Gray market products just keep pushing pricing boundaries and catching the attention of possible DSLR buyers. I’m seeing deals that are in the 30-40% off Nikon’s MAP pricing on a lot of products now. For some reason—possibly affiliate program revenue streams—I’m also seeing more and more photography Web sites promoting gray market prices. Thus, my In Box is seeing more and more “should I bite at this price” queries.
My answer hasn’t really changed in almost 20 years: for cameras, generally no. For some lenses, maybe.
If you haven’t read my article on Nikon warranties, please do so. Simple version: gray market product not only will not have a Nikon warranty you can use, Nikon subsidiaries around the world will refuse to repair gray market product unless there’s a law that forces them to. In the US, there is no such law, thus NikonUSA declines to repair any gray market product.
The more sophisticated and complex the product, the more likely that at some point you’ll need to have it repaired. That requires sophisticated training, test equipment, and access to parts.
There are companies in the US that will attempt repairs on gray market product and have the training, equipment, and access to parts. But they won’t do warranty work. Most gray market sellers will claim to provide a warranty, but the annals of camera repair stories are filled with “company went out of business” or “repair declined” types of experiences. Some reliable sellers, including this site’s exclusive advertiser, have long provided some form of their own warranty in place of the manufacturer’s (see B&H’s page on gray market).
If you don’t know anything about the company that’s selling the gray market product, take the time to look them up on one of the many reseller rating services (e.g. resellerratings.com). Note that even these services leave a bit to be desired, as they often sell placement and ways to mitigate bad ratings and negative comments to those very sellers. Still, it’s worth looking at the actual user comments. Also, a lot of iffy stores tend to operate under multiple names or just change their names when reputations get tarnished, so be careful.
You also have to read the fine print. One site recently was promoting a great price on a D750. Here’s the actual wording of the “warranty” section, should you actually click through to it: "Our products are covered by a warranty of 1 years parts and 90 days for labor. Due to our very low low prices, we are prevented from listing our items with manufacturer warranty.”
Note the 90 days for labor clause. That’s not the same as a 1-year warranty that is provided by the manufacturer. There’s also no indication of who provides this warranty, whether it’s the company selling the product or whether they’ve provided some third party coverage.
I mentioned that I say “maybe” for some lenses. Generally if a lens isn’t VR, E, or AF-S I wouldn’t have any problem buying gray market. Each of those specifications, though, add a level of electronic complexity to the product that really requires access to training, equipment, and parts in order to repair properly. And those things are much more prone to fail than mechanical couplings.
One final thing: when you mount gray market lenses on an official body (or vice versa), whose problem is it when something isn’t working right? There’s a high likelihood that the gray market warranter will say “it’s the official part that’s causing the problem, get it fixed,” while Nikon will say “it’s the gray market part that’s causing the problem, we don’t fix that."
Everyone needs to establish their own comfort level when it comes to gray market products. Some Nikon subsidiaries will repair them due to local law. Others won’t. Some products are more likely to have a failure at some point, others aren’t. Some price drops are so big that they’re worth the risk, some aren’t.
Personally, I don’t understand why Nikon continues to risk their brand reputation on what is now a very tightly constricted box of related practices. No gray market repairs. No selling of parts outside a small set of authorized repair centers. Expensive training and equipment costs restrict the number of authorized centers. More dumping of gray to meet shipment goals. These things all come in conflict with one another.
Unfortunately, it’s the poor soul who is new to high-end cameras and doesn’t understand what gray market gear is but reacts to the “great price” that tends to get hit by that conflict. Nikon is taking a big risk that those folks won’t encounter problems that turn them off from Nikon forever (and I don’t have to tell you about how hard it is to get satisfactory repair of subsidiary-backed products, which just adds to the brand reputation hits).
Buy gray if you must, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. Be sure to cost out the risk before deciding the price is worth jumping on.