I May Never Buy a Camera Again

I try not to be the kind of person to say “I told you so,” but I just have to say it. “I TOLD YOU SO.”

Last week was NAB, perhaps the largest film, television and radio convention in the world. Over 100,000 people from around the globe converge on Las Vegas to learn about the latest and greatest technologies in the media industry. It’s THE show to attend if you’re into gadgets and gizmos.

A few weeks ago I gave my reasons why filmmakers should NOT purchase the recently released Canon 5D Mark III. One of those reasons was because NAB was just around the corner and I knew that new cameras would be announced that would make spending $3,000+ on a new HD DSLR questionable. Well, did I say “I told you so already?” One of the announcements causing the most buzz was BlackMagic’s Cinema camera with a Super 16 sized senor that shoots RAW 2.5K imagery. For a camera whose body will be under $3,000, this will be a hard camera to pass up.

All the big camera manufacturers had new toys to release. They all have their pluses and minuses. As you know, this blog is not big on tech reviews. There are plenty of other resources for that. No, my job is to help those of you who have an ear to hear, to make wise decisions for not only your business, but your craft as well. I’m here to be that voice of reason, sitting on your shoulder like that proverbial “angel” yelling: “What are you thinking?!”

I have to ask: why even BUY a camera anymore? For the record, the title of this post is hyperbole. I’m being overly dramatic for effect. But there’s a part of me that truly feels like that. Every 3 to 6 months there’s a new announcement. I’m not sure I may EVER want to invest in a serious cinema camera.  I do a variety of jobs for clients. Some are simple, short docu-style promos I can shoot by myself in an hour or two. Others are more in-depth, larger scope productions that require a very high production value. Some projects I do are personal projects that may require a certain look. Based on all these examples of work, there may be times when a T2i will suffice. There may be times when I need a long-running camera with more traditional video features like a Sony FS100. And there may be times when I need the look, feel and post-production flexibility you get from a Canon C300 or RED. Given that, I just can’t see the logic to invest in just ONE expensive cinema camera when my needs will change.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the pros for investing and owning your own camera:

  • You get an in-depth understanding of how it works
  • You don’t need to worry about condition
  • You don’t need to worry about availability
  • You can shoot whenever and wherever you like
  • You can “look cool” by saying you own a so-and-so camera

All of these are good reasons to own (well, maybe not the “look cool” part so much). And if you have the ability to rent your gear out, all the more reason to make an investment worthwhile.

Much of this is relative as well. A $10,000 purchase for one studio may be “pocket change.” So such a company may be able to invest in multiple cameras and not have it make any significant dent. For some of you just starting out, anything over $2,000 may be financially hard.

So, I guess what I’m saying is this: think with your head, and not with your heart when it comes to making an investment in something as expensive as a camera, especially when they change as often as they do. I’d be more inclined to invest my money in great glass that you can use on multiple cameras. A Zeiss CP.2 cinema lens can be used on everything from a T2i to a RED. No matter what kind of shoot you’re doing, a good lens will come in handy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you think it makes sense to invest five, ten or twenty thousand dollars or more on a camera?

29 thoughts on “I May Never Buy a Camera Again

  1. “You can “look cool” by saying you own a so-and-so camera” is the reason why I was gonna buy the 5DM3 for sure. That and availability. Thanks for talking me out of it ole buddy.

    BTW – This is a beautiful camera. Love the meta data entry and the optional handles that turn it into a semi-rig. Could still be shaky though.

  2. This is such a hard subject to breach, simply based on the fact every craftsman has a different need for a different set of tools. Some of those tools will change or need to improve as the craftsman grows, changes, matures, etc.

    I am purchasing the 5dmk3 for several reasons. I have long out grown the sensor limits of my current rig, I need a body that captures HD video AND I am also a portrait and editorial photographer who does documentary video work. That rig encompasses it all for a good while.

    I have a several other different iterations of HD video cameras that I own or are at my disposal to compliment my needs.

    If you have the need for a certain tool within your business, the better the tool, usually the better the results. Its a tool, not a status symbol.

    1. Good points. I think if there is a certain set amount of work you do on a consistent basis that can be met be a certain camera, it makes sense. Especially at $3,000 levels. I guess I’m more concerned about the $6k and higher cameras (and especially those north of $10K). One of the things I suggest is purchasing a camera when the number of jobs you’ll use it on within a 6 months to a year’s time will cost more to rent it every time than to just buy it.

  3. I think anyone serious about starting in this business should own at least one camera. The “in-depth understanding of your camera” pro of owning is part of what makes you a professional. Simply know your budget and buy within your means. For example, a GH2 can be found for around 600 dollars. Even if you decide to rent a C300 on a shoot, a GH2 would make a decent B camera.

    Being able to practice is huge, especially for a beginner. I learn so much more when I’m just casually out shooting and experimenting. Owning makes that possible by allowing you to pick it up and shoot at any time.

    While I totally understand the logic behind renting, the stress of an issue coming up on a shoot with a camera I am unfamilar with is a big reason why I will always choose to own at least one camera. Confidence is half the battle out there!

    1. Great points. I point out in the post that it’s all relative. $10,000 to some studios may be as “cheap” as $600 is to someone starting out. You have to base it on your budget.

      This post is really aimed at those who tend to want to always get “the best”, even if it means going into debt. All I’m saying is that before you buy, make sure you’re really buying for the right reason.

      FWIW, I rented DSLR for about 15 months before I finally invested in one. During that time, I didn’t have any major issues. There were times when I rented a camera for a month. That gave me plenty of time to get to know it.

      Renting does have its downsides, but they are manageable. Especially if you rent from a place like LensProToGo.com – (disclaimer. They are a sponsor of my podcast. But nonetheless, an awesome place to rent equipment. They clean all the gear and ship them in Pelican cases. You can save 10% if you use the special podcast rental code. 😉 )

  4. I bucked the never-ending-lust-for-gear and bought an EX1R a few months ago, even with the rumour that Sony was bringing out a new XDCAM EX model at NAB (which I haven’t heard whether it did or not.) The rationale was simple: clients are asking for footage shot on XDCAM. Period. I’ve had my 5DM2 since it first came out, and I can count on one hand how many of my clients asked for that camera system.

    The BMD cinema camera is nice (would love to try it), but from a business standpoint – it’s not the right choice. If I was an indie-filmmaker … maybe. If I was a rental house … maybe. If everything I shot had to look “cinematic” … maybe … actually no. I’d use my 5DM2, which I’ve already invested a whack & pile of cash into lenses and AKS.

    I think people forget about the lenses you’ll need for the BMD cinema camera. Every picture I see of the camera has a CP.2 on it … but have they thought about the crop factor on that? It would likely be 2x or more.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dave.. You’re a great example of someone who knows why they need to invest in a camera, and (I assume) have the jobs to pay for it. Thanks for sharing.

      Regarding the crop factor on the BMD cinema camera, I read somewhere that the crop factor is actually just over 2x. So yes, that is a point that needs to be seriously considered.

      1. Lots of work to warrant the outright purchase (even if it’s a 2 year old camera system.) I was renting a colleague’s camera for over a year, and suddenly realized how much I was paying in rent. Bought my own 1 week later.

  5. I agree with everything you just said Ron, in fact I pretty much told a friend the same thing last week. I don’t plan on buying a new camera anytime soon but I have been thinking about buying a few quality lenses. Everyone and their mom has a DSLR now, so I haven’t had any trouble getting a hold of one for cheap when I need it. The other thing that keeps its value, and no one seems to have, is good lighting gear.

  6. Great Article,

    Buying vs renting is a really fun argument in the business world. Its simple, if it makes financial sense then buying is better than renting. If you really want something then its no different to owning a fancy car or going on a holiday, its your money do what you want. Anything beyond that is really an emotional argument about “being cool” well, being cool does have a price. Like real estate agents who lease beamers but live in crappy apartments.

    I’ve owned cameras my whole life but there have been times in tech gaps where renting made sense like now. So really sit down and do the math. If 3k is make or break in this business then I suggest you re-examine your business model because that is quite a small figure in the big scheme of things so perhaps working on getting better paying clients may make more sense.

    Chicken and egg I know, but sometimes just buying a camera wont necessarily open doors so until it pays for itself, its just a hobby and you should treat it as such and adjust your risk accordingly. My opinion.

    1. Thanks for the comment Yves. I agree. You have to do the math. My recommendation is that you shouldn’t buy a camera unless you know you have the jobs to pay it off completely in six months. (I use six months, but someone else may use a year. The point is, having the work (contracts signed) that you know for sure is coming in that will justify buying vs. renting it over and over.

      Or, if the number of times you’ll have to rent it for the work you have in a year is more than the cost of just buying it outright. At the $3000 level, this is definitely more likely to happen. Not necessarily at the $15,000 level.

  7. Boy have I been getting heat from people because I’m not jumping on the Blackmagic camera train. People are really looking at specs in lieu of how the camera will perform in practical conditions.

    For instance, one of the guys at the Blackmagic booth said you should get about two hours on the battery. Yet no one is talking about that limitation only the fact that the camera is cheap. That’s something you have to take serious. The crop factor is another issue. How about the fact many have no idea what kind of image it produces. EosHD already called it the “future” without even testing the thing.

    People need to stop playing the numbers game. Talking about this camera is priced too high, this one doesn’t have enough…blah blah. Whatever happened to telling stories and getting the job done?

    I think getting the camera that’ll help you grow your business and is financially smart is the best route to go. Have to avoid getting wrapped up in the new tech mind.

    In my opinion, buying quality lenses, lights, and support gear is smarter.

    1. Thanks for the comment Shawn. Just to be clear, I wasn’t saying you should buy the BMD cinema camera. I just put it as an example of a new camera that’s come out shortly after the 5D3 that could make an investment in the 5D3 look questionable, depending on your type of work.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentence.

  8. Ron, you’ve made some good points and so have many of the commenters. I’ve been shooting for many years and I’ve never seen a time where the camera technology changed so quickly. All of the new camera choices are ultimately good for the filmmaking consumer. However, the rapid changes do make it stressful for those wanting to invest in there own equipment.

    As a freelance DP, I prefer to rent – because the production company and the client pay for what they can afford. I have been tempted, but resisted purchasing one of the many great new cameras such as a Sony F3 or Canon C300. My reason: no single camera will meet all of the different needs of every client – including budget. I work with everything from DSLR’s to RED’s and Alexas.

    In the past, I’ve owned cameras and rented them to clients if they were appropriate tools for the project. But the window for paying off a camera has become extremely small. One doesn’t have 2 – 3 years anymore. Cameras are becoming obsolete much quicker – or at least the perception of obsolete. Right or wrong, my clients often want the latest and greatest model in their budget range. This makes purchasing expensive cameras much more risky.

    Interesting, less expensive DSLR’s are probably a much safer investment. Because of their popularity, they are very liquid as far as selling quickly without too much price depreciation. I’m sure that owning a camera makes sense for many photographers and cinematographers depending on their business. Just make sure you can make back your purchase price very quickly. New, sexy models with better features are coming soon!

  9. I am renting camera’s for years now. I live in the circumstances that I have a couple of rental companies within 10 minutes ( by bike that is) To be honnest I own a 600D for quick and dirty work which is always available. But most of the time work requires a different camera. I rent camera’s for over 20 years now and I am happy I did not invest in camera’s that change every 10 month or so. I have my prefferences of cours but the type of work is determinant. Budget wise and/or what is really needed for a specific type of job. So Ron I agree fully.

  10. Good thoughts, Ron. I am still using my Z1U and Fx1s! For me.. owning a camera that is going to be durable in quality and format is key. Something that is going to have some resale value 5 years from the purchase. Having a tool that you know inside and out is crucial for me creatively. I can see renting cameras that cater to certain levels of production value and adding the cost to the client as a good solution. As you know.. cameras are just one piece in the larger ecosystem of imaging. Everyting has to flow from production to post. The advice to not get swept up in the markting hype is good though… sometimes a flipcam is all you need.

  11. I started to feel bad because of the many cameras I owned and sold because there was something better until I read this on a forum:

    “Buying a camera is an easily reversible decision.
    If you don’t like it after a few months, just sell it.
    Sure you’ll lose some money.
    But the money you lose will turn out to be the world’s cheapest rental fee.”

    Posted by Chromelight in http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/readflat.asp?forum=1027&thread=40574116

  12. If you are serious about shooting you must have a camera. It doesn’t have to be expensive, a T2i would be perfect. Just something you can have in your hands and pull out whenever possible to frame shots and quickly get used to changing parameters without thinking. It’s the 10,000 hours mantra, it really works.

    Rent an expensive camera if you need to. Invest in good quality lenses, you will have them for the rest of your life and they hold their value.

    But you must have your own camera to build your portfolio and train your eye.

    1. Remember that for all the T2i’s image quality going par for par with the other Canon APS-C’s, you do lose the ability to set a manual white balance and can only set ISO in double increments.

      I made a good chunk of change with my old t2i but I wouldn’t recommend anyone who plans to make money with their camera buy anything less than a 60D.

  13. I bought the 5D 3 the day it came out in order to shoot a short film with in time for our local film festival deadline. But it’s usefulness a a fantastic stills camera in addition to a great cinema camera doubles its value to me, and it will pay for itself within three months. I sold my 60D to pay for part of it. It inherits a lot of brand new stills tech from the next camera up the line which is almost double the price, but includes a headphone jack that the 1D X doesn’t have. Images I have seen from the BMD look great, and I love the price…of the camera. What people are not thinking about is the price of the media and the RAW workflow. The BMD is not a replacement for a full frame DSLR that shoots to CF and SD cards. Its not weather sealed, unless I’m mistaken. It’s strictly a movie camera, and apparently an awesome one, but again its all about having the right tool for the job. To me, the 5D is worth owning rather than renting. It works for TV and web just fine, and films if it’s shot right. So I don’t regret the purchase. Nice thing is, the BMD is so cheap, it’ll be a lot easier to rent when I really need it, nearly as cheap as a couple of L lenses. But I would need it far less often than a DSLR.

    1. Without a doubt, if you’re using a camera for both still and video, making an investment in a camera like the 5D3 can be a good one.

      Also, fwiw, I only mentioned the BMD camera as an example of a recent release that’s worth considering. This post was not meant to be a plug for the BMD camera.

      Thanks for the comment.

  14. While I do agree with what has been said about renting cameras as opposed to buying them, I think anyone in this fild should at least own one of their own cameras. Being a professional I think you should own the tools of the trade, and a camera is the number one tool.
    You never know when creativity and inspiration will show up and in those situation you can’t wait on a rentals to show up.
    The projects that have the budget and require different gear, it can be rented. I do think it’s essential to have a camera always available at a moments notice for a creative professional to seize inspiration.
    Just my two cents…

  15. Well I think owning a camera is good, IF you make it’s money back, most of the time you could recover the cost of your camera in 10 or so shoots, depending on how “fancy” you go.

    That is what I base my purchasing of equipment on, if I can’t make back it’s money in 3-6 months, I’m not using it enough, therefore I should not own it.

    works for me.

  16. I really agree with the sentiment here but have different conclusions. I don’t think anyone should own a camera that costs more than 5k. There’s too much risk, too much turnover and any project that can sincerely demand and not just benefit from a better camera than a MKIII/FS100 should have a rental A-Cam anyway.

    That said, I think not owning a camera is putting yourself at a disadvantage as a content provider. I value scouting with a camera and spur of the moment pick-up shots far too much to not own at least one camera. Even

    Even fitting within the rent-for-every-project scenario, I like the idea of also having a dependable, predictable B-cam on set. If I can get away with it, my b-camera budget is probably better spent on more lenses or a better paid crew anyway.

    And last but not least, lending your camera can build you a supply of extremely useful favors and free labor!

  17. Interesting reading these posts. I think this BMD camera is the paradigm shift from the DSLR as a stand alone video capturing device. Bolex is another, but BMD beat them to the punch. I realize you mentioned this BMD camera only as an example, but this particular camera, for me, is the hardest to resist buying. Do I really need it, no, but it would be nice to another camera besides a GH1. Oh well, I’m glad I read this post to give me something to think about.

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