In 2006, When I bought my first Canon Powershot point and shoot camera at the Cam2 store in the camera store district of Mongkok in Hong Kong, I was immediately asked if I wanted to buy a GREY MARKET version of the camera. Like most foreigners that have never bought a camera in Hong Kong before, I had no idea what this meant. Since then I have bought several camera bodies and lenses in Hong Kong, and here is what I figured out.
Grey market goods (or “water goods” as its translated from Chinese) are cameras or lenses that were originally intended to be sold in other countries (eg. Japan) but have found their way to being sold in Hong Kong. Normal non-grey market camera equipment that was intended to be sold in Hong Kong are usually just called “Hong Kong goods”. Both the grey market and the Hong Kong versions are authentic products – probably even manufactured in the same factory. The biggest difference between the two is that the grey market version will usually be cheaper than the Hong Kong version – and hence the dilemma when buying camera gear in Hong Kong for an already expensive photography hobby.
The difference in price between grey market and HK camera equipment varies. I have seen entry-level DSLR cameras which normally cost around HK$6000, sell for about HK$500-800 (8%-13% off) less on the grey market version. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular camera body or lens that you want is available in both grey market and HK versions, nor does it imply that the same 8%-13% discount would apply. In one instance with a Nikon 105mm F/2.8 macro lens in short supply, I had finally only found one store with stock – but they only had the grey market version and they were selling it at a price that the HK version would normally sell for. So when it comes to how much cheaper grey market camera equipment is versus its Hong Kong goods counterpart, YMMV.
The biggest drawback of buying grey market is the lack of warranty. Depending on the product, a camera or lens should at least have a year of manufacturer warranty – which means that if something goes wrong within that period you should be able to bring it to the service center of Nikon or Canon (or whichever manufacturer), and they should fix it for you for free. The grey market version does not have such a warranty. The camera store guy may gloss over this point by saying that there is a 1 year store warranty, which I think is pretty useless. Most of these small camera shops don’t have the facilities or know-how to repair some of the more technical complexities that may arise with today’s advanced cameras, nor are they incentivized to care when you return with a broken camera 6 months after they’ve made their sale. So in my opinion, a “store warranty” in Hong Kong is about as valuable as a suitcase full of I.O.U.s.
But having a grey market product that breaks or goes defective without a warranty is not the end of the world – you can still bring it to the manufacturer’s service center and you can still get it serviced but it will cost you some money. So after the warranty period is over, there is no significant difference between the two versions. There may however be a difference in servicing cost, which from what I can tell might be more expensive on the grey market equipment. I haven’t verified this with complex repairs, but with basic sensor cleaning I was recently told by Nikon that the service would cost HK$300 for grey market camera bodies and HK$150 for genuine Hong Kong camera bodies. They can verify which version of equipment you have by simply punching the serial number into their computers. In my experience, despite treating my equipment horribly, the amount of servicing I’ve needed has been infrequent and inexpensive – usually related to natural wear and tear (rubber casings, cleaning etc.). With the exception of two troublesome SB-600 flashes, I haven’t had anything turn into a lemon.
The other minor cons of buying grey market include having an instruction manual in different or several languages (although it almost always includes at least one language that you can read anyway). If there is an accessory like a battery charger sometimes it will include a plug or cable for another country, although I like having a Japanese plug because I can use it in the US =) I think most stores will toss an appropriate Hong Kong cable inside the box that will allow you to use it properly anyway. One time my friend bought a grey market DSLR camera body and they gave it to him in a box that was intended for the camera + kit lens bundle. The serial number on the camera matched the box and the documentation, but the kit lens was simply plucked out, presumably to be sold separately to someone else. *Shrug*
I’ve seen grey market goods for sale most commonly in computer malls and larger camera specialty shops. B&H in New York, one of the largest and well-respected photography retailers in the US sells grey market equipment and they explain what it is and their warranty policy directly on their website.
In conclusion, I am fine with buying grey market camera equipment and I think its a great way to save some money. When it is time to repair it, repair it. With today’s average camera life cycle, most casual shooters will likely upgrade their camera or equipment before their first need for servicing anyways.