Camera shops are cathedrals of joy. Sometimes…

When I was a lad, I had two obsessions – motorbikes and photography. Most Sundays were motorbike days – riding them on bits of spare land or photographing them. And Saturdays were camera shop days. Manchester was just a bus ride away so I often took a trip to those great cathedrals of photography – the big camera shops.

What a thrill to browse the aisles of cameras, lenses, enlargers, papers, developing tanks and more, deciding what I’d buy if only I wasn’t a non-earning schoolkid. And then I’d usually splurge pocket money on a roll of Ilford’s best mono film. Happy days.

But now, like many, I tend to research and buy online. Many of the local camera shops have gone or become glorified box-sellers. Of course there are beacons of photo retailing excellence around the country, just not near me.

Not al camera shops are created equal!
Not al camera shops are created equal!

Or so I thought. To challenge my theory that decent camera shops were a rare breed, I decided to visit my nearest three independent retailers to give them a test ride. I’d sold some Leica and Nikon kit to a mate, had a significant amount of money burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to buy. If it was a bit more expensive than online, then that would be OK. I was hoping to forge the start of a beautiful relationship with a local-ish retailer. First port of call was the nearest shop, one that is small but I was told offers good prices. I really fancied one of the new mirrorless compacts, and narrowed it down to an Olympus PEN, a Panasonic and a Sony.

Despite being dealers for all three marques, they had none in stock, and claimed they were “just about impossible to get hold of”. And when I enquired about the relative benefits of the Sony’s larger sensor, was laughed at. They all have the exact same sensors, said the spotty oik serving me. I left.

Take two was a bigger shop – that actually has two branches – in a biggish city. They had a Panasonic in, but not with the lens I wanted, then aggressively refused to honour their advertised online price. “Shop prices are different,” they said. I left.

The final retailer looked promising – a good thing as my shopping list had grown much, much bigger. They had an Olympus in, plus a Panasonic. Both with kit lenses. Not the pancake I wanted, and the Panny was the wrong colour for my taste. But I could have still been temped, until we came to the price of £649 each. That was for the demo ones they had in the window that I’d fondled, like many others. I gasped, as online the PEN was available, and in stock, from reputable shops for HALF of that price. And the Panasonic was £200 less.

I asked about the new Nikon 85mm f1.4 AFS lens, as this shop was a Nikon dealer. They weren’t in the country yet, I was told. So how about a remote release with self-timer? Nope, didn’t have that either. I asked about a proper Manfrotto video tripod, and a spare fluid head to fit on a tracking dolly. They’d just sold out, I was informed.

I enquired about a service for my 300mm f/2.8 lens, and was told it would be three weeks and I’d be better off sending it to Nikon direct. So feeling a bit guilty about not buying anything, I spotted some nice Energizer Lithium AA packs, and bought three. They were £11 per pack. When I got home, I did some internet digging. The batteries’ normal price is £8 but were available online for £4.50. So I spent £33 where I could have spent £13.50.

I called Greys of Westminster who had the Nikon lens in stock, and it was delivered the next day. I bought a Panasonic with pancake lens AND kit zoom brand new for less than the price of the horrid-colour ex-demo one, also delivered next day. Tripods were available everywhere, and Nikon cleaned my lens in two days.

So from walking into their shop prepared to spend up to £3000 and starting a real relationship, I left with over-priced batteries, a foul taste in my mouth and an understanding of why shops like this are disappearing fast.

In my role as an ambassador for Manfrotto, I’ve been lucky enough to hold talks and demos at some of the best and most forward-thinking camera retailers in the country. Passionate staff, good prices, used stock, real advice and enthusiasm. Shame I don’t live anywhere near any of them.