How much gear is too much? And is there such a thing as having too little gear on hand?
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture with one of my favorite photographers, Kwaku Alston at Arri’s headquarters here in Los Angeles. It was a lighting and camera demonstration, but the line that stuck most in my head was something Kwaku said as an aside during his presentation.
Speaking on the age-old unanswered question that every photographer asks at some point, “how much camera and lighting gear do I actually need?” he relayed the words of one of his old professors. The professor, seeking to make the equation simple, suggested that a photographer should own just enough lights to be able to light a full length portrait on a clean white cyc.
Now, obviously, there’s no such thing as a perfect gear equation for every photographer; this was more of a guideline. But, as the quote continued to stick with me, I started to think that the suggestion had some relevance.
To light a subject on a white cyc, you’ll need at least one key light for the main subject. Depending on how you personally light a white cyc, you can use anywhere from 2 to 4 lights on your background depending on the modifiers available to you. Let’s throw in a fill light and maybe a hair light for those of you who prefer three point lighting on your subject. So, overall, you’re talking about between 3 to 7 lights total to have in your kit. Again, this is all hypothetical and will vary wildly based on your personal style. But I think it’s a good starting point.
The reason I think it’s a good starting point is because, as a professional photographer, you will probably spend a good bit of time lighting shots against a white cyc. Even if they don’t make your portfolio, there’s a good chance that they will help increase your income.
Owning these lights will help you get proficient at executing such shots. It will also mean that you will always have them on hand at the drop of a hat for when you get a last second call from a client and need to be on set first thing in the morning. Or, for when you have a client without a sufficient budget for gear rentals, you’ll have enough to execute the majority of photographic tasks you’d find necessary.
This brings me to point number two. What if your client brief demands that you light all of Yankee Stadium? Will 3 to 7 lights cut it? Well, here’s the thing. If your client really does absolutely require an image that lights all of Yankee Stadium, they really should have room in their budget for gear rental. So, you don’t necessarily need to own that level of equipment every day when most days it will just sit unused in your gear closet. For those days when you absolutely do need a small armada of lights, it makes more sense to rent those for specific jobs and bill them to the client.
What if your client won’t budge on the budget, yet still expects you to light Yankee Stadium with your own personal gear? Well, first, it might make sense for you to have an honest conversation with them about what they will need to sacrifice visually in order for that to happen based on the budgetary restriction. Two, if you absolutely need to rent extra gear yourself, you can totally still do that for less money than having to purchase all the equipment to have it on hand full time. And three, if you are going to rent extra gear for a production that’s not paying for it, you’re going to want to look extra hard at your profit/loss statement on that particular job to make sure it’s worth the trouble in the first place.
But, I digress. Everyone’s lighting style and clientele are different, so there are no hard and fast rules. But I do think the white cyc guideline is a good place to start. It will ensure that you have enough light to handle 95% of potential assignments. It should be enough to cover the vast majority of clients who call at the last second without giving you a chance to prepare or who don’t have the budget to splurge on elaborate productions. If you’re creating personal work, it’s likely to be a sufficient level of illumination to do a large variety of things. It’s also an attainable level of lights for you to acquire without going broke. Especially if you look at the used market, or maybe even opt for speedlights over strobes. It’s also important to know that you don’t have to buy everything at once.
Over time, we all begin to acquire more and more gear. But there is a point, when you make a living through your craft, where acquiring too much gear will have a diminishing return on investment.
But is there such a thing as having too little gear? There are professional photographers who own no gear at all. They rent everything they need per each production. This makes fiscal sense as it makes it easy to prevent yourself from spending more on equipment than you are taking in.
Personally, I don’t know how I’d function without at least a little gear on hand for when I just want to go out and create and don’t feel like taking a trip to the rental house. Or for when I get a last minute call from a magazine outlet asking if I can go shoot such and such celebrity two hours from now in a tight fifteen minute window they have between events. You don’t get those calls everyday, but I don’t know if I’d personally feel comfortable relying that heavily on rented gear (unless perhaps I lived above a rental house).
I think I’d also miss the trust I’ve built up with my core gear over the years. I know it’s quirks. It’s been in and out of battle with me enough that I trust it not to let me down. And, if it does, I already have enough experience with it to know what plan B and C will be just in case. Rental houses usually maintain their gear well, but it’s still something like marrying someone you just met that morning and placing your job security in their hands.
I think the move is to personally own just enough gear to execute “your” photograph. For some, that means owning 10 lights and a suitcase full of gels. For some that means owning exactly one light, one camera, and one prime. Whatever it is that you utilize to make your signature shot that clients are most likely to be calling you to recreate, it makes sense to own. Everything else required to go above and beyond likely makes financial sense to rent on an as needed basis.
To extend the concept further, the same rule of thumb could be applied to camera gear and accessories as well. Do you really need to own that $50,000 medium format camera? Or does it make more sense to invest in a versatile full frame DSLR, or maybe even an APS-C mirrorless, and simply rent medium format cameras for clients who have the budget and genuinely need that level of quality for printing? Do you really need to own every lens a manufacturer produces when you only ever use one or two and the rest just add weight to your camera bag?
I know personally I’ve bought at least three gimbals that I convinced myself I would use on a daily basis, but, in reality, I rarely take the time to actually set up. They are great products, but fiscally it would have made far more sense for me to have rented them when I was actually going to use them rather than purchase them outright.
All photographers are different, so you’ll need to make the decision yourself on what level of gear is most worth the investment for the type of work you do. But, just remember that “renting” isn’t a bad word. Balance sheets have two columns, revenue and expenses. And all the revenue in the world doesn’t make much difference unless it leads to a net profit.
So spend wisely. Unless, of course, you are independently wealthy and photography is a hobby which doesn’t need to turn a profit. In that case, head over to B&H, and ask for two of everything on aisle four.