Shopping for a camera in Shanghai is like diving into an abyss of choice. Entire malls are devoted solely to cameras.
I knew I was in the right place when I saw a five story high banner that had a dslr camera print on it running vertically down the front of a giant shopping complex. Similar advertisements for Canon, Fuji, and Panasonic were likewise covering the mansion-like building. I was at the Xing Guang Photographic Equipment City: a seven floor shopping complex dedicated to nothing other than cameras and photography gear.
Shanghai is one of the shopping capitals of the world. Like so, you don’t just go to the mall to find what you want, but you go to the mall that’s specifically for the product you’re after — where you’ll find floor after floor of shops selling just that. I was in the market for a camera, so I went to a camera mall.
I had just broken another camera, and needed a quick replacement, but as I walked in through the doors of the camera mall it became clear that I was going to be in for a way bigger shopping experience than I was shooting for. No, I would not be walking out of this place a half hour later with cheap camera in hand. There was simply too much choice for that.
I began walking through the mall looking for a place to start. Cameras of all types, shapes, sizes, specs lined the glass shelves that rose high above my head in all directions. Each camera shop was partitioned off from the one next to it with a pane of glass flea market style, and the salespeople would anxiously pop up by the doors upon seeing me and try to welcome me inside. I dove in and began devouring a shelf of cameras that I knew absolutely nothing about.
“Fuji,” said a sales girl when I began looking at a shelf of Fuji cameras.
“Panasonic,” she said as I squatted down to take a peak at the Panasonic cameras.
“Nikon,” she said when I began looking at this brand.
I began wondering if she was ever going to stop following me around narrating my experience. Did she really think I was so disoriented in her country that I could not read the brand names clearly printed on the cameras? Granted, Chinese people seem to think that foreigners are so far out of water that they need help doing even the most basic of tasks, but this girl was treating me like a space alien rather than simple, dumb laowai.
But she upped her game when I got to the shelf of Canons.
“Canon,” she said really slowly as she stuck her hand in front of my face and pointed at the logo that said, guess what, Canon.
I stomped out of the shop. Entering the one on the other side of the hall I was greeted by the huge, obnoxious “HEEEELLLLLOOOOO!” I looked at the origin of the verbal belch and saw a young guy with slicked hair wearing a suit. He had an entourage of what appeared to be lackeys sitting around him. Before he could get any closer and try to put his salesman moves on me I retreated.
Salespeople you take in stride when shopping for new travel gear, but it was the prices on the cameras that were truly obnoxious. It’s a myth that you can find cheap electronics in Asia. This may be true for Japan, but in China you must expect to pay as much, if not more more than, what you would in the USA. Though many of these products are made in China, they still count as imports. As I looked over the cameras in a half dozen shops it became apparent that even the cheap-o cameras were more than a little expensive, and the higher end ones were roughly $100 to $150 more than what they list for in the USA. It then became clear that I wasn’t going to get out of Shanghai with a camera without paying out for it big time. There were no bargains to be had here.
I needed to get a bearing to navigate these seas. Though my intention was to go cheap, dropping $250 for a crap camera did not seem as good of an option as dropping $400 for a good one. Making an investment and buying better quality travel gear is often better than filling your rig with cheap shit that doesn’t perform. So I set up camp in a little shop, shortlisted my options, and pulled out my smartphone to look up the reviews. At the top of my list was a Canon G12 and a
Panasonic Lumix. I asked a sales guy to bring me over a Canon G12 to look at, but he couldn’t produce. Though he did put a Nikon Coolpix P7100 in my hands and told me that it was basically the same thing, only a little cheaper.
It certainly looked the same. I read through a couple reviews on it an asked the price. 2800 RMB – $450. A big investment. I played with the camera and deemed it adequate. But I would need some kind of discount first — it’s just a matter of principle. But these camera dealers were not playing. None of them in the entire mall would budge on their prices even for a nominal amount. I told this salesman that I would give him 2600 RMB. He laughed at me and said no. I told him to throw in a case and a memory card. He laughed and said no. I walked out of the shop and kept going until I’d cleared the mall and was out in the street.
Never in my travels have I been in such a place where dozens of vendors were selling the same product who would not haggle on prices. On the other side, the salespeople in the Xing Guang camera mall did not seem to be trying to rip me off either. They all had little printed out spreadsheets that had their price specs written on them which they stuck to vehemently.
I found myself popping up from the Xujiahui subway stop into the basement of Metro City — a major shopping complex just south of Shanghai’s old French quarter that has a landmark giant sphere sitting out in front of it. I went to the adjacent electronics mall, and found myself in yet another ground zero for camera shopping. This place was also set up like a high end flea market, but most of the vendors did not really have partitions between them — so it was more like a commercial pit fight.
I got the feeling that I was in for some more free flowing deal making, which was confirmed when one of the first vendors I stopped at tried to charge a highly bloated price for the Nikon camera I was after.
“At Xing Guang I could get this camera for 2800 kuai.”
“No, wait, come back, come back, ok, ok, 2800.”
When trying to buy a product that a mall full of vendors are selling I know that I have the upper hand on the supply and demand curve. I’m not going to fill the wallet of a rascal. I walked through the mall looking for a vendor who would deal. Though there was more wiggle room here the haggling was still pretty tight. Most vendors would not even give me the mere 200 kuai discount that I demanded.
Finally, I got one to budge.
For the second time in the 13 years I’ve been traveling, I look down at my camera and find a smile coming over my face. “I like this camera,” is something that I’ve said only once before, and that was when I was lugging around a classic silver Nikon 35mm.
Since practicality and blogging demanded that I go digital with my photography rig, my experience with photography has been peppered with disappointment. Seven years ago digital cameras just weren’t very good. There was little to be excited about when using them. In the fast paced world of travel photography one out of ever three photos would come out a blurred mess, and taking photos turned into a chore. My cameras simply did not do what I wanted them to.
For me, a camera is a tool, not a toy; photography is something I do to illustrate stories, not something I particularly enjoy. A blog needs photos, that’s the bottom line. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but, in the world of online publishing, a thousand words are not worth much without the photos to back them up. Like so, a camera for me is like a hammer: if I want to pound in the nail I just have to use it. But who has ever gotten excited about a hammer?
Since shelving my old Nikon 35mm, no camera has piqued my emotions until now. I just picked up a Nikon Coolpix P7100. It looks like something from another era. The body is big and solid, there are knobs and dials all over it, it’s as heavy as a brick, and seems to be something that can hold up to the rigors of the road — at least for a while.
I’ve been going around Shanghai and Jiangsu province taking photos, and something happened which surprised me: I was having fun. The camera just does what I want it to.
There are three elements that a travel camera needs to have: high photo quality, a fast reaction time, and some degree of durability.
Taking a photo means nothing if it comes out blurry, a good quality photo means little if the camera takes so long to turn on that the prospective subject is long gone or has completed the key action, and the above two factors mean absolutely nothing if the camera is broken.
Finding a camera that meets all three of these specs is a challenge, but I think I’ve come close with Nikon’s Coolpix P7100. First of all, the thing takes excellent photos — even in low light circumstances. Secondly, it takes them fast — as soon as I push the shutter button down a photo is taken without any perceivable amount of lag. Thirdly, it seems pretty hefty — the front of the casing is metal, and it seems very well built. A downside is that this camera has a motorized extendable lens, which is always delicate and prone to terminal breakage.
I paid around $420 for this camera in Shanghai, a place where cameras do not sell cheap.
Nikon Coolpix P7100 specs
Sensor: 1/1.7″ Type CCD, 10.1 million effective pixels
Optical zoom: 28-200mm (equivalent), f/2.8-5.6
Video: MOV [H.264 + Linear PCM (stereo), 1280 x 720 @ 24 fps, 640 x 480 @ 30fps, 320 x 240 @ 30fps