Will Buying Your Own Camera Get You Work as a DP?
We take a look at the owner-operator model of cinematography — including the pros and cons of buying your own camera rig.
Almost every DP working today has, at some point in their career, lost a job to a college student willing to rent their camera package — at low or no cost to the production — in order to get the job.
Some go out and buy camera packages of their own, trying to gain a competitive advantage. Others invest in lenses and lights, in the hopes of getting hired to the production instead. But, does gear really get you jobs? And if so, are they the jobs that will advance your career?
When you’re just starting out, either transferring from another profession or graduating from film school, it can be very hard to get your foot in the door. Without a showreel or connections, it’s hard to get people to take a chance on you professionally. Buying a camera and offering it to the producer is one way to unstick this catch-22. On low- and no-budget shoots, the camera package rental is often the biggest expense. Producers are only too happy to overlook your inexperience if you’re going to save them hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars.
It becomes clear pretty quickly, though, that this isn’t a sustainable way to build a career. You can’t “pay to work” for long and expect to support yourself. I wish I could say, in my experience, that directors and producers remember the DPs they shot with when they were starting out without a budget, then hire them when they do have a budget. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. They typically hire more experienced DPs once they can afford to. You can build relationships by investing your own gear in productions, but not all of those relationships will pan out.
Another thing to factor into the “camera for hire” philosophy is that most productions that can’t afford to hire a camera, may not be able to hire other factors that go into making work worth putting on your showreel — like great locations, good actors, and production design. You may invest tens of thousands of dollars in gear to end up shooting first-time actors against white walls in a dark house.
The advantage of owning your own camera is being able to shoot your own work. You can put in the hundred or so hours necessary to really get to know a camera system, the images they produce, how to manage the data, and how to grade the final image.
Something else to think about when investing in a camera system is that you may end up being known as a “one-camera DP.” And, if the director or producer has different ideas about which camera they want to shoot their project on, you might not be hired. In my (albeit limited) experience, most owner-operator DPs have RED camera packages. Most feature films, in L.A. at least, are shot on the ARRI ALEXA system.
For the last ten years or so, since the RED ONE and ALEXA hit the market, those DPs who could afford to buy and rent out their systems certainly had an advantage. But the market is constantly changing, and the pace of evolution is accelerating. We may have reached critical mass, where there are so many camera systems available for rent, and the cameras out there are losing value so quickly, that it no longer makes sense to spend more than most people make in a year on something that may or may not get your hired. Time will tell.
Often, the best way to solve this is to buy a camera, but start at the bottom of the cinema camera price range. A Canon C200B shoots internal 4K RAW and is available new for $5K — secondhand for around $4K. You can get reconditioned RED Scarlets for the same price, and secondhand ALEXA Classics for under $10K. This means you won’t be going into debt for the rest of your career, and you will be able to shoot your own work, improve your reel, and get the experience that comes with owning a camera.
Cover image via ARRI.
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