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?