Whenever someone asks me for advice on how to break into the production industry as a DP, camera operator, or a director/cameraman, I always recommend to him or her three things:
Buy a camera
Shoot and finish a project that you’re passionate about
Get the finished piece in front of as many people as possible that regularly need material on the subject you just shot, and may possibly hire or recommend you for work in the future.
Now, this may not be everyone’s game plan, but it was mine, and it worked fairly well for me. However, notice, that I started with ‘buy a camera.’ Since I work for Canon now, you may be thinking, ‘what a homer, of course he would recommend buying a camera’. While there may be some truth to that kind of statement, it was actually my business plan long before I took a job with Canon, and was a pivotal decision I made in my career long ago. In fact I still have my first camera in a closet at home. I’m too attached to ever part with it, and I’m secretly hoping that one day it will be the “new” cool-and-trendy camera of choice.
I’m a firm believer in the owner/operator business model employed by many cinematographers. Today, more than ever, you need to be able to offer your clients reliable production quality -- at a fair price -- and having your own camera package is a big step towards making that a viable possibility.
On the other hand, I’ve rented hundreds and hundreds of cameras and camera packages over my career, and definitely understand the benefits of renting. The truth is: you’ll never truly stop renting – especially if your projects often vary in style and scope. Also, renting gives you a great opportunity to check out different camera brands and models, and become familiar with their features. This creates a professional advantage, as it prepares you to work with those cameras for future jobs . However, just renting cameras all the time will never give you the spontaneity necessary for testing, shooting B-roll, or for producing those all-important, in-house promotional show reels on your own.
For those of you just leaving college, or those just branching out to test the waters of production for the first time, purchasing a camera may appear to be a deal killer against you becoming a filmmaker. After all, camera equipment is in most cases a fairly big investment, and will require additional funds to continue to maintain and accessorize. A new camera shouldn’t be purchased just to impress potential clients, but to fill a need..
However, for those of you that are somewhat established and have identified a regular production need for a particular choice of camera -- in other words, you now work on a regular basis on something that can use a particular camera type -- there comes a point where you must consider, ‘am I renting this piece of gear enough to justify buying it”? There are certain questions you must ask yourself in order to justify a purchase decision over continuing to rent.
Brent's Rule of Thirty Days
In a time where rapid advances in technology must make anyone hesitate at a buying decision, let me offer the very simple rule of thumb that I always used for ‘renting vs. purchasing’ a camera: the Rule of Thirty Days: divide the cost of purchasing the camera package by thirty days to arrive at the daily rental rate. Then you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. . .
Am I going to use this camera 30 days or more during the time frame I believe this camera’s technology will be significant (turning the rental fees I would have paid for the same camera during that time frame into the purchase price)?
Or, can I rent it back to a job, or do I feel comfortable enough renting it out to others during or after the time frame that I’ve established (to make up for any shortfall for the question above)?
While there is certainly no exact science to this, daily camera rental rates do tend to hover in that ‘cost of camera divided by thirty’ formula of mine. Some rental rates may include more accessories than others, but it’s a pretty straightforward purchasing guide. I will go a little further with this proposition and suggest a sample time frame of two years to make this point even more obvious; can I get just fifteen days of work, or fifteen days of use per year with this camera that I would have otherwise rented? If the answer is “no,” you probably are not a good candidate for purchasing with the intent of at least breaking even – and that’s okay, too – as long as you hook that big client with the fantastic show reel you’re going to make with your new camera.
Reasons you should buy your own camera
It helps immensely to be able to walk out the door with a camera at anytime and shoot in your own time frame, without having to plan for rentals. That way, you can be spontaneous! You could take advantage of the weather, accommodate a last minute change of schedule, or keep your camera in the car or in a backpack and be ready for that perfect event that presents itself without notice. The key factor here is if you have a camera, you’ll no longer have any excuses for not shooting something. Besides, paying for it will remind you that you need to get some work, or hurry up and finish your pet demo project that’s sure to land you that next big gig!
Okay, so now that we’ve gone through the basics, what kind of camera should you buy? Well, this is where I’ll turn into a company man, because after all, I was a big fan of Canon camera equipment long before I took this job, and it makes perfect sense for so many reasons, but especially when it comes to getting great image quality at an affordable cost.
Let’s say you’ve got your eye on some hot, new digital camera and let’s say the price of the camera body alone hovers between $40,000 and $50,000 USD. You may still need some pricey accessories to go along with it and, there’s also lenses and media and such, but let’s compare what you could conceivably get from Canon for similar money:
You can buy an EOS C500 camera for about $20,000 (price as of March 2014). You can get a compact zoom Canon Cine lens like the CN-E 30-105mm T2.8 L SP for around $23,275 (price as of March 2014), or four Canon Cinema Prime lenses for a little less than that – which will complement those Canon EF lenses most of us already have in the bag.
You will definitely want a 4K recorder, in order to take advantage of the forty-six 4K/2K shooting modes the EOS C500 offers, not to mention the twenty-seven MXF variations that can be recorded internally. While 4K capable recorders vary in price, you can get in the game starting at $2,295 up to $5,000, for models owner/operators may want to consider first. Now, you’re still going to need some support equipment, but you would in either case. The point is, now you’re ready to roll in a big way.
All right, if you followed my Rule of Thirty Days Canon purchase plan and maxed out your $50,000 investment, you’ve got a $1,667/day package on your hands if you use my Rule of Thirty Days. Of course, you can amortize this package out any way you like, and charge whatever the market will bear -- even throw it in with your day rate if you like. The bottom line is – get out there and shoot something!