Owning vs. Renting: Why I Never Bought a Camera

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve lost jobs because I don’t own a camera.
And I’m okay with that. Those aren’t the jobs I want. Here’s why…

by Art AdamsWhen I started out in this industry everything dramatic was shot on film. DPs were never hired because they worked primarily with Panavision gear over Arriflex, or shot more Kodak film than Fuji. They were sometimes not given a choice—a producer might have a deal with one company or the other that determined where the gear or the film stock came from—but the choice of the DP wasn’t determined by whether they were the “Kodak guy” or the “Arri guy.” In fact, it was common for a DP to push the production company different directions for different projects, as one story might be better using a certain lens set only found at Panavision or using a film stock only made by Agfa.

In reading a certain Internet forum recently I stumbled across a discussion as to whether it’s better to rent or own gear. I was astonished to discover that one person made a very impassioned argument for owning a camera simply because you’d get to know it really well, whereas renting gear required learning about lots of new cameras all the time.

And this is a problem because… why?

It’s fascinating to see that, in a way, we’re moving back towards the silent film era, where a camera person was only as good as the camera they owned. Sure, it helped if they were talented and knew how to shoot, but not having a camera back then meant not working. Now the younger generation seems to feel the same way: they are so focused on buying cameras that they don’t realize that competition based on equipment ownership is a losing battle: someone is always releasing a new camera that everyone wants, or there’s always someone underbidding your equipment prices.

At the low end there will always be people for whom equipment costs trump anything else. These are not people who recognize quality. There is certainly a place for this, and there are a lot of cinematographers who make a good living on volume of work over quality of work. In order to work for anyone else, though, you’ll have to learn to shoot with just about every camera out there and develop an artistic style.

There are lots of cameras. There’s only one of you. If they want you more than they want a cheap camera then you’ll work more often.

Here are a few points to consider when deciding whether to buy gear or have a production rent it for you (or rent it yourself, mark it up and bill it back to the production):

If you own all your own equipment then you’ll get to know it really, really well. This is great as long as you only work with your own gear and you’re never asked to work with anything else, and you never want to work with anything else. Oh, and your gear never becomes outdated or goes out of style.

Those that argue that renting gear is not the way to go because you won’t “know” how to use new cameras are not thinking like professional cinematographers. Not every camera works for every kind of production, and you have to know how they ALL work in order to best serve your clients. This involves going into rental houses and playing with gear, talking to the in-house techs and engineers, reading manuals, researching on the Internet, etc.

I shoot a lot of green screen projects. As an example, I have to know all of the following:

  • A prism camera, like a Sony EX3 or F23, will shoot better blue screen than just about any single sensor camera, at least in HD. Bayer pattern sensors sample blue at 50% the rate of green, so blue screen edges can be really problematic.
  • If you do shoot blue or green screen with an EX3 you have to record at least ProRes422HQ to an external deck. The internal codec is 4:2:0 long-gop which is horrible for edges.
  • A Sony F55 shoots great green screen in raw or SStP 4:4:4. Not so good in XAVC HD or XAVC 4K.
  • An Arri Alexa shoots great green screen in ProRes 4444, but you have to turn the ISO down to 400 to reduce noise.
  • Most of the color matrices in Canon C100/C300/C500 cameras will turn the green screen cyan. EOS Standard is the only one that makes green really green. This probably isn’t an issue for post, but it’s always good to ask.
  • The C100 and C300 use pixel binning to reduce 4K to HD resolution, which means they take clusters of four photosites and turn them into one pixel. This is a very fast and efficient way to scale an image it doesn’t make for clean edges, plus the internal codecs are highly compressed.

A good cinematographer knows all the variables and can recommend the right camera for the job. A cinematographer who owns gear often has to push it on as many jobs as possible. That means figuring out what kind of work you’ll be doing and buying a camera that does that really well. This can be done, but it can be difficult.

The good news is that 70% of video technology is pretty consistent, so if you learn how a couple of cameras work you’ll know how they all work, more or less. You’ll quickly learn what to look for and test when you step up to a new camera for the first time. Every camera has its own landmines but after a while you’ll figure out where to step. (The Sony F55, for example, is one of the most versatile cameras on the market, but also one of the deadliest if you don’t know all the ins-and-outs. If you can master it, though, other cameras look quite easy by comparison.)

Owning your own gear means that you make more money than your day rate every time you work a job, and if you can pay off your camera quickly then you bank that extra money (after paying for maintenance, repairs, etc.). In the old days you could buy a camera, pay it off in a year, and work it for another ten; now you have about a year, maybe a little longer, to make money off of it. (One of my favorite rental houses says they have to pay off a camera in six months as they’ll only have another six months to make money off of it before the next hot camera shows up. They have to give their customers what they want.)

Owning your own gear sometimes means selling it no matter what the right choice is for the project. Owning your own gear means losing jobs if the company thinks of you as the “RED” DP but they don’t want to shoot on a RED (as the founder of the Digital Cinema Society recently related in his newsletter). Owning your own gear often means that producers are hiring you not for you, but because they can get a deal on your gear. That’s great when you’re starting out and doing low budget work, but you certainly don’t want that to last forever.

I’ve always rented gear; or, rather, I’ve had production companies rent it for me. I’ve lost out on a fair bit of income by not owning the hot camera of the month, but I like not having to worry about storing, maintaining, buying and selling gear. I like knowing that if a camera breaks another one is a phone call away.

Ultimately, though, I’m hired primarily because I’m me, which should be every DP’s goal. If you’re only being hired because you own gear then your career is limited, because there’s always someone else who will come along with a cheaper camera, or a hotter camera, and snatch up all your clients. I can make pretty pictures with just about any camera out there. Tying yourself to one camera says the opposite.

If you do buy gear you want something that will last and have legs. Monitors seem to be something that producers will still pay real money for, and they tend to have longer lives than cameras. Lenses are the ultimate investment: optical technology doesn’t change that fast so you can buy a prime lens set or a zoom and use it your entire career. You’ll spend a lot of money up front, though. (I’m talking real lenses, not still lenses that you can stick on a video camera. Those are cheap, plentiful, and fine for low budget stuff but not for higher-end work.)

The “Philip Bloom model” of owning a small camera for yourself makes perfect sense to me. You can bring it along as a second camera and rent it to companies on the spur of the moment for that one shot they didn’t think of that requires a small camera. If you’re interested in volume of work over quality then find a good workhorse camera. The Canon C300 fits that description but I’m not sure how long it’ll be hot; I know a couple of people locally who are making a lot of money off it. The Sony F55 is a good investment as it’ll last a few years more and does a lot of different things. Cameras like the Blackmagics and GH4s will probably be okay for a couple of years before they become less popular among the low budget crowd. Any recent Arri camera is generally a good long-term investment.

In short: if you’re just building a reel, sure, buy a cheap camera. Work, make some money, push forward. If your entire business model revolves around owning a camera, though, you’re doomed to low budget crap work forever. When you make the big time you can still rent out your gear if it’s right for the project, but at that point they’re renting your gear because it comes with you—not the other way around.

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About The Author

Art Adams

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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