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"Gray Market" Photo Equipment
by Jim Doty, Jr.

A significant percentage of visitors to this site come from Europe and Asia. This article is about buying photo equipment in the United States. It may or may or not be applicable in some ways to other countries.

What is "gray market" photo equipment and how does it differ from "U.S. Warranty" equipment?  Gray market ("parallel import") equipment is imported into the U.S. but bypasses the official U.S. distributor. Gray market equipment costs less.

Is it the same equipment? Yes, BUT! The camera, lens, or other item is exactly the same as the U.S. warranty item, but that doesn't tell the whole story. It may have a model name or number that is different than the U.S. name or model number (like the Rebel 350D vs the U.S. named Rebel XT). It may not have an instruction manual in English (or no instruction manual at all). It may be missing straps, caps, batteries or other items that come with the U.S. warranty version. The reliable dealers in parallel import items will include all or most of the accessories.

Most important, gray market equipment does not come with the manufacturer's U.S. Warranty.

With a U.S. warranty, if the item breaks down during the warranty period, off it goes to the manufacturer's repair shop where there are specially trained technicians to fix it. There is no extra cost since all this was included in the price you paid when you bought the item.

So what happens if a gray market items breaks down? That depends on where you bought it. Some dealers in gray market equipment include their own warranty on the item. You ship it back to the dealer and they have it repaired. How good is their repair shop, and how well trained are their technicians in fixing your particular item? That all depends on the dealer.

You could always ship it to the manufacturer's repair shop and pay for the repair, but there may be a catch to that too. Some manufacturer's refuse entirely to repair gray market items. (It is their way of getting back at you for not buying an official U.S. import item in the first place.) Others charge high repair fees.

If you buy a gray market item with a dealer's warranty and something goes wrong, you are largely dependent upon the dealer, their integrity, and the quality of their repair shop technicians (or the repair shops they subcontract with).

Less reliable dealers don't tell you in their ads if the item is gray market or not. Buyer Beware!

One of my students bought an expensive (well over $1,000 USD) gray market lens and saved about $100 over the price to the U.S. warranty item. He also ordered $160 worth of name brand filters for the lens. The good news is that the lens was fine and came with caps, instruction book, and the works. The bad news is that the dealer replaced the name brand filters with cheap, off-brand filters that were of such poor quality that the lens couldn't even focus through them. He called and asked them to exchange the cheap filters with the name brand  filters he ordered in the first place. They refused. He asked to return them for a refund and they refused to do that too. I don't know if he ever got things resolved. They were a dishonest dealer.

Having given you that warning, let me add that lots of folks buy gray market items from reliable dealers and are perfectly happy.

Some reliable dealers sell both items. You can choose between the "U.S. Warranty item" or the gray market or "imported" version.

The conventional wisdom used to be "Buy U.S. Warranty camera bodies and gray market lenses.  Cameras are more likely to have problems due to their complexity and lenses are far less likely to have problems."

That used to be true in the day of manual focus lenses where not much was likely to go wrong. Many of today's lenses are micro-chipped, have autofocus mechanisms, provide digital information to the camera (whether film or digital), and have image stabilization or the equivalent. Lenses are a lot more complex than they used to be so there is a lot more that can go wrong.

Is it worth the savings to buy gray market? I don't know, that is up to you. It depends on your comfort level with the risk of something going wrong and the reliability of your dealer.

I will give you one bit of advice. If you decide to buy a gray market item, buy it from a large dealer with significant resources (that means a better repair shop or better connections with other repair shops) and a reputation for reliability. As for myself, there are two dealers that I would consider buying gray market items from, Adorama and B&H Photo. Adorama is linked from the bottom of this page, and you can find B&H Photo on my LINKS page.


April 21, 2005

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