Buying a Bargain Digital Camera

by Colin Glover

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So youíre looking for a new digital camera? Maybe youíre upgrading from an older model, perhaps you want a higher pixel count, larger LCD screen, or an optical zoom. Or it could be your first plunge into the world of digital cameras. Whatever the reason, youíll want to get the best camera possible at the best possible price. Read on to discover the secrets of getting the perfect bargain, and avoiding the pitfalls as well.

There are an awful lot of digital cameras on the market today, and plenty of retailers willing to sell them, whether on the high street, online, via TV and Ebay auctions, or even dodgy geezers in pubs. Not content with bamboozling us for choice, weíre also bombarded with half price offers, save xxx pounds, and tempted by free goodies to entice us to part with our hard earned cash. But not everything is what it seems. Could that tempting offer really be too good to be true? Or are we better off paying a few pounds more to get a camera thatís right for our needs?

Bargains are there to be had, and if you read my recent news item 5 Megapixels for £25 youíll be amazed at how low some retailers are prepared to go to sell a camera. Granted, the cameras in question sold out quickly, but it proves that genuine bargains are available. There are no hard and fast rules as to where or when they appear, and as a result, you should have no hard and fast rules as to the camera you want. Just be prepared to act quickly and grab the bargain when it comes. I picked up the tricks of the trade at one of Britain's biggest P.C. component and software retailers. Follow my tips to get the right camera at the right price.

TIPS AND TRICKS

What do I Need?

This might sound a stupid question on the surface, but as the saying goes, ĎOne manís meat is another manís poison.í Itís especially true with digital cameras. The best way of discovering what you want is by looking at your current camera. Are you a disposable camera person, taking the odd snapshot at family gatherings? Perhaps you use your cell phone's built in camera for pictures, only keeping the ones you really like. Maybe youíre a budget 35 mm user with a fixed focus lens. Or do you have a 35 mm zoom camera with manual settings, or an SLR?

You might already have gone digital and want a camera with more megapixels, or possibly more advanced features to allow you to be more creative. Just as film cameras come in all shapes and sizes, so do digital cameras. Itís estimated that within 5 years film will be obsolete, and weíll even have affordable disposable digital cameras.

Itís highly unlikely then, that an SLR user would be satisfied with a basic fixed lens point and shoot model. Theyíll want a camera with a zoom lens and lots of manual features. Yet someone who only uses throwaway cameras would be intimidated by all the manual and creative options and would be better suited to a no frills point and shoot. If you can decide upon the exact type of camera you need, youíre well on your way to bagging a bargain.

Do Your Research

Decide on a budget, whether it be £50, £100, £200 or £500, and then decide on the features youíd like. Most cameras nowadays come with an optical zoom lens, but the other features vary according to price bracket. Some cameras have large LCD screens, others have big 10x zoom lenses, others have manual focus and priority modes, and some are small enough to fit into a handbag or shirt pocket, whilst others are big bulky cameras. Maybe you need an easy to use model. Once youíve decided upon these two key criteria, look for as many cameras as possible within your price bracket that meet your requirements, as well as a few cameras that meet them but are outside of your budget.

Next look online for reviews of these cameras. Here at PhotographyBLOG and at many of our partner DIWA (Digital Imaging Website Association) sites, youíll find expert reviews on literally hundreds of digital cameras. You can also find more consumer-oriented reviews at Amazon and other online electrical and photography retailers websites, as well as consumer review sites such as Ciao, Epinions and Dooyoo, but in general these are usually a couple of paragraphs at most. Itís important that the writer knows what heís writing about. For example, itís one thing for a review to list all the ISO speeds your camera is capable of, but if the writer doesnít know what they are for, itís not much use to a novice.

Professional reviews will have sample images taken with the camera, which you can then view and even print at full size. Youíll be able to see how well each camera takes pictures, and there is a big difference in quality between the best and the worst. While youíre visiting each site, try and find an average online and high street price. Youíll often find that the main High Street Retailers charge similar prices for the same models.

Narrow it Down

Once youíve done this, narrow down your list to about five or six cameras matching your needs. Itís OK if a couple are over budget as itís not a definite list. Experienced photographers may well have done this already, and have a single camera in mind. In my opinion, this is a bad thing, as there is very little discount on the best selling enthusiast or ĎProsumerí cameras. And donít just limit things to the latest models. A quick check of our price guide shows that the Nikon's D70s SLR and single lens kit sells for just over the £600 mark, whereas its older brother the D50 kit can be bought online for just £390. If your heart is set on a particular model, itís less likely youíll get a good price on it. In this game, flexibility is paramount.

Price Watch

Its best if youíre prepared to wait a while, as this is where my knowledge of the trade comes in handy. Whereas the main retailers Argos, Boots, Curry's, P.C. World, Comet, and Jessopís (and yes it was one of those I worked for) would like you to pay as near to RRP as possible, they all ĎDiscountí (and I use the word loosely) cameras, and usually have at least one model ĎDiscountedí often by up to £100. This may be a genuine discount, or it may be a legal loophole. Hereís where your research pays off. Judging any ĎSavingí against the average street price helps to determine how much of a bargain it really is.

Under UK law, a firm only has to offer an item at a higher price in a handful of its shops for 28 consecutive days but charge the normal price in its hundred or more other stores, and then can offer it in all its shops at the ĎDiscountedí price. One well known store only sells certain cameras in its larger stores at a high price for the month following publication of its main catalogue, and then introduces it in the rest at a ĎDiscountí price (usually £100 less). The same store often publishes magazine style brochures containing ĎPrice cutsí, and if you check the symbols by the prices and the small print they refer to, you may find the quoted savings are actually non-existent as the item has been previously sold at a lower price. But often genuine savings may be had.

Another method of false price cutting is when a manufacturer reduces the RRP. Often companies will claim it as their own reduction when it is not. HPís Photosmart 422 Photo studio is a good example of this: when HP lowered the RRP by £100, several high street chains claimed the saving as their own. When a brochure has an end date on it, often people will think the RRP reduced products will go back up in price and buy sooner or later.

If you constantly monitor street prices you will be able to spot the real bargains. In some cases it really is possible to save a genuine £100, but savings of £30 - £40 are more common. Argos, Curryís and P.C. World often have branded cameras on offer, with many basic models around £100. If youíre not too fussy about the camera you end up with as long as it does what you want it to do, then itís definitely possible to bag an absolute bargain. And thatís why I recommend including cameras outside your budget in your short list as they may well fall within, if you wait a while. But you must act quickly to bag the bargains.

Last Year's Models

Manufacturers are always releasing new models. Look at those stylish slimline models with internal zoom lenses that are the must have fashion accessory. Every time a new model is introduced, the folks at Sony, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji, Canon et al all promote it to the hilt, leaving last years models gathering dust on the shelves of stores. What happens to this stock? It gets reduced in price, often just before the new models arrive. Digicams are so advanced these days, that even basic year old 5 MP models take much better pictures than the expensive 5 MP cameras introduced just a few years ago.

Price Match and Haggle

Many stores will price match, or even beat a competitors price. Jessops for example promise this in their catalogue. Local specialist shops may well give you a better price than an advertised offer for a cash sale, so check them out before you hand over your money. And managers of shops like Curryís P.C. World and Comet will have a certain amount of leeway. This is especially true with end of line and discontinued models. Whilst you may not get a price cut, you may get a few extras like a memory card or case thrown in.

Donít fall for the cut price accessories trick, insist they are thrown in with the deal or youíll go to the competitors. And donít let the manager see youíre tempted by cut price accessory offers as theyíre trained to deal with this. Flash the cash and hold your ground. Always deal with managers or assistant managers directly, as normal staff usually arenít given much leeway on cutting prices, so always insist on seeing the manager or his number 2. And although they say theyíre not supposed to, some managers will even match Internet prices to get a sale.

Make sure that you use an online price comparison service like Shopping.com to find the most competitive prices in the quickest possible time. If you prefer to buy from a store, you can always use the internet prices that you have found to haggle with the manager.

PITFALLS

Online Auctions

European and Auction sites may offer tempting prices, but are they worth it? For example, many Ebay sellers offer cheap digital cameras. These fall into one of four categories. Private used goods, B grade (repaired returns), unbranded cameras, and sales outside the UK. All of these will not include postage charges which are extra.

TV Auctions

There is another way of buying a digital camera, on digital TV. PVC, Ideal World, Bid TV and Price Drop TV often feature digital cameras. Often they come bundled with extra memory cards or software. Whilst QVC often feature branded cameras, thereís an awful lot of unbranded stuff on Bid and Price Drop TV. Even with the extra memory card added on, Bid and Price Drop TV always seems to even out at around the high street price (without extras), and the cameras often donít have a zoom lens, yet the salesman always seems to make them sound so wonderful. Without recommending any one channel, QVC seems to offer the best cameras with the most honest advice, but the prices arenít all that cheap.

Used Goods

As the term implies, they are second hand. However, they may well be faulty, and are best avoided. Especially as there is nothing to stop the seller himself bidding against you to bump up the price.

Repaired Returns (B Grade)

These are exactly as the name implies. However they could be returns due to cosmetic damage such as a scratch on a cameras casing, or worse, the lens. They may have intermittent faults not found when checked over at the factory. Often they are a faulty batch that has been repaired. Some sellers will try and pass them off as new. They usually come with a warranty of between 3 - 6 months. It is worth weighing up the saving against new, over the total cost (with postage) and lost warranty period to see if it really is a bargain for what in essence are second hand goods.

Unbranded Cameras

Often these are unknown models. Whilst some are clones of branded models like the Vivitar 5385 (Optio 50) others are not. Many have interpolated resolutions ( where the image is enlarged by adding pixels not recorded by the sensor which gives a blocky image), some crafty sellers only quote this figure and not the actual recorded picture, which may only be half as much. That £100 10 MP camera may in reality turn out to be a 5MP model. If this is the case, distance selling regulations and the Sale of Goods Act may apply.

Sales Outside the UK

As you know, European and American prices of cameras are much cheaper than over here, but does it make them a bargain? Many sellers are from outside the E.U., with America and the Far East being favourites. There are two things to look out for here. Despite claims that most of their UK customers will not be charged customs duty, sadly, the reverse is true. That cheap Kodak Digicam could well turn out to be more expensive after taxes and postage have been added on. Plus some American States add extra sales taxes on as well.

There is another pitfall that can be encountered when buying non UK market stock, and thatís the accessories included with it. Some companies give less away with a camera in certain countries than they do over here, whilst in other companies you get more such as memory cards etc. So it pays too look very carefully at the deal, and see what's included.

An even bigger pitfall to avoid is the batteries and chargers that come with overseas cameras and camcorders. The United States and Canada, (and the majority of countries of the Western Hemisphere north of the equator) supply electricity at 110 volts. Here in the UK, we now use a 220v power supply with a 3 pin fused plug (it used to be 240v but older 240v appliances will still work at 220v usually with a negligible decrease in performance). Europe and most other countries are also on 220v but with different plugs. And the sockets differ from country to country (those of you with really long memories may remember that really old plugs had round pins on them, whilst others may have wondered what the triangular shaped sockets with round holes in you sometimes see in old buildings like hospitals and schools were for).

A European mains adapter/charger, whilst using 220v may not fit our plug sockets, whilst an American charger would be fried if you used a shaver plug to connect it to our mains supply. If a camera comes with AA batteries, then a UK charger can be used, but if itís got a proprietary lithium battery then the charger might not work. The good news is that many manufacturers make chargers that auto sense the voltage, and supply a different power lead separate from the adapter, usually a figure of 8 like those used with radioís and ghetto blasters. These are easy to obtain for a few pounds. However not all chargers/adapters are auto sensing, so check the manual if possible before you decide to buy. A full list of all the mains voltages and plugs used by the worldís major countries can be found at http://www.magellans.co.uk/store/article/25?Args=

Itís important to remember to add in the cost of a charger and batteries for your country. A UK charger for AA/AAA batteries will cost between £15 - £25 depending on the strength of batteries supplied with it, and the speed it charges at. Uniross and Ansamann are popular makes and can easily be picked up on the high street. Dedicated chargers can more, so be prepared to pay another £25 - £50 from the manufacturer or from http://www.partmaster.co.uk . Will the extra costs make your camera such a good buy?

CONCLUSION

Following this simple advice should save you money on your next camera purchase. If you make sure you donít fall for any of the pitfalls Iíve mentioned and youíre well prepared, then youíll be well on your way to bagging a camera bargain.

Got any other money-saving tips that you'd like to share? Leave a comment here.