The Camera Salesman said . . .

Every photography class I teach comes with unlimited, lifetime technical support. You might think I get questions about depth of field or how to use flash, but most of the questions are based on correcting the bad advice people get from camera sales staff. I’m reminded of this because of an email I got today:

In June I went to [unnamed camera store] with the intent to upgrade from my XTi to the 7D. After talking to the salesman and looking at lenses I was also interested in, he convinced me to get the T2i with the Sigma 24-70mm 2.8 (I was looking for a zoom in that range but Canon brand). He swore I’d be just as happy for 1/2 the price w/ the Sigma and that the T2i was almost the exact same camera as the 7D, except for the 7D is quicker. In the end I’d spend the same money and get the new camera & lens, vs. just the body upgrade.

Elijah at the Empire Beach by Thomas Kachadurian

Yow. I hate to go too far into geek speak, but to say a T2i is like a 7D is like saying a Ford Fiesta is the same as a Ford Flex because they both have 4 wheels and both start with “F”. Surely a skilled photographer can make a great photo with either camera. You can get a family of five into either car and drive to Mackinaw City. The family in the Flex is going to be a lot happier when they get to the Sheppler Dock, and the Photographer using the 7D will have easier going when the chips are down.

Let us consider the camera salesman. How did he or she come to take that position at the counter? Once in a while you will find a smart, experienced person at a camera counter. You might find a retired photographer, or a serious hobbyist trying to earn some extra lens buying cash. When I worked in a camera store (while a college student) one of my colleagues was a great photographer who had a disabling, photo-related accident and ended up giving advice rather than making photos. He was something of a guru. But he was a rare jewel, and not the rule.

Who is the typical salesman? Well, they aren’t making their livings as photographers. And they aren’t people qualified to hold jobs that require a college degree. They are also people who work for just a bit more than minimum wage, which means in many cases they can’t afford and don’t personally own the equipment about which they are offering advice. They are people who make money by selling you more stuff. Some work on commission, and some don’t, but all will be evaluated by the amount they move.

Blacksmith Shop, Glen Haven by Photographer Thomas Kachadurian

Photograph taken in low available light with a 24mm f1.4 lens. You don’t do this sort of thing with bargain hardware.

It’s important to understand how camera sales work. Camera stores (bricks & mortar or on-line) don’t make a lot of money selling high-end cameras and lenses. If you buy a $1,000 camera and a $39 case the store will probably make more on the case. Canon, Nikon and others have created Minimum Advertised Prices (MAPs) for some things that keep a minimum amount of profit while a product is new, but once supplies are plentiful and demand levels off many retailers are willing to cut their profits to nothing on big ticket items in hope of making something on the go-withs.

At many camera stores sales staff don’t make a percentage commission. Rather they get premiums as a bonus per item sold. We called them “spiffs”. A Canon 7D body may have only a $5 spiff. As a kit with a lens that spiff might only be $2 more. On the other hand a Rebel T2i may have a $10 spiff, and that Sigma lens will have the most generous payout of all, maybe $20. So the salesman at Unnamed Camera could have sent my student home with the 7D and 17-55mm Canon lens she really wanted, but he’d only make $7. By talking her into spending less he put $30 in his pocket. It’s an easy sell because after all, he’s asking her to spend less, isn’t that the sign of an honest person? When I worked at a camera store, one of the other salesmen would find the best payout on the monthly list of premiums and say, “It looks like I have a new favorite camera.”

: This is how the myth of the “protection filter” came about. Even back in my day as a salesman a $6 filter had a $1 spiff. Sell two filters with a lens and you can double the store’s profit and the salesman’s take. Listen. YOU DON’T NEED A PROTECTION FILTER. In most case they do more harm than good. They are big pieces of cheap glass that are crud magnets. I regularly see people shooting through filthy “protection” filters who can’t figure out why my images look so much sharper. My personal favorite is the person who buys a high quality $70 filter ($10 spiff) to “protect” a $100 kit lens. Bad investment. Buy a hood instead. DIGRESSION OVER.

Sadly, the price those sales people are extracting is bad photos. My student went on to write:

After a lot of consideration, I gave in and have been shooting since with that combo (t2i +sigma 24-70) I am finding that I hate the 24-70. I rarely get a sharp image, maybe 1 of every 50 are spot on. Do you think I have a faulty lens or did I get what I paid for? It was still $899-for that price I’m so disappointed. The Sigma lens is heavy too so I’m not sure if that plays a role in it or not. I’m also wishing I’d went with my original thought and bought the 7D and saved up for the lens later on. Any thoughts or advice?

Sam at Empire beach by Photographer Thomas Kachadurian

: I have no specific ax to grind about Sigma lenses. The new ART line are amazing. I even own one. (Although I’ve never had a worse experience with service than the time an expensive Sigma lens of mine literally fell apart when it was 4 months old and Sigma refused to repair it under warranty.) The problem is, the best thing you can say about most third party lenses, Sigma included, is that they’re cheaper than the rest. Photography is either a very optional hobby or a living. If it’s your living, shame on your for taking a compromise to save a few pennies. If it’s your hobby you are spending your precious discretionary money. You will get more enjoyment out of a single great lens than you will from a one-does-it-all off-brand lens. Canon, Nikon, Olympus and others make budget lenses too, and they are the same waste of money. You don’t have to buy the exotic top-priced lenses to get something good, but if you are going to spend real money on an optic, don’t buy the most expensive knock-off. Buy a mid-priced lens from the best optical designers. The market knows this. Used Sigma lens get 50-60% of their new price. Used Canon/Nikon lenses will often command 90% of their new price. When photographers sit around and talk about which brand they prefer it always comes down to who makes the lenses they want to shoot with. No one says, “I want to get the best body I can put cheap lenses on.” DIGRESSION OVER.

Her lens wasn’t faulty. It probably met the specs established for that lens at that price point. The problem is third party lenses (except the expensive ones with a user adjustment option) don’t focus as accurately or as quickly as even a decent Canon lens. The problem is a big heavy lens like a 24-70 is a bad match for a little camera like a T2i. The problem is the T2i is a very good entry-level camera but doesn’t focus as fast as the 7D she wanted in the first place. The problem is the salesman doesn’t have to answer these questions that his customers have, ever.

Noah at Lake Michigan by Photographer Thomas KachadurianI don’t know if all sales people will mislead people as is routinely done in camera sales. I know my experience with cameras sales has made me suspect in general. I also know that the sales people themselves are probably not as mercenary in their approach as I may have made them sound. Perhaps the salesman at Unnamed Camera has a Rebel T2i (which he had to save more than a year to afford) and he tells himself it’s just as good as the 7D. Maybe he knows nothing about photography at all and is just saying what he’s been told, or read on the Internet. I can’t know what lies in the heart of anyone. But, as my student has confirmed, I can know the salesman was wrong.

I love photography. It’s a great job, and a great hobby. I want everyone to enjoy making photos. I love to teach photography because I truly enjoy helping people feel successful in their pursuit. In my experience the single greatest obstacle to people enjoying photography is bad advice, most of it coming from camera stores. Those same storeowners will complain when on-line retailers put them out of business. It has to change. If we are going to get bad advice we won’t bother with the bricks and mortar store. Why pay more for bad advice? The only hope for the storefront merchant is to change the model that focuses on a sale today over the customer’s satisfaction later. When the guidance is sound, and a year later the customer has had great success with his or her camera, that customer will come back again and again, even if it means paying a few dollars more.

I can hope, but I know the bad advice won’t change soon. So for now, feel free to use your lifetime technical support option.

(The photos in this posting were all taken with a Canon 7D and Canon lenses during a shoot I did for Family Fun magazine.)

Sela by Photographer Thomas Kachadurian


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