealer that's far off of the prices of those two top NY City stores is almost always a scam.
Scams are all over. They buy ads from places like Google and Shopping.com just like legitimate stores. These services eventually take down the scam ads, but they still get seen.
Scams are easy to spot. Any operation that doesn't take credit cards (i.e., only takes money orders, e-gold, Western Union, cashiers' checks or bank transfers) is probably an outright fraud. These places don't have any cameras to sell: they take your cash and run. Two weeks later they reappear at a different internet address and buy ads from the same places and show up on all the same photography websites.
Red Flag #2: Frauds have prices much lower than any legitimate operation on popular, hard-to-get digital items that no legitimate seller needs to discount.
If you're innocent enough to be tempted by too-good-to-be-true prices from unknown webfronts like expresscameras.com, check them at resellerratings.com, or the New Jersey BBB, where you'll quickly discover that if these places aren't complete frauds, they are fronts to try to sell you $500 in accessories that should have been included with the camera anyway. Run like crazy from these places. Check the BBB in your area, for instance, look up Best Price Cameras in Brooklyn, NYC and you'll get an eyeful.
As I write this I have cards and a phone on their way from Amazon, two cameras coming from Adorama and a camera and two lenses coming from Ritz.
Good stores get ripped off themselves by people using stolen credit card numbers. If you're a new customer or just moved you may have someone call you to confirm your information. That's normal and to be expected. Credit card numbers don't get stolen from your home computer. They get stolen from large commercial databases. Hackers get into those large databases regardless of how and where you use your credit card.
I use my credit card all the time to buy directly from legitimate places like Ritz, Amazon.com, Adorama and B&H. It's even safer than using your credit card at retail since no human being ever touches or sees your card. Of course make sure you're buying from them directly, not an auction or "marketplace" on their sites. When you buy at an auction you're buying from an anonymous stranger, probably not a legitimate e-tailer.
Other excellent dealers I've used for decades are J&R in NYC, Calumet, Crutchfield and Costco. I don't put links to them all over my site since it would drive me crazy, and Costco charges you to join. If you see what you want at any of these places, buy with confidence. They've all always treated me right. Likewise, I've heard great things about Roberts of Indiana but never used them.
Here's a scoop: if you try Crutchfield for the first time, use my referral code of putkc-x0u86-gevaz and I think you and I both get a $20 credit. Crutchfield has such a great return policy that they paid shipping when I last returned something to them in 2006! All these dealers have great return policies and are interested in our long-term satisfaction, not just taking our money and evaporating. I've used most of these people since the 1970s or 1980s.
WANT FILTERS WITH THAT?
Most stores with salespeople will try to pitch you on a filter (or filters) with your lenses. This is annoying, but not really a problem. Even the good stores do this if they have time.
Personally I prefer a Hoya HMC UV filter on each of my lenses for protection, and I so love to say no to salespeople that I usually forget to order the filters I need!
Bad dealers tend to be located in Brooklyn, NY (area code (718) for customer service, at your expense). The good NY dealers tend to be in Manhattan. I have no idea why. To keep us confused, the good places often have warehouses in Brooklyn.
Bad dealers aren't complete frauds like the places below that take your money orders and run. Bad dealers accept credit cards and have been around for decades, too. Bad dealers crowd the internet and the back pages of camera magazines with deals better than the good dealers.
Everything will seem fine if you place an order with them. The catch starts when you get a call back asking if you want some accessories, which everyone knows always come for free with the camera. Every digital SLR comes with the strap, special charger and battery and body cover cap etc. When you order a D70 or D200 at what seems like a really good price it always turns out that that operation is pricing it without the included accessories. After they sell you the battery and charger, without which the camera won't operate, the deal turns out to cost you more than it would have buying from one of the good guys above. Yes, Good Guys are also good guys.
Most operations with stores you've seen in person are legitimate. Beware stores that you've never heard of outside of their own ads or websites.
A reader writes that he got scammed by CCI Camera City dba Royal Camera and Video. He thought he bought a D70 for a great price, only $749 (usually $900). After placing his order he got a call from them asking if he wanted the charger and battery along with it, since the camera "didn't include them." They hit him up for another $200, since of course the D70 is useless without the dedicated battery and charger. OF COURSE the D70 comes with those, and this way he wound up paying more than he would have just by buying from a legitimate dealer in the first place. This reader is now busy reporting this to the appropriate attorneys general. This practice isn't necessarily illegal, just deceptive. If this happens to you just call your bank, cancel the credit card charge, return the item, notify the manufacturer and tell everyone you know about the shifty antics. Then buy it again from a legitimate dealer.
Expresscameras.com seems like the same type of operation. I've never bought from any of these places myself.
Criminal operations are easy to spot. They are so easy to spot that I don't worry about them: they are obvious. They take out ads on the internet, put up a website that looks a lot more polished than mine, collect your moneygrams and evaporate. Then they pop up at a different URL next week. Some of these turkeys have popped up on my and every other website: many of us get our ads from the same places. Don't believe ads you see on TV and certainly don't believe any ads you see on the internet.
Scams are easy to spot because:
1.) They offer hot new digital camera models, like a D200 or D3X, for a lot less (20%) than any other real dealer. Duh, it is too good to be true. No one has to sell hard-to-get new cameras at less than full retail.
2.) They don't take credit cards. The first thing I look for when someone asks me if I think something is legitimate is to see if they take credit cards. The scams take everything but. If I see some excuse and that they only take cash, certified check, moneygram, wire transfer, Western Union, etc. that's always been a 100% red flag for a scam. (If you're outside the USA then possibly dealers won't take your credit cards; I can't say. If the dealer is outside the US beware if they won't take your American credit card.
3.) They are often located outside the USA. It doesn't matter what address they use. Western Union lets a scammer collect your money from his local Western Union office, any place on earth.
Never send money orders or Western Union to anyone other than personal friends and family. It can't be tracked. It's the same as cash that flows in only one direction. If you send a money order, Western Union, wire money or accept a cashiers check from a remote party you're almost 100% likely to be scammed.
I'm an individual and even I take credit cards via PayPal. The only reasons dealers won't take credit cards is because they're too shifty to get approved by the credit card companies, or you live outside the USA.
Western Union is decent enough to warn you here at the first page you see when trying to send money online. To quote from Western Union's page here, "Only transfer money to someone you know personally..." Ditto for escrow services, since escrow services requested by a remote party are often frauds. Use your credit card to pay and you are protected.
Moneygram, something you should never, ever use to send money to a stranger, warns you about this here.
If you pay by credit card you're usually OK and protected by the credit card company. Any person, auction or website that asks for wire transfer, Western Union or money order is usually a scam, regardless of how professional their site is, how many phony testimonials they post, how cheerful and reassuring the people on the phone are about how they save you money avoiding credit cards, how reassuring their money-back guarantee is or how good the user rating or feedback is for the user whose account was hijacked and used to sell you goods via an auction.
Avoid auctions anyplace, especially eBay, Amazon and Yahoo, where there are many scams for the cameras we all love. These are called different things different places, for instance, Amazon Marketplace is just a bunch of strangers, not Amazon, selling stuff so be careful.
It's your money, but since I do this all for fun to help everyone enjoy our favorite hobby it hurts me when people write to tell me about the deal they just got on a new D2X for $3999.95 for which they just wired money to some guy from an online auction.
Here's a great page with the basics and examples of how online fraud works when buying or selling.
Frauds are all over eBay. Here's a message received from a scammer sent to me by a reader. See if you can spot the red flag:
First of all I thank you for your interest in my product.
I will provide you all you need for that.
This is a perfect example of why most scams are easy to identify. This one email has these flags:
1.) Not written by someone who speaks English. The first sentence almost makes sense, except the writer makes no mention of what he's selling. After that, very few of the sentences make any sense at all. There are plenty of misspellings. Remember that computers set to run in another language usually won't be able to check the scammer's spelling when he's cutting and pasting in English. The second sentence says: "I will provide you all you need for that." What? These people don't speak English. They seem to copy and paste these sentences from each other.
In America we take for granted certain levels of honesty in our business dealings. That's how we accomplish so much: by looking out for the other guy's long-term best interests, too. Not all societies work this way. Criminals take advantage of this, and take advantage of the Internet's ability to cloak their location.
Life is good in the USA, but not everywhere. In many countries one can pull in a month's wages with just one scam for a flash unit. Someone can earn a year's living by scamming just one fool out of a money order for $1,000 for a D200 he doesn't have. With this level of temptation you see why these scams are so common, and will continue to remain common. These crimes cross international boundaries. There is no World Police with jurisdiction to bring these people to justice.
2.) Less than half price for the items! Duh! If he really had real items he could sell these two items for more than list price as everyone else does on eBay.
3.) Payment through Western Union! SCAM!!! This is the most important red light. Merchants demanding cash, money orders and wire transfers in advance for merchandise you have not seen in person is the biggest flashing red light for a scam. These people take your money and don't even have to run. Western Union maintains no records on where a payment is picked up. Scammers may claim they are in Wisconsin, but pick up your payment in the foreign country in which they live. They don't have to move out of their cave until enough fools wire them enough cash so they can move up.
4.) Free shipping and 14 days return. Wow! Anyone can promise you anything. Promises are cheap. It's just as easy to write phony testimonials, too. You don't believe what you see on TV, so why would you believe an email or website from a stranger?
5.) Again, the scammer can't even speak English. "Wish a good day!"
HOW TO GET SCAMMED WHEN SELLING
Cashier's checks are as easy to forge as personal checks today.
Your bank will cash the fake cashier's check immediately, no problem. The problem is your bank will come after you for the full amount three weeks later when it turns out to be forged! I've even egged on scammers to send me these phony cashiers checks. I have two cashiers checks made out to joke names like "Rodney Stroker" when scammers kept trying to buy my Dad's Audi. Any moron with a computer and a printer can spit these out.
Likewise, any moron can send you a phony "payment confirmation" email from bidpay or whatever to make it look like you've been paid. Baloney, you're not paid till YOUR bank tells you on YOUR request that you're completely clear.
Paypal also can scam you. You may get a call from PayPal 6 months later telling you that the guy who PayPaled you $60,000 for your BMW M5 used a stolen Amex card, and that PayPal is now taking back the $60,000. It happens, it's fraud, and no, I have no idea why it is that PayPal gets to scam you instead of being scammed themselves. I'll bet it's buried in the click license to which you agreed when you signed up for a PayPal account.
The Overpayment Scam
A very popular scam is people responding to your "for sale" ad with a cashiers check for more than the asking price.
They always claim to be working for a client in a foreign country who offers almost your full asking price after a cursory look at some photos. They offer you a cashier's check for more than the actual amount and ask you to refund the difference. Of course they have this over-value cashiers check because the last deal fell through and it's all legitimate per their "company policy," so you're OK, right?
These checks are always forged, but you're excited to get it and your bank accepts it.
You give them your camera, car or boat and the overpayment in cash.
All is great, except that three weeks later your bank lets you know that the cashier's check was phony and that you are personally responsible to make good on the full amount of the check!
These scammers have telephone numbers and real (fake) street addresses, just that the phone numbers are mobile phones and the addresses aren't used for anything. These people are all over. I got a lot of these offers (and checks!) while selling my dad's car.
I've had people send me these phony cashiers checks. I knew they were phony, but had them send them anyway just to see what they look like. These people actually thought I was going give to them the keys to my car and wire them a legitimate refund for overpayment! Mine came in an envelope postmarked Minnesota. As Romanian scammers all know, all you have to do to get a real US postmark is put all your phony cashiers' checks for the day in one envelope, address it to the postmaster in the homey small American town of your choice, and include a note asking that he "place these items in the mail" for you with the local postmark. Even for a criminal operation? Sure; it's illegal for the postmaster to look in those letters, so of course he has no way of knowing it's all a crime.
When reporting these things to the authorities I also learned that it's not a crime until someone actually loses money; thus it's still legal at this point! Another tip-off is that these bone-heads can't speak English.
HOW TO SIZE UP A DEALER
Take a look on resellerratings.com.
A decent place rates at least a five and anyplace with less than a 3 rating is often a scam.
Rockwell's observation: if something has to say it, like "Best Choice," you know it's really the opposite. it's exactly like the high school kid with the "Sex Instructor" bumper sticker. Sure.
I used to buy everything used, and that's still your best bet unless you're loaded with cash or shoot digital. As you read here, the kind of camera you have has nothing to do with the photos you can make. If you don't have money to burn, buy used. Today I have the luxury of buying new which I just order off the Internet, but remember that's a luxury and not at all required for making great photos.
For digital you have to buy new since digital products are pretty much disposable: new digital products offer the same or more functionality for the same price as used older digital products.
I get into details of buying used further down.
Price is the easiest thing in the world for which to to shop so it's what usually gets people in trouble. We all know how to compare prices. This whole article is to help you get what you need, which is more complex. If you're looking for the hottest new digital item they usually sell at full price until interest subsides, so looking for price alone from an unfamiliar source can wind you up in a scam. On the other hand if you're shopping for most other things you have a much better chance of getting a deal.
If the prices on a hot new D70 or 20D from some website you've never heard of seem too-good-to-be-true they probably are. Buying used I always find deals (see below), but I had to pay full price for my D70 simply because there are more people who want them than Nikon can make cameras. Thus no dealer has any reason to drop the price. That's where scams come in.
Shopping for new I've learned that I can't get it any cheaper overall than legitimate dealers like Ritz, Amazon.com and Adorama advertise. I would avoid buying from any Internet source with which you are unfamiliar. No, you don't have to worry about credit card fraud (usually) but you do have to worry about unscrupulous dealers out to sell you what they want instead of what you need or padding up your shipping bill. If it's too good to be true, it is. I ordered some film some years ago from I think it was Executive or 47th Street Photo in Manhattan. I had even been to their store in person before. I ordered over the phone and asked about the price of film, gave them my credit card and all was OK and the film showed up quickly. I looked at the bill and was charged about $40 for shipping for about 10 rolls of film. I called them and got a bit of a run around. It turns out they "credited" me for a little bit of their mistake, and I also found out their trick: VISA told me that one cannot dispute shipping charges, so I was stuck paying whatever they wanted to stick me with. Moral? 1.) Only buy from places you can trust, and 2.) Always ask someplace you don't trust about the shipping charges in advance.
As you may have read I'm a New York native. I've shopped at many of those stores in the back of the photo magazines in person. The ones in Manhattan can be OK, but watch out for the ones in Brooklyn (area code 718 and also called "Crooklyn" by the locals). You can see what the stores in Brooklyn look like here. If you phone up and discover that the camera you want is out of stock and they only have the "kit" with all sorts of expensive things you don't want like lens cleaning kits you're being scammed. Even worse, some places still pull the oldest scam in the book, which is to tell you the camera advertised does not include the battery cover or some other required and always included piece, and that the camera with the part you need costs more. If you try to order the one in the ad anyway, golly, it's not in stock! I think this might actually be illegal, but I'm unsure.
All cameras are shipped with the battery covers, eyepieces and straps and whatnots. (SLR cameras rarely include a lens.) The practice of not having what you really want as advertised in the hopes of selling you something else is called "bait-and-switch."
Look here for a great survey of mail order (and today internet) places. It really shows how good good places are, and how bad the bad ones are. Note that the bad ones, like Cambridge, aren't even scams. Cambridge has been gypping people for decades in New York if you're not careful. I think Popular Photography finally stopped carrying their ads. Go see that link for an eye opener. Beware that the scams advertised on the internet are far worse as I mentioned at the top of this article.
Personally I just order off the Internet. It's far safer, faster, easier, costs less and has a wider selection than bothering with retail. I use Ritz, Amazon.com and Adorama all the time. I order, and the next day or so my FedEx guy drops it off at my house. It's much easier than going to a store. Avoid any auctions; I'm suggesting Amazon for new items only.
Safer: If you are worried about credit card fraud you are safer ordering off the Internet than at retail, since no one ever sees or touches your card. The data itself is stored in the same computers regardless if you order off the internet or use your card at the local store. When crackers (most people erroneously say "hackers") steal data they get it from databases, not from data flying over the internet. Ask yourself from where is your car more likely to be stolen: while driving down the freeway at 70 MPH (similar to placing an order over the internet), while stopped at a light (similar to handing your card to someone at a checkout counter where others in line as well as the clerk can read it) or left in a parking lot overnight (similar to data stored in databases). That's right, no one is stealing data while you're shopping over the internet, they're getting it out of databases and your data makes it to those databases regardless of how you buy. Also you are no longer responsible at all for any phony charges on your card; see Visa's info here.
Theft of your card's data while shopping at retail is very real. Others in line or even the clerk may be copying down your data. An urban legend is people using camera phones to get this, but I have yet to see a camera phone that good. I personally have been at a pay phone next to a businessman at the airport when the cops came over and arrested him. The cops explained the guy in the suit wasn't making any calls, he was just writing down the credit card numbers the other people were punching into the pay phones. Wow. Likewise, some sales clerks have used card readers attached to PDAs to swipe your card a second time and copy your data for their own use or sale to criminal organizations. Apparently it's trivial for crooks to buy these card readers over, you guessed it, the internet. See here for example. If you buy online no kid ever gets his hands on your card, in fact, no human ever even sees it.
8,000 people are hurt and over 100 people die every single day in car crashes in the USA, and the US government brags about how low that is here! There's no risk of being hurt in a car crash shopping over the internet. Personally I've had my car totaled while shopping for film file pages when someone plowed into me while I was stopped waiting to make a turn. The auto industry spends a lot of money to keep us all happy about driving and I love to drive for fun. On the other hand, if I can avoid running an errand I do! The streets are all dangerous places and we all know people who've been killed in car crashes, like my grandma. No one you know ever dies from Mad Cow Disease or West Nile Virus, but they sure make the news.
I click and it shows up as fast as I want it. I usually don't get the chance to run errands more than once every few days, so things show up before I would have gone out to get them. No driving to and from the store and no waiting on lines. Ditto when you make a return: no waiting on line!
Obviously there's no hauling out to the stores to try to see what's out there. It's also easier to return when ordered off the internet and you never have to wait around in long return lines. Amazon never ceases to amaze me: when I returned a defective DVD they had a replacement overnighted to me and I printed a prepaid return label on my printer. I stuck the label on the package and dropped it in the mailbox, done. Another time I wanted to return a hard drive since I found a better one at Amazon so I printed a prepaid UPS label, stuck in on the box, and the UPS guy picked it up from my house on his daily visit. I never had to leave to return it! Amazon gives you the choice of whether you want to use UPS or the post office or other ways and then you just print the prepaid label. It's amazing how they just keep making this easier and easier.
Neither one of us needs to pay a retail store's rent, insurance, inventory taxes, sales staff, utilities and etc. unless we really want to hold it in our hand before we buy. Most internet places let you try it out yourself in person and send it back if you don't like it which is better than trying something for 10 minutes at a store with an impatient salesman breathing down your back. Better still, Amazon usually ships for free. Good-bye retail!
I order weird stuff so I need a big store like Adorama who actually stocks just about everything, even fisheye and 600mm lenses or whatever. No retail store in San Diego has all the stuff I need.
No matter for what I'm shopping it amazes me how I ever could have wasted time at retail. I'm shopping for a GPS, and while Amazon has everything, even the best stores only have a fraction of what's available to show me.
Shopping around this Christmas I realize also how at retail most of what's out there in general (not specifically photo) are crummy, poorly made products imported from wherever the labor's cheapest, compared to shopping online and getting what you really want. Looking around at retail I see all sorts of no name products of every description. Sure, if you're my girlfriend who loves to shop for the sake of it that's one thing, but if you want to get something good, cheap and fast, retail is dead.
This site and others are loaded with the experience of people who personally use and paid for products so you don't have to listen to a salesman or read a marketing flyer instead. I'm impressed at how I can read all the user feedback at Amazon and quickly realize if a product is a winner or a loser. For instance, looking to upgrade the copy of Dreamweaver with which I write this site all the user feedback pointed out that the latest revision actually works WORSE than the version I already have!
This is where most people used to buy their cameras and supplies.
Just don't put too much faith in the guy behind the counter's advice as I explain here, especially if you are doing your own research and know what you want.
Retail of course is the only place you can actually play with the gear before you buy.
Retail is great since you get personal service and get to walk out with the product right now. Since cameras are not usually sold with much markup there really is no reason not to buy at retail, unless you, like me, appreciate the convenience of the Internet and need weird stuff rarely stocked at retail. I usually buy odd things not stocked at retail.
Film, frames, batteries and processing is another story. This is where the store makes most of its margin (profit) and therefore you usually can find better deals online.
Also many local retailers won't let you return something for a full cash refund if you just don't like it. That's the reason I prefer buying online: first and foremost I need to try the gear for myself and decide. Buying online I can return it if it doesn't do what I need it to, and most retail places can't absorb the return unless its blatantly defective. I'm picky; when I return something it's usually for some subtle lack of performance often impossible to show some clerk, and in that case I want my cash back and I walk.
Your local camera store will offer a ton of advice and help. This advice may not have anything to do with helping you make better pictures. (see this page.) You're better off asking people who have your best interests at heart and doing your own research than depending on the store, unless of course you have a history of working with them.
Personally I usually know what I want so I'm usually not particularly interested in paying extra for some camera salesman's opinions, so local chummy camera stores don't hold the charm for me that they used to.
When I buy retail I buy from my local Ritz Camera store, since they offer a great return policy. If I love it great, if not or if there's a problem I can just bring it back, no problem. I love my local Ritz Camera in La Jolla's UTC University Towne Centre shopping mall. They also can get me all sorts of weird things and have a very liberal return policy.
Camera stores make very little money ("margin") selling name brand cameras. They make a little more selling off-brands and the bulk of their money selling accessories like frames, film, processing, lens cleaners and batteries. One way they try to improve things for themselves is to try to sell you a no-name lens like Sigma, Quantary or Tamron instead of the camera-brand lens you really want. Run away! (Actually Tokina is my favorite of this group.) The real reason to buy a nice Nikon or Pentax or Minolta or Canon or whatever is to use the camera brand lenses. Personally I think it's really stupid to buy a camera and use a no name lens, since the lens is the only thing that actually affects the photo. More here. The salespeople of course will really make it seem like they are trying to help you out, but just say NO to off brand lenses and flashes. Personally for the same price I'd go with a used camera brand lens over a new discount lens any day.
Hopefully I've convinced you, and if you still insist on the cheapest possible lenses, know that all the camera makers make many lines of lenses, and they all make cheap ($100 or less) lenses, too. I'd take an $80 Nikon zoom over a $100 Sigma zoom any day. See my lens suggestion page here, too.
Decent internet operations will let you send something back for a full refund even if you simply just don't like it. Always read return policies before buying. Avoid places that try to hit you up with restocking fees. You need to comply with the times and requirements. All places are different and these policies change with time.
You do need to save every little item that came in the box and send it back exactly as it arrived. If you've filled out a warranty card, removed a UPCbar code for a rebate or anything then you probably can't return it. Always save everything, including the outer box and packing material, until your return period has expired.
I never have a problem with this since I'm the sort of person who follows instructions and saves everything. If you, like my wife, throw away packing material immediately or aren't that great at reading the fine print then you might not be able to return things.
Do not buy something with the intent to shoot an event and then return it. This is fraud. Just use the return privilege as I do to buy with the confidence that if you love it, great, and if not, no problem.
When I return things I get my money back. Don't settle for store credit. Be sure to read the fine print.
See also my page on Returns and Warranties.
Thsi section is so important that I made it its own page.
See The Gray Market.
I wrote this, and most of this page, back in 1999. Today, in 2010, all this below rarely applies, as the best place to get used anything is eBay. See How to Win at eBay for all the latest information.
Read the rest of this page as an historic article I left up for posterty's sake.
If you are an expert at gauging camera function and condition and own things like a shutter tester as I do you can get as cheap as possible and buy from my favorite source: strangers in your local classifieds. That means you phone up a stranger, he tells you some details about what he has and you drive over and go look at it. If you want it, you pay him cash on the spot and you're done.
I've bought many items this way and I've noticed a pattern: the more the guy on the phone insists his gear is brand new and unused, the worse a piece of junk it is. Conversely, the more the guy tells you all about the dents or dings it has, the more likely it is to be unused. Why is this? Probably because the guy pushing how great it is is really trying to unload garbage on you, and the honest guy is a fellow who cares for his equipment like me and knows intimately where all the dings are. I'm serious, if someone is really pushing something you may just want to skip it.
The advantage of buying privately is no middle man or dealer or website or anything; you can pay the lowest price and he gets the best price, too. Of course you two may have no idea what it's worth, either. The disadvantage is that if you are not a camera technician you just may wind up with one of the many junk cameras strangers offered to me that I didn't buy. I don't have the time to write about all the things you have to look for in a used camera to determine how well it works and how much wear it's seen, but rest assured there is a lot to look at for internal wear.
Always buy from amateurs and avoid anything used by a professional. Pros abuse and use their gear and it's probably worn out. Amateurs, even if they scuff up the outside and have dragged it all over creation, have not used the equipment so it's practically new inside. On the other hand, newspaper photographers destroy their gear several times over. DO NOT buy equipment that's been used in journalism.
See How to Win at eBay for all the latest information. The rest of this section is many years old, and eBay and the used market has compleely changed.
Avoid eBay and any other auction sites. Why? Simple: it's the same as buying from a stranger above or below, except you don't get to see it first! As an article in the New York Times on 09 May, 2004 explains (you may be able to read it here), unlike a real store that promises satisfaction, on eBay "Satisfaction most emphatically not guaranteed. All sales final."
Even though people say they "bought it from eBay," what they really are doing is buying from someone or someplace who simply posted their stuff on eBay, just like listing it for sale in the paper. You are NOT actually buying anything from eBay any more than you are buying a used car from your local newspaper publisher!
You pay your money, the deal's done, and only afterwards do you get to see what you got. At a real auction you at least get to inspect the item first, but not with eBay. I bought one lens from a seller on eBay and it was fine, then one camera touted as "almost new" that had sand in it. Now of course that seller took it back to preserve his feedback so he can snooker the next guy, but I no longer will waste my time playing cat and mouse like this. Sure, you can use escrow services, but why? The whole point is simplicity, and when you add in all the transactional friction of escrow you may as well be buying a house. My brain is too small to want to have to deal with all that. I want to see the gear and then seal the deal, not get myself involved in some used camera sight unseen.
Remember that eBay is just the world's largest garage sale, except you can't see what you got until it's too late.
Sure, you will get deals now and then and there is plenty of really nice gear out there. Personally I'm very picky about internal condition, and most people don't know how to measure that. That's why I want to see the gear myself before I buy, so eBay is not for me. Read about camera condition ratings a few paragraphs below.
Real scams on eBay are rare, but fun to read about here.
As of 2010, the only things you'll find at swap meets and "camera shows" are the used items too junky for these dealers to sell over eBay. The rest of this section is left over from 1999 when these shows were useful.
This is risky: you'll meet some really nice guys like ourselves who just don't need something anymore and get a table one day to clean out stuff cheap because their wife insisted, and you'll also meet a collection of bottom-feeders who make a meager living buying stuff cheap at one show and selling it at another. These guys go to one city to buy and another to sell depending on each city's economics.
I have seen a lot of junk cameras that really don't work offered at some of the tables at these shows. I've also found some wonderful things when I look carefully. Look very carefully and size up the seller. This is another reason to avoid eBay: even a con artist can look pretty impressive over the internet. People compliment me on this site, but honest, I'm just one guy doing it as a hobby with no real idea of what I'm doing. At least at a swap meet you actually can meet the seller and see his goods.
Beware: people set up as "dealers" at these shows are often just migrant traders working out of a station wagon with no store or anything to back themselves up if you have a problem.
You usually pay with cash at these things with no recourse to the credit card company, just like buying from a private party. Guess what: you usually are buying from private parties. That's fine and my favorite way to buy, just realize you're pretty much out in the wild, wild west or an Iraqi camel bazaar at these things.
Again, as of 2010, eBay is the biggest and best. The rest of this section is from the good-old days of the 1990s.
This is the best bet for most folks, unlike for cars.
A dealer with a retail storefront will have checked it out first and you have recourse if you don't like it. I like the idea of dealers today because they all have a trial period during which I can just return the gear if I don't like it. Adorama also has a big used dept. I have tried KEH a couple of times, but most times the item was in worse condition than represented. Each time they apologized for the mistake and took the gear back, but I wasn't happy although most people love KEH. I bought my 75mm 4x5" view camera lens from Midwest Photo exchange and it was great.
Go buy a copy of Shutterbug Magazine to find ads from most of the USA's best dealers.
Don't sell your used equipment to a dealer unless you want to accept half of what you could sell it for yourself. I've always been able to sell what I don't need in my local free classified paper here in San Diego.
When you mail order from a conventional dealer you should have a period of about 14 days during which you can test and inspect your gear for yourself, and if it doesn't meet your requirements you can send it back for all your cash back, end of obligation. If they offer no satisfaction warranty then go elsewhere.
I don't know of any place, and you should avoid any place, that either has no return period, charges a restocking fee or only refunds in relatively useless store credit.
Be polite yet firm: I bought a $100 200mm f/4 and $1,500 15mm f/3.5 lens from a pro dealer in Orange County, California in 1995. They assured me when I asked them directly that I had a period during which they would accept a return for a full cash refund. I kept the $1,500 lens, but the 200mm lens didn't work properly on my camera. I returned it, and they tried to stick me with a store credit instead of cash. I had to be firm and they eventually gave me the refund they had originally promised. After being treated like that I've never been back. The Internet is fun: I get mistreated once by one guy ten years ago and now 100 people a day will be reading this page. I sure hope I never treat anyone like that!
In the old days (1970s) cameras were expensive handmade mechanical devices just like mechanical Swiss watches. They lasted a long time and trading-in used cameras just to get a better one that had better features you really needed was common. Thus almost every retail dealer had a used section and took trade-ins, just like with cars.
Today cameras are electronic plastic and assembled by robots for next to nothing. Even the cheapest camera today has every feature you need, unlike the 1970s. Used cameras are rarer and often broken cameras are just thrown away since they are not worth repairing. Therefore few camera stores except the largest have a used equipment section. Also the entire USA is becoming one huge franchise, so dedicated independent camera stores are being removed and replaced by Ritz camera outlets instead. Yes, Wolf and Dean's and CameraWorld and Kit's and I presume others are just other names Ritz uses. Neither Ritz nor Best Buy nor Circuit City or any of those box houses has the staff to invest in selling used cameras. Also as new cameras have become automated commodities there's no reason not to buy them at these franchise box houses. See more at how to buy new.
Every dealer states conditions of used equipment. These are cosmetic grades and have little to do with internal condition or performance. There are no standards for grades. One person's excellent is another person's fair. Read each dealer's fine print for how they grade.
Some, like KEH, explain that these are merely cosmetic grades and have nothing to do with how well something works internally. No dealer provides ratings of internal condition.
The two, internal condition and cosmetics, are completely unrelated.
The worst thing you can buy is a camera owned by a savvy pro who always kept it in a case and used it - a lot. This camera, having been kept in a case, will look brand new externally, and may be completely worn out inside. You also have just paid a premium price for a well-worn camera based on its cosmetics. Avoid this.
The best thing you can do is buy a camera owned by an amateur who dragged it all over the world on his luxury vacations. He banged it up and it looks awful, but it probably only has a few rolls of film through it and will work like new if he didn't let batteries leak or leave it out in the rain. You also got it for a bargain price based on how few people will want to buy an ugly camera.
Dealers try to get you to think that a camera either works or it doesn't. Wrong. Performance varies all over the map, especially with anything mechanical, which includes everything, even AF cameras. Lenses go out of alignment, mechanical shutters go out of calibration, AF cameras have rubber bumpers dissolve and plastic gears wear out and etc. Personally I spend a long time checking out every piece of used gear I've bought. Appraising used gear's condition is as complex as appraising works of art.
Look out when buying used zoom lenses. They have internal cams that position the glass as you zoom. These cams wear and the looser tolerances degrade optical performance.
This is just like cars: you want to buy from the original owner with all the records and paperwork living in a nice house who can afford the gear new. It's OK for you to be poor, but try to buy from rich people, not fourth owners. You don't want to buy a piece of gear from someone who bought it used since you have no idea where it's been. You also want to avoid buying it from someone who doesn't appear to have been able to afford it in the first place.
The worst person from whom to buy a used camera is someone who is "selling it for someone else." This is how sellers distance themselves from known defects. That was who tried to sell me the sandy camera over eBay, for instance. The guy told me "well, my friend for whom I'm selling it assured me it was in good condition." Sure.
The best person from whom to buy a used camera is a surgeon. He can afford anything, has probably been working too hard ever to use it, and most importantly, both respects his tools and knows how not to break delicate things. I'd buy a used camera from a surgeon any day.
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The biggest help is when you use any of these links to Adorama, Amazon, eBay, Ritz, Calumet and J&R and when you get anything. It costs you nothing, and is this site's, and thus my family's, biggest source of support. eBay is always a gamble, but all the other places always have the best prices and service, which is why I've used them since before this website existed. I recommend them all personally.
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