Should You Buy “Gray Market” Photo Equipment?

Canon 5D Mark III with L-bracket

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 might not be applicable to other countries.

What is “gray market” photo equipment and how does it differ from “U.S. Warranty” equipment? Gray market equipment (also called “parallel import”) is imported into the U.S. but bypasses the official U.S. distributor. Gray market equipment costs less, sometimes a lot less.

Is it the same equipment? Yes, BUT there is a catch! Although the camera, lens, or other item is the same physically as the U.S. Warranty item, it doesn’t come with the manufacturer’s official U.S. Warranty. In addition, it may have a model name or number that is different than the U.S. name or model number (like the Canon EOS 100D vs the U.S. named Canon EOS Rebel SL1). It may not have an instruction manual in English (or there may not be any instruction manual at all). It may be missing straps, caps, batteries, software or other items that come with the U.S. Warranty version. The reliable dealers in parallel import items will make sure all or most of these accessories are included. Some less reputable dealers do not.

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 the warranty was included in the price you paid when you bought the item.

So what happens if a gray market item 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. Some do not provide any warranty at all. If something goes wrong you are on your own.

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 reputable dealers don’t tell you in their ads if the item is gray market or not. Buyer Beware! If the price on an item is significantly less than the price at Amazon, Adorama, or B&H Photo, it is probably gray market. Ask the dealer if it is gray market. Some shady dealers will hide the fact that the item is gray market.

One of my photography students bought an expensive (well over $1,000 USD) gray market lens and saved about $160 over the price of 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 the filters. He called and asked them to exchange the cheap filters with the name brand filters he ordered in the first place. They refused to do that unless he paid them a lot more money. He asked to return them for a refund and they refused to do that too.

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

The conventional wisdom used to be “Buy U.S. Warranty camera bodies and gray market lenses.” The theory was 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? Maybe. 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 here. B&H Photo is here.

Originally posted April 21, 2005. Updated and re-posted November 7, 2019.

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