Renting Versus Buying. A New Point of View in Photography but not in Video.

American photographers---commercial and hobbyists, by and large, have always had a tradition of owning the gear that they shoot with and with which they use to make a living. In the old days this made sense. A Hasselblad and a couple of lenses could comprise the primary (or only) shooting tools in the inventory of business portrait photographers and, once purchased, had a useful life measured in decades.

While we are slow learners it is becoming more and more apparent that during the age of digital it would have been smarter in many instances to rent the gear we use sporadically instead of splashing out for the full purchase price.

While still cameras are pretty mature at this point and a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5D.3 can conceivably be kept around for daily use for three or four years the same in NOT true in the current video equipment space. Even if that video gear is resident in your still camera.

I bought a Panasonic GH4 over a year ago and used it in dozens and dozens of profitable projects. At the time the purchase may have made sense because the camera was not appreciably bettered by anything even near its price in the ensuing year. But locking into one camera for its video capabilities while shooting with other cameras for stills doesn't make sense to me now.

Every project we bid on these days is different. The look I want is usually different. I learned that when testing the Nikon D810 next to the GH4. The Panasonic is demonstrably sharper than the D810 and it features 4K video while the Nikon does not. The Nikon, on the other hand, has less noise in the darker areas of the frames, a bit better color (especially with flesh tones) and the ability to control depth of field to a much greater degree (at least in one direction....).

But there are times when image stabilization trumps everything else and then I want to use an EM5.2 (even if the video files are technically inferior to the other cameras) and on the next assignment I need to use a video camera with a huge zoom range with a lens that doesn't shift apertures as it's zoomed. I have another project coming up (all exterior) and for that one I'd love to use a camera with built in neutral density filters.

When I bought my GH4 they were in very limited supply and buying one meant having access to it when I needed it. But now they are more readily available and I have multiple local sources for the body when needed. I chose to sell mine in order not to see the entire video world through one piece of gear. If you own the gear there is always the tendency to use it exclusively in order to get the value of your investment----even when it's not the best choice. The tired old saying is somewhat true: "When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail."

My recent rationalizations of gear inventory don't necessarily reflect my opinions about the value of gear but instead about the best way to acquire and use gear. We only really used the GH4 on video intensive projects and those were/are more sporadic than regular photography assignments. Some video is perfectly well done with our daily beater camera, the D810. In fact, on people shoots I prefer the overall rendition. Other jobs are just right for the GH4 but it doesn't make good sense to keep one in a drawer for what might be a monthly or even bi-monthly creative exercise. We can rent or borrow one as needed, paying a rental fee that's ultimately charged to the client and then returning the camera after the final day of shooting.

If you don't think this is smart just think how the current owners of Canon's $13,995 C300 camera feel. A new flurry of much improved Canon dedicated video cameras is about to hit the market at NAB's show and in anticipation Canon has dropped the new price of the existing C300's to $6,500.
I'm sure the current owners believed that they'd be able to sell their existing rigs into the used market to defray the cost of new gear but a $6500 new, new price brings their possible value down to around $4,000 in the used markets. That's a big overnight hit to take if a good trade-in value is part of your procurement strategy.

The Samsung NX1 is a pretty darn good 4K camera (with a few operating glitches and a weird and scary codec) and it's been actively on the market for less than four months but it's price just dropped by 20% almost overnight. Is it because a new model is coming along behind it or does Samsung have advanced information about more competitive products coming from more established camera makers at more competitive price points?

With a market that's moving quickly and is in a fluid pricing environment renting is the strategy du jour. Marry the lenses, date the cameras.

I think the GH4 is the best value proposition of all the 4K video cameras currently on the market. But that particular market is an active, moving target. It was time to move some inventory while the camera was still selling for its introductory pricing. Once things gel in 4K we'll see who is standing and what new technology came galloping onto the scene. Then maybe we'll buy again----unless 8K is starting to warm up. Then all bets are off.

Our friends who shoot commercial video do things in a totally different way than traditional photographers. They rent everything and they customize the rental according to what they need for the concept and the anticipated production. They don't buy many lights. Instead they rent trucks full of lights for the day. They don't buy jibs or automated sliders. They rent them as needed. Most camera operators own a really, really nice video tripod and fluid head, and maybe a little case of specialty lenses with PL mounts. They might have an inexpensive video camera for quicky jobs and personal work but when push comes to shove it's all rental and all billed to the client. Their inventory is very temporary and cost neutral. That sounds like a good model to me.


Michael Matthews said...

It's an excellent model.

The "bill it to the client" factor in renting gear to meet the job spec is the way to go, assuming you're in a market where that practice is understood.

Once you've moved to the FS7 or equivalent you will have stepped into another league. Got for it!

Anonymous said...

If you don't use it regularly, don't own it. I only do table-top products shoots several times a year. So it makes no sense to me to own a Canon 90mm f/2.8 TS-E, a Canon 5D3. or a Profoto D2400 pack, with four heads.

Jason Hindle said...

Not just renting, but also new vs used. It was partly due to reading this blog that I started looking to eBay and the second user market, to sate any feelings of GAS I might have. I've saved a small fortune, bearing in mind photography isn't how I make a living.

For those expensive lenses I know I'd use rarely (the upcoming Olympus 7-14 f2.8, for example), I'll certainly rent rather than buy. Of course, if I moved to Canon or Nikon, I could borrow (and lend)....