To Buy Or Not To Buy

After the huge dust up that occurred this past weekend when Philip Bloom announced on his blog that someone high up at RED [update: okay, who are we kidding — extremely high up!] demanded he return his Epic camera for a full $80,000 refund — this after Bloom had been writing for months about how, while he was thrilled with the Epic for the most part, he had encountered various technical issues and malfunctions with the camera — I thought it might be interesting to pose a simple question:

When does it make sense to buy a video camera?

There is no simple answer, obviously, and many variables must be taken into account — but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any answers to be had.  For starters, if you make your living shooting weddings, or corporate events, you definitely need to purchase a camera.  For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that you’re able to earn $700 per event as a freelance shooter with your own camera.  The Panasonic HVX200 was a pretty good investment in its day, even though the P2 cards were a gigantic waste of money that was never recouped.  Today, a better event camera would be the Sony EX3 — a very popular choice for event work in Boston, where I live.  An EX3 rental will run you about $300 per day, meaning that once additional accessories are factored in, you’re looking at pocketing between $300 and $400 per event.  Purchasing an EX3 will set you back around $8,000, so, after ten gigs (at this hypothetical $700 rate) you will still not have made any money.  After the same ten gigs with rented equipment, you’ll only have about three grand in your pocket, but at least you won’t be in debt.

However, there are other persuasive reasons to buy a Sony EX3.  If you own an EX3, you will often get hired because you own an EX3.  In other words, a lot of broadcast work in Boston is set up to accept EX3 footage, so a DP with an EX3 is at an enormous advantage when it comes to getting freelance gigs from local news stations or local production companies.  It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a local news station that would be equipped to handle Epic footage, and many of the smaller post-production facilities that work on local spots are similarly unable to handle the enormous speed and storage requirements of RED footage.

If you’ve owned an EX3 in Boston for the past few years, and you have a good reel, you’ll be able to hire yourself out with your gear fairly regularly.  Probably not for narrative projects, but certainly for events, regional spots, and local news.  It probably still took you a while for the camera to pay for itself, but eventually you came out on top.

There are cheaper cameras than the EX3, for sure.  Documentarians have been working with the 5DmkII for years now, and, at $2,500 for the body, it would be impossible to argue against the logic of that investment.  A documentary filmmaker must follow his or her subject for weeks, months, or even years at a time, so renting equipment on self-funded, low budget projects simply isn’t an option.  The 5D is by no means the ideal documentary camera — no auto focus in video mode, no HD output to an external monitor, etc. — but it does a pretty terrific job.  Check out this behind the scenes video that was shot on a 5D by Peter Hainzl in conjunction with the short that Nino Leitner just shot on a Canon C300.

13:59 – BEHIND THE SCENES from Peter Hainzl on Vimeo.

Ed Burns, who went with a RED ONE on his previous indie, chose to shoot his latest feature on his own personal 5D.

Nice, right?  I owned a 7D for years, so I can attest that the 7D footage would not have looked as good.  But the 7D, and the Panasonic GH2 — my current camera of choice — are terrific options for freelancers shooting training videos, CEO interviews, and events ( even though the 7D — as well as the 5D, for that matter — suffers from that annoying 12 minute footage limitation, which is a serious deficiency when it comes to event work or even documentary work).  The GH2 sold out from almost every single online vendor last week when it was priced at $699 with kit lens!  That’s an insane price for a camera that is easily hacked to shoot exceedingly well at high ISOs.  If you are a freelancer, and you picked up a GH2 last week on a whim, it wouldn’t take you more than one or two gigs to recoup what you spent.  That’s almost the definition of a no brainer.

Speaking of Panasonic, the AF100, priced at around $5,000 for the body, is also a decent option for experienced shooters.  My only problem with the AF100 is that I haven’t seen much proof that the footage is any better than what you can get on a hacked GH2.  Sure, it shoots 60P at 1080, for all the zillions of times a year that slow motion is required on corporate gigs.  Until Panasonic or someone else makes a truly professional, fast, image stabilized zoom lens for micro four thirds cameras, I’m not sure I could recommend buying an AF100 over the GH2.

The RED cameras, along with Canon’s new C300, are specifically built for narrative work, not event work or local news.  You could probably get away with showing up solo at an event with a C300, but I doubt it will be a popular camera with freelancers.  For starters, it’s expensive, starting at around $17,000, if Web reports are accurate.  But, beyond that, it will have a reputation as a narrative camera.  There is no auto focus or auto exposure.  Even Sony’s F3, which starts at around $13,000, has gained a fairly decent following with Boston DPs who make their living shooting local spots and the like.  But the F3 makes a lot of sense for shooters who want to graduate from the EX3.  The C300, on the other hand, is aimed at DPs who come from backgrounds in film or narrative television, and also at 5D users who are looking for their next camera upgrade and have made a sizable investment in Canon lenses.

But I foresee two problems with the C300.  First off, the majority of narrative projects only happen if they are sufficiently funded.  What that means with regard to cameras is that most movies shot on expensive cameras have budgets, studio or production company backing, and perhaps even pre-negotiated distribution.  The problem is that these are precisely the types of projects that don’t require a DP to own and provide his own camera.  I’ve been on a whole bunch of professional film, television, and advertising sets in my day, but I’ve rarely seen a camera that wasn’t rented.  Why?  Because the DP doesn’t get to choose the camera.  Sure he gets a voice, but he doesn’t get final say.  It’s not his project.  There are directors, clients, producers, and various creative personnel who all need to agree on which camera is chosen for a particular job, and more often than not the decision comes down to cost.  It’s much trickier to hire a DP who is billing separately for equipment, or who is adding equipment costs onto his labor costs.  It can be done, but usually on much smaller projects with smaller budgets — projects that pay less and are more suited to cheaper equipment anyway.

Secondly, on larger productions, one camera isn’t enough to do the job.  Even on an indie feature, it’s preferable to shoot with a second camera if you’re going to have any chance of getting through your pages without spending the whole day on coverage.  The majority of projects that have budgets beyond what the filmmaker is personally willing to invest will almost always rent two or more cameras.  It protects the production in case of technical issues, provides some additional insurance in the event of damage, and is expensed in a way that can be directly passed along to the client or the studio/production company.  So even if a DP were hired on a narrative project and provided his own camera, a second or third camera would need to be rented anyway, and it’s not realistic that a professional show would get one camera from the DP while going through the hassle of picking up the others from a rental house.  The logistics alone, not to mention the billing, would get pretty complicated.

It’s also worth noting that the new RED cameras — the Epic and the Scarlet — require additional technicians on set.  Every RED shoot I was ever on came with camera techs, who would sit at a separate table furiously imputing data into laptops.  Not a deal breaker, if there’s money in the budget for additional crew, but on lower budget work it could pose serious problems.  The Epic in particular, as well as the similarly priced Arri Alexa, are so expensive to own that one begins to wonder just who exactly is buying them.  A production company that shoots broadcast spots or series television would surely be a good candidate, but for the individual DP who relies on work-for-hire, it would take a heck of a long time to pay back an investment of that size.  Also, the Epic and Alexa would be overkill on just about any project not destined for theatrical distribution or HD broadcast.  It would be insane to shoot a CEO interview on an Epic, but, if a DP has bought the Epic, then you can be certain he’ll try to use it, and charge for it, every chance he gets.  What that means for DPs is that they could end up getting paid less than what they should be getting for providing a top-of-the-line camera.  More often than not, in a city like Boston anyway, where we don’t shoot a lot of series television, a DP would be bringing an expensive camera to a project that is in no position to afford the rental costs of that camera.  Not exactly a viable long-term business strategy.

But that’s the reality DPs with pricey cameras may face.  They’ll run into trouble using their cameras on well funded projects — because those productions will require multiple cameras, will be renting their equipment anyway, and may decide to use a camera different from the one the DP happens to own — while, at the same time, it will be hard to use an Epic or a Scarlet, or even a C300, to get local news work (I’m guessing they’ll have an easier time with the F3).  Will they rent their camera out to other productions to make a little money on the side?  I wouldn’t.  If anything happens to that baby on someone else’s gig, I’d be screwed.  Finally, DPs will have trouble billing clients for what their equipment is truly worth, in effect donating their camera to a project that probably doesn’t deserve that kind of generosity.  I can’t think of a single talking head corporate interview — which ends up getting uploaded to YouTube or embedded into PowerPoint decks — that would benefit from being shot on an Epic or a C300.

A lot of aspiring filmmakers want to own the C300 or the Scarlet, but they need to be aware that they’d be making a very expensive purchase at an exact moment in time when so many filmmakers are posting their shorts on Vimeo and receiving zero compensation.  A similar fate is being met by indie feature directors whose films, if they’re lucky, are screened at festivals before getting posted online for little or no remuneration.  In case after case today, because of the specific pressures that the internet has created for filmmakers, musicians, and writers, the artist receives no financial compensation.  The exposure they get online has become a substitute for compensation.  These days, the overwhelming majority of independent filmmakers work on self-funded projects that are not monetized; their work is created on spec and is posted on the internet for anyone to watch for free.

Why should low budget filmmakers feel compelled to use the best available cameras for projects that probably won’t make any money?  Is that even fair?  In 2010, writer-director Lena Dunham made Tiny Furniture in her mother’s apartment, on a Canon 7D.

I’m guessing the entire budget didn’t cost as much as the purchase price of a single C300.  The film ended up getting modest theatrical distribution, meaning Ms. Dunham was already way ahead of the game, and then went on to perform admirably on-demand.  Today she’s working with the likes of Judd Apatow.

Everyone wants the best gear.  It’s human nature.  But now we’re in a bizarre new phase of the HDSLR revolution, in which camera manufacturers, realizing they probably didn’t charge enough for the 5D and 7D, are trying to convince us that expensive cameras are still spiritually connected to the HDSLR movement.  They are not.  They are in every respect priced for professional, well funded work.  Ask yourself this: if the 5D had been priced at $17,000 when it came out in 2008, would it have had the same impact?

It’s truly astonishing that the debate has shifted so quickly, in such a short period of time, to which expensive camera is worth owning, rather than whether to own one.  Before the 5DmkII, I didn’t personally know any Boston DPs-for-hire who owned their own RED ONE (I’m sure there were a bunch of them, but you get the idea).  The only productions using the RED ONE in 2008 were renting them for TV spots and some broadcast narrative work.  Then the 5D came out and it was priced so affordably for what it could do that it was crazy for filmmakers and freelancers not to buy one.  Almost overnight, self-funded projects could afford the film look, and the rest was history.

Ancient history, perhaps.  The HDSLR phenomenon may have ended while we were all out trying to make a living.  Camera manufacturers have certainly wised up, that’s for sure.

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4 responses to “To Buy Or Not To Buy

  1. It’s funny that you wrote this article when you did. My 1.5 man business did pretty well for itself this year and I’m now left at the end of the year with a sizable sum of money that I’d like to invest back into the business. The main question you ask (will I earn my money back?) is so spot on. I would, however, add an umbrella question over that: how can I make my money work for me? There are potentially other ways: employees, continued education, web-site, sponsorships. It’s so easy to go for new gear. New gear can make life easier and improve the quality of your work––it can also save you the time and expense of driving around town to various rental houses. These aspects are worth something as well. But, it can also bog you down and lose value before it earns you anything. My favorite line from Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.”

    All that said, I couldn’t think of any strong short-term ways to put this money to use, and I don’t want any more of it to go to the government than necessary. Stock market? Nope.

    I looked through my accounting for the year and determined that I had 45 billable days with my Panasonic HPX-170, a very solid little camera that I feel comfortable taking just about anywhere, and the only camera I’ve ever owned (cell phone aside). If I set aside $10,000 for new gear (let’s be honest, no one buys just a 5D with a stock lens), I would need a little under a year to earn it back. That’s doable. So, I spent the better part of my weekend researching my choices for “graduating” from my 170. Its only drawbacks are: fixed lens, tiny sensor, and limited light sensitivity. I’ve been renting the F3 and 5D a lot as well, and I’ve grown to really appreciate the high-iso capabilities and wide range of available lenses, but as we all know, cameras like these have a lot of major drawbacks (which I won’t get into), so in the end, if I were to buy a new camera, I would have to keep my Panasonic as well to avoid losing capabilities, which doesn’t help me pay down that ~$10,000 investment any faster.

    I do’t want to wind up with a huge equipment shop and I don’t want to be known as just a shooter, nor do I want to be a one (and a half) man band for the rest of my life. So, the only other way to spend the money is self promotion, funding creative projects that might get me noticed by clients with bigger budgets and more exciting projects. In those cases, I don’t want to spend it on renting gear if I can help it, so, once again, if a new camera is going to help me promote myself (kind of like your example with the EX3) then It’s a good buy, but still hard to justify mathematically.

    I realize I’m merely unloading my thought process on your blog page, but hopefully there’s some insight in there somewhere to help others with what is indeed a tricky decision to make.

    BTW, I’ll be picking up a new FS-100 and a PIX 240 this afternoon.

    • Hey Ben. Yup, the FS100 is another option, comparable with the AF100. At this point, there are actually better lens options for the Sony than the Panasonic, though the footage from the Sony that I’ve seen online so far has had issues. But having that bigger sensor will definitely show up in the work you do, and I think it’s probably worth it. However, and I didn’t go into this in the post, a lot of the benefits of larger sensor footage will be more apparent to the producer than the client. If your backgrounds are a little more out of focus, your clients may not actually notice — even though you’ll be thrilled. I actually had one client last year ask me why more of the background wasn’t in focus, which is kind of the opposite of everything we believe, but makes sense on a weird level. Anyway, definitely let me know how the camera works out for you. I’d be happy to post some footage at some point!

  2. Wonderful evaluation of the realities of the business. I often get asked by aspiring “filmmakers” their favorite question: “What camera should I buy?” After determining nine out of ten times that the person asking the question wants to direct or produce and not be a Cameraman, I always suggest that their money (which is always far less than is adequate to purchase a decent camera PLUS necessary accessories and support… plus lighting, etc.) is better spent in other ways instead of buying a cheap camera that is less than they’ll need anyway that they’ll likely never make their money back on.

    I’ve gotten along fairly well for the last twenty years never owning a camera. The majority of the vendors who hire me have decided to be in the owner/rental biz themselves so I wouldn’t ever be able to use my own camera with them anyway. And other Cameramen who hire me to cover for them or to shoot with them usually own multiple cameras, so again, my gear would sit at home.

    There are times, though, when I am hired for my skills/experience AND I am expected to bring the camera (lights, etc). In that case, I’m not tied to pushing a client into using what I already have so I am free to take virtually any job that comes along by renting what I need on an as-needed basis. I know that IF I could get hired for EVERY job with a camera rental thrown in, I would be making a lot more money. But that just isn’t the reality for me, so there is a bit of comfort in knowing that I’m being hired for who I am and what I can do and not just because I happen to own a particular piece of gear. I could swim through the alphabet soup of cameras available and pick one to put on the credit card with hopes that I could pay it off someday, but it’s just easier to let the CLIENTS and specific jobs determine which cameras to use instead of worrying that my “fishing pole” may be sitting at home for a day or for months on end.

    • Thanks Brian. Hearing the perspective of a real industry pro means a lot to me. I kind of feel like your comment should be required reading! There are many different universes of camera work and production (I just produced a “Happy Holidays” promo at a shopping center…), but there are commonalities as well. I can’t even contemplate buying a camera it would take me years to pay off. I love reading about the new gear, but it definitely messes with my head. The whole PR blitz that has accompanied the C300 announcement is a bit like getting free drinks at a Vegas casino!

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