About a month ago, I spoke with Tom Dziubek about frugal photography for the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. The frugal philosophy is simple: always pay the least for the level of quality you want. In a field like photography where electronic equipment is the focus, your best friends are Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, and specialty stores like KEH.com and B&H. Almost all of the time, the lowest price once could find for equipment, new or used, can be found through one of these five locations.
With photography, if you purchase equipment, you want the opportunity to try it out in person before you buy. There are a few options: find a friend who has the equipment you want to try and convince her to let you borrow it for a while, buy online and return the items if you don’t like it or it doesn’t work to your expectations, or try out similar items in a local store and leave the store to spend less money online. With the last option, you’re not auditioning the specific equipment you’ll end up owning, so that’s just one reason that strategy isn’t ideal.
Local stores have enough trouble trying to compete with stores with low overhead costs that are able to consistently undercut those stores on price. Consumers with a frugal mindset generally take the approach that the struggle between local stores and major mostly-online retailers is irrelevant.
I like walking into a store and building a rapport with the owner. In my case, I’ve been working with a local photography store to expand my hobby. For the last few years, I’ve passed control over most of my photography to software on automated digital equipment. While I use some manual settings, I’ve decided to challenge myself a little more and move into a subset of photography that might produce more satisfying results: medium format.
The owner of the local store has been very helpful. The store has tons of equipment to try. Although I researched quite a bit before venturing in, the owner’s knowledge and experience has been very helpful in troubleshooting both equipment and technique. I discovered a minor problem with my Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, and rather than sending it back through the mail to a stranger, it will be diagnosed, and fixed if necessary, locally.
While some equipment will cost more, I will most likely deal with this store directly rather than shopping online, at least for used photography equipment, the bulk of what I buy for medium format. Nevertheless, I feel I would have to draw a line at a certain point. When equipment is sufficiently expensive, there might be hundreds of thousands of dollars between the best price I can find and the best price this local store can offer. For used equipment, I may be willing to pay the extra cost to work with the store owner I trust, but for new equipment, where quality control is usually excellent and return policies are sufficient, it would not be financially responsible to pay more than I need to.
The $500 difference in price for a camera on KEH.com compared with the local store could be used to buy and develop many rolls of film. Speaking of film, the photograph included with this article is from the first roll of medium-format film I shot this past weekend. I have much room for improvement.
Are you willing to pay more to buy from a trusted, local source or is price for the same piece of equipment the only determining factor in your choice? If you are willing to pay more, is there a threshold at which you draw the line?
Updated September 26, 2016 and originally published May 24, 2010.