Many people in Korea seems to be walking around with DSLR cameras, even 18-year old looking girls who don't exactly strike me as the most obvious target consumer. Expensive photographic equipment is stuffed in handbags or carried casually around the neck with little protection. Occasionally, even the lens caps are alarmingly optional.
I'd never buy a DSLR back in England, where my home town was ranked as the second most dangerous city in the country the year I first left it for Korea, which is a little safer than that. And if everyone is carrying around expensive gadgets here - and they do - there's an element of safety in numbers. After arriving in Korea, it didn't take me long to establish the limits of my Canon IXUS 800 (aka Powershot SD700), and I thought about buying a DSLR but never reached the point where I believed it was worth it. I regarded myself as more of a point-and-shoot person, and that suited the rough and tumble of my Korean life. With a baby on the way things changed because my wife and I want to take higher quality shots than my old 6 megapixel IXUS allows. The videos will be higher quality as well, but whether it's an acceptable if compromised alternative to a proper camcorder remains to be seen.
It's that rough and tumble that minded me to buy a Canon DSLR. I don't write about all my experiences in Korea for various reasons including lack of time, privacy and apathy, but a couple of years ago my IXUS went on holiday to Jeju Island without me and got dropped on a concrete floor. The upshot of that was finding that Canon had an official repair centre above their store in the Nampodong district of Busan, which meant that I managed to get my shattered compact repaired. It meant that it got stuck in my mind that the after-sales service for a DSLR Canon was going to be a lot easier than for a Nikon.
I'd also read that one of the DSLR cameras I'd been looking at – I'm afraid I can't remember which one now but - didn't have an English language option if bought in Korea. They probably do this sort of thing to prevent grey imports into other countries. Unfortunately, it meant that this camera was quickly struck off my list. I happen to use a Korean version of Windows which to the surprise of the retailer I insisted on buying with my computer (sometimes I think it might be the only legal copy of Korean Windows in the entire country), but I drew the line on living with a Korean-menu-only DSLR I might not even understand in English.
So I went to the Canon store in Nampodong recently to look at the Canon EOS 550D (which is confusingly called the Rebel T2i in the US). While there a young couple walked in, weren't quite sure what they wanted, were shown a 550D, and decided to buy it – just like that. I was still doing a lot of research. But it seemed like a very familiar attitude here, where gadgets are so ubiquitous they are treated almost like commodities.
When it came time for me to buy, I didn't really want to pay Canon's official prices, so I humoured myself looking at the prices on Korean Internet sites. But whereas back in the UK there are online retailers - and then there is the Wild West of distrust that is eBay - in Korea it's common to buy from sellers you've never heard of via sites like Auction and Gmarket, which to put it into context would be like buying everything through eBay back home. I'm not really comfortable with buying expensive electrical equipment from auction sites, but on the whole people in Korea don't seem quite as reticent. We eventually bought from the large electrical chain Hi-Mart, where we got a free Canon bag but where further attempts to haggle would prove fruitless on the grounds that there was apparently huge demand for the 550D and nobody seemed to have any stock. They certainly didn't need to discount when stock came in. The price was about £680 ($986/1,200,000 won) with the EF-S 18-55mm lens kit, bag, extra SD card, predictably useless UV filter and a few other bits and pieces. And we'd still have to wait - two to three weeks.
When we'd done the deal the assistant didn't seem enthusiastic – my wife jokingly asked him why – shouldn't he be happy with the commission? He said he wasn't because he couldn't give us the product immediately – and I believe he really meant it.
It took three weeks in the end to come, and when they got it they still didn't have a bag, so – unprompted - they gave us a new 'Samsung VLUU' bag to use in the interim. I didn't use it but suspiciously held it hostage until the Canon one arrived.
Three CDs came in the box. The first contained the accompanying software, the second, which contained manuals for the accompanying software was entitled the 'Software Instruction Manual', and the third carried the Korean description '소프트웨어 사용설명서' which approximately translates as the 'Software usage instructions' – in other words, it contained manuals for the accompanying software and sure enough the contents were exactly the same as the second CD, with instructions for the software in English, French, Japanese, Russian, Simplified Chinese and Spanish. Which meant that neither CD had Korean instructions for the accompanying software, despite one of them being given a Korean title. It looks like Canon made a mistake somewhere there.
But for all my research, while the camera can be switched into one of 25 languages including English and Korean, to my surprise there was no PDF manual on the CDs in the box, but instead a 206 page printed Korean manual which was useless to me. Fortunately it wasn't an issue since I'd downloaded the English manual a few weeks beforehand in order to do some final research. It's just as well it's readily available.
After I'd got the camera I went back over to Nampodong to have a look at filters and lens hoods, and discovered three new large camera shops in close proximity to Canon's store. That's the odd thing about Korea - shops in the same line of business have a tendency to cluster. Perhaps Nampodong is turning into Busan's camera district.