I’ve owned a lot of gear over the years, including a really awesome 35mm Moviecam Compact camera package. People have often asked me for advice on buying cameras to further their career and I warn them that cameras can be money-losers. At the same time, I got a lot of my early work as a DP because I owned that camera and it did bring in some money. Now it sits on a shelf collecting dust, which is a shame, but interestingly the peripherals I owned with it, like lenses, O’Connor head, tripods, filters, etc., are still working all the time and making a profit.
It’s not a ton of money that these accessories bring in, but it’s a little bit, and a lot of the time it’s just more convenient to own that stuff than to have to rent it. I know a bunch of people who’ve bought RED packages or DSLR kits or even Alexas (Alexae?). Many of them don’t own lenses because there’s been a glut of PL-mount cameras and the prices to buy lenses are ridiculously high, so they often pair up with my gear and we both make a little extra money on the shoot. Usually my clients like this arrangement because they can save a few hundred dollars going with us but on bigger jobs I usually prefer the safety and convenience of a camera house, not to mention the occasional need for specialty gear like Weaver heads, zoom lenses, remote focus and the like. Also, as a DP I’m very picky about how these privately-owned cameras are accessorized so I’m often skeptical when producers want to get a camera from someone I don’t know.
Last week I bought a Dana Dolly, which is essentially a camera slider that runs on speed rail. I’d put a lot of thought into it. What kind of work do I do? How many times would I need to rent it before it would make a profit? How easy is it to rent somewhere else? The things I especially like about it are its light weight, portability for travel, and the specialty nature of it. I think my clients will love it and will happily rent it from me because it’s less expensive than some other sliders.
These are the important questions you should ask yourself before buying equipment, unless you don’t care if you lose money or not. I lost money on my 35mm camera package but it helped start my career. In that view I can say it was a good purchase but it’s taken 15 years to see that.
Digital cameras are a bigger conundrum though. Sometimes I’ll have a producer call me up and ask why I don’t own a camera to rent them. I’ll tell them that today you want me to have the F5, but 6 months ago you wanted the C300 and next year you’ll want the latest camera. These digital cameras have about a 12 to 18 month window to make their money back and the producer only wants to rent from me because he wants to save some money, so I have a hard time making a profit on these cameras.
The new model that’s emerged is where Camera Owner\Operators invest in the cameras and pair with a rental house that books and maintains it for them. If they want to use it and it’s available, they can, but the rest of the time they’re renting it to other productions. The rental houses seem reluctant to invest in the cameras these days because there’s a good chance that they’ll lose money or barely break even before the camera goes out of date. They’d rather invest in longer-serving items like lenses, monitors, matte boxes, tripods, etc. I think this model can be win-win for the owners and the camera houses, but I still don’t think the owners will make much money on the camera if at all.
In closing, I know some people who’ve made a profit on their cameras but usually it wasn’t because they were going out with it only as a DP, but more likely as an AC, DIT, and sometimes DP. I’m much more careful about the gear that I want to invest in these days and I don’t really want to be tied to any one digital camera. It’s very different now than in the days of film cameras.