“Should I buy this piece of gear?” I see this posted often, and since I’m in possession of at least a few gray hairs, I’m asked the same question on a pretty consistent basis. People often spend inordinate amounts of time curating and writing out a long and often well-researched gear list that they’re thinking about buying. It could be a camera package, lighting package, sound package or even a bunch of accessories. Seasoned pros do this, and total beginners, as well as everyone in between. There’s nothing wrong with vetting your options amongst your peers for feedback and input; in fact, it’s a great idea.
The second variation of the video production gear budgeting conundrum (VPGBC?) is often observed when someone is looking to buy a specific piece of support gear, typically for a digital cinema camera they have just bought. An inquiry is posted, and the forum contributors proffer suggestions. Where the whole process comes to a screeching halt is when the poster, in either situation, doesn’t understand how to correctly allocate available funds to purchase a well-rounded, fully equipped, intelligently allocated video/film production package—or, in less verbose terms, doesn’t have a clue about how to budget correctly.
Self-Reflection Can Save You Money In the Long Run
People who know how to wisely budget for gear have usually learned how to do so through a series of painful, frustrating and expensive detours of spending money on gear they thought they would need and don’t, or from buying sub-par, non-professional gear for professional-level, demanding work. Okay, enough preamble and exposition, let’s get into how to actually budget intelligently for professional video and cinema gear.
First, take a good, hard look at the production gear that you already own. Out of all of the main pieces of gear, are you happy with some it? Most of it? None of it? Perhaps you’re a total beginner and don’t yet own professional gear? Not to get too contemplative about it, but can you sense any patterns in your gear buying? Do you buy the best? Do you try to cheap out and buy the least expensive gear? Or are you somewhere in the middle, like most us, buying quality when you think it counts, but conversely being cheap on some gear and regretting it later? Like everything else in life, a little reflection can be a powerful thing. Armed with this bit of knowledge about your past behavior, you then can move to the next realization about buying gear.
You Spent Too Much?
Typically, someone has scraped together the funds to buy a really nice, super-cool, state-of-the-art, digital cinema camera and now is needing to purchase a power system (often referred to as “additional batteries” and possibly a charger), media (can you ever have enough?), camera support (tripod, monopod, gimbal, Steadicam-like device, slider or drone), a carrying/storage/flight case, possibly extra lenses and so on—you get the picture. If you remember nothing else from reading this article, remember this. The simple fact is that most of us buy too much camera. We spend most of our entire budget for a camera package on the camera body itself because people tend to buy cameras from an emotional place, not from an analytical place. People often buy a specific camera, not because of features it has that they truly need; the camera-buying decision goes beyond mere features. Crazy as it sounds, we’ve come to the conclusion that many people’s self-identity is wrapped up in their camera choice. People often buy a camera based upon what they imagine themselves shooting in the future. Buying a camera that can cost as much as a car or even as much as a house in many parts of the country is fraught with pitfalls and rife with opportunities to make bad financial decisions. Add in the emotional factor that many buyers get caught up in, and you have a recipe for some expensive mistakes.
How Do I Budget For The Well Being Of My Business?
Unfortunately, those of us who buy our camera(s) using emotion often end up spending most or our entire “camera budget” on the body itself. Guess what else in the package gets shortchanged? That’s right, everything needed to make that camera body function in the real word, not the fantasy world of our imagination. The key to real-world budgeting comes down to a few different factors. Pros generally use approved, name-brand media and batteries, neither of which is cheap. If you use a tripod and actually move the camera, you need a professional tripod and head, which aren’t inexpensive.
Especially when buying a new camera, don’t look at your “budget for a new camera” to decide which camera you can afford. Look at your budget for a camera package. The consensus is, any professional camera package needs enough battery power to shoot for a full day and enough media to shoot a minimum of a few hours of content per day all of the way up to enough media to shoot all day—six, eight or even 10 hours, depending on what you shoot and what your part of the business uses and demands.
If you’ve been in production a while, you may have most of everything you need for a basic camera package:
- Camera body
- Batteries and charging system
- Tripod and head
- Carrying case
- (Optionally) Gimbal, Steadicam-like device, slider
- (Optionally) Outboard recording device
- (Optionally) Operator and or client monitor
If you’re new to the business, you may have none of these camera support items. Conversely, if you’ve been shooting a few years or decades, you may have most or all of these items to support your new camera. Before you decide how much you can spend on a camera body, you need to do an assessment of what else you’ll need to efficiently operate the camera body in your types of production scenarios. You need to buy enough media to comfortably make it through shoots without sweating, having enough to complete your shoot should it take more takes/time for talent to get it right, extra B-roll you weren’t planning on shoot and so on.
As a general guideline, plan on budgeting between 25% and 50% of your total budget on camera support—everything besides the camera body. As an example, if your budget for your entire camera package is $10,000, you shouldn’t be contemplating that $8,500 camera body, unless you already own almost everything needed to make that camera be ready to work. If you’re a new shooter, and own little to no pro video gear, generally, you should be contemplating a camera body in the $5,000 range maximum, probably less if you don’t own audio, grip and lighting gear. Keep telling yourself, “It’s not all about the camera; it’s all about the production package.”
The Lens Exception
Even though lenses are grouped above as “camera support,” that budget allocation is for perhaps one standard kit lens zoom, the bare minimum to make your camera functional. It’s common for many camera owners to spend as much as their camera body cost or even more than the camera itself cost on a few high-quality lenses. Lenses are one of the few items you can buy related to production that often can hold or occasionally grow in value. The saying goes, “Good glass is forever” which is a bit of an exaggeration, but quality lenses can last for many years and generally are considered a good investment if you buy wisely. The caveat is, buying quality lenses for your camera is a separate and wholly unique expense, apart from your camera package budget.
You’ll find that budgeting this way is more of a mindset than a hard and fast equation. The example I talked about earlier uses a camera, but could just as easily be applied to an audio package (watch out for those expensive, really nice mixer-recorders when you really need better microphones), a grip package (buy quality, heavy-duty gear that will last or the inexpensive stuff off of Amazon?) or a lighting package (sure, that nice 1500-watt HMI would be so sweet but that’s just one light; what about all of the accessories to make it work?).
The bottom line is to think globally when budgeting. Amateurs buy cameras. Pros buy camera packages or at least think about the entire camera package when budgeting. They impose self-discipline and put on their business hat when the emotional lure of a new camera presents itself. A new camera won’t make you a better DP. 4K, 6K, 8K cameras or beyond won’t generally make you more profit. Avoid “keeping up with the latest” unless it directly affects your earnings and your clients are demanding it and will pay for it. Professionals buy within their means, acquiring gear that, while not cheap, will last, pay for itself and earn the owner money, adding to the bottom line earnings and viability of the business.
If you’re in this business as a pro, you must budget for your gear intelligently and logically. These tips and strategy are a good starting point.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.