It's really not a good idea to buy gray market (grey is the British and Canadian spelling)—i.e., unofficially imported—cameras. You can sometimes "save" a few dozen to a few hundred dollars by buying the "International" or "Import" version. But you're not really saving—you're just getting less. Part of what you're buying when you buy a camera is the support structure behind it, provided by the authorized importer and accessed by you through the authorized dealer—warranty repairs and replacements mainly, but other kinds of support too. And often, out-of-warranty repairs as well. There's a cost to maintaining those services which the official importer builds into the initial cost of the equipment.
You might think you could just take a malfunctioning body to an independent repair shop if it breaks. That used to be truer than it is today. When cameras were all or mostly mechanical, repair wizards could work wonders right in their shops. Now that cameras are more like computers or consumer electronics devices, the shops often have to send them back to the manufacturer anyway—and the manufacturer might refuse to service yours if you have a gray market serial number.
Gray market lenses are a somewhat safer bet than gray market camera bodies, because there's less that can go wrong (and QC has gotten so good). This is reflected in the fact that B&H Photo does sell "import" (gray market) versions of lenses (with store warranty) but does not sell "import" camera bodies.
As far as store warranties are concerned, generally the bigger the store the safer you are. B&H Photo is large enough that they can afford to replace a defective lens as a store warranty. And they will...which is an important point! If you buy the same gray market lens at a tiny fly-by-night discounter that upsells you a "store warranty," it might be effectively useless despite the store's promises. You'll never know unless you need it that what that extra $160 (or whatever) bought for you was the right to be told, "that's not covered under the store warranty." Buyer beware.
Many "new" products on eBay are gray market. If the seller assures you they're Authorized Dealers, don't take their word for it. Check with the manufacturer.
Generally, the steeper the discount, the more cautious you should be. Here's what can happen as a worst case: You buy an expensive camera for $2,000 that normally sells for $2,600. You send the store a check or money order because "they can't give you that price if you pay with a credit card." (This is to prevent you from appealing to Visa or Mastercard for a refund.) After they have your money, they call you and inform you that the product you're buying is an inferior version with poorer-quality parts and construction. (This is always a lie, by the way. The camera companies don't make inferior versions of any of their products.) The store offers to sell you the "real" camera for $600 more. If you refuse, suddenly you find you can't get your $2,000 back. At least not easily. Eventually you'll probably succeed in extracting your imperiled cash from danger—they're not outright highwaymen, after all—but they try to make you anxious enough about it that you'll just give in and pay the extra amount just so you won't lose the money you've already spent.
And at that point, you've bought a camera without a manufacturer's warranty from a vendor you now know you can't trust for the same price you would have paid for the same camera with a warranty. Congratulations, Mr. or Ms. Smart Shopper.
I've written for photo magazines and on the Web since 1988. I haven't seen it all. But I've seen a lot. My advice is, make sure you're buying from an Authorized Dealer (again, contact the manufacturer if you're unsure), and make sure the product you're buying has an official warranty that covers the country you live in.
Doing anything else is like the decision to drive drunk in one way: even if you get away with it and come out unscathed—even more than once—it still doesn't mean what you did was wise or safe.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Michael: "Having lost a good friend to a drunk driver, I can assure you that buying gray market cameras is nothing like driving drunk. I thoroughly enjoy this blog but I just can't let this poorly chosen analogy go by without expressing my disagreement."
Mike replies: Very sorry to hear of your friend, and sorry to have brought that up for you. Really the only parallel I was trying to make is that "getting away with it" doesn't make anything a good idea—an argument I have had numerous times with people who boast about driving drunk. That it is never okay is always my point. One guy I used to work with would say, "I do it all the time and I've never had a problem with it," which drove me crazy....
Stephen Gilbert: "Bought a pretty expensive camera from B&H. There was a problem with the viewfinder, so I called them (B&H has people answering phone calls!) to explain the problem. They emailed me a return UPS label, I sent the camera back, and got a credit posted to my VISA card as soon at it arrived in NY. What's that worth?"
Robert Hudyma: "In my long-gone grandiose days as a Fortune 500 executive one of our deal-making merchant bankers proffered the following advice: 'If you pay peanuts you get monkeys.' Sounds like that advice works for cameras too."
Dan MacDonald: "I work at an independent repair shop and thought I could add a on a bit here. A surprising amount of digital camera problems can be solved without parts. We find a good two-thirds of DSLR problems are caused by a bad connection between circuits rather than failed components. Cleaning these and fixing the problem requires no software or reprogramming, and if you have a reputable local repair shop you will likely get your equipment back faster than sending it in.
"I will also back up what Mike is saying here overall. The initial discount may seem hard to pass up, but all too often we have seen customers with equipment that we cannot repair (usually due to parts unavailability, an increasing problem) and the manufacturers won't fix it due to it being gray market. Also, not only is the warranty on gray market items dubious to non-existent, but out-of-warranty service down the road will also be refused by the camera makers' repair facilities. On higher-end equipment, servicing it if/when it has a problem can greatly extend its useable life, and with gray market that's often no longer an option. Having to pitch a $1,500 lens you paid $1,200 for gray market because it needs a minor $100–$200 service will erode a lot of that initial feel-good on saving a few hundred bucks on the initial purchase."
Bruno: "I have bought several new 'official' lenses, secondhand lenses, and also one single grey market lens. All of the same Japanese brand. Would you like to guess which one breaks all the time (oil spills on the aperture blades and they stick)? The first time I sent it back to the dealer because it was still under warranty and they took almost six months to repair it. The second time it was out of warranty and I brought it to the manufacturer. They repaired it in a couple of weeks for a reasonable price. It seems that I didn't get away with it."
Len Salem: "One point I have yet to see mentioned (unless I missed it) is that an authorised dealer purchased item retains a better resale value. Here in UK there are several dealers who will only buy your camera, or take it in part-exchange, if you can prove purchase source from an authorised dealer with an authentic invoice/receipt from them. I find that the prices these dealers offer for your equipment to be very close to what you would be left with from an eBay sale after the eBay/Paypal selling costs, without the uncertainty of an eBay sale. This is a really important reason for buying from an authorised dealer, at a somewhat higher price initially, as many of us want to at some stage sell what we have and buy something different.
"As with car owning, it is not only the initial price which is important, but the resale value as well."
Thom Hogan: "With Nikon, in particular, one issue with gray market is whether parts, training, and testing equipment is available to third parties. For the most recent cameras, it's not generally available, though it does tend to come available over time. And this applies to lenses: simple primes generally aren't going to be a problem. It's VR and E apertures, and the very most modern additions that will be the problem with lenses: Nikon doesn't make those parts, training, or test rigs available generally."
[Thom, of ByThom.com, is the leading independent Nikon expert on the Internet. —Ed.]
OG: "B&H does sell imported cameras, albeit selectively."
wts (partial comment): "Back in the early days of personal computers before IBM changed that world, I worked for a company that couldn't get authorized for the prominent brand that everyone wanted. We got gray market PC's from authorized dealers who couldn't make their quotas. They helped us with warranty problems, parts, etc. until they got investigated by the manufacturer. Then we had problems servicing our customers until we could dig up other sources since there were certain essential non-standard parts we couldn't get elsewhere. That's why I never bought gray market anything for myself since—I know what even conscientious non-authorized resellers go through."