How To Buy A Camera

If you're considering buying a new camera, you can make the process a lot easier and guarantee that you'll get the right camera at a good price if you take just two simple steps:

First, take the time to answer our five easy questions before you set foot in a camera store.

Second, obey the Cardinal Rule of Camera Shopping.

Chuck DeLaney, NYI Dean
Here are the NYI Five Questions for camera buyers:
1. What type of camera do you want: a point-and-shoot model or a single lens reflex?

2. How much are you willing to pay?

3. What brands are you interested in?

4. What type of store would you like to use to make your purchase and what is a "good" price for the camera in which you are interested?

5. Do you care about a USA Warranty?

Why should you know the answer to these five questions before you enter a camera store?

Let's let you in on a secret. Almost all the stores that sell cameras - and nowadays those range from photo specialty stores (which are dwindling in number) to department stores, consumer electronic stores and mass discount stores - want to sell you a specific camera:

First of all, they want to sell you a camera they have in stock. Otherwise, there's no sale.

Second, they want to sell you the camera that has the highest profit margin for them.

That brings us to the Cardinal Rule of Camera Shopping we mentioned earlier. It is: Avoid the bait-and-switch. We'll explain what "bait-and-switch is, and how to avoid it in a moment.

First, back to the stores. We say almost all stores want to sell you a specific camera, because there are some photo specialty stores that will sell you a camera based on listening to you and getting to know your needs. Stores of this type do this because they want to make you a regular customer. This type of photo store requires people at the sales counter who know about cameras and a management that has a good business plan. There are other photo specialty stores that will "sell down your throat" like all the other outlets.

In most of the outlets, particularly mass merchandisers and department stores, you're likely to run into a staff that doesn't even care what you want, and wouldn't know enough to help you if they did care. They just want to move product.

Does this mean that you should only shop at a good photo specialty store? No, but that's not a bad idea. It does mean that wherever you shop, you need to make some basic decisions based on the five questions we've listed before you start hearing sales pitches.

Not that all sales pitches are bad. You may even change your mind about a few points if you get a thoughtful presentation from a good (and honest) sales person. However, you'll be a lot better off if you have a working plan in mind, and a lot less susceptible to the old "bait-and-switch" if you have a brand or model in mind.

What is "Bait-and-Switch?"

While we call it the Cardinal Rule of Photo Shopping, the risk of bait-and-switch sales operations extends to electronics and computer sales as well. Here's what it's all about:

You enter a store, or call a mail order dealer, with a specific product in mind. Perhaps, you were drawn to that seller because of an advertisement offering a great sale price on a particular item.

The advertisement has "baited" your interest, and you visit the store because you intend to buy that item. In a bait-and-switch, what happens next is the salesperson "switches" you to a different product, one that will make the seller more profit and in all likelihood, won't be as good as the product you originally sought to purchase.

If it's a great sale price that has drawn your attention, you'll be told you're too late, they're "sold out" of that model, but have something "just as good." It may even be cheaper than the item that caught your eye, but it won't be as good and the seller's mark-up will be bigger.

That's the old bait-and-switch.

That's why it's important to know what you want before you start shopping. That brings us back to our five questions.

The NYI Five Questions for Camera Buyers.

Let's start at the top of our list, and work our way down:

1. What type of camera do you want?

Few people enter a car dealer's showroom without a clue. Do you want a convertible or a truck? American or foreign? Any color preference?

To the contrary, most people have a brand of car and model in mind when they enter an auto dealership. But for many people, a camera is a camera, and only a few names are familiar. With the exception of the shutterbugs who pour over the photo enthusiast magazines and read reviews, few people have a clear idea about the differences between types of cameras or the features of various models.

So, the first question is: Do you want a point-and-shoot or single lens reflex (SLR)? Years ago, this wasn't even a question, the single lens reflex was king, and the only choice for serious photographers.

Point-and-shoot cameras.

Now there are lots of very good point-and-shoot models, starting at street prices under $200. They're light, easy to carry and fun to use, and they're so small you're likely to carry your camera with you more often. That's important because a camera is no good at home when you're out and about.

We suggest you look at models with a zoom lens, so you have a choice of focal lengths, and make sure the camera has a screwthreaded hole in the bottom into which you could mount a tripod. Almost every point-and-shoot model comes with a flash, but we strongly suggest you buy a model that lets you exercise some control over the flash: namely, you should be able to turn it off when you want to, and to make to flash fire even when the camera's exposure "brain" would tell it not to.

SLRs

NYI Student Caroline Kunsky
As good as the new point-and-shoot models are, there are things that point-and-shoot cameras can't do. For example, you can't change lenses or use filters, you can't see for sure what you're getting in the frame, and you can't be absolutely certain that your subject is the object upon which the camera is focusing.

With an SLR, you can do all those things. SLRs remain the cameras used almost all the time by professionals. These cameras allow you to look through the lens that will take the picture to make sure the image is focused and composed correctly. There are lots of different lenses and accessories available.

You can buy an entry level SLR with a 28-70 or 28-80 zoom lens for under $400.

If you want a camera mainly for family fun and travel photos, then you're probably going to get more mileage out of a point-and-shoot. On the other hand, if you're interested in pursuing photography as a serious hobby and want to be able to use a long telephoto lens, or take extreme close-up photos, and have the freedom to try all different kinds of photography, then you'll be wise to invest in an SLR.

2. How much are you willing to pay?

As we noted above, you can get a good point-and-shoot for under $200 and you can get a beginning SLR with a medium-length (28-70mm) zoom lens for under $400. But, you can spend close to $2000 on a point-and-shoot and perhaps twice that for few of the top-of-the-line SLRs with a zoom lens.

Realize that very few photographers need a top-of-the-line camera with all sorts of bells and whistles. At the same time, if you're interested in a special feature and you spend a little more for a camera that offers that feature, don't feel bad.

Here's why:

Photography is like shaving and cameras are like razors.

What do we mean by that? Simply that the big money in the shaving business lies in selling razor blades to the shavers. In fact, if you make both razors and blades, the best bet is to make your razor really cheap and incompatible with any other manufacturer's blades, so the customer has to buy your razor blades. That's where the profit center really exists.

How does this work in photography? Let's do the numbers. If you shoot ten rolls of film a year, your cost for film, developing and processing (figure $5 for film and $15 for processing - and that's conservative) is $200! If you shoot twenty rolls of film then you'll spend $400 or more. That means that in a couple of years you will have spent far more on film and processing than the cost of your camera.

If you're the type who's prone to losing things or breaking them, you may need to think differently, but for most of us, a camera is a long-term investment. Chances are your camera will outlast your car! Why not spend a few extra dollars on good equipment?

NYI Student Yuri Costa
When we cover where to shop, we'll suggest ways you can stretch your dollars if you need to do so. At this point, we suggest you pick a dollar figure you're prepared to spend, in increments of $100, and budget no less than $200 and no more than $1,500. If you want to spend more than that...e-mail us your credit card and expiration date immediately (no, just joking)...if you want to spend more than $1,500, make sure you have a good reason to do so.

We suggest $1,500 as a top limit because you can buy a professional-quality SLR and zoom lens from one of the "big four" manufacturers for that much. You could even get a less expensive SLR body and two zoom lenses for that amount. Don't get crestfallen. Remember, that's the top of the line.

You can own a great SLR and lens from a famous maker for $400 or less. There will always be a better camera than you can afford right now, but don't let that bother you. Almost all of today's cameras from major manufacturers are uniformly well made and give great results. Nit pickers will always tell you their lens is sharper or they really need the titanium shutter and the ten frames-a-second capability, but the truth is, most of us don't.

3. What brands are you interested in?

Point-and-shoot cameras are made by many companies, major players and smaller houses, and some of the new electronics companies are getting into the competition as well. This past year, for example, cameras made by Samsung, a name best known for consumer electronics, were the fifth biggest sellers in the United States.

In addition to new players, the "usual suspects" (i.e. reputable camera manufacturers) include: Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax. The two major film companies, Kodak and Fuji, make point-and-shoot models. Rollei, Contax, Konica and Ricoh have had hit point-and-shoot models as well.

TIME OUT: Side bar to Question Three:

"What the heck is "APS" and "Advantix?"

Good question. A few years back, five companies - Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Nikon and Minolta - developed a new film format that would be "easier" for the consumer to load and use. This new film format does not fit existing cameras that use 35mm film, but required a new camera system that came to be called the Advanced Photo System or APS for short.

APS cameras feature drop-in loading and easy choices for panoramic or regular picture formats. The film is smaller but processing costs more than regular 35mm film. When it debuted in 1996, the APS system was purportedly going to take over the amateur film market. Now, two-and-one-half years later, APS cameras' share of film processing is inching toward 10% of the market. The system has been a marketing flop. Consumers are confused by the name of the system and the various manufacturers' brand names, such as Advantix, which is what Kodak calls its APS products.

The APS system is really quite good, and it has its devotees among the industry insiders and consumers, but it hasn't taken off to dominate the photo market the way CDs took the music recording business away from vinyl.

For professional photographers, APS options are still way too limited in both hardware and software to be considered seriously.

Let's get back to SLRs.

There are fewer manufacturers of SLRs. Earlier, we referred to the "big four," namely Canon, Minolta, Nikon and Pentax. These four manufacturers sell the most SLRs and have the widest selection of lenses and accessories. In recent years Canon has challenged Nikon for dominance in the professional market, and the two companies offer a wider array of accessories and lenses than either Minolta or Pentax.

When we see pros at work, the people using Canons and Nikons are the vast majority and about evenly split between the two brands.

There are other 35mm SLR manufacturers with great products. There are new offerings from Sigma and Samsung, and Olympus is back producing SLRs. Leica, Contax, Yashica and a few other manufacturers also produce SLRs.

4. What type of store would you like to use?

This is a very important question. While this is a subject that we can cover at great length, the short version is that you have three basic choices - the photo specialty store, the discount store, or mail order.

There are advantages and drawbacks to each. Let's weigh them all.

NYI Student John Fayhee

Specialty Store.

Chances are, you will pay more if you buy from a specialty store. But, you may wish to form a good relationship with your local photo store, and it is certainly the place to go to handle the models they have in stock before you make your final decision about purchasing. The owner is usually around, and hopefully the sales staff is knowledgeable. However, because the specialty store is often a small independent outfit, it is likely to have to charge more than the discounters and mail order outfits.

Discount Store.

If the brand you want is a popular one, you may be able to find it at the local discount store and get a great price. As we've warned you earlier, don't expect anyone there to know very much about the product, however.

You will find a limited selection and get little sales help. You're there to save money, but watch out - you don't always get such a good price. Here's why. Many discount stores and chains offer astoundingly low prices on just a fraction of the items they sell - perhaps one item in a hundred. They offer these big discounts on the so-called "price sensitive" items - items for which most consumers have a sense of price - like cans of Coca Cola, light bulbs, potato chips, and the like. Often, the big discount stores "seed" their offerings with a few really cheap items to lull you into thinking EVERYTHING in the store is really cheap, when it really isn't. When it comes to photographic or video equipment, you have to know prices. You may not be saving more than a penny or two! We'll discuss how to do that in a moment, but first let's consider the other category.

Mail Order

Now, what about mail order? Can all mail order dealers be trusted? The bad news is that you can't trust them all. The good news is that many are trustworthy. Our general advice? If the price of a mail-order firm is by far the best you can get, you're usually safe with a firm that advertises in the back of one of the major photo magazines such as Popular Photography, Petersen's Photographic, Outdoor Photographer and Shutterbug. But be careful, as follows:

Specify the exact piece of equipment you want, including the model number, and make sure you understand exactly what comes with it. Tell the clerk on the phone that you expect it in the manufacturer's original unopened package, with all the accessories the manufacturer supplies - including instruction book in English, lenses, batteries, straps, etc. If the clerk won't confirm this, don't order. You'll also want to ask about Warranty, which we will discuss next.

If the clerk will confirm this, find out if the item is in stock and will be shipped within 24 hours. If the clerk says it's temporarily out of stock and they expect to get it in stock in a day or two, tell the clerk you will call back within two days and order if it's in stock. When you call back, if it's still out of stock - don't order. Hang up.

Third, check refund policy and warranty. As to refund policy, make sure the firm will take back any item you get in less-than-perfect condition. You don't want to have to deal with the manufacturer under warranty on an item you got that was defective. You paid for a new working model. You should get a new working model.

If you decide to purchase from a mail order outfit, don't forget to reconfirm all prices with the clerk and get the name of the clerk. Write it down. If possible, use a credit card rather than a check for the purchase; this will give you the option of not paying if there's a problem.

Another benefit, if you order from a mail-order company in a different state, you don't usually pay your own state's sales tax. On an expensive item, this can be a lot of money, although it is somewhat offset by the cost of shipping. The last part of question four is how do you determine what is a "good price?"

You can find this out just by making one toll-free telephone call. The benchmark for pricing these days is how much B&H Photo-Video charges for any given product.

B&H is unique among photography stores in America. Located on the west side of Manhattan, it is the single biggest photo retail store in America, and also has a very big mail order operation. There are other good photo specialty stores in Manhattan and around the country, but few have the vast inventory and low prices that B&H can offer.

Just call and ask B&H what their price is on a specific make and model of camera. The phones are busy and they're closed on Friday afternoon and all day Saturday, but when you get though to them, they will tell you their price on virtually any piece of photo equipment that is made by anyone, anywhere.

Knowing what you could buy it for from B&H will give you an idea how much more you'll pay if you shop at a discount store or photo retailer. Now you can make an informed decision about where to shop. There's just one last question.

5. Do you care about a USA Warranty?

This is a confusing point for many people and we have strong feelings about the matter. Let's start with an explanation.

A camera that has a USA Warranty has been imported by the manufacturer and is qualified for any necessary repairs during the warranty period offer by the manufacturer, and for any rebate programs offered by the manufacturer. A camera that does not have a USA Warranty is part of the so-called "gray market" of hardware that was not made and intended for distribution in America by the manufacturer.

Some stores sell only USA Warranty items, others sell only gray market, and others stock both. As you might guess, the gray market item is cheaper, but the risk is that if the camera is not perfect and needs repair, you'll have to pay the cost rather than have it covered under the warranty.

We want to stress two points.

First, know what you're getting. Ask, "Does this camera have a USA Warranty?" Expect a direct answer. If the salesperson is vague, shop elsewhere.

Second, our advice is to get the USA Warranty on today's sophisticated auto-focus, auto-exposure cameras. Here's why: Even though today's cameras are uniformly well made, there's always the danger that a computer chip or other electronic part may not be perfect. In the old days when cameras were all mechanical, it was easy for the technicians to check each spring, lever and gear as the camera was assembled. With today's electronic gizmos, it's hard for even the most conscientious manufacturer to make certain that everything works perfectly.

If you happen to have a problem, it can be very costly, and that's why we think it's worth a few extra bucks for the certainty of a USA Warranty.

Here's an example of how the numbers play out at this moment. Realize these dollar figures can vary, but in late July, 1998, if you called B&H Photo Video to get the price of a Nikon N-90s body, which is a popular (but not-top-of-the-line) model used by many pros, the price B&H would charge is $940 for a USA Warranty model and $690 for an "imported" (i.e. gray market) model. That's a big difference, but to protect its USA Warranty, Nikon is currently offering a $150 rebate on the USA Warranty version, so the price difference is really between $790, the final cost for a USA Warranty N-90s, versus $690 for the import.

That's a $100 spread, although if you figure in sales tax it would be a bit more. That's five rolls of film and processing. We think it's worth the peace of mind.

Now you've answered all the questions, you've selected the model you want and you know the price you should pay. We advise that you now visit your local photo store and ask the owner or counter clerk if they can meet or beat the benchmark price. They may be able to do so...or they may be able to come very close. The worst that can happen is that the store will say no. They won't throw you out.

Also, ask if there's a student discount or a senior-citizen discount or any other discount. Perhaps you qualify for one of these discounts. But even if you don't, don't give up. If the store gives discounts to students, seniors citizens, or for any other reason, ask them to give you their top discount too, even though you don't qualify. Obviously, they have enough profit margin in their pricing to allow for the discounts they offer. Why shouldn't you get their best discount?

Bear in mind that cameras are frequently sold at just a fraction above the dealer's cost. The real profit is in accessories. So don't expect the price for a camera to get cut 30%. It won't happen. But they may be able to drop the price of a camera by 5% or 10%. And discounts on lenses and accessories can be much greater.

Also, find out if you can get a lower price if you pay by cash or check instead of a credit card. As long as you're dealing with a reputable store, you won't need the protection of a credit card agency and since using the card costs the store money, the store may well be willing to take less in total payment if it's made by cash or check.

One more tip - whether you shop at a store or by mail order - avoid packages. Generally, when a store offers a kit that includes a flash, filter, and cleaning kit - or what have you - the accessories are being marked up to compensate for a low cost on the camera. Our advice, get only the camera you want. You can always buy accessories as you need them.

OK. If your local photo store can match - or even come close to - the price in the mail order ad or at the discount store, we suggest you buy from them. You may not get down to the last penny, but if it's close enough, go for it! The local store usually has a wide selection, the staff offers knowledgeable advice, and if you ever need repairs, service, or special order items, you're likely to end up there anyway. So it pays to support your local store and have a good relationship with the people there.

Congratulations, you've completed every step. Enjoy your new camera!



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