The camera trap: Think twice before financing that dream setup

Photo Jan 25 8 05 03 PM

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a bit of a gear hound.  I pretty much own a rental house of gear at this point so in what follows I might sound like a hypocrite. I assure you I’m not!  Most of what I own is camera support and gear I use on a regular basis, all of it paid off either upfront or within a month or two. But after owning, working at and interacting with rental houses for all my adult life, I’ve noticed some trends in the mindset of camera buyers and rental houses over the last five years I think it’s worth talking about.

In the old days of film you could see a good return on the right camera
In the days of film you could see a good return on the right camera.

When I started out there were two choices for DPs when it came to owning a professional camera: the Arri SR or Aaton XTR. These were Super16 film cameras which, while expensive when they came out, gave you a good 20 years of profitability. Not many DPs I knew owned a 35mm package as they were more than $100K once you added enough film mags, plus they would also need PL mount glass which was a good $40,000 US for a basic set. By comparison, Super16 was affordable to those of us who were making money as DPs in the heyday of indie films, music videos and short films. Everything else you rented. Now? Well now it’s a new world.

There have been major changes to the industry in the transition from film to video. Rental houses that were film-based would invest money into motion picture cameras knowing they had a good 10-20 years of rentals on them. The same went for buying a set of Zeiss Super Speeds for film use. You knew you had at least a decade to pay off a $50,000 US – $250,000 US camera and lens package.

Then came video as an acceptable format for commercials and movies. Cameras like the Canon XL1 and then the Panasonic DVX100 really changed the rental industry at the entry level, and at the higher end cameras like the Sony F900 and Panasonic Varicam offered the possibility of shooting 24p to video. Some rental houses shunned them as they were used to making a large margin on equipment that had already paid for itself – and many of those who failed to adapt to the new technology had to shut up shop.

The Canon 5D mkII and mkIII changed everything
The Canon 5D mkII and mkIII changed everything

In 2009 the Canon 5D mkII changed everything again: every rental house had to decide again if they were to jump on the bandwagon or see if DSLR filmmaking was just a fad. Most hoped it would not last as it directly threatened the idea of what a rental house was: a place that provided specialist tools not widely available, which allowed the rental house to make a profit. How could a $3,000 US camera become favoured over an F900 for example?  How would that affect F900 rentals?  Well that ‘fad’ lasted quite a while and in fact most rental houses will reluctantly tell you the most profitable cameras they ever rented are the Canon 5D mkII and III due to its low cost and high demand.

RED also had a major influence in the market. The RED One cost less than a F900 yet featured a S35 sensor and shot in 4K. Some rental houses thought the RED One would be long term investment that would bring in profits like their film cameras had. Others thought RED would spark competition from other camera manufacturers, which for a rental house isn’t great news as you have to buy more inventory to have the latest and greatest tech ready to go out to clients.

'4K for all' - the RED One was a statement of intent from a new entrant to the camera industry. Photograph: RED
‘4K for all’ – the RED One was a statement of intent from a new entrant to the camera industry. Photograph: RED

Consumer and professional expectations started changing dramatically around 2009. Even though there had already been major advances in camera technology with bigger sensors, more resolution, more sensitive base ISO, better color, and smaller and lighter form factors, people were still clamouring for more. What used to be a four to five-year cycle had become a one-year cycle, with RED and Sony especially constantly updating their camera lines. Rental houses now have to recoup the cost of these cameras and turn a profit pretty quickly compared to the past. It’s really tough when you also factor in the fact that in the mid 90s-early 2000’s there were only ever really between one and four real rental houses in any major market in the US.  Now there are over two hundred US rental houses and a new phenomenon as well: thousands of owner-operators.

There were very few owner-operators in the past. You might have been a DP with an Arri SR III camera package and an 8-64mm zoom but usually that was it as it was a big investment.  DPs these days might have half a dozen cameras, complete with multiple zooms, primes, monitors, gimbals, and even lighting – something it used to be common for DPs to hire in.

Over the past few years I have noticed that many filmmakers are investing in very expensive gear regardless of whether they’re a camera operator, gaffer or sound recordist. When I see a 20-year-old finance $40K+ on a camera package I want to reach out and warn them. So many people are buying very expensive camera packages and not considering the overall costs, product cycles, market expectations and reality. Many of them say they plan on renting their equipment out to make up for the cost, without thinking about it clearly or understanding the market. Some plan on sub-renting, or consigning their kit to a rental house, without factoring the realities of what its like to be on the other side of that coin. Rental houses are in the industry to make money and they do something very well that most owners cannot. They maintain the gear, have all the bits and pieces, usually have emergency after hours support and prep stations. They can also get the gear they don’t have.

The Canon C500
The Canon C500

I have found that most houses are willing to consign or sub rent your cameras if they are short on the particular model, or have not invested into it. This is really a litmus test for them, however, because if the camera becomes a popular rental item they will simply buy more of them and push their kit over yours. I was in this situation with the Canon C500. I initially had a client who wanted everything shot on the camera, but when they did the math they only ended up shooting on it for a few spots. I ended up renting it out via a few rental houses to make ancillary income. Luckily, I was able to sell my C500 package for close to what I paid for it before interest in the camera waned. I made at least $15k in rentals – other C500 owners were not so lucky and the camera is now worth only a small fraction of its original cost.

When all was said and done, the C500 was a lesson in how fickle the industry has become. I never had to worry about my old Aaton XTR Prod film camera losing interest from the market from 1995-2004. The Aaton was truly an investment and in my market there were only a handful of them (all owned by DPs). In contrast, most of the rental houses who I rented my C500 camera to no longer rent it out much, so it was good that I got out of it in a profitable way and early on. It’s not that the camera had somehow become less capable. It’s just that the expectations changed. The client always wants the latest and greatest.

Lenses used to be a good investment, but is that still true?
Lenses used to be a good investment, but is that still true?

‘Glass is an investment’ – I hear this all the time but ask yourself if that is really true.  It depends on your situation. Lenses certainly used to be an investment back in the day as you really only had a handful of brands, the standards were high and there were only a few mount types.  But is Super16 glass still an investment? Are 1/2” or 2/3” B4 lenses an investment?  They’re both going to become niche products as camera manufacturers switch to S35 sensors, even for sports and broadcast.

Now let’s talk full frame and S35 glass.  Is it the investment it once was?  I personally do not think so. My reasoning is that there is so much of it.  The market is saturated with hundreds of different lens options with over a dozen lens mounts.  We’ve never had so many options and with all these options comes more competition which drives prices down.  Glass is only an investment if it serves your purposes and allows you to get the look you want.  If your expectation is to buy a set of Master Primes for $300,000 US and place them with a rental house you’re probably going to find yourself broke unless you are actively working on Hollywood movies and big budget commercials where you might be able to rent to your shoot.  Again they might prefer to rent from a rental house with a lens tech and proper maintenance. Again: high risk that may or may not pan out.

RED are a popular choice for owners looking to rent out their camera. But there are things to consider carefully.
REDs are a popular choice for owners looking to rent out their camera. But there are things to consider carefully.

I’m writing this article because I have had a few discussions over the past month with a couple of new RED Scarlet-W owners who told me their plans to make up their monthly lease payments with rental supplements. I had to tell them I think it’s a crapshoot and because of the progression of technology and client expectations they should think hard about their plans. I didn’t advise against buying, as it’s a fantastic camera with Raw and Apple ProRes built in. I was just telling them to rethink their strategy as we are not in the 90s any more. Things have changed. Clients have changed.

Scarlet-W, which was the hot camera when there were only a handful in the country, has taken a step back now there are more out there. Rates change and the market is saturated.  Now the Epic-W is the camera in high demand and if you financed a Scarlet-W then you would need to find other ways to pay that large debt.

Also, the ticket price isn’t the only thing to consider. I also know several filmmakers who have bought a RED Raven hoping to rent it out and use it for their wedding film business, only to find out they needed well beyond the $9,000 US they thought they would need.  Adding the cost of media and a better computer to process rushes, they ended up around the $14,000 US mark, well above what they had hoped to spend.

Now most people who rent a Raven would do it from a rental house due to the low rates: it’s a popular camera, the market is saturated and you are likely to get a good deal on a rental.  That’s not to say don’t buy a Raven if you want to do weddings, just factor in the real costs upfront, don’t forget about post and be realistic about your needs. Also don’t go overboard and buy what you want versus what you need. If you use a particular camera almost daily then it probably makes sense to buy. Probably.

Lots of kit, spot the camera… Spend wisely and buy gear you know you’ll use again and again.

This is where renting can come in handy. Rent the kit you think you want to own for a week. This will tell you several things you need to know. Will the client pay for the rental? If not, why would they pay you for your camera package? Does the rental package suit your shooting style and needs? Do you have the proper camera support for your newly planned camera purchase?  I’m always amazed when I see new owners slap a shiny Alexa Mini on a cheap Manfrotto 701 tripod head because they ran out of money after spending on the camera, viewfinder and power solution.

If you’re editing, or even just processing your own rushes, you also need to consider whether you can handle the codec and store your files. If your computer can barely get by you’re only going be frustrated later in post when the pressure is on during a deadline.

My advice is to buy the camera you can afford that makes you money. Stop working to pay off a camera, have the camera pay you. If your camera choice hasn’t paid itself off in six months to a year, sell it or be 100% satisfied with your choices. Hopefully you can pay off the remainder of the debt and keep your client base happy. It can go either way as some clients don’t care what you use (these are the good ones). Some do care though and have very specific requirements. If your client base is particular about the camera they want, rent. There will be something better on the market in six to twelve months, possibly even from the same manufacturer, and you can bet your client will be wanting the latest release.

Gimbals: a useful production tool you can switch between cameras.
Gimbals: a useful production tool you can switch between cameras.

Also, never bank on one client as a source of income and most certainly do not buy gear specific to a single client’s needs unless you have a solid contract that will cover those purchases completely and profitably. I get a lot of messages online asking if someone should dive into a new Alexa Mini or Epic Dragon because they have a new customer that promises work to them. Unless it’s in writing or unless you have multiple reliable clients and revenue streams for that camera do not buy it.

Renting can benchmark how your client will do business with you. Many filmmakers who own a camera package and other gear throw it in with their day rate without factoring the actual costs of the gear over 12-24 months. Embed the core gear into your day rate. The client needs the gear and would have to rent it anyway so give them a slight discount and get your proper rate. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a DP do a gig for $500 US a day with a full blown RED Dragon package, lensing and support. Basically they are including either themselves or the camera for free.

Would you want to shoot this with your own camera?
Be honest: would you want to shoot this with your own camera?

To sum up, the rental market has become the wild west. Rates are all over the place depending on your market. Cameras are not an investment like they used to be. Glass isn’t an investment like it used to be. Clients prefer rental houses over individuals. Buy wisely and for your needs not others’ unless you have a solid contract and can pay it off in less than a year. A camera should allow you to be creative and make you money, not put you into debt.

I know too many people who have been burned by owning expensive cameras and that is with them having rental house connections and agreements which is why I am asking you to think wisely and buy wisely. Rental houses are great and serve an important purpose. Don’t go broke trying to make money with a new camera and lens purchase as thousands with the same mindset are competing with you.

Renting gives you the freedom to always offer the latest and greatest technology has to offer. If a client isn’t willing to rent, then they are probably expecting it to be included for free so decide if that’s the type of client you want to work with and what value (if any) your gear brings to the table in addition to your skills. The client should be hiring you, not renting your gear with you included.

And if you do choose to buy, buy what you can afford so you can enjoy your new camera and most importantly: Go make something with it.

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