I was searching for a dark ND filter few days back and I was on the horns of dilemma! The good old photography store round the corner or the online stores with their vast collections? Which is the better option out of the two? Purchasing photography related goods online is a bad idea generally but then most of the photography stores in the neighborhood do not have the assortment of accessories that we as photographers demand. What is the way out?
Visit to regular brick & mortar stores
Based on my requirements, I had finalized a 9-stop ND filter. (Buying Filters) There are some good photography shops in my city. The conversations at these shops can sometimes be really interesting. My wife tends to disagree. To her, visit to photography shops with me is as big a torture as it is for me to visit stores selling footwear and handbags.
Here is what happened at the biggest photography store when I visited them for the filter and discussed my requirements with a sales executive (SE) –
Me: Hi there. I am interested in buying a dark ND filter for 67mm thread size. Which ones do you have?
SE: Hi. What kind of filter is that?
Me: Neutral Density filter, the dark grey ones.
SE: Yes, we do stock those filters.
Me: (smile breaking out on my face) Great. Can you please show me some of those? Which brands do you have?
SE: Sure. For which camera do you require? Canon?
Me: (shocked and at a loss of words and after a moment of silence) I want the filter for 67mm thread. How does it matter which camera I use?
SE: (No answer)
Me: Can you please show me whatever ND filters you have for that size?
SE: (Brings out a lot of about 10 filters, most of them UV and one set of macro filters) These are the ones that I have
Me: What about ND? I don’t require these filters. I want the dark grey ones. (I also show him a photograph of a filter on phone).
SE: Sorry. These are the only filters that I have. The one you are showing seems like a badly photographed picture of one of these filters.
Me: (cursing my luck and the wasted time, I quietly slip out of the store. My wife is ready to crack up laughing at the conversation that just took place in the shop).
A few more shops followed and after inquiring at all these shops, I realized that none of them had a good quality, coated, 67mm ND filter available with them. One shop had a good assortment of Hoya filters but the darkest ND filter available with them cut just three stops and to top it 67mm size was not available.
The last shop that I visited, promised to get the filter in two weeks if I paid up half the amount upfront as advance. I had enough time before the trip where I had intended to use the filter, so I thought of paying the fellow cash. My wallet was empty and he did not accept cards.
On my way back, I thought of exploring online options. After all what could go wrong with a filter purchase? I could save on traveling time, headache of finding a parking space and most importantly the prices are usually lower than the ‘real’ brick and mortar stores.
I keep telling people to avoid online shops and yet I ended up doing the same few weeks back. As I should have expected, now I am one unhappy customer. I placed an order on Amazon for a product that took its own sweet time in reaching me and the item turned out to be wrong. Apart from getting the wrong product, I have lost money and ended up with emotional setback as well.
(My order placed and the item dispatched, after a few weeks of ordering)
I do not have an Amazon account. So, I took help from my wife and searched for the available options. Among the filters that I found, Hoya 67mm PRO ND 500 filter seemed like a good option. (Neutral Density Filters) It is supposed to have minimal color cast, good control on IR, coated and the price too was fine. The delivery time was longer than even the shop where I had enquired initially, but still I opted for the online purchase. A big mistake! Sometimes I wonder where the so called sixth sense disappears in these scenarios. After eagerly waiting for about a month, I received a parcel yesterday. I was really happy. With a quick stab at the packet, I opened it up. I am notorious in my family for opening up parcels in a haste leading to wastage of precious packing paper. You ought to see my wife’s face when I open up Christmas presents. Anyway, coming back to the parcel, after tearing it open, I carefully unwrapped the filter. It was a Hoya PRO ND 32 filter. This cuts down just five stops of exposure compared to the nine stops that I had placed the order for.
(The Hoya PRO ND filter is listed as 500x but the photograph shows it as the PRO ND 32 version, similar to what I received.)
I have written to the seller. Amazon rarely helps in such matters regardless of the tall claims that they make. We have a few wasted products lying around in our house from some earlier transactions as well, where we got the wrong product and seller and Amazon did not refund the money. I tried investigating this incident further and then I saw that though the product description says PRO ND 500, the photograph shows a PRO ND 32 filter. Does that mean that Amazon sell their products based on images and descriptions are useless?
As a result of this online purchase, I have a 5 stop ND filter which is too dark for street photography and too light for landscapes with water-bodies. The options that I have now are –
- Sell the filter at a discounted price to someone who is searching for a 5 stop filter and purchase a 9 stop filter from the local store. Extra efforts to sell the filter and also a financial loss since I will not get the full amount back.
- Keep the filter and buy another 9 stop filter. This is a bigger financial loss since I will not be using the 5 stop filter.
- Buy another medium darkness filter and mount that along with this one. I hate this option. Each and every layer of filter / glass degrades the image quality.
- Go after Amazon and the Seller and get a refund. This is what I am doing now but with the history that Amazon has, I know that this is going to be long and frustrating task.
Whatever option I choose, I will be without the 9-stop ND filter on my upcoming trip where I was planning to capture some motion blurs.
(Bourne & Shepherd – One of the oldest studios and photography stores in the world, which sadly no longer exists. It was established way back in 1860 in present day Kolkota city. It closed its operations in 2016 due to losses following digital era dominance)
A lesson reinforced
Advantages of getting in touch with a local shop still outweigh the e-commerce sites. I remember the last time I had bought a memory card from one such shop. The memory card was about 5% more expensive than the some of the sites but I got the card immediately on payment. The immediate gratification factor made me a happy man then. I tried the card in my camera then and there. Apart from the memory card, I was also invited to a cup of tea and a chat about the new lenses about to be launched. Online sites do not have this personal contact and in problems like the one that I am facing with the filter, there is always someone present to help. My advice – delete those shopping apps from your phone and visit your local store once again. Now a days the stores are trying their best to even match the online prices. What to do if you come across the super knowledgeable sales executives like the one I met in the first shop? Just humor them along and enjoy the conversations. Though the online shops have a very big plus point when it comes to saving time but the lack of proper support system and the transit distance (which effectively detaches the product from the buyer) are huge gaps, so stick with the friendly corner stores.
EDIT : I was able to get a refund. Though I could not carry the ND filter on my trip but at least I got my money back. Took a long time and a lot of anguish.
EDIT 2 : This is an update based on some recent discussions with some friends. There was another option with Amazon where the item can be sent back for a replacement. I discourage it strongly. Once a wrong item has been sent, where is the guarantee that the replacement will be proper? Secondly, if the replacement has been ordered and the order for replacement is then cancelled for whatever reason, the amount is sunk! Amazon issues refund for the cancelled order which incidentally happens to be zero. It was a replacement after all. What about the refund for the original order? Well, you requested a replacement and so the replacement order was placed initially. No refund for that either! It may sound weird but unfortunately this is what can be expected. So never ever apply for a replacement.
EDIT 3: On recommendations from my friends, I started purchasing some small items from Amazon and after three successful purchases, once again I have lost an item. The tracking shows the item as delivered and the person receiving the parcel as my name (which was obviously on the parcel). I have not even seen the parcel let alone take its delivery. I must learn to keep away from these online stores regardless of how enticing the deals may appear.
Bourne & Shepherd photograph – by Sudipta Mallick / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 (enhanced by me for use in this article)