Tips on Choosing Your Camera Store From a Photographer Who Works At One

Tips on Choosing Your Camera Store From a Photographer Who Works At One

I think it’s probably a fair assumption to make, that at some point during your photographic journey, you’re going to purchase a piece of photographic equipment. With today's World Wide Web, that can be as easy as a few clicks and a wistful look at your decreasing bank account, but I’m here to make the case for your local, “brick and mortar,” camera store. Well maybe not all of them.

First things first, besides my photography, I work in a small, privately owned, Australian camera store. Now I’m not suggesting that you support your local store out of local loyalty or civic pride, that ship has long since sailed, and chances are unless you live in a decently sized community you might not even have a store nearby. Your nearest respectable store might be on the other side of the country, but even at long distance, there’s a level of service and security that comes with a good shop.

But not all camera stores were created equal. This is a retail industry, in a capitalist environment, and with very few exceptions; one of the main aims of anyone trying to sell you a camera is to make money. Unfortunately when there’s money to be made, someone’s going to try to make a little more money at someone else’s expense. Camera stores are also usually full of salesmen, and I just don’t like salesmen. So how do you find a camera store you can trust?Here are a couple of things to consider from your local store.

The Staff

Good staff are paramount to a good store. Does the store hire kids straight out of school with almost no photography experience, train them on the up-sell, and then make them work for commission so they’ll push you towards the cameras with the highest margins? Or do you get to deal with experienced photographers, who know the gear well, have an idea of how you’re going to use it, and are able to offer you honest advice on what would suit your needs best? Before working for the store I do now, I was turned down by another store for having too much photography experience to work there. They were after sales figures over satisfied customers; I wouldn’t have lasted long at that store.

Can you go into your store with a crazy new idea that’s going to require a new lighting set-up that you’re unsure of, and get honest, helpful, technical advice on how to achieve it, even if you weren’t purchasing anything. Could you go into your local with your iPad, just to show them a couple of shots from your last trip that you’re particularly proud of, that you wouldn’t have gotten without their advice. If you were thinking of getting a Nikon D5 just so you could film your little daughters dance recital would your store suggest that there may be something cheaper that could do a similar or better job? If not, why not?

Check the store's Instagram and Facebook feeds; do they use their own photos or do they just use the promotional material from the suppliers? Do the staff post images there, do they share customer images - with the customers consent of course? Do they follow many customers accounts? After looking at their social media for ten minutes could you name any of the staff?

The Store

But it’s not all about your new best friend who works in a shop, before you can buy stuff they need to have the right stuff first. The first thing nearly everyone is going to look at is price, and with the internet, there’s no reason that any store shouldn’t be relatively competitive in their prices. As a customer, you’re going to be comparing prices, so the store should have done it’s homework as well. Some stores will list their prices at full retail but discount down to the local norm when asked; to me this is a sneaky way of getting a little more money out of uneducated shoppers, and is not a way to build trust and loyalty. Avoid those stores.

Does the store stock only local products with full manufacturer's warranty? In Australia we’re really close to SE Asia, and grey market camera gear is very easy to get. We even have high-end camera shops that deal grey, or a mix of grey and local stock. There was a time when the price differences we’re quite a consideration. These days with the higher risk of fakes, and the increased frequency of product recalls, I would urge everyone to steer clear of grey market gear. Most suppliers are aware of the problem and have been working with the stores to coordinate larger shipping quantities and stock levels, so prices are starting to edge ever closer to the grey market prices anyway, but the small extra you pay for official stock is worth the trouble should anything go wrong.And while we’re talking of warranty, does your store require that you handle all your warranty claims directly with the supplier yourself, or can you return the item to the store, and have them deal with suppliers for you? Most suppliers are easy enough to deal with, but we’ve had situations where a repair centre refused to acknowledge a fault. If you were one man against the corporate machine, it could feel like a losing battle, but when you have the strength of a store with established contacts and buying power behind you, life gets easier. In fact you might not even know there’s a battle happening.

Lastly, but by no means leastly, the true benefit of a physical store, is physical stock on hand, that you can physically hold in your hand. You can check the weight, balance, and focus speed of a lens, see if you like the feel of a battery grip, or fill a new bag with all your gear to see how it sits on your shoulder. You can check the flex-vs-weight of a tripod or even put your memory card into a camera for a test shoot, to check out the image quality at home later.In my earlier, less financially sound days, when photography was just a budding hobby, I’d been tempted towards the grey market. I’d been lucky in some places and I’d lost out in others, luckily I’d been far too broke to loose much money to bad investments. These days I’m a working photographer and I still want good prices, but above that, I need both my gear and my support network to be reliable.

To paraphrase Corita Kent - Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

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Rob Mynard's picture

That's sad to hear. In my city we have a decent number of photography specific stores and out of that most have gone the way of the shop in your city, but there are a couple of good shops still on the side of the photographer.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I visited many stores in Miami and few in LA and NY. Never a good experience. Worse than buying used car.
Since I've learned about BH, back in 2008, I don't shop anywhere else.

Echo's my experiences as well. I have No use for local retail stores and not just photo shops. They offer me nothing in exchange for paying MSRP.

Rob Mynard's picture

For the most part I have to agree with you, and I point out above that any store that lists their gear at MSRP in this age don't understand the market and deserve to go out of business. In the post B&H world a good local camera store should feel more like a camera club, These are getting harder to find unfortunately.

Denver, CO has just a handful of stores left.

First there's the chain, Mike's Camera. Useless! I've been in there when it was totally devoid of customers and couldn't find anyone who was available to help. A couple times when I could get help, they weren't entirely sure if they carried umbrellas, or hot lights, or didn't know what I meant by "tilt-shift lens".

Second, there's a pro shop with great selection and at least somewhat helpful staff. However, their prices are (at minimum) about 30% over any other camera source on the planet. I looked at tripods that were a good 40% more than online retailers. Thanks, but I'll wait the one extra day for Amazon.

Third, there are still a couple stragglers in the mom & pop category. While usually very helpful and somewhat competitively priced, their selection is either terrible or just strange. They will have some weird triple-bracket strobe mount thing, but no lens pens. Or they will carry PC cords but no triggers.

A couple years ago when I went to NYC, I did stop in a B&H and it was like my very own toy store. I'm pretty sure at least a few people asked if they could help me, and the store had everything I could ever want to look at or try out.

Rob Mynard's picture

Photographers in Australia talk of going to NYC and visiting B&H like kids talk of visiting disneyland.

Sam Foto's picture

B&H is the new 42nd street back in the 80s, if you know what I mean.

Lenn Long's picture

If you're in or near Charlotte NC, check out Very knowledgeable and well rounded staff with a wide range of photography disciplines.

I was never a fan of Biggs Camera. I always preferred Wolf Camera in Charlotte. Too bad they closed all the stores except for Texas. I Twice went to Biggs and they always tried to tell me the camera I wanted was not that good and tried to up sale me. The only reason I ever went back was I lived on 7th st. nearby.

Mark Smith's picture

I used to work in Boot's Camera in Fresno, CA. Thom Boot the owner and his manager made sure that we were up to date on the latest technology and how to use it well. It was very important to him that we brought a high level of expertise to the store because we had many west coast high-end pros shop there. Unfortunately his customers went with the lowest cost which doesn't make sense as all licensed resellers have the same price on camera bodies and lenses. Where there is profit margin to be made, is in the peripherals such as bags and lens filters....However there is no loyalty in customers, they will steal as much info from you then look for the lowest (or perceived lowest ) price out there...That help to close the "B&H Photo) of the west coast BEFORE there was a B&H!

Camera stores used to be a place where photo geeks could chat and discuss photography, equipment and lots and lots of DIY. Not any more. Most are about moving product and you can't blame them as they know that the Customer has NO Loyalty to them and is just looking for price. Heck, I seen people buy a camera a B&H, then go to the local camera store and ask the sales guy for some help in using it! Only a small amount of people will pay for some support.

The world of photography is weird and very much commoditized. People spend tens of thousands of dollars in a career that doesn't pay well. The camera companies play on the ignorance and emotions of these people with technology most don't even need or use yet they use their credit care to pay it. By the time they pay it off, new technology will replace it and yes they will buy it even thought they don't need it.

Crazy world of photography.

Rob Mynard's picture

Thats sad to hear, sounds like you had a great shop that should have been supported. I hope that the local photogs felt the pain of losing it and realised their part in it's closure. The shop I work for is trying to do right by our customers and most of them do repay us with loyalty, but we do still have to keep an eye on prices. In Australia stores aren't obliged to list their cameras at RRP so that causes a race to the bottom mentality of stores undercutting each other. Less profit means less the stores can offer to customers.

Pete W's picture

I think for a Brick and Mortar (B&M) retail store to be successful in today's photography market they MUST also support an internet retail outlet.

As I see it, this is reason why stores like B&H and Adorama in the US are so successful given today's trends. In my city, Toronto, Canada we are lucky to have (best of my knowledge) two B&M chains remaining and both have a very successful internet presence.

Personally, WISH I could purchase in person at my local B&M but unfortunately having mobility issues this is not always possible. However I will support them via my internet purchases and in the case of problems or issues they usually can be rectified easily for a quick turnaround ...

... Yes, for my needs local B&M w/ internet purchasing is golden.

Rob Mynard's picture

Good to hear that there's still some good ones out there.