OEM Versus Aftermarket Gear: A Buyer’s Guide (Sorta)

Shapely Thingies

You’ve got your new camera, and darnit, you’re fired up. You’re going to buy one of everything to go with it (two, if you can find enough change in your couch cushions). Well, hold on a second. Read this first.

Here’s the thing: regardless of which camera you’ve purchased, you have options as to what you buy. More specifically, will you buy OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), or aftermarket (someone made it who’s got no connection to the manufacturer)? There are advantages and drawbacks to both; below, I’ve listed some instances in which aftermarket gear and accessories are a good idea; others in which your results may vary; and finally, times when you’re best off going with the original manufacturer.

Buy Aftermarket:

1. The Strap: The strap that comes with your camera, provided it has one, is probably scratchy and uncomfortable. The straps that ship with Canon and Nikon cameras (the ones with which I have direct experience), while they’re strong enough, have two big drawbacks. One, they’re emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, which doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, much less stealth. Much more importantly, they feel as though they could cut through your neck if you attach anything heavier than a loaf of Wonder bread to them (and your average setup, even with an entry-level SLR and 18-55 kit lens, ain’t exactly lightweight). There are literally dozens of other options, some much more stylish (MOD and Capturing Couture have some funky options), comfortable (I particularly like my Crumpler) or functional (a number of pros probably wouldn’t give up their Black Rapid straps except at gunpoint, and maybe not even then).

2. The Bag: Many manufacturers sell bags with their name on them. They’re competent enough; they’ll hold and protect your gear just fine. The problem is, in both their design and their very conspicuous branding, they practically scream “Camera bag!” There are other options that don’t draw as much attention to themselves, like Domke’s expensive but refined-looking bags, messenger bags from Crumpler and Tenba (not my personal cup of tea; they’re a little too exposed), and more specialized bags from the likes of LowePro, Pelican and Think Tank.

3. The Accessories: Here, I’m talking primarily about hoods, and lens and body caps. For something that’s basically a little plastic widget, some of these have no business carrying the price tags they do. There are scads of aftermarket options available here, many of them every bit as good as what ships from your camera maker of choice.

Now, a caveat: I strongly suggest against buying any of these things online. When it comes to straps and bags, you want to check build quality and comfort (not to mention, when it comes to a bag, how well it organizes and holds your stuff). No matter how good the description or product photos, they won’t tell you how the product feels, which makes a big difference when it’s hanging around your neck, or on your shoulders, for hours at a time. Also, you’ll want to try caps and hoods with your lens. If you’re not happy with the fit (some caps fit better than others, some hoods may fit your lens but vignette badly), find something that works better.

Toss Up:

1. Lenses: This one’s a subject of some debate. Every manufacturer makes some lenses that are very, very good, and a handful that are either mediocre or that flat-out suck. OEM lenses are generally better (even if sometimes only by a hair), but can go for twice as much or more than their aftermarket counterparts. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma each have some lenses that are very close in optical quality to their Nikon/Sony/Canon/Pentax counterparts, while some manufacturers (Zeiss, for instance) routinely make lenses that shame anything made by anyone else, though they have a price tag to match. Research carefully, paying attention to the good and bad that’s said about any lens, and be sure to try them for yourself, since even lenses with decent reviews may not be up to your standards. I found this to be the case with a Tamron 18-270 that I tried a while back; it was, to my eyes, unacceptably soft, and the autofocus was so slow that I could probably have left the shop for coffee only to find the lens still hunting for a focus point when I came back.

2. Gadgets and Peripherals: Even Amazon has now gotten into the game of selling remotes and such for different cameras. In some cases, the price point is low enough that you’d might as well go with the “real” brand (especially cable releases and wireless remotes). An off-brand battery grip might be much less expensive than, say, one by Nikon, but you may also find that there are issues that make the price difference seem much less attractive (build quality, etc.). This can also be true of GPS and WiFi peripherals. Again, shop around and do your homework.

3. Speedlights: Here, I’m going to speak mostly for the brand I know (Nikon): There are a few companies that make less expensive speedlights, but Nikon’s stuff is engineered to work with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System), which is a big reason that some people choose Nikon over other brands. I suspect (though I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) that other manufacturers’ flashes are probably better built to work with their cameras than a number of the alternatives. With that said, if you’re not picky about how your speedlight works (heck, somebody’s got to be buying this stuff), the savings on an aftermarket product can be significant. One word of warning: DO NOT purchase an older speedlight (or use one you happen to have laying around) for use with a newer camera. Older speedlights can fry the electronics in many newer cameras. Check with the manufacturer, and/or with your local camera shop.

Buy OEM:

1. BATTERIES: If you buy an aftermarket battery, you may save a few (or several) bucks over one with a big  brand name on it. You may also find that it drains faster, overheats or catches fire, or does something else you’d generally rather a battery didn’t do to your camera. Your warranty generally won’t protect you if you’re not using an OEM battery, so be careful here. The same also applies to camera and battery chargers for the same reason.

2. Memory Cards: Check your owner’s manual, since some manufacturers only approve certain cards for use with their cameras. While camera manufacturers generally don’t make their own cards, there are a couple of big brands with a lot of market share (and mind share), like SanDisk and Lexar, and quite a few that make less expensive stuff (PNY, ProMaster, Kingston, Transcend, et. al.). The problem here is that some of them don’t “make” them so much as re-badge other manufacturers’ substandard stuff (if that Class 10 only clocked as a Class 6, it might end up with someone else’s name on it). In short, stick with reputable brands, and spend the extra cash. I’m not going to name names here (I’d rather not put up with a lawsuit), but that’s why you’ve got Google.

3. Filters: Some camera and lens companies, like Nikon and Hoya (which owns Tokina), make filters. Some companies (like Polaroid) license their name to other manufacturers, and other companies aren’t affiliated with anyone in particular. The bigger names are generally your better bets here, since they use better glass and coatings, and manufacture to higher tolerances. Some of the aftermarket options, on the other hand, use inferior or uncoated glass, or inferior manufacturing processes (and the Polaroid filters, in most cases, aren’t even glass; they’re plastic). Since you’ve presumably spent good money on your gear (especially your glass), don’t let your filter be the weak link.

Did I miss something? Have your results varied from what I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!

The First 10,000 runs on passion (and an awful lot of caffeine). Buy me a coffee.