Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It's just my luck, really: 5 Golden Rules for Buying Photo Gear

My photographic equipment breaks down, makes it to my home broken when I first order it (when it makes to my place at all), or falls and breaks.

Some people may think I'm doing something wrong but no. I just have really bad luck. In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton wrote:
"...pointing to luck as an explanation for what happens in our lives has, regrettably, become unacceptable. In less technologically sophisticated eras, when mankind respected the power of the gods and the unpredicatable moods of nature, the idea of our having no control over events had wide currency."
Hence, I will hold on to this primitive belief that I am not favored by the gods and that I shouldn't be too hard on myself.

Still, I've devised a new set of rules to live by that might make things a little better.

1.) Don't buy on ebay

E-bay sucks. Sure you can get good deals, maybe even ten times in a row, but it usually takes one mess-up to cancel all your wins. You may think the feedback system is the best thing since slice bread but since sellers wait for buyers to leave feedback before leaving you feedback, in effect they're silently threatening you with "you badmouth me, I badmouth you". I'd be surprised if even 50% of below average buyer experiences ever make it into a neutral or negative feedback. Of course, it's completely unfair. As a buyer, your only duty is to pay up. The second the seller has your money in his hand he should give you a +++ rating. But who said life is fair? Think about it--it's in ebay's interest to rig the system so that sales happen. For example, where on e-bay is e-bay user-rated? Nowhere. The website oozes with "go ahead, it's safe, it's fun, it works" and it's all written by e-bay. Feedback is just one more marketing trick in the same vein. The dirty secret is e-bay is not safe, not fun, and doesn't work. Did you know that if you buy in the US but are not located in the US, e-bay doesn't offer you any protection and neither do the 3rd party "fair trade" services that some sellers flaunt? BH photo and Adorama both sell used equipment with a premium but with service, guarantees, and hassle-free returns. Use them instead. Adorama even sells on e-bay if you must absolutely use the darn thing.

1. I ordered a bellows polaroid that never made it to my house. I waited so long for it to turn up it was too late to even leave feedback to the seller! The seller then ignored my e-mails.

2. I ordered countless cameras that looked ok on the pics but looked like shit in real-life, or looked fine but didn't work. The bright side: I'm very good at fixing Polaroid bellows cameras now.

3. I ordered one camera from England and the guy took 6 weeks to ship it and it was broken! I gave my first negative feedback ever. He slapped me back with my first negative feedback ever, something like "Gave me negative feedback. Why? I don't know." He was so evil that he quickly had to cancel his profile and go make a new one. In short, he's gone, my negative feedback to him is gone (and those of countless others), but his negative feedback to me will stick for life. So now I know. Don't give negative feedback. It doesn't solve your problem and it gets you negative feedback. This also means other ebayers live by this rule as well and that seller ratings are bullshit, as I mentioned above.

4. I just ordered a Sigma lens on e-bay from the US because it's not sold in Thailand. It doesn't work. The seller won't take it back until Sigma says it's broken. But Sigma won't say it's broken until they've tried to fix it. But they can't fix it. So now I have to wait for someone in Japan to tell us what to do next.

AF is where I told the auto-focus to focus, RF is where the image turns out to be really focused.

5. I ordered a camera from Adorama through e-bay and there was a loose screw in the viewfinder, jingling about. Adorama was very sweet and paid for the reparation right here in Bangkok because it would have cost so much and taken so long to get it shipped to New York and back BUT it tooks months and countless trips to the Mamiya service center here to get it fixed. These last two examples bring us to golden rule number two.
2.) Don't buy anything that can't be fixed where you live.

I don't live in Europe or North America. Sure we have dealers and service centers for just about every brand you can think of right here in Bangkok but the question is, how much can they service? Unfortunately, you usually get the answer when it's too late.

1. The broken Mamiya I got from Adorama, the Mamiya people here just couldn't fix it. I had to demonstrate it was broken over and over again until they just ordered a whole new viewfinder from Japan which took weeks.

2. My new Sigma lens is toast and they can't recalibrate it in Bangkok. Again, the Sigma people didn't just acknowledge the lens was toast. I had to go there twice, make a whole bunch of test shots and diagrams. Again, we're going to have to wait on Japan. Count at least a month. As this is an e-bay order, all my buyer protections will have run out by then and I'll be screwed deep if the lens can't really be made to work as well as I want it to. Sigma Bangkok's comment on a lens which focuses at 3 meters when you try to focus at infinity, "Let's wait and see if Japan says the lens is out of specifications."
3.) Buy new and with an international warranty or with a warranty of the country you live in.

Only consider second-hand for things that are not in production anymore. Lenses usually come with international warranties so you can buy them wherever it's cheapest BUT ONLY as long as you can test the lens when you buy it and return it after a week or so of "test-driving". In other words, don't buy in Hong Kong and catch the next flight out. Yes, your guarantee will work abroad and yes, getting a lens serviced is better than nothing but it certainly doesn't beat just handing the lens back and saying "your lens may be new but it doesn't work". As for cameras, they almost always have national guarantees. Buy your camera where you live.

1. For once I got this right, buying a Sony DSC-P200 in Thailand. It went to the service center three times. No it wasn't fun and yes again I had to spend hours demonstrating the problems to incompetant receptionists who have no idea what they're talking about and who are paid to send back as many people as possible without providing any service to them. But at least it was free.

2. To save 5,000 baht (100 euros, 120 dollars), I got my Canon 350d second-hand from a local shop with a three-month guarantee. I'll tell you all about it breaking down in the fourth month and how it will take weeks to get fixed and cost over 5,000 when it happens.
4.) In the civilized world, you can order online from places with "no questions asked" return policies. But if you live in a shithole like me, forget about international orders, and make sure you get to hold the damn thing in your hands before you buy it.

1. That Mamiya from Adorama, I would have noticed there was a loose screw in it and not bought it.

2. Those crappy Polaroid bellows cameras, I would have noticed they were crappy.

3. That Sigma lens, I would have noticed it doesn't focus. It's not entirely exact that the lens could not be had in Thailand. I could have ordered it and waited 45 days for it to get here. That sounded too long but now I'm pretty sure it's going to take at least that long to get it fixed. If I'd ordered it, I would have handed it back saying, "doesn't work, sorry, not taking it."
5.) When people are actually performing polls on www.dpreview.com to find out who got a working copy of a particular product, don't buy it.

1. Yes, I'm that dumb, uh, I mean unlucky. I ordered the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 despite hordes of people warning that these lenses are very very often not calibrated out of the box. Read the forums on dpreview and trust them--but not the reviews on amazon.com that are written by marketing interns.
For a second opinion, Ken Rockwell's buying tips are here. But some of his advice only works if you live Europe or in the US where there are online dealers with good return policies.


Anonymous Syvwlch said...

I only use eBay for old SciFi books, and I buy by the pound.

So far, so good.

I hear you on the buy local with a no questions asked return policy. There are people buying used lenses on eBay, models that are on back-order everywhere else... they pay $200 over MSRP to avoid the wait, but that's like jumping out the airplane with no parachute, hoping it's still at the gate...

11:56 PM  
Blogger schuey said...

i'm sorry pal, but this fine piece made me laugh...

But I love to buy stuff at the Fnac for sure ;)

4:01 PM  
Blogger woman wandering said...

Ahhh, the price of wisdom ...

I only giggled a little while reading and yes, I know it's not funny but somehow you made it so ... therefore the fault is surely not mine.

8:36 PM  

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