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Over the years I have bought many items, sold a few, and had to abandon some stuff which I bought without planning it out. Here are few of the buying guidelines I usually follow.

Do Not Buy Cheap Stuff

It sounds simple but the weakness to snap up cheap deals is often a short time solution. Try to buy brand name equipment from reputed photography shops. I am not asking you to buy the costliest item, but get solid equipment that can be used for years and not fail you.

On eBay and other online places, you will find combo deals which sell stands, lights and other accessories at a very economical price. Yes, you can have your studio up and running within a week. But resist the temptation. It is important to understand that your investment must be made with a long time in mind (in years and not months). Most of the imported cheap no-name brands are frail, and will fail you at inappropriate moments. How would you like your light trigger refuse to operate when your client and her hubby are waiting patiently for a romantic portrait?

You say - What if I buy this cheap deal equipment now and then upgrade it when I start making money? The reality is that it seldom happens. You get stuck with the equipment you have, and you will always want to buy additional equipment than replace the ones you have.

If you later try to upgrade, you end up spending more money for the same thing than if you had bought it the first time. Keep in mind no one ones to buy used no-name cheap equipment if you ever want to sell them.

Avoid Combo Deals

Most of the combo deals try to sell you all kinds of inferior stuff along with the primary equipment. In many reputed stores, there are kit deals for lenses. Along with the lens, you get a filter and maybe a cleaning cloth. In most of the cases, the filter is from a low end brand. Why would you want to attach an inferior filter when you are splurging $500 for a lens? By spending additional $10 - $20, you can get a decent quality filter that will not affect your image.

Not all combo or kit deals are bad. Just check to see the quality of the additional stuff that are being included.

Buy Brand Names

For big items like cameras, lenses, strobes, tripods - buy branded. You get a level of quality, reliability, manufacturer support, and lots of free resources on the web in case you have issues. Resale value of branded items is much higher than generic brands.

For smaller items like light stands, backgrounds, clips – you may buy generic but get them from reliable stores. The only studio item I regularly bought from eBay was cloth backgrounds which were about 70% cheaper than in regular stores. I found a few sellers with good reputation and the stuff they delivered were of comparable quality.

New or Used

For many it is a personal preference. For me I find it hard to buy used items off the Internet, specially with high priced items. I don’t mind buying used accessories and other small stuff, which actually doesn’t save you much.

The big ticket items are the ones you save money buying used. A used camera or lens can be 60% off than the store price. The concern here is about trust. Do you trust the online seller, or the quality of the used item? How long and how extensively had it been used? Why is the person selling the lens? Did it get dropped? Do you have to send it out for cleaning and re-adjustment?

I am not trying to be paranoid on this, but I better know what I am buying out of my limited budget. The only time I feel comfortable buying a costly used item – a) I can physically inspect and test the equipment   b) I know the seller personally or by reputation (like a photographer in my locality).

Usually I buy most of the things new. Most of the time there is a return policy, and it comes with a year or two worth of manufacturer’s warranty. I find that comforting, though I have to pay higher prices for the mental security.

If you are buying used, be careful. I have heard enough horror stories of Auction sites / online sellers that I absolutely avoid buying new or used equipment from them. I also avoid items from garage sales, flea markets and local listings like Craigslist.

Many photography shops also sell used items. I am much more comfortable buying from local shops as I can not only inspect the items but also go back and return / exchange the item in case of issues. The only negative aspect of this is they know the used market, and the prices are not that cheaper than brand new ones.

USA vs Imported / Gray Market

Often on online photography stores, you will see lenses, flashes, film and other equipment labeled ‘Imported’, which is another word for ‘Gray Market’. This implies that the product was imported through secondary channels and not through official importer or distributor. (All products not manufactured in USA are imported, including the ones marked USA).

There are no differences between the ‘Imported’ ones and those marked ‘USA’. The ‘Imported’ are not inferior or defective products. They are manufactured under the same specifications and in the same factory and are exactly the same product as those labeled ‘USA’.

The prices of the ‘Imported’ ones are about 5 to 10 percent lower than those marked ‘USA’. So, what is the difference between ‘USA’ and ‘Imported’? The main difference is how the product warranty is handled.

Products with ‘USA’ can be serviced at any authorized center of the manufacturer. Take an example of a Nikon lens. If you buy the one with ‘USA’ label, you can get it serviced at any Nikon Authorized Service center. If are travelling abroad and a problem develops with the lens, you can send it to the nearest Nikon center in that country for repairs. You basically get a worldwide support for the lens.

On the other hand an ‘Imported’ or ‘Gray Market’ lens can only be serviced at the store or shop you bought it from as the warranty is not given by ‘Nikon’ but by the seller. A reputed store will be around for many years, and you should be able to send it back to the store for servicing. If the store or shop goes out of business, you too are out of luck. If you are abroad, you still have to send it back to the online store in USA.

Within USA or abroad, the Nikon Authorized center may refuse to service an ‘Imported’ lens; even you opt to pay for the service. Also it needs to be noted that manufacturer’s rebates are given on ‘USA’ products and never for ‘Imported.’

So what are the criteria of buying a product? Should you buy ‘Imported’ or ‘USA’?

I prefer to buy ‘USA’ products. I do err on the cautious side, and I like to have the ‘peace of mind’ about warranties. Running a business has its own headaches, and this is another one that I do not need to worry about. Just like to add that with all the stuff I have bought over the years, I never had anything fail on me or had to send it out for repairs.

Get the ‘USA’ label with cameras, lenses costing more than $200, lenses with VR, flashes or anything critical. There is little difference in the ‘Imported’ and ‘USA’ products at low prices – the difference might be 10 to 20 dollars. The difference sometimes is in hundreds of dollars when you are buying a $1000+ lens. Thought it is tempting to save money buying the ‘Imported’ ones, I would advise against it. Costly camera and lenses often have high end electronics, and I would only trust an Authorized Service Center for handling such equipment rather than a Store Service centers that have to handle different manufacturers and models, and may not have the same expertise in servicing high end electronics.

Other low cost or non-critical equipment can be bought ‘Imported.’ Years back I bought all my film ‘Imported’, and I had bought a few lenses (Sub $200, DX lenses for Nikon) under the same label.

Be wary of low online prices, as often these are ‘Gray market’ products, and some of them only have ‘International’ warranty. That means if it needs to be repaired, you have sent it out to Europe or Asia, incurring huge shipping cost and a long delay. Sometimes trying to save some money is not worth it.