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How Much Free Kit a Small YouTube Channel Receives and the Ethics of It

How Much Free Kit a Small YouTube Channel Receives and the Ethics of It

I am sure you have noticed that a lot of YouTubers receive large amounts of free gear. I myself have a very small YouTube channel, and my doorbell rings most days with deliveries of free kit. Let's talk about what we get, the expectations, and the ethics of that.

I started out on YouTube about a year ago because I was outraged by a trending video about food styling that was completely wrong but was watched by millions. I then decided I needed a new hobby, and off I went. I have set up a few income streams around it since the pandemic hit, but it makes up less than 3% of my income currently, although it takes about 7% of my time. However, as photographers, I am sure you are all aware of how strange those percentages can actually look on paper. I make the majority of my income in three days, but if I didn’t work for the other 200+ days a year, I wouldn't have the skill set to make those days. 

After a while of messing about and learning audio, video, and editing, I hit 10,000 subscribers, at which point the emails and delivery folk started turning up in force. I assume there is a company that collects details of people in each niche of YouTube when they reach a certain point, because it was like a switch being turned on. 

The emails vary from cons where they want you to buy from Amazon in exchange for a PayPal refund with the expectation that you leave the product a good and long review. Having since gone back to read some of these products, a lot of them seem to have come from this source. Then there are to brands wanting to build ongoing relationships and those just wanting you to mention a product in a video either for free or for a small fee. 

My Personal Ethics

The fees on offer to a channel of my size are so small that I turn them down; I don’t overly want to be a walking advertisement for small change, not that I think there is anything wrong with that. Perhaps if I were in a different position channel size-wise or financially, I would see this very differently. In terms of free gear, a certain brand kitted out my office recently, which I agreed to in exchange for showing it in a video where I mention it was given to me free of charge. A second brand gave me an entire color management system for free with no strings attached. I did, however, already have several thousand dollars of their gear kicking about, so it felt ok to me. Some brands whose kit I really don’t care for have offered me things, and I tend to politely decline if they send a thought-out email or ignore it if it is just a very generic one. 

When trying to buy new gear, looking for reviews of any use online is really hard. Most (not all) reviews are of kit that has been sent on loan or gifted in exchange for a review. I am in the fortunate position to have a very well kitted out studio and I own all of the gear inside, so my ethics are obviously guided by my lack of need and more importantly lack of storage space. However, if this were a hobby and I didn't have all of the gear already, I think I would more than likely fall in line. It's easy to have my ethos on this when you do not have any need for the content or kit.

I make sure that I always say when I have been given something for free, mostly for my own peace of mind knowing that I haven’t misled anyone into buying something that wasn't right for them because they thought I had purchased it. I do, however, feel that if I were a gear review channel that the pressure to say nice things in order to stay in the loop of the brand to get further kit for further gear reviews might swing my judgment. I am fortunate enough to have a good relationship with a family-run rental house that we use for productions, and this allows me to borrow kit and say whatever I like about it free of charge. 

What Do I Get Sent?

So, how much does a small channel receive without reaching out to brands or trying to get anything for free at all? Because of my profession, my email address and physical location are very easy to find with a single click of a button, so I get a lot of companies skipping out the email part and just sending things directly. Most have a note inside, some have no note whatsoever. 

I won’t list any brand names here, as the majority bar the very well-known brands were unsolicited deliveries. I even had the joy of paying import tax on one of these that I have absolutely no use for! In the last month, I have received:

  • Monitor calibration systems
  • Camera calibration systems
  • Color readers
  • Wireless lav mics
  • Shotgun mic
  • High-end camera bags 
  • Expensive desk lamp
  • Monitor e-lamps for desktops and laptops
  • Three different LED ring lights
  • 2 different sets of 2 LED light panels
  • 1 carbon fiber tripod
  • 1 fluid video head
  • 1 $500 led and softbox
  • 1 $500 S mount LED
  • 8 really useless light stands 
  • Numerous free downloads of software with codes (I haven’t downloaded any) 
  • 2 phone-sized LED panels
  • 1 large flexi LED panel that is waterproof to 30 meters 
  • 1 monitor 
  • Several bags of coffee beans (this I am happy about)

The above list adds up to several thousand dollars, and I would take a rough guess that 75% of the items are being given to friends or photographers who know my friends. 

Let's get to the sticky end of this, though. I am a very small breadcrumb on the fringe of a small sub-niche on YouTube and have no financial needs from this sort of income. Having worked for brands and with influencers in the past, I have certainly seen how they get around giving full disclosures, and I have noted in the comments on some of my videos that people think I am being paid by brands, when in fact I am paying the brand for the service. The trust from the public is clearly long gone by this point, so what can be done to firstly get good quality unbiased reviews?
And secondly, how can we be certain of the hidden relationships that exist between photographers and brands? 

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Michael Comeau's picture

There is a major problem with non-disclosure of these relationships on YouTube and elsewhere.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes I totally agree. Whats more concerning is how few people even know this is a thing. Those in the know can almost always spot it, but some people don't have a clue that it even goes on. Big pros who claim to work with a micro 4/3rds camera, but when on set clearly have a Hassleblad and the likes.

g coll's picture

Peter McKinnon, Matti Haapoja have been some of the worst exponents of non-disclosure whom unfortunately have some of the biggest followings.

I will never watch a video from either of those guys again.

Cool Cat's picture

I agree and a great example. At one time Peter McKinnon was a good channel, but now he promotes his own products, ie. ND Filters, Coffee, Back Bags, etc.. Why pay someone to make his commercials when he can do it himself. And of course they are the best and most thoughtful design... they are his products.

Michael Comeau's picture

There's nothing wrong with promoting products. The problem comes when someone is being paid to promote a product and not disclosing it.

Cool Cat's picture

True, however the problem with promoting your own products is obviously being bias.

g coll's picture

I saw someone review his backpack along with some others. Far too overpriced. He's just milking it now it seems. Also he calls himself a filmmaker but is he really? I'm not sure he actually does commercial work at all and youtube videos are not films.

Cool Cat's picture

All his stuff is over priced. And he often uses click-bate to get views on short clips that has nothing to do with anything except promote his products. So yes, I agree he is milking the system. But I seen some excellent commercial work he's done. He's talented and I do admire his coloring that give a nice cine look. What drives me nuts is his overblown excitement introducing his own products as the greatest thing on earth. Kind of like Apple Computers (which I do own).

Evan Kalman's picture

There is a saturation of bloggers/vloggers who brand as if they are active commercial photographers when in fact they make the majority of their income from teaching others or sponsored content. Nothing wrong with that, but I wish there was more honesty behind the “I make six figures as a photographer” statement.

Fabien Butazzi's picture

Much worse to me is Kai W. I follow him since DigitalRev and that was a veeery good channel back then, with some great inspiration (at least to me). Since he's now massively into gear reviews, I can't trust a single word he says and I know others feel the same. For example, he was reviewing a Sony camera once and spent half of the video dissing Fujifilm but in the exact next video he was reviewing and praising a camera from Fuji, a brand he always loved and used extensively. And while he says (not always) that brands invite him to event or send him gear, he never states if he's paid or not (and one occasion I know of he was).

Fristen Lasten's picture

@g coll - Are there any Canadians on that list? Canadians from Toronto, to be exact.

Cool Cat's picture

Peter McKinnon and most of his friends are in Toronto or pretty close but still in Ontario.

Bert McLendon's picture

I'm thinking that you could splinter off a quick coffee review YouTube Channel running parallel to the photography channel. Photographers love their coffee! Make it happen, Scott! =P

Scott Choucino's picture

I don't need any encouraging to drink more coffee haha. I had chest pains from it today!

Bert McLendon's picture

That's when you know you're doing it right! hahaha

ron fya's picture

Scott, did you also received your cat after hitting the 10k subs on your channel ? When can we expect a review of this little fella?
And more importantly, how many shots did it take to have it face the camera on your profile pic (the best one ever for a photographer btw) ?

Scott Choucino's picture

haha I think most of the subscribers came when I got the cat!

It was actually just a single frame I took at the end of a video. So only one, sadly it was at a 50th as I didnt change the shutter speed so doesn't look great big, but online looks fine and like I am a bond villain

ron fya's picture

bond villain :D LMAO

Dave F's picture

I think a problem with society in general is just an inability to really nitpick through BS and distill it down to its actual message. I don’t consider myself old by a long stretch but I’ve seen stuff like this on YouTube for a while now and it never really struck me as anything new or specific to YouTube. It just seems more prevalent there because in general all the numbers are higher (user base, number of channels, etc). But it’s all just a subset of the overall human condition, throughout history, to gain power and authority by manipulating yourself into a position where people want to listen to you. In this case, if you say nice things about a brand, a brand will send you stuff, and if you’re the person a brand is sending stuff to, people assume you are an authority on the subject or product. You’ll find similar behavior in politics, religion, all over the business world, etc.

Every job I ever worked at, the sales and marketing people were obviously the ones pitching the company’s products or services, but it was always amazing to see how much authority with which they delivered their message when in reality they were the least educated people in the company about what the product or service did or was even capable of. But there they were, out on the front lines, speaking on behalf of the company.

I think once you've become attuned to certain phrases and presentation methods, it's easy see through them and filter it out, but it’s easy to forget that it clearly works on a lot of people, otherwise they wouldn’t still be doing it that way.

Anyway, my point is that disclosures mean very little in a lot of cases because when you boil down what they’re actually saying in their review, you can usually tell if they know what they’re talking about or not, and just as many people will immediately dismiss a good review just because somebody said they were given something to say it. The focus, as always, should be on the content. Unfortunately, that requires a more complex thought process and a lot of people don’t want to invest the time or energy. They just want to be told what to do and what to get and how to do it. And therein lies the problem.

David Love's picture

I don't watch anyone if the only work of theirs they are showing is them using a product they received. Channels I watch are Film Riot (who actually do projects), Curtis Judd (great reviews without bias), Indy Mogul, Gerald Undone (who receives stuff but isn't biased) and Ponysmasher because he's honest and his work includes films like Shazam. Potatojet and people like him are just commercials for products these days.

Mike Ditz's picture

SInce it is your channel it is up to you if you want to keep the products that are sent to you to review. There is no legal department over seeing what you do or code of conduct that you need to follow.
To me keeping the stuff is a little sketchy if you want to be trusted, review it send it back or what a friend of mine does is raffle it off to support an animal charity or give it away.
One acquaintance keeps the stuff and says it helps him evaluate in a real world setting, guy #2 wants the "church and state" separation so nothing is kept even when they say "keep it! we don;t need it anymore" he feels he can be more honest in the reviews.
Then there are the people who love everything because they get free stuff and eventually go on trips to resorts for reviews...that is more entertaining than a "review".

Scott Choucino's picture

I like the idea of raffling it for charity. Maybe that’s better than giving it away. I’m not sure shipping it back to Chiba from the UK is a good idea in terms of. Carbon footprint so maybe a local raffle is best.

Mike Ditz's picture

Are there any photo schools around you that would like the stuff? Do they still teach photography in high schools?

Richard Bradbury's picture

None disclosure is a huge problem as are the so called reviews from folk that have had a bit of gear for 5 mins.

I made a point to put up a video disclosing my working relationship with Pixapro as a partner studio, I want to be up front about what is going on.

I have had emails offering gear for review but am yet to answer any of them.

Not sure I would want a load of free gear randomly turning up at the moment and whilst I may do the odd review I don't want to be a review channel.

Here is the mark what ever of x camera... zzzzzzzzz boring.

Robert CudlippJett's picture

I always avoid channels, videos that are clearly paid for, or largely assisted by camera or gear makers.
Quite a number now are assisted by Square Space, of on use to me, but there is clear disclosure of this at the beginning of the videos.
There are also some excellent review channels, particularly Christopher Frost from Wales, who is hamstrung in the gear he can review as he is unable to afford to purchase the items in question.
Now that his viewer base has increased, he appears to be receiving bodies, and more particularly lens. to review. His YT channel is very much a sideline for him. In order to assist, I make Patreon contributions on a monthly basis, however, he would need far more individuals than me to receive any significant financial assistance.

ignacy matuszewski's picture

I think the core of publicity is messed up, people who write or make yt videos need to have some content, it's far easier for them to make content with some sort of sponsoring. It's clearly visible with all of those "review" channels bashing at one camera and then milking the other. It's so damn cruel to see everyone says exactly the same about the new hasselblad / sony / fuji / canon and stuff. In the reality the camera itself is not that important, but these people market it as the most important stuff in your career. Six years ago i've lost big amount of money because of youtube / fstopper reviews of the original Sony A7, which was pure rubbish, but whole internet seemed to scream how good it is. In reality when comparing the newest A73 to old 1DsIII the difference is really minor if you know how to use light....

Deleted Account's picture

As far as creating trust, I think that ultimately comes from the quality of your reviews regardless of how you get your gear. If your reviews are carefully done and honest so that they consistently reflect the experience of users who will subsequently purchase that gear, then you will naturally develop a reputation as a trustworthy person. If every review of everything is full of nothing but praise and you consistently miss flaws that users who buy that gear notice, then you're going to develop a reputation as a shill. Trust isn't something that can be immediately built with some magic action. It is something that is built up with a lot of hard work over time (and something easily torn down).

Personally I don't have a problem with anyone receiving loaner gear because it would be pretty impractical for review channels to function without some sort of access. It's not reasonable to expect them to outright buy every single thing that they dedicate a single video on their channel to. I don't really have a problem with people who receive gear to keep and then run some sort of giveaway for it after the review either (or if they donate it to someone who needs it). People who receive free gear and actually keep it to use certainly give me more reason to pause, but that just means that I'll be scrutinizing their wording a lot more and seeing if there's any obvious thing that they're avoiding. To be honest, no matter what you do (even if you buy everything yourself) there will always be some segment of the internet that accuses you of being on a company's payroll. There's no winning that war so it's best not to try. Just act with integrity and review things fairly.

On the note of reviewing things fairly, one thing that I do appreciate quite a bit is when people mention alternate products or methods of achieving similar (or the same) results in their reviews. For instance, if you're reviewing a scrim, just taking a moment to be like "Yeah, you can pretty much do this with tracing paper if you want to save a lot of money." goes a long way to showing people that you're looking out for them.

Jan Holler's picture

"...what can be done to firstly get good quality unbiased reviews?" - "how can we be certain of the hidden relationships that exist between photographers and brands?"

Well, first of all: thank you for your honesty and secondly: This is exactly what is answering the questions.

In journalism, the problem, which is getting bigger and bigger for some while now, is paid content. To never accept it is the basis for trust. There should be no such thing as "paid content". Paid content is nothing more than advertising. And it should be declared as such. There should be (has to be) a clear separation of content and advertisement. Anything else will degrade the trust. Some very reputed newspaper here started to integrate paid content and have it look like editorial content (same font, almost same style, same number of columns, a very small hint about paid content only). That has been harshly criticised. Now it is still there but at least a bit better to distinguish. Sure there are a lot of readers who still do not. And last but not least: Each newspaper decides for itself what kind of advertisement it wants to publish.

If the reader, or here the YT-watcher, cannot distinguish between paid and editorial content he or she will sooner or later regard all content to be paid content and therefore not to really trust.

Scott, I have a little question: If you are sent equipment and you decide not to keep it, would you have to pay the postage to return it, or is it "just" the time you need to re-address it and get it in the mail?

Mike Ditz's picture

Reviews of movies, cars, photo stuff, etc are not news or unbiased but hopefully any freebies are mentioned by the reviewer. Or obvious in the case of that guy whose studio seems to have every bit of ProPhoto set up like a show room...

Jan Holler's picture

It is an analogy. Nothing a person ever says or writes can be unbiased btw.

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