Before I get too much into the details of this topic, I want you to know the perspective in which I am writing from:

  • I do not have a trust fund from my family nor did I receive an inheritance.
  • All of the major equipment purchases I’ve made have been with money that I’ve worked and saved up for.
  • The large ticket items I couldn’t afford with savings I’ve put on credit cards and paid off over time.

Working your way up if you’re not independently wealthy

I’ve gotten the question “How did you afford that?” or comments like “Wow you have XYZ? You must be doing well” or “That’s really expensive”. It’s easier to understand when you see behind the curtain – that often people just aren’t successful out of nowhere and that owning expensive items such as equipment came from a lot of work.

I grew up in a lower-middle class family. My parents worked and sacrificed their own immediate comfort and desires so they could be comfortable in their retirement and provide me with better education and schooling than what they had. From my upbringing, even a $200 camera was expensive when I started working in the real world.

6 years ago I was in the same boat with similar questions and comments that most people have when they haven’t invested into high end equipment for whatever reason. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would come to own a RED camera. When I looked at the price tag compared to my Canon t3i at the time, it didn’t even register as a reality. Why would I spend more money on a camera than I can get a car for?

I did not work on large sets when I was first starting out. Because of this, I did not have access to these higher end tools. Later I came to find some of my favorite fashion photographers and directors were shooting on RED, so I eventually became interested in the ecosystem. Once I decided I wanted to own one, I looked for ways of how to obtain one. I think making a decision is the first important step; once your mind has decided on something, the problem then becomes ‘how do I achieve this’ instead of ‘that’s too expensive’. Whatever your priority is, your mind will focus on.

Over the course of the next two years I saved money. Combined with the small savings I had I was able to purchase a used Scarlet-MX. It was the lowest end model I could afford, from a student who was selling it at a really low price. I was lucky with my find, as I wouldn’t have been able to afford a brand new model. It was more than just about buying the equipment – it was a gateway for me to understand the best way for me to save and get over the mental barrier of a high cost item, but also being financially responsible and not go into debt.

How to afford an expensive camera/lenses/etc

Here are the steps I use to purchase camera equipment:

  1. I decide I am going to buy something.
  2. I take a look at my current finances. Do I have enough saved up? If it negatively will affect my savings or my ability to have a rainy day fund, I will look into 0% APR credit cards. I’ve found that if I can pay my debt off in 15-18 months, I can essentially have no interest on it. I do NOT take out loans because I do not want to pay interest.
  3. If I cannot afford what I want after taking account of my finances and my credit cards, keep working until I am financially ready to afford it. By that point, usually 1-2 years later depending on my saving habits, I will be ready to purchase either through savings or credit. However I’ve found that I may have grown out of my desire to own the thing I wanted. Then I have enough for the next thing that comes along without having to work so hard towards it.

There have been a lot of things I’ve wanted to buy but simply didn’t because I did not want to put myself in a precarious financial situation. I would love to buy a fully loaded, $80k brand new Alexa Mini on a loan. However, in order for me to pay it back in a timely manner, I would have to rent my camera out frequently on projects that I am not working on. I’m not interested in maintenance and dealing with pickups and drop offs, and I do not want to be paying back a loan with interest for 2+ years by not using additional rental income to pay the camera off. Typically, I purchase items I can pay back within an interest free 15-18 month period.

Don’t let the gear define you

Although owning gear can be lucrative, here’s something to think about: A few of the most successful cinematographers I know in their 20s and 30s do not own and never have owned major camera equipment. They started out renting and rent now. They are more well known and command higher day rates than I do working on higher profile projects. If something is currently out of reach for you financially, there are other creative ways of making great images, and people are out there proving it every day.

As a cinematographer I’ve always had a camera for personal projects as well as work projects. The size/price/etc of the camera may go down in the near future to not have to worry about figuring out a financial strategy for myself; but until then I’ve found a combination of saving and using 0% APR credit cards the best method for me to finance these items.

Note: I am not a financial advisor and this post isn’t intended as a guide for your specific financial situation. It is a recounting of my experience. For advice about business purchases please contact a qualified financial advisor.