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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