Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor or business expert and this article isn’t intended as a guide for your specific financial or business situation. It is a recounting of my experience and my opinions on the subject on what has worked for me. For advice about your financial or business decisions, please contact a qualified financial advisor or a trusted business mentor.

I want to start this post by acknowledging that I am not wealthy, nor do I come from a wealthy family. I am working towards becoming financially free at some point in my future, but I still have to work on a fairly consistent basis to earn income. With that said – there can be a disconnect with people understanding how I still need to work but own what most people would consider very expensive equipment.

When I was first starting out, I had never even dreamed of owning a camera that essentially costs the same as a mid sized car. I once had a hard time wrapping my head around spending more than $200 on a camera. Over the years, I was continually exposed to camera gear pricing and became less shocked at prices. Sometimes I’m brought back to reality when I speak to beginners who have trouble justifying the cost of camera gear.

Therefore, the goal of this article is to take beginners through the process and mindset I’ve gone through over the years to afford higher priced equipment as I progress to each new level.

Before I get too much into the details of this topic, here is the perspective in which I am writing from:

  • I do not have a trust fund from my family nor have I received any significant financial inheritances.
  • All of the major equipment purchases I’ve made have been with money that I’ve worked and saved for.
  • Large ticket items I couldn’t afford with savings I’ve put on credit cards and paid off over time.

Working your way up

When one begins to work at the professional level in your field, some tools of the trade can be very expensive. Sometimes, there is a big difference between a professional tool and a hobbyist tool. Other times, there are minor differences that make a big difference over time (comfort, durability, build quality, etc). Whatever the case, professional tools such as camera equipment, can get very expensive when you get to the higher tiers.

I’ve gotten the question “How did you afford that?” or comments like “Wow you have that camera/lens/etc? You must be doing well.” or “That’s really expensive” with wide open eyes. It’s easier to understand when you see the mechanics of how expensive equipment is purchased and paid off – that often people just aren’t successful out of nowhere and that owning expensive items such as equipment came from a lot of hard work.

My background

I grew up in a middle class family where both parents worked full time. I think my father single handedly brought our immediate family out of the lower class existence he grew up in so I need to acknowledge him for that – thanks dad. Although I am only child and my parents did a great job of not making me feel like money was a big issue, I still remember my parents intensely discussing and arguing about the state of financial affairs, savings, etc.

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 camera platform. 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 ‘I’ll never be able to afford that’. 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 from work, 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 to fund other things. I was lucky with my find, as I wouldn’t have been able to afford a brand new model without going into debt. 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 if I can avoid it, since I do not like paying interest on things.
  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: Some very 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. 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.