Recently a fellow photographer told me, “I would never buy camera gear from Amazon.com. I will only buy from a reputable retailer like B&H Photo.” That got me to thinking about how the process of buying camera gear has changed in the 40+ years I have been involved in photography — some for the good and some for the bad — and I thought that would make a great topic for discussion tonight.
When I purchased my very first camera in 1971, I walked into a local camera store so that I could hold it in my hands and compare it to other models before I put my hard-earned $75.00 on the counter. At age 11, $75.00 might as well have been a million.
Five years later my very first job was at a different local camera store in my small town 30 miles (ca. 48 km) outside of Philadelphia. Just like most small towns in the US in the mid-1970’s there was more than one camera store within a close distance to my home. Just a few short years later there were two more and a load of others within a short drive. Not to mention that less than an hour away in Philadelphia there were several big camera stores that had more gear than my teenage mind could dream of.
In my first 25 years of life, I would wind up working at four different camera stores — all of which were focused on educating the customer first, and selling second.
Now we all know the world evolves. Sure enough, by the 1990s many of the smaller Mom-and-Pop camera stores on Main Street USA were gone and replaced by regional chains that had anywhere from 5 to 50 locations in shopping malls around the country. At the same time companies like B&H Photo and Video and Adorama in New York were coming to prominence. By the early 2000s the Mom-and-Pop stores were pretty much a thing of the past and even many of the smaller regional chains had closed their doors. Amazon was growing rapidly and the digital age had taken over retail as well as the way we create pictures.
For much of the early to mid 2000s I purchased all of my gear from B&H photo and occasionally from Adorama. By 2010 it was clear that B&H had standardized the industry; in fact several of the Philadelphia area camera stores had simply adopted B&H pricing to stay competitive. If you walked into the store and inquired about a price, the salesperson would walk to a computer on the counter, pull up the B&H website and quote you the price.
By 2010 and 2011 articles were being published on the photography blogs that proclaimed camera stores were dead.
My thoughts on shopping for camera gear
So I thought I would share with you the way that I shop for gear in 2019. Before I tell you my methods, let’s level the playing field. I have researched Amazon, B&H, Adorama and quite a few of the regional chains — they all have 30 day return policies. So the idea of being able to return your purchase is not really a deciding factor. However… do check the return polices as some regional stores do have clear language about how many shutter actuations a camera can have within that 30 days.
Also, I want to point out that I am a huge fan of renting gear first. I apologize to some of you as I understand that in certain parts of the world camera and lens rentals are not an option. But rentals are quickly becoming available in many more places.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a camera because of a YouTube review or even because you have used that brand before. Buy it because you tried it. Cameras are major investments. It is important to handle them and sample the files from them yourself, BEFORE you purchase. Also, let’s be clear that there is NO camera upgrade that you have to have the day that it comes out… unless of course you are a brand fanboy.
So when it is time to make the purchase…
Let’s begin with B&H and Adorama. Neither of them is my “go-to” camera retailer at this point… I know — this is blasphemous! But there are three reasons. . .
#1. Both of these companies have had a very rough few years and some very bad news has been made public about how they treat their employees — especially their warehouse employees. I honestly find it inexcusable when they could add $1.00 to every order and on the sheer volume of business they do online, they could treat their employees better and look like superstars in online retail.
#2. They are no longer automatically the cheapest. I frequently find better deals on Amazon and some smaller regional retailers like Precision Camera and Video in Texas, The Pixel Connection in Ohio, Hunts Photo and Video from New England, Roberts Camera in Indiana, Midwest Photo Exchange in Ohio, Johnson PhotoImaging in Florida, and Dan’s Camera in Allentown, PA, Cardinal Camera in Lansdale, PA and Samy’s Camera in California to name just a few.
#3. Speed. I am an Amazon Prime user and I live very close to an Amazon Warehouse which means that pretty much anything I purchase on Amazon is going to be on my doorstep in 24 hours. 48 hours max.
Full disclosure: I am located pretty close to B&H so most of their shipments arrive within 24 hours, but depending on the time of day, they will not ship as fast as Amazon. And of course Amazon is open 24/7, 365 days a year, while B&H and Adorama are closed every Saturday and for several weeks each year for Jewish holidays.
It is also worth noting that Amazon is great for doing online research. While B&H and Adorama do show recommended accessories, Amazon’s recommended items go much deeper and frequently show me little gadgets and time savers that I was not previously aware of.
So this brings me to my recommendations. . .
While I can’t speak for All the regional camera store chains, I have firsthand experience with all the ones I mentioned earlier and I can tell you this… Just like the Mom-and-Pop stores from my childhood, these regional retailers are Education first.
Now don’t get me wrong — B&H and Adorama put LOTS of great educational material on the internet. The kind of education I am talking about is the kind where you walk into a store and don’t have to stand in a line with electronic numbers above 20 counter spaces. I’m talking about the places where a few people who are passionate and knowledgeable about photography are willing to share what they know and to take the time to listen to YOUR needs and help you make wise decisions.
In other words, I am talking about personalized education — one-on-one with a human being. If you don’t live near one of these regional stores, you can still do business with them online and you can still call them on the phone, and they will take the time with you and listen to you and to understand your needs and goals.
So my wish for you… is to do some real research. Don’t get so set in your ways that you are missing out on great prices and even better service. The world does evolve and that doesn’t mean that there is no place for small customer-centric camera stores — it just means that the companies who don’t figure that out are the ones who will become dinosaurs. That could happen to any of them — including B&H and Adorama.
As always, I hope you find this useful.
Until next time, go pick up that camera and shoot something because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!