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|| News Item: Posted 2003-02-01

Gear Factor: To buy or rent?
By Joey Terrill

Photo by Joey Terrill

Photo by Joey Terrill

LPGA Golfer Natalie Gulbis photographed for Golf Digest.
The other day, while I was signing the check to my insurance carrier, I realized that for the first time in my twenty-year career, the amount I was insuring was going to top six figures. To make matters worse, I was also contemplating the purchase of a digital back for my medium format cameras. Stunned, I found myself muttering, "My business is going to drive me out of business."

The explosion of digital imaging has greatly increased the investment in equipment. Digital cameras, computers and accessories--and their accelerated depreciation-- has become a larger accounting entry in the cost of doing business than ever before. And who pays for all this stuff? In most cases, we do. Unfortunately, we're probably not being compensated enough to justify the investment.

Photographers are also being asked to cover a wider range of assignments that require an ever-expanding arsenal of gear. For example, one day you could be shooting action with long glass, the next day you could be shooting a portrait on medium format. Next week you could be doing something strobed using the Wizard system. The point is, each assignment would require a different set of tools to complete the project.

It's these "tools" and their associated investment costs that got me thinking about the way the editorial market is structured. How much financial sense does it make to invest in $20,000 worth of cameras and lenses and then be paid a few hundred dollars per assignment? I pay my plumber a few hundred to fix my drain and all he shows up with is a $15 wrench.

So why not just rent the gear instead?

Many photographers do just that and bill the rental back to the client. But there's always the problem of finding the gear you need, going to the rental house to get it (usually after 4pm), hoping that it functions properly on the job, and then returning it the next day--usually before10am. Way too much hassle and time for me. Besides, I like having my own gear.

So I asked myself, "Self, if you can rent the gear and bill it to the client, why can't you own it and bill it to the client?" Why not, indeed. Why should a photographer who has chosen not to invest the money in owning gear have her rental paid for, while the guy who bought everything not be compensated at the same rate? Anyone?... Anyone?...

Here's some numbers to ponder: Take a typical portrait photographer (me) assigned to shoot a rising young athlete for a national editorial client. It will probably be shot on a Hasselblad. That one case of cameras and lenses would cost $236 per day to rent. (I checked) Add to that, strobes, meters, filters, stands, lightboxes, etc., and the rental bill would easily surpass a typical editorial fee for the assignment.

Photo by Joey Terrill

Photo by Joey Terrill

David Duval photographed for Golf Digest.
Now, is the day rate being paid for the gear, or for me? If it's for the gear, then I should stay home while the gear goes out and does the assignment for me. If it's for me, then someone should have to pay for the gear to go out with me.

But every photographer has to own at least a "basic" set of equipment, right?

Okay. But what is considered basic and what is considered "billable" to the client? Is 35mm film gear the basics, or is digital (along with computer, storage, etc.) now the basics? Is a complete medium format system also part of a basic setup, or is that billable? Is part of it basic and part of it "billable?"

How about lighting gear? Is a two strobe set-up basic? Four? Six? For portable lighting, is a battery unit like a Profoto 7B at $5,000 basic, or would basic be considered an on-camera strobe? How about digital? Is a 1D basic? How about the second body? How about the third? Is the $100 Photoflex lightbox basic or is the $750 Elinchrom Octabank? Cartier-Bressson made most of his pictures using one camera and a 50mm lens. Maybe we should start there and bill the rest.

In any case, if having a "basic" set of tools is a requirement, then we're one of the minorities in the visual arts. Film directors, cinematographers, music video directors rent--and bill--everything to the client. Their "basic" tools? A directors finder that costs about $500.

Whether to rent, own, or lease is clearly up to each photographer. The bigger question is what to bill for (and probably equally important, what the client will swallow). $300, $400, $500 in "billable" rental increases the bottom line of the invoice. If you don't own the gear and rent, you save on up front investment, depreciation, insurance, repairs, etc. If you do own the gear and "rent" it to the client, that increases your revenue, and by extension, the money in your pocket. And that's a good thing -- even if you just use the money to buy more gear.

(Joey Terrill is a freelance photographer specializing in portraits based in Southern California. He is a regular faculty member at the Rich Clarkson Workshops. This is his first article for Sports Shooter.)

Related Links:
Joey Terrill's member page

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What do you do when software testing loses it's luster?? Make my hobby, my job!! ::..