Renting Versus Buying: The Best Way to Acquire Photography Equipment

Renting Versus Buying: The Best Way to Acquire Photography Equipment

Knowing when to buy and when to borrow can make a big difference to the bottom line of your photography business.

To be fair, I haven’t always been the best judge of this for my own business. My constant need to improve my process has made me better as a photographer but has also led to a number of head-scratching purchases that, at the time, seemed like must-haves but turned out to spend more time on the shelf than in my workflow. To address this problem, even before the onset of the pandemic made cost-cutting a necessity, this year, I instituted more of a rental policy for my business. Rather than spend a large chunk of revenue purchasing gear and thus reducing my net profit, I instead set myself a monthly rental budget instead. I’ve still ended up making a couple of purchases. But this dedication to a rental model has cut my gear expenses by over half, while at the same time allowing me to play with lots of new toys while still delivering my product to my customers.

Of course, this is a choice made based on my own personal tendency to overspend on gear. And it was instituted as much as a self-control mechanism as it was a strict business measure. You might not have this problem. And I wouldn’t suggest that this move would be best suited for everyone. It’s a matter specific to your business model, and there is no one size fits all answer to when one should rent versus when one should buy. But here are a few of the guidelines I’ve set for myself that help me to decide whether a piece of gear needs to live with me permanently or if a short visit will suffice.

When to Buy

So, how do you know when to actually purchase that piece of gear that you have on your wishlist? For me, there are a few circumstances that I keep in mind.

One, will I use this piece of gear frequently enough that it would actually cost me more to repeatedly rent it than it would cost to own it? The problem with buying photo gear is that it’s expensive, all that money goes out upfront, and you don’t always know how often you are going to use it. You think you know. I know I go into almost every purchasing decision fully convinced that I will use the item as often as my toothbrush. But things don’t always work out as planned.  

Of course, some things are easier to predict than others. Since we are talking about a photography business, it’s likely that you will use a camera every day. So, that’s probably something that falls into the buy category. But which camera you purchase and/or how many cameras you purchase are a completely different story. Most of us do need to have a camera. But whether or not we need 5,000 MP or 16K might be another issue. Spending $2,000 on a camera body versus spending $5,000 on a camera body could make a big difference, depending on your income. So, knowing which features you are going to actually use on a daily basis versus which features you might only use once or twice in the camera’s lifespan could help you make a better decision on what camera body you actually need to own versus rent. For instance, are you spending more on a high-megapixel camera but only actually print your work once in a blue moon? Are you drooling over 8K, but rarely have clients ask for more than 1080 as a deliverable?

I know more than one professional photographer who doesn’t own any cameras at all, choosing to rent on a project-by-project basis. I’m not so sure I could live in a house without at least one camera readily available. That would make me nervous, like not having my wallet or keys nearby. But, it works for them, so there is no one right way.

Part of the reason it would make me nervous not to own a camera, aside from not being able to take boring late-night selfies, is in the event that a last-second assignment arises and I don’t have time to make it to the rental house. My commercial shoots are likely planned weeks, if not months, in advance, so it’s unlikely to be an issue there. But it’s not unheard of for an editorial assignment to spring up last second when you get an email from a photo editor asking if you can get to such and such a hotel to shoot such and such celebrity by 5 pm because they’ll be back on a plane at 5:30 pm. It would kind of suck if you had to turn down a chance to photograph your dream subject because you couldn’t get your hands on a camera in time.

With that said, you might, in that example, only need to then own a less expensive camera with fewer megapixels for editorial printing needs versus needing to have $20,000 worth of cameras and lenses on hand at all times.

Especially in the commercial photography world, there is another really sound reason to invest in a piece of gear, even if it might seem prohibitively expensive at first. As a commercial photographer, as well as on some larger editorial assignments, you can build a gear rental expense into your budget for the project. This fee is presumably so that you can go to the rental house and rent the gear necessary to address that specific client’s brief. However, if you own the gear necessary yourself, you can rent the gear to yourself, recoup, and eventually turn a profit on the gear you have purchased. This scenario doesn’t play out in all genres of photography, however. So, you’ll need to know your own business model to decide if you can turn your purchased gear from an expense into a source of revenue.

When to Rent

We all like buying things. It’s human nature. I was looking at a friend's Instagram story the other day and got unreasonably excited to see an Amazon box sitting outside her door. I wasn’t even getting anything myself, but just the idea of opening a new box of goodies gave me a rush. But, as fun as Christmas in August might be, sometimes, it makes more sense to possess certain things on a more temporary basis.

I mentioned earlier that it might be a sign that you should purchase something if you know it’s something you are going to use on a daily basis and would thus be more expensive to continually rent. The opposite is also true.

Many times, I have convinced myself that I would use an item all the time only to realize after investing heavily that the item was really only useful on certain occasions. Not that the product itself was bad, but rather, it just simply wasn’t something that I needed on every shoot. We’ll take a tilt-shift lens as an example. If you are doing architectural photography or something similar, it is likely that you might use this every day. I am not an architectural photographer. Yet, even though I don’t do that kind of photography, I might want to use a tilt-shift lens on occasion to give a special look to a particular image. But it’s unlikely a look that I would personally want to apply to every image going forward. So, for me, it makes a lot more sense to simply rent that lens, take the one shot, then rent it again if I should ever need it in the future.

That is, of course, an extreme example, but the logic can be extended to other tools as well. I love the look of gimbal shots, for example, but the three I’ve purchased very rarely make it out of my gear bag on most shoots. So, it would make more sense for me to have rented those on a daily basis rather than investing in them upfront. Great product. But it’s not something that falls into the everyday category, so it might not be the most necessary tool to have in my closet full time.

The same goes for cameras. When shooting an advertising campaign, I am often required to shoot with medium format. I actually own a medium format camera that I can rent to my production. But prior to that, I would simply rent them as needed, while shooting everything that didn’t require medium format with my far less expensive Nikon.

As described earlier, the objective of deciding to own my own medium format camera was to turn a profit by renting it to my own production. But I was fortunate enough to be in a position to make that initial investment. Had I not been in that position, it would have made far more sense to have continued to rent medium format simply because the type of jobs that require it are also usually the kind of jobs with room in the budget to rent it. Even now that I own a medium format camera, I still go back and forth on whether that was a wise investment.

Certain tools like higher-end cameras or highly specialized tools can often seem cost-prohibitive. Luckily, many of those special tools aren’t necessarily required to create great art. And when they are required, it will be your client and not you who is paying the rental bill.

Of course, this rental approach can also work on the lower end of the scale as well. I always pine after the latest and greatest pocketable street cameras, for example. And because they cost so much less than my work cameras, it’s very easy to convince myself that their purchase would have a negligible impact on my bottom line. I have daydreams of how great it would be to have a light camera to take with me on vacation. And it would be great. The only question, however, is how often do I really go on vacation? Even prior to the pandemic, it’s not like I was spending a lot of time backpacking around the world. So, do I really need to drop $1,200 to $1,500 on a compact camera?  

It’s not that the camera isn’t great. And, believe me, I really do want one. But, if I’m in town, the odds are that I’m going to want to shoot with my DSLR anyway, despite the weight. I actually put this to the test earlier this year when I rented a Fuji X100F, which is a great camera, to use as my street camera for a month. After a couple of weeks, despite the small size, I noticed that I personally was still reaching for my larger DSLR more often than not. It wasn’t a knock on the compact camera, I just learned that I personally tend to always opt for my DSLR. So, if I were to purchase the new Fuji X100V, for example, it probably wouldn’t get much use except for vacations. And, I simply don’t travel enough for fun to justify buying one. I can, however, rent one for an incredibly low price and have one for the entirety of my rare European vacation for the cost of a week of groceries. So, even though the camera might not be expensive in comparison, it is still not something I would use every day, and thus cannot justify a need to own.  

That’s from a business perspective, though. Were I simply buying the camera for fun without the need for a cost-benefit analysis, I would likely use a different calculus. I actually just talked my dad into purchasing an X100V and he loves it. He does travel a lot. He does not make his living through photography. And the small, pocketable size is perfect for his needs. For him, owning the smaller camera and renting a bigger one should he ever need one makes the most sense.

These are all just basic questions I go through when making a purchasing decision. Your responses to the same questions would likely be very different. But, taking a harder look at when it makes sense to rent versus when it makes sense to buy has decreased my operating cost significantly this year, and it’s a practice I am planning on carrying with me well into the future.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Full disclosure; I own a rental house. On the other hand, more than a few times, I've told a customer, "You just need to buy that." But I have a simple formula that actually works if you roll the numbers: If you're going to use it 5 or more times a year, you should probably buy it. 3 or less, you should just rent it. 4 times a year is kind of a wash.

Good to see you here, Roger! You did medicine before jumping in to photo?

The formula could be dependent on rental days also. For instance, I've been wanting to shoot that Sony 600mm f4. I typically would only need it for the weekend, so I would rent it from Thur to Mon (4 days). I would have it a day early because FedEx is a fuckup. This gives a day cushion. Anyways, at $497 x 5 = $2,485 for the year. I would have to rent consistently for a little over 5 years to get to the $13,000 price of the lens. For my scenario, I'm probably better off just renting. Who knows what the next 5 years will hold.

But, definitely, for those that rent these items for a week or weeks at a time, the formula would make sense.

If you’re who I think you are, your place is my one and only rental source too!

I like that formula :-)

One good reason to rent is to try out an expensive piece of gear for a "test drive" before buying. One camera shop that is unfortunately out of business used to refund a rental fee if you purchased the same item in 30 days.

It depends. I worked at PIX in LA for a while when I first moved here. There were a few people who rented all the time, usually for magazine / editorial work. One customer said that she owned a light meter, rented everything else and billed the client. A few magazines had accounts so we billed them, not the photographer. Another guy had 8x10 and 4x5 systems but was now shooting lifestyle and fashion so he didn't want to "invest" in another system, another bill the client for the rental and rent the latest stuff.

It has settled down a bit but it was not that economically feasible to buy the first generations of MFDB, too many changes in resolution and prices too high...Let Roger invest in that stuff!