The pros and cons of grey market lenses

Published on April 01, 2013 under Photography

Canon 18-200mm lens

Last year, I added a Canon 18-200mm EF-S to my photography arsenal. I’ve wanted a “walk around”/travel lens for some time, as I shot most of my recent trip to Europe with it. I was tempted to write a review, but I felt the lens is old enough and has been reviewed enough to simply say “Google up a review”.

What I wanted to talk about today is more HOW I bought the lens. I ended up finding a deal on what is known as a “Grey Market” lens. If you’re shopping for expensive photography gear online, you’re sure to come across items such as this, and you might be wondering if that price discount comes with other costs.

What exactly is Grey Market?

The basic ideology is simply that it’s a product bought in another country and imported outside of how the manufacturer imports goods. In the case of the lens, Canon imports lenses to retailers and thus you pay the full price. A grey market version might be a case where a friend of the shop owner buys the lenses in China and brings them here himself, thus cutting some costs.

Is this legal? Yes. It’s not much different if you bought some item while on vacation at a much lower price than you would find in the US, and then decide to sell it on eBay when you get back.

The Pros and Cons

The biggest “pro” to buying a lens on the Grey Market is that you’ll save money. You could save hundreds on those very expensive lenses and thus for the seasoned amateur, it can add up.

However, there are many cons. One of which is you may not get a warranty. I’ve heard Canon will give warranty, but other companies such as Nikon and Sigma will not. That means if you hit problems, you’re fixing them at your own expense.

Another con is you might not necessarily get a new lens or even the lens you’re buying. I could have ended up with a used lens, a broken lens, or even a ripoff that isn’t even a Canon lens. In researching this topic, I found many stories of fraud and misery.

Yet I took a chance, and it worked out. Here’s what I would advise if you’re thinking of trying the Grey Market:

  1. Buy from a reputable dealer. I found my lens on B&H Photo. I trust them and I’m happy they didn’t let me down. If you see a deal that’s too good to be true on a site you’re not sure of...chances are it might not be a good deal. I’d also add that shady dealers will at times sell grey market lenses for full price and not even tell you they are grey market. Always be careful about who you’re giving your credit card info to.
  2. Consider used gear. If you’re looking for a bargain, and it seems your choices are some potentially shady dealer versus a used lens from a reputable seller, go used. Many amateurs will buy and enjoy used lenses without difficulty. I might not choose to buy a used camera body (mainly because of shutter wear and tear), but I’d try used lenses if I can see it’s a good deal and the lens is solid.
  3. Read any “fine print” the seller gives. I’m assuming you’re following point 1 and buying only from a reputable dealer. Usually a reputable dealer will tell you in his ad what differentiates this grey market lens from a normal lens. In my case, the lens came in a plain white box with a manual. Sometimes that lens might have a plastic mount as opposed to a metal one, or lettering in Chinese instead of English.
  4. Really consider if you’re getting a deal. If you’re going to spend $3000 on an expensive sports lens and see a grey market lens for $2500, you might want to just spend the extra $500 for peace of mind. Imagine if something does go wrong after a few weeks. Again, I’m thankful nothing went wrong with my lens, but I didn’t spend thousands for it. Some things you’re better off paying full price for.

Will I try grey market again? Maybe, but as of right now I have no lenses I’m eager to buy. Still, it’s good to keep your eyes open for good deals from reputable dealers. Sometimes the gamble paid off.

Have you ever bought grey market photography gear? What was your experience like?

Tags: photography, grey market, shopping

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