Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: How saving $20 on an off-brand accessory cost me $750

Like most photographers, I try to economize on the purchase of the less sexy items in my bag.  I’d rather spend my limited Gear Acquisition Syndrome cash on a new camera body or a long-coveted lens than on those little, boring, but necessary accessories like memory cards or batteries.  So when I recently needed to buy a new flash extension cord, I found an off-brand model that cost a whopping $20 less than the equivalent-seeming Nikon model.  Little did I realize that this decision to purchase a Vello Off-Camera TTL Flash Cord for $22 vs. splurging for the comparable Nikon product (priced at about twice that amount) would, less than six months later, end up costing me about $750 in repairs and lost use of my camera.  Here, as a cautionary tale for fellow photographers, is the story of what happened.

For the first few months, everything seemed fine.  What a value I thought I’d found.  I even published a post in this very forum about how great a value the Vello flash cable was (I plan to write a disclaimer in that post).  Then, with no warning at all, during a professional photo shoot for a local theater company, it happened.  I tried to remove the flash cord mount from my camera’s hot shoe and it wouldn’t budge.  Thinking it was just a bit misaligned, I pushed harder, but still it wouldn’t move.  I didn’t want to force it, so I relented for the moment and made it through the rest of the shoot with a useless and distracting flash cord dangling by the side of my camera the whole time.  Upon getting home that night, I researched the problem and realized that many people had had the same problem with the Vello cable.  Apparently, this accessory is made with cheap materials, and the mechanism that actuates the metal locking pin to hold the cable onto the camera’s hot shoe is made from plastic vs. metal.  This plastic part is subject to sudden breakage, which results in the locking pin being permanently stuck in place and the accessory being stuck on the camera with no ability to remove it.  There was no alternative other than sending in the camera to a Nikon authorized repair center to have the flash cord disassembled and removed from the camera.

Over a month later, I just got back my repaired camera.  The repairs and shipping cost just over $300.  But I also lost a month’s use of one of my Nikon D810 camera bodies, and the rental price for that use is about $450.  That makes a total of about $750 that I lost over my zeal to save $20 on a poorly made off-brand accessory.  We tend to look only at the direct purchase price when deciding which accessory to buy, but the lesson I learned through this painful experience is that we need to consider the full cost a failure could impart, including such potential damages as a disabled or destroyed camera or lens, a missed priceless shot or a bungled shoot for an important client, lost use of our other gear, and even personal injury (imagine if a heavy light stand falls on a model or if a failed light housing delivers an electric shock).

Lesson learned!  From now on I will only consider purchasing an off-brand item after ascertaining it poses no significant risk of causing other problems.  I will not be penny wise and pound foolish.

Do you have a story to share about the higher than expected cost of some piece of gear?  Please leave a comment at the end of this post.

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