Archive for October, 2011

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Buying Kit- Investment vs Indulgence

October 12, 2011

While I’m more of a director by nature, I’ll hold my hand up high and admit I’m a bit of an equipment guy. I like new toys. Cameras, lights, grip gear… You can keep your computer-nerdery and software (I don’t give a monkey’s about RAIDs or how good the new version of Final Cut is) – but cameras and lights and things I can get on board with. Maybe it’s the Lighting Cameraman in me.

The problem is, when you’re a bit of a camera-fetishist, there’s always this never-sated desire to buy/acquire new toys that’s being strangled by the inadequacies of your wallet. Like the average reader of Evo magazine, you can’t afford the things you lust after and read about and you quote specs and opinions as if they were the product of your own personal experiences. Just to make yourself feel better. But if money’s your only obstacle, a bit of thriftiness, a lot of hard work and some probably quite stupid loan conditions that promise away your first-born will get you closer to your goal. But, once your bank balance has met your demands, no matter how willing and ready you are to buy, there will always be the nagging voice of your wife/family/friends/conscience asking you to justify the purchase. Is this an investment or an indulgence? Something you need that will earn you money back or something you want because you want it?

Such is the kit-obsessed’s lament. And the fact that there is always something bigger, nicer, better and more enviable (also known as the RED Scarlet- a cocktease that will probably never put out!) lurking seductively round the corner doesn’t help either. Even given that the price gap between consumer and pro kit (DSLRs for instance) has shrunk and blurred like the genitalia of a streaker on BBCs football coverage, the decision to lay down money is still a tough one.

To put things in perspective- I’m all for buying your own kit. A lot of film schools and lecturers will advise new filmmakers against throwing money into stuff like cameras:

“Rent it when you need it”

“It’ll be obselete next week anyway”

“Mne mne mne mne mnehh…”

And they do have a point. But if you’re the sort of filmmaker who will actively go out and shoot stuff- weddings, small corporates, music videos, short films, anything to learn and improve- then while the actual kit purchase should be treated like an indulgence (only spend what you can afford and are willing to never see again), the experience you get from all the work you do will make it a worthwhile investment.

My first “pro” camera was a Sony DSR PDX10. The stumpy little brother of the landmark PD150. It cost me (or more accurately, my credit card) £1600 in 2006 but I bought it because I knew that having my own camera was going to be invaluable to me at college. I wouldn’t have to hire anything from the kitroom, I could shoot my class projects when I felt like it- often the day before hand-in at a moment’s notice- and I could pimp myself out for music videos, weddings and any other opportunities that came up. I went for the PDX10 over the Canon XM series (the other cameras in my price bracket) because of it’s pedigree build quality and the tumour-like XLR block on top which allowed me to use pro audio gear. Which I’d buy later on ebay, but that’s another story… Was it an investment, kit-wise? No. I wasn’t going to get hired for many jobs because I have that particular camera (there wasn’t much demand for the so-compact-it-looks-unimpressive PDX10 at that time, or any time for that matter) but it would enable me to make videos of a reasonable standard and I’m still impressed at how well the standard def pictures from that thing hold up today.

So camera gear is usually not an investment unless you buy it when it’s the hot shit on the market and have the work lined up to pay for/because of it. For most filmmakers, particularly those struggling near the bottom of the industry ladder, the camera is an indulgence that offers the opportunity to get more experience and make a few quid on the side. Lights and sound gear on the other hand are nearly always a great investment.

The first lights I bought were shitty little video lights that got very hot, were uneven, had no barn doors or stands and had a tendency to make unattractive burning smells at the least provocation. The fifty quid I spent on Ebay on those three fire hazards was a lesson in not buying complete shit without knowing what you’re doing. I then bought a set of Chinese redheads with stands and these were most definitely a better investment.

Although I paid £200 for them (which as a poor, recent graduate was more than I could afford), I got several jobs in quick succession because I had lights. It was what set me apart from the other young aspiring professionals- I had old school pro lights and pro sound kit (a couple of rifle mics and boompole of ebay) to go with my low budget but pro-pedigree camera. In fact the first job earnt me £200 four days after the lights arrived in the mail- the quickest return in my career! When they malfunctioned early last year, it was a sad day. And since I couldn’t afford to get them fixed, I made do with a couple of £30 yellow worklights from B&Q (there won’t be a picture since I don’t want to embarrass myself), which I actually made work quite well for me even if I did look like a knobhead turning up with them in my gaffer’s kit. Although I now use LED panels from Coollights, I can quite honestly say that lights are the second best investment a filmmaker can make.

And the first best investment? Sound. A good mic or two will do wonders for your work. A reasonable shotgun mic from the likes of Sennheiser, Sony, AT or Shure can be found quite cheaply on Ebay. Ditto a good carbon-fibre boom pole. I got an Audio Technica AT835B rifle mic and a Panamic boom for about £80 each. XLRs are easy enough to come by and decent headphones, while costly, are worth their weight in gold (I use Sennheiser HD20s but the SP versions are a good budget alternative and you’ll likely find a few online because they sell them subsidised on first class airlines). Other good investments include lenses if you’re using an interchangeable lens camera (although you have to decide the format that’s going to work best for you in the long run) and I’ve also found a B Hague pipe dolly has been a great addition to my kit, despite it spending the last three shoots in my car, unused.

At the end of the day, the trick when buying gear is knowing whether it’s an investment that’ll pay for itself financially with work, an investment that’ll pay in experience or an indulgence that will sit on a shelf until you reluctantly (or eagerly, if you’re always after the latest thing) put the thing on Ebay or Craigslist. If it’s an investment, spend wisely- cameras are rarely worth the extra money in the long run because technology and fashion move too fast but lights and sound gear hold their value well. Scrimp when you can (B&Q worklights anyone?) and spend when it’s worth it but always put the work first.

There’s no point having a full toybox if no-one ever comes round to play.

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