Thursday, December 21, 2006

Last Minute Shopping For Cameras as Gifts

Today is a few days before Christmas, and as I was dropping off some film for developing (yes, I still use film) at a small independent photo place I'd never visited before, I decided to stick around because they were packed and doing very brisk business selling cameras. I don't know why I do this, because I'm not shopping for a camera, but I get a kick out of seeing how staff try to sell models and brands. Well, this afternoon it was a horror show. Left and right, nice people were coming into this store to pick out a camera as a gift for a family member and the sales people gutted them, like grizzly bears feeding on a salmon run. (note: this would be an unfair characterization in a lot of places, even in New York, but it happens.)

The typical shopper for a camera this time of year isn't usually a photographer, it's someone with an eye to get a camera for someone else who possibly likes taking snapshots. I'm going to dispense some basic DSLR Christmas shopping tips for them now, though it makes me a bit of a hypocrite, because the point I'm trying to drive home is that it's a bad idea to listen too earnestly to anyone's advice when you're in a camera store at Christmas time. I'm not going to tell you what camera to buy your wife/husband/daughter/son. If you research before hand, collect opinions, weigh your options, know their needs, and set an affordable budget, you're following the best consumer tips already. But once you're inside a typical techy-gadgety store, you're being hunted, and a grizzly is going to swoop a big paw down on you faster then you can click 'quit.' You'll sputter some words about sensors and then the grizzly will be chewing on your head. Endless facts about this, that, and the other are like teeth that will chomp you up and get you feeling all mashed to bits until you're just right for digestion and ejection (the register and the exit).

1. There are really 5 tiers of DSLR camera: budget, amateur, advanced amateur, professional, and wealthy professional. Forget the last 2 tiers if you're buying a gift; you won't see the 4th for less than $2000 and the 5th for under $6000 anyway. People who can appreciate those cameras ask for them by name, and should be buying them for themselves. For the rest, there are all sorts of phrases to confuse you, like "entry-level, mid-range, top of the line, pro-sumer," which could apply to anything really, but if you just ask which ones are "budget" or "advanced amateur", you'll be swimming upstream a lot faster.

2. If you're not sure, always ask which models are current and which ones are discontinued. The price of a discontinued model should always be less than the current model, but some sneaky sales devil will try to appeal to your savoir faire and will try one of two things to get you to spend more money. First, they'll try to bundle the discontinued model with extra crap until the bundle for the discontinued camera costs more than the new model. "It's more value! Memory cards, filters, etc." These are lies (see no. 5 below). A discontinued camera is a pretty good deal, but avoid any value-added bundle on principle that the store creates the bundles to make more money. Ask them to distinguish between the brand name "kit" and their bundles (which they may also call "kits"). Next, they'll explain the older model has been discontinued for all sorts of reasons that make it less super-fantastic than the present model, which is an up-sale from the perfectly good camera to something that has more profit for them. "The new one has XYZ. You'll need that." No, you really don't. You just "want" it. Try not to be greedy when they appeal to your sense of value, because that is the one weakness they know how to exploit.

3. If it comes in a kit with a same brand lens, don't buy an additional lens that covers the same zoom range plus a bit more. You absolutely must hold onto your wallet if they goad you into a telephoto zoom that goes anywhere from 200mm to 300mm, especially if it overlaps with what you already have. Unless you know precisely what lens you want based on research, you're going to be smoked and eaten on a bagel if you start thinking about additional telephoto zoom lenses. Amateurs take absolutely the worst photos with long telephoto zooms, but for some reason (spelled p.r.o.f.i.t.), stores are absolutely loving any 17mm-200mm lens that costs over $300, preferably if the name "Pro-Master" is stamped on it. Here's why you need to avoid the temptation. First of all, the kit lens (if it's made by the same manufacturer as the camera) is probably the safest bet in the store for when you can't decide. Secondly, don't buy the camera in a camera+lens kit and then another lens that duplicates the kit lens' zoom range. You don't need a back-up lens. And if you get tempted by the replacement lens idea, stay on brand and buy just the camera alone (no kit lens). Finally, anything stamped Pro-Master or by the other in-store brands just scares me.

4. The one thing that helps average people take better pictures is a TTL bounce flash. The kind that sits in a hot-shoe on the camera, that you point at a wall or a ceiling so the illumiation gets more diffused. But average people are intimidated by the added size and handling. However, if you have an extra $300 to spend, buy a good flash before you buy another lens on a whim. You can get off-brand flashes, but for the life of your camera nothing will work better than if you stay on brand and get the model that is current for your camera.

5. Stay within your budget by buying less, not by going cheaper to pile on the extras. Unless it comes without them, you only need to get a memory card and batteries... okay, and maybe an extra lens cloth. But now is not the time to get a special case, protective UV filters, extra batteries, sensor cleaning squeegees, a remote, lens cleaning fluid, etc. Anyone to whom you give a camera will consider these things later, if they really want them, but more than likely they'll never use them if you buy them now. Protective filters are pretty much de rigeur at the check-out, because apparently we're all terribly likely to grind the lens to sand with paper towels or drop it on concrete. The store is appealing to your instinct for adding value and protecting your investment, but don't let anyone make that decision for you in the store. Reflect on it at home, in bed, or at breakfast the next day. Then reflect again, and then reflect some more. And if you still need that UV filter because your heart is set on it, keep in mind anything over $15 is overkill unless you're a professional (and then overkill is what you get paid for).

6. Store Warranties will suck your soul dry. Just when you're a heap of rotting fish bones, you're inevitably going to be asked to protect the purchase for 2 to 5 years against any accidents, defects, blah, blah, blah, all for a small additional sum that would feed my family in Canada for a month. Maybe you believe in karma and that if you turn down this amazing offer, you'll break the camera next week. It's my opinion that for the thirty seconds you have to listen to this store spiel, change your faith to fatalism and trust that if you break the camera it was meant to happen and you won't change the future. Then say "no thanks," and go back to whatever faith or lack of faith you have. The camera already has a good enough warranty to protect you from defects. Your homeowner or apartment renters insurance should have a deductible for theft. And the world is a worse off place because people consider objects disposable or easily replaced, so just try to take care of your purchase the old-fashioned way and take responsibility if it's damaged. A third-world child will give you a hug one day, I promise.

7. Get a gift receipt and don't buy anything you can't exchange or return for at least 14 days. I really hope you don't go shopping at the last minute and buy something you can't return. You're practically begging for trouble if you do. End of the year sales are coming up and this is the perfect chance for them to force you to reconsider extra warranty insurance, "because you'll never be able to return this camera." If you find yourself trusting their warped logic, it's too late for you. You drank the Kool-Aid. But if you have any self-respect left, sit on your money a little while longer until you can fully acknowledge the risk you're taking. The first thing you'll need to try if you bought a lemon is to exchange it at the store for another camera. Afterwards, the camera's own warranty will cover any defects. So is it worth the no-return risk and added warranty expense? Not likely. Nor do you want to be the victim of an oxymoron tactic to get you buying something on sale yet spending more than you intended.

Feel free to pass this post along to anyone you think is about to get preyed on during the holidays, especially if you think they're going to shop for you. Anyhow, I'll try to re-write this and update it as I get a chance. But if this helps just one person to avoid splurging on a mistake, I'll be perfectly content.


Dr Hiding Pup said...

I was in my local camera shop yesterday, looking for a mini-Lenspen as a stoking-filler for a bridge camera owning friend. An elderly couple walks into the store, looking for a case for a Canon Ixus SD500 or some such. Rob, the assistant manager, points them at a little Lowepro bag on the shelf, and also mentions that Canon make their own little leather cases too.

"Which one's better?" the elderly gentleman asks.

"You mustn't ask me, because it's just my job to sell you things." replies Rob. "Ask that chap, there," he adds, helpfully, pointing to me, "He doesn't work here."

Needless to say, he's worked there seven years without a promotion. That said, everyone assumes he is the manager...

okto said...

That is awesome. I love people like Rob.

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