Posted on Thursday, December 7, 2023

How to Navigate the Choice Between Owning and Renting Production Gear, with a Spotlight on Cameras and Lenses

By Technology Editor, Mark Foley

Images Courtesy of: Nick Mahar and Travis Wears

If you’re into production as much as I am, sooner or later you will have to make some major decisions about whether you are going to buy your own gear, rent your gear, or a mix of both. This applies in particular when it comes to buying or renting cameras and lenses - which is our main focus here - but there are things such as lighting and audio packages that can definitely fit in the rental category.

There are many variables that go into the decision making process, but as longtime industry professional Tim Smith, Chief Creative Officer for BandPro/Angenieux Americas recently stated all too well: “They don’t call it show business for nothing.” Yes, we all love creativity, but at the end of the day one constant is that we still need to run the business of our productions in a way that will be beneficial to ourselves, our associates, and our families.

One thing for sure there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to buying your own gear versus renting. Even after a ton of analysis you still might end up having more questions than we have answers, but we are going to dive right in anyways. Let’s go!

Buying or renting decisions relating to production equipment depends of course on what you’re working on, and how you want to best navigate your day to day production budget. You need to be honest with yourself about what you are most comfortable doing for your equipment needs now and in the future. That “comfortability” factor came back to me in a number of conversations. We caught up with Nick Mahar, a very well known cinematographer. Nick got right down to brass tacks with his take on buying versus renting gear.

“I think it depends on where you are at in your career, but things are also changing so fast that I feel like every couple of years we kind of have to reevaluate if it makes sense to buy gear. As a rule of thumb, I have almost never bought any piece of gear that I couldn't pay in full. I don't like having credit card debt, but I use credit cards and pay them off completely every single month. I don't spend money unless I have it already. Having said that for much larger purchases, I have financed gear, but I've usually done it in strategic ways where I was avoiding high interest loans and seeing if I could borrow money from family because I could get them a higher return than a bank would for them, but it would be lower than me taking out a loan.”

He continued, “Today I have an Alexa 35, Alexa mini, Red Gemini, Blackmagic Pocket 6K pro, Canon R5, and so many other smaller cameras, as well as Leica Summicron-Cs, multiple Teradek systems, matte boxes, filters, tripods, lights, stands, production monitors, everything. The only piece of gear that I financed in there was the Alexa 35. It was by far the biggest purchase I've ever done, and it was at a time when we knew a strike was going to happen, and work was slowing down. For me, [purchasing gear] hasn't gotten me any new jobs…but I have existing clients that I work with on a regular basis that want high end quality with minimal issues.

The biggest thing I stress to people is not to go into debt, or at least huge amounts of debt in hopes that you're going to magically get a bunch of jobs because of the camera you own. When I first purchased the Alexa Mini, I already had the cash in hand, and I had to do back to back jobs that were weeklong jobs that would basically pay for half of it. I also bought it used so I got it a lot cheaper, but that camera paid itself off in less than a year. But that was also with existing clients. In the early days I thought having the newest fancy camera could probably get you great jobs. But the market is so oversaturated with fantastic cameras, and even more with people wanting to be cinematographers, that I think it can be harder to get you to your ROI."

Echoing Nick’s comments, we also spoke with Travis Wears, a Kansas City based freelance DP, who has been working as a freelance director, DP, and editor since 2009. He's traveled the US and abroad creating content for Netflix, ESPN, Audi, CAT, Walmart, MTV, CMT, HGTV, Travel Channel, NBC, Fox Studios, Brisk, John Deere, Animal Planet, Showtime, KFC, Pepsi, Frito Lay, Kleenex, Toyota, Yoplait, The MLB, NFL, MLS and many more. So, I think just maybe he knows a thing or two about buying the gear that will work for him for any number of his bigger shoots.

Highly experienced in docu-series, corporate, and sports, Travis also loves commercial work, and has helped create brand campaigns and broadcast spots for numerous blue-chip clients such as American Express, Kemps Dairy Products, KC Streetcar, and Pepsi's boutique brand Stubborn Soda. He owns multiple camera packages, is a Part 107 licensed and insured drone pilot and he also has a full complement of lighting and grip gear to serve a variety of productions. Travis brought his own strong opinions on buying versus renting gear. Travis states: “I rarely rent. I own almost everything I need and if I am going to need it more than once, I'll probably just buy it rather than rent.”

Travis is not alone with his opinion. Many high profile DPs like Travis and Nick can’t afford to lose time on a shoot if a camera goes down. That same principle goes for other owners/operators that need to maximize shooting days, so many tend not to rent gear unless they want or need to have a back up plan of sorts. It’s always good to have a back up plan.

That is the key to buying gear versus renting gear - can you make that equipment pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time?

An Argument for the When and Why of Renting

Thus far we’ve only focused on the buying gear part of the equation. So where does renting make sense? Let’s say for example that you already own two REDs, and you are three days in on a shoot. If it were me, I know that even though it will cost me, I want that third RED in my hip pocket. Should one of my cameras go down, I want to be able to match it. I don’t know about you, but I build my contingencies like rentals into the budget. I also have my own rental checklist below that you will thank me for (keep an eye out later!) There are a lot of scenarios where renting will make sense for both the short and long term. Tim Smith also had valuable insights into renting.

“People will roll the dice on the lens side much more so because lenses don't go obsolete. People are still renting lenses that were made 50-60 years ago. They're the same as the optics. Mechanics aren't the same, but it's still the same principle. Lenses have gotten better; modern lenses have gotten better. But better doesn't mean better mechanically and better optically, but it doesn't mean they've gotten better creatively.

Rehoused lens rentals are everywhere because they want that sort of look. There's a rental house here in LA, a really good one, called Old Fast Glass.

He specializes in rehousing old custom made lenses. He'll buy a series of glasses and rehouse them and make a unique set of lenses. Otto Nemenz bought a bunch of Hasselblad lenses and rehoused them as cinema lenses and called them the Ottoblad. The only way you can ever get those and ever get that look is if you go to Otto to rent them, because they don't sell them.

There's a real creative choice to that business model again, which can pose some risk because a look is flavor of the month or flavor of the year. Roger Deakins makes a movie that has a great look to it, and he goes, Oh, I shot it on this. Everybody wants to shoot something that looks like that until somebody else shoots something else on a different set of lenses, and they want to shoot something that looks like that.

The Angénieuxs were created to insert an additional element into the glass to give them multiple looks, just to kind of compensate for that, to say, look, you can own one set of lenses, but as long as we're making new looks for it, you've got many sets of lenses.

That's most of the people that we sell them to will treat them like more than one set of lenses. If I went into a RED house with a storyline and it was supposed to be a gangster movie from the 50s, I would then say, I want to try these three lenses that have that sort of antique look to them. I might say, Oh, give me a Leica, give me whatever. With the Angénieux ones, you might say, I want to try the Angénieux. But with this piece of optics inserted to give it that look. And when you take that piece of optics out, you get a modern piece of glass. A good example on the Angénieux is that TV series from last season called Daisy Jones and the Six, which for our age bracket was fantastic because it's a drama loosely based on Fleetwood Mac. The music that they wrote for it, the original, it's really good. And the women look like the women remember from those days. But the DP shot to match the period of the 70s and 80s with the inserts to give it a different time period look, as opposed to renting three different types of glass.

For example my lenses, a twelve set of Angénieux lenses, cost $300,000. You better have somebody that's going to pay you for those as much as you should buy them. That doesn't tend to fall. We have very few individual owners that have a price point as a rental house so that they know they can leverage $300,000 and get it back and then some. But $300,000 for a set of lenses is a lot and has to be rented a lot.”

Stuck in the Middle with You

Besides being a great song title, our next section is all about a very common reality in production. Like you, I want to own my own gear. But a lot of times people need cameras and gear for a lot of short and long term projects so they want to buy it. That’s when you can go to companies like Broadfield Distributing to buy the gear you need.

Broadfield has been in the video business since 1980 and has grown with the changes in the industry. They have one of the largest inventories of professional production equipment and really go out of their way to make sure you are getting the right product for your production.

I think that you can be at your most creative when you know every nuance of your gear, whether it’s a Sony VENICE, ARRI Mini, LUMIX or Blackmagic Design 6K. However, sometimes the client will ask for something new. For example, let’s say a LiveU LU300 because they want to do a live stream. So you’ll need to climb out of your comfort zone and go rent that because well, they are footing the bill. Here is where building lasting relationships matters the most.

Long term industry experts with the best rental houses like ARRI Rental or Rule Camera located just outside of Boston understands the production business. Sure, rental houses will rent you just about anything you ask for. However, it has been my experience that they will ask you lots of really good questions about your production, and the kind of intelligent questions that make you think through the production as a whole, which is not a bad thing. Rule, like other great rental houses, has an outstanding staff that makes you feel like somebody has your back, and THAT is a really great feeling. When I needed to do something last minuteI picked up the phone and talked directly to the guy with his name over the door, John Rule. So sure, it is good to own your own gear but sometimes you have to rent, and that ability might be the difference in getting the gig or not.

Nick Mahar also had some thoughts about renting gear. “The advantage of renting gear is you get to build relationships with the rental house, you'll meet new people that are also prepping at that rental house, those rental houses can help you in your career when you have jobs that don't fully pay as much as they should, but our good opportunities for you to build and grow. I will also say, though, as filmmakers our jobs are so volatile that you should also diversify and invest your money in other things outside of the film industry so many people were hurt during these strikes because they sunk so much money into camera gear. That's another reason why I don't buy any pieces of gear unless I already have the money.”

In Conclusion

To sum it up, there is no one size fits all approach to renting vs buying gear. You need to do your homework and try to make good business decisions to either buy or rent based on what you are trying to accomplish. The bottom line is to do what you think will be for the best in the long run. You’ll need the gear, it's just a question of how you go about getting it that’s ultimately up to you. It is YOUR show after all.

As promised, if you’ve stuck around this long, I’ve created a very quick rental checklist of questions to ask yourself before making your decision.

Mark's Quick Rental Checklist

How well do I know the rental house? Are they reliable and relatable? Do they ask the right questions? Do they make good recommendations? How well do they maintain their gear? If I go out of town, can I call the rental houses in other cities to make sure they have what I need? Ready to take your production to the next level? Whether you're leaning towards buying or renting, the right equipment is crucial to your project. Explore your options on