Gear Lust – Does it Ever Make Sense to Buy?

Sony's FS100

This year’s NAB revealed a whole lotta toys that makes us filmmakers drool like an 8 month old eating a double-chocolate chunk Its-Its ice cream and cookie sandwich at a 4th of July fireworks extravaganza at Disneyland. Some of the most exciting revelations were the new wave of professional camcorders designed to compete against the HD DSLRs. Cameras like Sony’s FS100 or Panasonic’s AF100. What makes these cameras so alluring is their small size, large senors, the ability to take interchangeable lenses, and most importantly, all the features that professional videographers and filmmakers miss on the DSLRs (e.g. professional audio inputs like XLR, focus assist features like peaking, exposure assist features like Zebra stripes, etc.)

But, there’s one thing about these cameras that I feel will still make the DSLRs a leader in the market: price. Most of them start at around $5,000 and go up from there. Now, don’t get me wrong. Relatively speaking, that’s still an amazing price given the quality and feature set. And I think for those studios doing high paying gigs on a REGULAR BASIS, they could be great investments.

However, I’m sure a good number of you will break out the credit cards and add another $5,000 to $7,000 to your debt so you can have one of these babies in your arsenal. Don’t be to quick to break out the plastic though. Take a good long look at your situation, and ask yourself, does it really make sense to buy this thing? (Insert soap box here).

BUY VS. RENT

After watching the video below by veteran filmmaker Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy, I was all set to make the FS100 my next investment (the scheduled US release date is summer). It’s my philosophy not to buy new gear unless a certain number of criteria are met, one of them being landing a large job that will afford me the ability to buy it for cash. With one such job pending, my eyes were set on this baby. But then I thought to myself, “Wow! I’m going to spend $5 – $6,000 on a camera that will most likely be upstaged in less than a year.” Don’t believe me? Just look at the history: the 5D Mark II was officially released around February 2009 (MSRP $2500). The 7D came out around fall that same year (MSRP $1700). A few months after that the T2i (whose video quality is on par with the 7D) comes out (MSRP $800). As much as I’d love to have this camera, I don’t know that it makes financial sense for me to buy it. A majority of the work I do is for smaller organizations who need a good promotional video for the web. For that reason, my T2i is great. I get a handful of jobs each year that would warrant a camera like the FS100 or better. For a studio like mine, it makes sense to rent as needed (working the rental rate into my fee).

And that is one of the decisions you need to make when deciding when to buy vs. rent. What kind of jobs are you doing primarily, and how often? Here are some other tips for deciding when to buy:

  • Length of time to recoup. If the amount of rental fees you’d pay for a piece of gear in 12 months or less equals the purchase price plus 10%, it may make sense to buy. I add the 10% due to the time value of money. Let’s say you wanted to buy a $1200 piece of equipment. Paying $100/month over 12 months is actually LESS than paying $1200 up front due to the value of money over time.
  • Useful life. If you’re the kind of person who is going to want the next big thing as soon as it comes out, don’t buy. You should be able to use your gear for at least three years (five or more is better).  The first camcorder I bought was a Sony PD150 in 2002 (I paid almost $3500 for it back then). I only just sold it last year. Two years into me shooting primarily on HD DSLRs, I was still getting some use out of that PD150 here and there. (Sometimes just as an audio capture device before I got my Zoom H4n).
  • Versatility. The kind of gear I think makes the most sense to invest in are items that I call “cross platform.” That is, you can use them with many different cameras. These would include lenses, rigs, camera sliders, stabilizers, tripods, etc. This kind of equipment typically has a very long useful life. A sturdy, fluid head tripod could easily last you a decade. A good piece of glass could last you longer than that.
  • Percent of cash flow. Some of you may be living mighty large. So large in fact that a $5,000 or $10,000 investment is like pocket change. If you’re a multi-million dollar+ studio with a strong P&L and cash flow, you could probably pick up two or three $5,000 cameras without blinking. Be my guest.
  • Amount of debt. I’m die hard Dave Ramsey “Kool-Aid drinker” when it comes to debt. If you have a lot of it, get rid of it before any significant purchases. This is just my personal preference. I was a business major, so I fully understand the arguments for using debt to fund your business. Heck, I did it. But, it’s easy to get out of control and if I had to do it over, I definitely would have been less aggressive in using debt to fund my business. Let me pass my wisdom and experience on to you. Don’t be a slave to your debtors!
  • Clout. Do you have the clout to get sponsored by manufacturers who will give you their gear? If you’re routinely getting tens of thousands of views on Vimeo for each video you post, you could make an argument to a vendor to be a sponsor.

Obviously another factor to consider is availability of equipment you want to rent. Is there a professional film and video rental house nearby? If not, do sites like BorrowLenses.com and LensRentals.com carry what you’re looking for? (Shameless plug: I cover these and many more topics related to DSLR filmmaking in my webinar recording.)

Just to be clear, I’m not saying you’re a bad or irresponsible person if you buy gear. But I know how we tech geeks can get. Gear lust is a real emotion that can sometimes make you do stupid things (kind of like actual physical lust. :) I just want you to be intentional about your purchasing decisions and know what makes sense for you business.

Den Lennie of F-Stop Academy reviews a pre-production Sony FS100.

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8 Responses to “Gear Lust – Does it Ever Make Sense to Buy?”

  1. The lure of new shiny is great, but I too take a step back and really analyse what I need, rather than what I want.

    We know what it’s like when we men are out with family. We want to be leader of the pack by pulling out some enormous over the top camera with a massive lens, designed (like a flash sports car) to illicit looks of envy from other lesser mortals. I’ve done it, but am now completely past that time. I regularly go to and report from trade shows, and indeed have lugged around a 7D, 3 lenses, field recorders, flash units and the associated gubbins that go with such things. This year, I left all that at home, grabbed a Sony NEX-5 and did a better and more responsive job – photos and HD video were of a standard that my readers are more than happy with, and I didn’t have to lug a camera shop around.

    It’s all about the right tools for the job. And you almost certainly don’t have to sell a kidney to do it either. Well… not every time anyway.

  2. Great post, Ron. Something else that fits along the lines of what you wrote is the myth perpetuated by the manufacturers (and consumers) of video gear that you can “buy” your way to a hit independent film. I remember (in the 90’s) all the initial obsession with 24p from video people who were just desperately thirsty for something resembling a film look (pre-DSLR). It really didn’t make people’s films any better, and probably made them worse in the wrong hands – but it was a huge boon for the manufacturers who touted it.

    Buying a $5000 guitar doesn’t make you Jimi Hendrix, and buying a $5K, 10K, or even 100K camera doesn’t make you Kubrick. The Sgt. Pepper’s album and the bulk of music from Motown’s glory days were recorded on a 4-track. Obsess over the quality of your work, not the quality of your gear! ;)

  3. your right.

    I’d much rather rent the latest greatest thing that suits my current project than buy something only to find that I’m not actually using it enough.
    Each project required a different tool set.

  4. Another thing to factor in would be the cost of your time to keep picking up and returning rental gear. If you shoot lots of weddings in the summer on Saturdays, for example, you have to factor in time on Friday and Monday to get your items to and from the rental house. So many people don’t factor in their time and it can really eat into your week in the summer. When you buy, it just sits on your shelf waiting to be used :)

    • That’s actually a very good point Bruce. When looking at the cost of renting gear, pick up time (or shipping costs if you use a company like BorrowLenses or LensRentals) should also be factored. In this example you site, if you’re doing that many gigs, I would say that falls under that very first parameter I mentioned: you have enough paying gigs to justify the investment. If someone is shooting 40 weddings a year let’s say, that could easily amount to $4000 or more in rental fees on a 5D Mark II. That’s a clear case where it would make sense to buy.

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