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Buying Guidelines

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.

Equipment Selection

Before you start your spending splurge, slow down and take stock of what you own and can reuse. The camera is one that most people already possess. A few lenses, a tripod. Good. Apart from these, you may have a few small items like lens filters and off camera flashes. Write down your inventory, and search your basement and garage for photography equipment that you can use, or modify a bit to help in your studio setup.

Another reason for listing out your available equipment is the possibility of selling them off and getting some cash to aid your investment. Craigslist / local online listings are a way to go where the buyer can contact you, set up a meeting, and give you cash for the equipment. In my experience I found the local listings are the best way to dispose off the used items. You might not get immediate reply, but keeping the posting alive over a couple of weeks might get you some response.

You can get much more targeted responses if you are part of a local photography group and can list your items in those forums or sites. While meeting someone who responded to your ads, try to meet at a public place – like a coffee shop or a library. After all you are carrying valuable and costly equipment. Bring along a friend, both for safety and as a witness.

Selling on EBay and other online sites do reach out to a wider market, but the process of setting up a bid, packaging, and shipping can be a tiring process. For low end items, the setup and selling fees withheld by these bidding sites sometimes is not worth the monetary returns.

While selling online, watch out for scammers, riff-off dealers, time wasters and low ballers.


Equipment List

As you browse through this and other sites, you will start figuring out some of the equipment you need for your studio. Some are essential, things you will need – Cameras, lenses, lights etc., and others are something you can do without for the time being – things you want. Try putting most of the things in the second list. You can always move them to the first list if you really need it.

You may find that your primary list has too many items that overrun your budget. You do have to be careful not to extend yourself financially. Do you really need all the three lenses in the beginning?

Much more details are available in the Studio section where the basic studio configurations for each type of photography are listed.


Do you have a budget for buying equipment? I have discussed this topic in Business > Investment section, but carving out an approximate investment figure come in handy. Why? When you are looking at cameras, lenses and other equipment, it is easy to get carried up and end up ordering the upgraded versions of what you actually wanted. Sometimes small things add up quickly, and suddenly you find you have these invoices of hundreds of dollars that you really did not require at this moment. But how can you do a budget without knowing and selecting the equipment? Actually there are two separate things. Let’s say you can only afford three hundred dollars per month. By the time you end up with your equipment list, you find the total comes to over four thousand dollars. In this case you have no option but to wait till you accumulate enough to start buying. If you have a bit amount of savings, you can start your purchasing, but be very careful. Spending all your money on equipment may result in not having any money for advertisements, business expenses, overheads, and eventualities that will crop up during shoot. Do not include the potential revenue that you might earn and buy things against it on a credit card. Just don’t. Only use the money you currently have – otherwise a couple of months down the line you may find yourself in a difficult financial situation. I know photographers who had to sell their newly bought items to pay the rent. Though very tempting while browsing through camera online stores, resists the urge to click the buy button. Only spend with what you are comfortable with. For business setups, the situation is a bit different, and more information can be found in the Business section.

Where to Buy

Photography is a costly hobby, and starting a studio can get expensive. When you are buying your camera or lenses, you need to make sure that you buy from a place is which is an authorized seller of the manufacturer, is reputable and reliable, have some kind of return policy, does not fleece you with ‘upgrades’, and can be trusted with your credit card.

If you are walking into your nearby photography shop for your purchase, there is nothing much to say about it. Brick and mortar stores have serviced photographers over decades, and there is probably not a better option than buying from your regular store. The only negative aspect of these local stores tend to sell at the manufacturer’s suggested price. You have to specifically ask them for discounts, and even then, often the prices are higher than you would get online. But for easy and safe buying, the local stores are hard to beat.

It is a very different world when it comes to online buying. Not only you have to be vigilant where you order, but also about the reliability of the product you are getting. There are five or six very reliable online stores that I usually patronage. All of them have physical stores and also sell online. Some of the photography / studio chains are also reliable.

Do some research before ordering online, unless you know a few and have been doing business with them.

  • Do they have a physical store? Is the address listed on the site?
  • Are phone numbers listed on the site? Call the numbers to gauge the response quality.
  • Do they provide in house service?
  • What is their return policy?
  • Check BBB (Better Business Bureau) for the ratings and complaints. All businesses will have some unhappy customers.
  • Search online for the store / seller. If they are popular, you will get lots of information (both positive and negative) about them.

You can see a list of the stores in Resources section.

What I am wary about are those online sites and sellers that do not have any physical presence. Though some are reliable sellers, a few of them a fly by night operators who will sell you a camera or lens at a relatively low price and refuse to deal with you after that for any complaints. Their customer service numbers are always engaged, or put you on hold for hours. Why would you want to deal with such aggravation?

If the price is very low compared to other stores, and you think it is too good to be true, it probably is. After you paid your money, often these operators would phone you up to make you buy warranties, accessories and other junk that you do not need. Or sometimes, they would say that your ordered product is out of stock and won’t be available for the next five weeks, but they can substitute for another similar product. If you don’t budge, your money is stuck with the operator for a couple of months.

As you browse through the various online stores for your item, you will see that the prices are almost similar. Unless there is a manufacture’s discount, you are stuck with almost the same price. Avoid buying from third party sellers – Amazon sometimes lists other sellers for the same item. These third party sellers sometimes have high shipping charges, and you may have to deal directly with the seller for returns and exchanges rather than Amazon. Avoid complications when possible, even it means sacrificing a few bucks.

If you shopping for cameras and lenses and other high priced items, calling the sales phone number can get you discounts and rebates that are generally not displayed online. Try calling a few of the reliable online photo stores and you may be surprised with what you can negotiate.   You may get a lump sum discount, free overnight shipping, or a store credit. If you do not call, you will never know. You can always order online if it doesn’t work out.

Just be aware that sometimes these customer service operators try to redirect you to other similar products that make have bigger margins for them. Stick to your equipment list – do not budge. You may end up with a cheap third party lens instead of the Canon you wanted, and regret the decision every time you use it.