I keep collecting hobbies as my list of pursuits continues to grow, and photography is the newest realm of dabbling. My interest in photography actually began in college during my photojournalism classes when I got to play with some fun toys. As part of the class, the college issued me a Nikon D100 for a semester — my first exposure to a digital SLR. It only got better in the higher-level course when we had an arsenal of nicer lenses — such as a 70-300 mm telephoto or an 8 mm fish eye — at our disposal.
While I didn’t develop into a strong photographer, my interest in the visual arts continued to manifest in my graphic design. Photography took a backseat to Illustrator and InDesign, but it never left. Fast forward to now, a time when I’m making a little extra money and DSLRs are a little cheaper abroad — especially after the exchange rate. The little shutterbug whispering in my ear combined with my penchant for expensive things led me to this question: Where does one go to get a camera in Seoul?
How to get there
It’s impossible to find anything around Seoul at a decent price without knowing where to go. It’s not like the States, where you can peruse the Sunday ads and walk into Best Buy and match the best price you find. The area in Seoul where you can find the best deals on cameras is in the Namdaemun Market. After doing some homework and ultimately deciding on a Canon 40D (but not before also considering the Nikon D80 and Nikon D90), I got directions from friends who had been there before and jumped on the subway to the Hoehyon stop on line 4.
After leaving the station via exit 5, I immediately turned right, putting me on a path through the heart of Namdaemun Market — a dizzying array of lights and merchants. Although the street looks like a complete mess on first sight, the storefronts and food stands are rather organized for an open-air market. The straight-line walk through the market is about 200 meters long and ends at a major cross-street. There will be a sign that indicates “Gate 2” of the Namdaemun market. There I turned left toward all the camera stores were — the strip of sidewalk lit by gigantic “Canon” and “Nikon” signs — and began my quest to find my Canon 40D. This is where the fun part begins.
How to find the right price
The best/worst part of shopping in Korea is that — especially in markets like Namdaemun — prices are often subject to haggling. The best rule is to check out as many stores as possible. Not only will prices vary between stores, but some vendors will be more willing to throw in a freebie or two to keep you coming back. On the other side of that coin, there are also vendors looking to cheat a wide-eyed foreigner. Here are some tips on how to get the best deal for your camera:
Know what you want
I knew what camera and lens I wanted long before I arrived at any store. There are several reasons for this. First, while most of the stores speak decent English, any possible language barrier can be overcome with the make and model of the camera and/or the length and brand of the lens. Next, nothing perks the ears of a dishonest vendor more than the sound of an uninformed shopper. The online resources are endless, but sites that proved helpful to me were The Imaging Resource and Digital Photography Review. Along with knowing what I wanted, I also made sure to find prices on sites such as Danawa (a Korean site that can search in English) to use as benchmarks in haggling. Their prices are always negotiable, so they’ll try to sell the novice buyer an expensive price as a good deal — usually by throwing in some useless freebies that cost them nothing. Also, beware of anyone willing to sell you something at an absurdly low price. Odds are that they’re giving you an inferior product, such as a used camera being sold as “new.”
Never buy from the first store you walk into. Get quotes from as many stores as time allows. These stores, all crammed on the same street, are competing with each other for your patronage, so they’ll usually match reasonable prices from another store. Some vendors pressured me to buy from them immediately, telling me they were giving me the best price. This shouldn’t happen; the most reputable sellers understand the process behind making a big investment in a DSLR camera and will let you look and leave as much as you need. It will be very apparent which stores are looking for the quick sale. You can use this greed against them if you carry cash and threaten to leave for another store; they’ll often cave to your asking price, but make sure you’re getting the exact product you’re searching for and nothing less. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if you don’t like what you see.
Pay in cash — lots of it
Vendors will give you the best prices when you pay in cash for two reasons. First, cash transactions cannot be tracked like credit card transactions. Some vendors use this to their personal advantage when it comes to tax season — maybe dishonest, but it benefits the buyers. Second, credit card companies charge the vendors a fee for each transaction, and that fee is passed down to the buyer. It usually runs around an extra five percent of the total, but on a 1 millon won purchase, that’s an extra 50,000 won. If you make a large purchase, vendors will usually find creative ways to give you a package discount and/or give you some free stuff. I bought a Canon 40D body with an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, lens hood, 4GB SanDisk Compact Flash memory card, extra battery, and bag, totalling nearly 1.1 million won. In addition to that, the vendor gave me two cloth camera wraps, a lens cloth, rubber lens blower, and UV filter as “service.”
Where to buy
As I’ve said before, there are good shops and there are bad shops. One store immediately agreed to my lowball price (I just wanted to get negotiations going) and tried to sell me a camera that he said was new, even though it was clearly used. The name of the store is Sung Do, and as soon as I asked to see the camera, he asked whether I had cash and tried to pressure me to buy that night. The store from which I eventually bought my 40D, Hyosung Camera, was very helpful from the beginning. The most helpful thing about this store is that there is a fluent English-speaking employee pretty much there to help out any foreigners. His name is Paul, and he studied in Australia for more than seven years. If he doesn’t have the answer, he’ll find someone who does. If you manage to wander into that store, mention that Daniel sent you, and he’ll get a good chuckle out of it. He’ll definitely give you things like blowers and lens cloths if you need them.
I’m excited to learn more about my new toy, especially since I’ve only shot with Nikons before this. Hopefully dropping a pretty penny will be incentive enough for me to teach myself some photography basics and improve whatever skills I might’ve acquired in college — and eventually add a new dimension to my young blog.
What are your tips/suggestions/experiences?
Author’s note: I’m in no way affiliated with Hyosung Camera or any other camera store in Seoul. My recommendation of Hyosung comes only from my positive experiences there, and I receive no compensation for doing so.