What is a Gray Market Lens?
A good SLR lens is not cheap, and a cheap SLR lens is rarely good. If you've been shopping around for a new lens, you may have come across the term "gray market" and wondered what that meant. This can be a marginally controversial subject, but for my opinion on gray market lenses, read on.
First, let me say that I am writing this primarily for readers in the United States since that's what I'm obviously most familiar with given where I live. While my take on gray market relates to living and shopping in the US, I understand that at least some parts of the world have similar concepts. However, I can't speak to how they may be similar and more importantly how they may differ. You should fully understand the specifics of the lens purchasing options where you live before you buy.
In the United States at least, the major brand such as Nikon and Canon maintain official import channels for their products. These authorized importers are essentially businesses in their own right since they use a portion of the revenue they earn in sales to pay not only for salaries but also for advertising targeted to the market they serve. They add their own costs to the base price of the products they import and thereby pass the overhead on to the consumer. The costs you and I pay also factors in a small surcharge to help cover any future costs should what you buy require repairs during the warranty period.
The world these days isn't as big as it once may once have seemed and there are ways to import goods outside of such official channels. Such unofficial, parallel channels though aren't all the same.
The term "black market" refers to goods sold that are in some way outside the official economy of a country. Such channels may be set up to avoid payment of taxes or they may exist to serve even broader illegal activities such as what is generally referred to "organized crime." This is not what is meant by "gray market" even though the two names do lend themselves to obvious confusions.
"Gray market" goods are legally imported in every respect. The only thing that differentiates them from officially imported goods brought in directly by Nikon, Canon or whoever is that they were imported by someone else. That's it. But this difference does have significant implications that are the point of this article.
If you've been lens shopping and have compared prices between official Nikon or Canon lenses and gray market ones, the most obvious difference is that the officially imported ones are more expensive. This stands to reason since no one in their right mind would set up their own import channels if they needed to charge more than the officially imported ones in order to stay in business. Non-official importers save money by having lower overhead. Many of their costs are probably comparable, but they don't have to pay for advertising since they can ride on the coattails of the advertising produced by the official importers. As a comparison, B&H is the largest online photo retailer and they carry both officially imported lenses as well as gray market (designed as "Imported" on their site). As of this writing, they sell the official Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II zoom lens for $764.95, and the gray market "imported" one for $664.95 for a savings of $100 even. These are the same exact lens, both probably manufactured on the same assembly line in Japan, China, or wherever. They only difference is the import channel involved.
Gray market importers also save money by generally not including a warranty. This is something you need to be comfortable with seeing as Nikon and Canon generally won't service gray market goods either. Since they didn't import them they would lose money if they had to pay for any necessary repairs. Most dealers carrying gray market lenses often offer after market warranties at modest prices to compensate.
But before you just assume you should buy an add-on warranty, you might give some thought as to whether doing so makes economic sense. If you take the money that warranty would cost you and keep it in the bank, you may save money. Of course, you may lose money if you end up needing repairs. But most of the problems you are likely to have will either show themselves right away, in time for you to return the lens to the retailer you bought it from as defective, or if they happen later on will likely be caused by your own bad luck or negligence. I've dropped a lens on the pavement before that needed repairs to fix but have yet to have lens problems that would have been warranty repairs beyond the initial "take it out of the box and give that new lens a try" period. Granted, you're betting on the odds here, but you may be able to forego the warranty cost and finance any eventual repairs with the savings. Keep in mind that if you buy several lenses it is unlikely you would need repairs on all of them. On the flip side, many aftermarket warranties include coverage for accidental damage so check the terms involved in order to make an informed decision for your circumstances.
Manufacturers sometimes offer rebates on officially imported lenses that could affect your decision. Gray market imports aren't eligible for such rebates. If you time your purchase right, manufacturer's rebate might well completely eliminate the price difference with the same gray market item.
The idea of gray market isn't limited to lenses either. You can often buy camera flashes and some accessories as gray market, although the cost differential between them and their official counterparts are generally less. Camera bodies are also sometimes available as gray market too, but the manufacturers generally have tighter export controls on newer technology that preclude gray market availability at least initially.
Which you buy is up to you of course. My aim here is just to provide some information you can use to help you decide. Personally, I have no qualms about buying a gray market lens. I shied away from them for a while when Nikon first introduced their VR vibration reduction technology since they have more moving parts and were somewhat unproven as to how well they would stand up to use in the field. These days, most new lenses feature VR and I now own more than one that is gray market. I also have no qualms about buying gray market flashes and accessories when the cost works out favorably. I've never bought a gray market camera body figuring that they have too many intricate parts to risk it. But that's just me.