Should you buy camera gear online in general?
Yes, and you can get a lot out of it if you do it properly - buy the right type of gear at the right time, and do your due diligence. The online camera market has its own proposition that is very different from the physical market. It is particular favourable for certain types of camera gear like used lenses, accessories and kits, for example.
Buying photography gear online comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, as with any market, but as soon as you’ve got the hang of it, you will start noticing good deals and avoiding traps.
Here is a brief breakdown of why photographers buy online:
Highly liquid second hand markets online
Better prices; sometimes even after delivery fees
Good deals; eBay auctions, Black Friday sale etc
More listings and reviews available for comparison
Swift delivery; things are usually in stock
Here are the pitfalls that you would need to avoid:
Counterfeit products sold by third party vendors
No returns policy
Bad ratings/ reviews
As you can see, it boils down to whether you understand what the online camera market has to offer, and grabbing those offers when they are on.
As for the precautions, I am of the opinion that they have to take place either way, online or physical. You just do it in a slightly different way.
Should you buy a DSLR online or in a store?
For first hand new cameras, it would not make a difference whether you buy online or in-store. For second hand cameras, you can still make the purchase online but ideally, throughout the sale process, you should be given the opportunity to check the camera and test it out before the sale concludes. There is little reason why you absolutely need to buy in-store, given the price advantage in online markets.
The situation is slightly different from brand new purchases and used purchases.
First hand cameras
Given that you are buying brand new from an authorised seller, it would not make a difference whether you do it online or in-store.
You are counting on the certification as a seal of quality, not the physical store itself. So it wouldn’t matter whether the camera goes through a rock and mortar store before it reaches you.
Similarly for both markets, you will have to check if the purchase comes with a valid warranty and what the returns policy is.
One difference though, in favour of buying online, is that they often come in better prices. This is possible because online shops are not passing on the cost of running a store onto customers.
Another advantage of buying online over in-store is the market information you get. You see all listings available and are able to compare deals, instead of being pigeon-holed to the offerings of one retailer at a time.
The democratisation of information online tends to put buyers in a better position in relation to the sellers.
Second hand cameras
If you are buying a used camera body, there is perhaps a stronger case to buy in-store, or at least trade in person.
Still, part of the process will likely take place online, because that is where most second hand listings are.
There is no reason why someone looking to sell would volunteer a slice of the value to a third party retailer unless the camera body requires some sort of servicing to restore it to usable conditions.
You will find brokers with physical stores that sell second-hand refurbished gear because there is a demand for it, but from the buyers’ point of view, they don’t offer the widest selection.
So you usually begin the process online by finding a listing that fits what you are looking for, for instance on eBay, Amazon, dcfever etc.
You then get in touch with the seller, ask for more information and photos on the current conditions, and negotiate prices.
Once the critical details are sorted out, you proceed to payment and arranging for receiving the product.
Depending on the platform you are buying on, you either pay in full in advance, pay a portion, or pay in cash upon delivery.
The key though is that you are given an opportunity to inspect the camera body and also retain the right to change your mind within a reasonable period of time.
Test every thing you can think of when you get to; sellers
You either meet up with the seller in person to do the checking, or be given a period of time upon receiving the parcel to check.
In essence, the process of buying used gear today is pretty much a hybrid of online and in-store shopping.
Is it safe to buy camera lenses online?
It is. This is not to say that there are no scams, but these traps are mostly avoidable. Overall, buying lenses online is advisable. Professional photographers do it, pro-mateurs do it, collectors do it. The larger online markets have reached a level of maturity at which there is little room for manipulation - read the reviews, compare ratings, ask questions if in doubt, and you will do fine.
While it is generally safe to buy gear online, I am inclined to say this is perhaps even more so specifically in relation to lenses - they have way larger trade volumes than bodies.
New lenses are still released every now and then, but their designs remain, by and large, the same.
In contrast, camera bodies undergo much more drastic a change that it is entirely possible to have to re-learn the whole system after buying a new one. A great example would be to switch from Canon DSLRs to Canon mirrorless.
If you have been in the photography game for a while, you should be fairly confident to say that you know what to look for when checking on the condition of a lens.
Here are the things that you must obviously check on in buying a lens online:
Whether the glass is free from fungus;
Whether the zoom is smooth (doesn’t apply to prime lenses of course);
Whether the numerical markings are all intact;
Whether it is free from mechanical damage;
Whether there is wear on the external coating.
I personally stay away from anything that does not check the first four items on this list. I can do with some level of wear and tear on the outside, because it doesn’t affect the performance of the lens.
This will also usually be the case in buying used gear; signs of use is exactly why prices come down. They are two sides of the same coin and so I am cool with it as long as it is justified by the discount.
These things can be reliably checked virtually because in the online market place, the incentives are aligned among the buyer, the seller, and the platform.
The seller wants to serve you properly to keep a good rating, the platform wants to enforce buyer’s rights to keep them coming back.
Go through all the photos, read every line in the description, check the seller’s ratings, and see what previous buyers say about the seller.
Most sellers that I have dealt with were upfront with any defects there were in the description and photos. I have also been able to get honest answers when I have questions.
So in simple words, gather all the information you need, whether initially provided or not. If some critical pieces of information are withheld, walk away.
It is still the same old bartering process, just made digital!
Is it safe to buy used photography gear online?
Yes. In fact, the largest used photography gear market is online. Platforms like eBay and Amazon have grown to be reliable avenues to sources second-hand gear from. It is safe to buy second-hand if you ask the right questions and trade on the right conditions. The level of safeness does not differ whether you buy online or in-store, while the former will most definitely save you money.
As explained before, when buying used gear, you will have to take more initiative in finding out the relevant information in relation to the current conditions of the piece of gear.
It would mean looking through the photos one by one, reading every single detail of the description, looking out for returns policies, and where necessary, contact the seller to make sure the product condition is what you are looking for.
This is arguably the only downside to buying used gear online, having to go back and forth with these procedural matters.
But when you buy in-store it is similar - you will have to go to the store.
So buying used gear online is as safe as it is offline.
To give you an idea, here is my personal experience with buying used gear online. In fact, my entire go-to work setup is second hand.
My absolute workhorse body, the Canon 5D Mark IV, was second hand; so are my 24mm f2.8 prime and 24-70mm f2.8 zoom lenses, likewise.
These pieces of gear were entirely functional when I bought them, and until today still, but they are not without defects. The display screen on the camera body had some scratches, the lenses being near-mint in condition.
But the key to take away is that sellers tend to be upfront with the damages on the gear, however severe they may be.
This is because, for the serious photographer, trading gear in and out is a regular business. Our needs change with our careers, and it only makes sense financially that we try our best to retain the value of our used gear as much as possible.
It follows that we need to keep up a good reputation in dealing used gear online.
Are cameras on Amazon legit?
Yes they are. Not all, but camera manufacturers like Canon, Nikon and Sony do have official outlets on Amazon. It would not make a difference that you bought from them online via Amazon - these are authorised outlets of the manufacturers. When buying from unofficial vendors, you avoid 90% of scams by checking for a valid warranty and return policy.
Obviously there will be exceptions but cameras on Amazon are largely legit - Amazon itself is a system that demotes subpar listings based on buyer feedback. You are not necessarily placing your trust in Amazon, but in the people who bought cameras before you.
Also, telling scams apart from the bunch is easier than you think. Here are the official stores I mentioned above, that are 100% legit, to get you started.
Canon on Amazon - links to Canon’s official store on Amazon US
Nikon on Amazon - links to Nikon’s official store on Amazon US
Sony on Amazon - links to Sony’s official store on Amazon US
As you buy and trade more, you will start to get a feel of what a solid description should look like, how detailed it should be, how the product photos should be shot etc.
The content on listings should be fairly standard - you can tell almost immediately if a listing looks fishy.
And of course you should check the list above in relation to buying online in general - they would apply to buying on Amazon too.
Does Amazon sell grey market cameras?
Grey market cameras are usually manufactured by known brands but underwent some sort of modification by the reseller, for instance having different instruction manuals, warranty cards and modified accessories. Amazon is open to all sorts of sellers so there will be grey market cameras on the platform. But equally there are legitimate brand outlets; you can easily stay in the white market on Amazon if you want to.
Amazon being a marketplace, does not actively intervene with sellers setting up stores and listings. All it does is respond to buyer feedback - they will do something if a buyer reports a seller, but otherwise, it defers to the rating system, which is largely democratic, to naturally eliminate bad-quality listings.
So technically anyone can set up a store on Amazon, including sellers looking to trade grey market cameras. Amazon will allow that until the seller gets reported, and the listing will be demoted if enough bad reviews have been given by previous buyers.
If you want to stay away from the grey market on Amazon, simply stick with the authorised brand outlets (refer to section above).
In this article, we talked about:
Whether you should buy camera gear online in general;
Whether you should buy DSLRs online;
Whether it is safe to buy camera lenses online;
Whether it is safe to buy used photography gear online;
Whether cameras on Amazon are legit;
Whether Amazon sells grey market cameras;
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