When you’re looking for deals on camera gear online, you can often come across deals that seem too good to be true. Such as big-name cameras that are priced significantly below the usual. And not just by a few dollars here and there, but often by hundreds of dollars.
Sometimes, these are real deals. In a competitive market, the big brands and big retailers do often have some really great deals to offer.
But sometimes, these deals are for what are known as gray market products. These are often deals at lesser-known online camera stores that are significantly below what the big retailers like B&H Photo and Adorama are offering.
These cameras and lenses and other accessories might be brand new, in the original box, never been used, and function exactly the same as the more expensive versions. In other words, they might be entirely authentic products. (They might also not be; more on that below.) But somehow, the online camera store is able to offer a price that’s way below everyone else. Sometimes, the retailer will explicitly mark it as gray market. Often, they won’t (but should tell you if you ask).
So what does gray market gear mean? The term sounds like it refers to something a bit dodgy, doesn’t it? So should you buy it?
It’s not my job to tell anyone what to do. I don’t see anything unethical or wrong about it, and I’ve done it a number of times myself.
That said, it is something worth doing with eyes open, because there are risks and potential downsides worth factoring in.
So I do think it’s useful to have a good handle on the pros and cons, especially if you’re not familiar with the term. Especially the cons, because there are risks that come with buying gray market gear that are worth knowing and might make a difference in helping you decide.
So let’s dive in . . .
Table of Contents
What Does Gray Market Mean?
The short version is that gray market gear is gear that the retailer has imported from an entity other than the original manufacturer or through the official distribution channels for that country. For example, in the US, rather than a Nikon camera being imported through Nikon USA, a retailer might import a batch of cameras directly from, say, Nikon Thailand. Sometimes it is referred to as “direct import,” because it hasn’t gone through the official authorized agents and distributors. 
In the purest sense, gray market gear should be brand new. It’s often authentic and legit gear. It’s often the same genuine article just intended for a different market. It should be in original unopened boxes. It has probably been manufactured in exactly the same factory by exactly the same people. And in many cases it performs just as well as gear that has gone through the traditional and official path to the store.
But camera gear manufacturers don’t like gray market channels. They don’t have the same control over supply or pricing. And they do their best to discourage consumers from buying gray market gear; some manufacturers, like Canon, even rename camera models for different regions. That desire by manufacturers to enforce control is one source of the downsides to gray market gear.
The other source comes down to the uncontrolled and unregulated aspect of it. You’ll notice that I’ve used a lot of qualifying “shoulds” and “oftens” above. That points to one of the risks to gray market gear: because there isn’t the same level of control over the distribution channel, there are also instances where products might be counterfeit or repackaged or previously opened items. You can–and should–ask the retailer, but you’re relying on them being upfront and honest with you, and the reality of online retail is that not everyone is upfront and honest. You also don’t have the same level of support and recourse if something goes wrong with the transaction or gear.
Pros of Buying Gray Market Camera Gear
I’ll start with the pros. Without them, there’s no reason for gray market to even be a thing.
This is by far the major factor in gray market gear. You can often find some great prices for gear.
The other big pro in favor of gray market gear is availability. That can mean a couple of things.
- It might mean that you can find stock of an item when your local market is sold out and on backorder.
- It might mean you’re after a specific model or feature that maybe was never officially sold in your market.
Cons of Buying Gray Market Camera Gear
The cons are crucial here, because they can make a meaningful difference in the decision on whether to proceed with buying gray market gear.
1. Warranty & Repair Restrictions
This is the big one.
As I said, camera manufacturers don’t like gray market gear. Manufacturers don’t have a lot of leverage in controlling what you buy, but one of their strongest points of leverage is in controlling after-sales service. One of the effective ways they do that is by cutting off the warranty and repair options for gray market cameras. You can run into a similar risk if you, say, buy a camera while traveling in Asia and then later have to try to get it repaired back home in the US.
How tight they turn the screws varies, but you can usually assume that, at minimum, the warranty will be considered null and void. Often official repair centers won’t touch it all; some will do repairs but demand full price. Sometimes you can find third-party repair facilities to do the repair, and sometimes the manufacturer will cut off the supply of parts even to those facilities.
But that’s not necessarily the whole story. Some retailers offer their own warranty on gray market gear. It’s usually a much shorter duration–say, 90 days–and might be more limited in its coverage. But they do it as a way to offer at least some peace of mind to the buyer that they’re not going to be stuck with a defective item right out of the box.
2. Reduced Resale Value
Related to this, gray market gear will often attract a lower resale price if you ever go to sell it on the used market. Used gear is often outside of the manufacturer’s warranty anyway, but there are instances where manufacturers tighten the screws so much that they won’t even provide parts of service centers to repair items. And this might scare off some buyers.
3. Regional Differences
This is a somewhat lesser concern, but the products may have variations such as product manuals in different languages or chargers and accessories designed for specific countries. An example might be the type of plug for a wall charger. It’s also possible for them not to be certified for use under a specific region’s requirements. As an example, it’s possible that a camera’s wireless functionality might be certified under Asia’s wireless signal regulations but not be certified by the US FCC or European regulatory bodies. Or firmware with certain features might be offered in one region but not another.
Why Gray Market Gear Can Be Cheaper
If it’s the same product, why is it cheaper?
There’s no single reason that gray market gear might be cheaper. In other words: it’s complicated. But some factors that can come into play include:
- Differently negotiated distribution agreements.
- Fluctuating currency exchange rates.
- Different market dynamics.
- Bulk buying.
- Purchasing excess or discontinued inventory.
- Market competition.
Where to Find Gray Market Gear
The most common place to run into gray market gear is when doing an internet search for deals on cameras or lenses. They’ll often stand out with prices that seem a lot cheaper than other places.
Some of those retailers can be shady. But some can also be fully legit. B&H Photo has largely moved away from gray market, but they used to sell a lot of it, side-by-side with US-market products. And they still haven’t entirely done away with it; there’s even a detailed post on their website explaining what it is and how they sell it. Ditto for Adorama.
If it’s a retailer you’re not familiar with, it’s well worth doing some research on them, checking customer reviews and retailer ratings, and so on. Complaints about lackluster customer service or unsatisfactory experiences, for example, are red flags that suggest a heightened risk.
Buying Camera Gear Overseas
When you’re traveling overseas, you can sometimes find some incredible deals at local stores. And in those local stores, the items are entirely legit and appropriate for that location.
But once you bring them home, there is a good chance you’ll run into the same kinds of issues. If you ever need to have them repaired, there’s a good chance they’ll be treated as gray market gear. (There are also important customs and importation considerations in that you should certainly be declaring the items and probably should be paying customs duty on them; it will depend on your home country’s customs laws.)
Tell-Tale Signs of Gray Market Products
On occasion, an item will be explicitly listed as “gray market.” But more often than not, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. There are some giveaways that warrant more investigation:
- Prices that are significantly lower than anyone else. This isn’t always reliable, because sometimes stores just have great deals. But it’s at least something to look into further.
- No manufacturer’s warranty, or talk of a store warranty.
- Words such as “direct import.”
You can try asking the store whether an item is gray market. Or ask them if the manufacturer’s warranty applies.
In theory, it’s also possible to check serial numbers. But that’s usually not practical in the absence of published serial number ranges coming from the manufacturers.
All of this comes down to a decision that’s not a clear-cut yes or no. But if the savings are so good that you want to proceed, it’s good to at least know what you’re getting into.
- I’m going to use the US as the example here because that’s where I’m based. But it’s the same idea in other parts of the world.