by Stephen Shepherd
Use the best-quality equipment you can afford
I'll admit to being as interested in the equipment for its own sake as I am in
taking pictures. So, understand my vices when I say don't believe them when
they tell you that the quality of your equipment doesn't matter. Certainly,
having a "good eye" is paramount, but in the everyday world this will
only be realized through greater experiential confidence--and that comes about
when your equipment is reliable and delivers consistent image quality in terms
of sharpness, contrast, exposure, and colour balance.
Buying used equipment
Because manufacturers of most 35mm systems have
moved over to autofocus and digital bodies and lenses, a lot of the
highest-quality manual film equipment ever made is now available relatively
cheaply on the second-hand market. Medium format is starting to make this
shift, but quality used equipment is still expensive; economy in this case is
measured less in terms of price than in terms of the availability, for
sale or rental, of extra lenses and accessories. About 75% of my 35mm gear, and
all of my medium format gear, I purchased second-hand. Buying used equipment by
mail-order can be the best way to get some real bargains; it is certainly the
best way to access a large market. Shutterbug
magazine is a good place to start, as many dealers advertise there with
detailed listings of the used stock they have on hand; eBay
is also a good source. From these you can get a good idea of a fair price for
the particular item you want in the condition you want--and, if you read
between the lines, you can get a good idea of whom you ought to do business
- "Mint" rarely means
"Like New." In my experience, it usually means something like it
looks new if you stand off from it about five feet. I have received
"Mint" items with clearly-visible brassing, even dents.
- Watch out, consequently, for
advertisers who use both "Mint" and "Like New" in
their ratings; they mean different things. Watch out also for oxymoronic
qualifications of "Mint" such as "Mint-" (mint
minus) or "Solid Mint;" the first means that it is not
"Mint" (and certainly not "Like New"), and the second
implies that other items marked plain "Mint" are an ambiguous
kind of "mushy Mint," and about as close to being
"Like New" as Los Angeles is to New York.
Based on experience garnered there since 1998, I now only buy from
sellers with a minimum 99% feedback rating. However, buyers often don't
leave negative feedback because they fear retaliation in kind, so any negative
feedback in a seller's record should be cause for concern. Take some time
and research the feedback record for a seller. See if they have problems
with returns/refunds or if they are in any way abusive in the feedback
they leave for others. Because I didn't do this once, I had an unpleasant
interaction with one seller named betteroffblu, who, despite a feedback
rating hovering around 99%, turns out to have a persistent (and public)
record of verbal abuse leveled at customers who otherwise have
received no negative feedback: see what I and others have had to say about
Avoid auctions where something is being sold "for a friend,"
where pictures of the item lack detail, or where pictures of the item show
it being mishandled (e.g., where someone has decided that concrete is a
good display surface for a "mint" camera body).
"Professionally used and maintained" can be code for "worn
Buying New and Used
- Avoid dealers who need to tell you that they are
"honest," "caring for you," and part of your family.
If you see the Popular Photography magazine "Check-Rated"
seal proudly displayed, be especially cautious. My opinion, based on what
I read in the newsgroups and on the Web, is that Pop-Photo's Check-Rating
policy isn't reliable.
- If the price seems too good to be true, it is (notice, I don't say
"it probably is"). Use the advertisements of a reputable
dealer like B&H to
establish realistic "good price" benchmarks. If you find
other places advertising at substantially lower prices, be very careful:
odds are they will try a bait-and-switch on you; or send you a
lower-quality "substitute" without telling you; or simply not
send what you ordered and collect interest on your money until you give up
and finally manage to cancel the order by complaining to your credit card
company. Another scam is indeed to sell you the item you want at the
advertised price but to charge an outrageous shipping fee.
- You can always buy locally.
That way you can see the equipment before you commit yourself to any
expense (remember, even if you return items sent mail-order, you will not
be able to recoup shipping costs). If you live in or near a larger city
you can also rent before you buy.
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