A conversation with a colleague recently made me think about this topic. Over the years I’ve met many photographers who will say to me during the course of a conversation, “I really need to learn video…”. When I dig deeper, more often than not I find out that it’s because their clients are asking if they can provide that service along with their photography.
And I think that is the crux of the problem for most of them. They approach it with a “I have to learn this” mentality, instead of it being something they are really internally excited and curious about – in other words, “I NEED to learn this”.
The photographers I have come across who have made it to the stage of buying equipment and shooting a few videos give up after a short time (1-2 years). Maybe it’s because they’re not great immediately and it’s not up to par with their level of photography, or maybe it’s realizing that it’ll take years and years of continual learning and practice to build skills. Whatever it is, something stops them.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely exceptions of people who do end up loving it, practice hours and hours and hours and get really good and who can call themselves legit photographers AND film directors. I’m not dismissing that. But from my anecdotal experience, those are not how most people I’ve known turn out.
If you’re a photographer who feels like you need to catch up and learn video for a business need more than to satisfy some internal need to create, you may want to do some soul searching on the topic.
The way I learned to be a cinematographer was through sheer practice and curiosity. What kept me going was wondering about the mystical ability of a camera to interpret real life and record it into a nice image. It still astonishes me today how a camera interprets life. At some points of my life recording a moving image was most of what I thought about, even when I wasn’t doing it full time.
For the first couple of years I started, I took a little dslr with me everywhere. Outings, vacations, holidays, heck – even to lunch with coworkers. I had my camera with me wherever I could take it. I would film as much as I could. Most of it wasn’t notable, but it was so fun. I would then take the footage home and edit it, splice it up to try to make it interesting, and so on. I would post it on YouTube and Vimeo, not even caring what the views would be. I just wanted to share my interest with others. Then people started seeing my work and I got hired for small jobs. Small jobs became slightly bigger jobs, and after a few years I started working on large campaigns for well known companies.
If I have anything to say to people coming from photography who ‘have to learn video’, it’s to ask yourself why you love photography. Some part of you is doing it for more than money, I would guess. Some internal driver that makes you just get up and shoot photos, even if you’re not being paid for it. Can you say the same for the moving image?
My advice would be – set the bar low, film stuff that might seem inconsequential, and just have fun. Repeat. Then repeat some more. Learn from each thing you shoot. Then at some point you may be able to translate those skills to client work.
Is this a business investment?
Strictly speaking, an investment in equipment for your business is an item that help will earn income for your business, pay itself back over a reasonable amount of time, and then earn profit over its lifespan – either directly or indirectly. That’s the goal, anyway.
However, it’s not always reality; especially if you’re someone like me who loves equipment. I love the entire purchasing process: watching reviews, reading articles, acquiring the item, and last but certainly not least, using the equipment! However, having an excuse to write things off as a business purchase can enable poor spending choices at the detriment of both one’s business and finances.
As much as I’d like to say every piece of equipment I’ve purchased for my businesses has earned money, the fact is, a fair amount hasn’t. I haven’t always been business minded when it came to equipment purchases. I made a lot of guesses as to what would make money, and I’ve also purchased a lot of things because I was just fascinated with those pieces of gear and thought they’d be useful as a business purchase at some point. It reminds me of a saying that we purchase things based on emotion and use logic and reason to justify those purchase.
There’s a saying which I came across which really impacted me, which is: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Basically this means if you don’t have a plan, things won’t go well.
Return on Investment
2020 was a big reset yet for me, financially speaking. Prior to the lockdowns and industry closures, I had been obsessed with equipment purchases. I started to leverage debt in order to finance these purchases, and over a period of years, I started feeling financial pressure. I had always been able to make my payments monthly, but the problem is it felt like it was getting out of control. I was making enough money to cover my debts, but I never felt like I was getting ahead. I always felt surprised at the end of each month: “Why don’t I have more in the bank?”
When 2020 came around and most film production stopped, I was forced to look at my spending. My equipment sat for months, no jobs to work on, no rentals, etc. One day I had a conversation with a friend who was working through the pandemic and they shared with me how they were updating a spreadsheet of their profit on equipment they owned. I had not been doing this up to this point in my career, so I thought it might be interesting to see how I had been doing. I had a lot of time on my hands with the pandemic and all, so I sat with a spreadsheet and crunched the numbers. What I had found surprised me:
1. Many items I thought would make money just broke even or had a loss during its lifetime. The items I didn’t think would make much actually made more than I thought.
2. A lot of my purchasing decisions for the business were not grounded in reality at all. Instead, they were based on hypotheticals. “This (insert equipment here) will be a game changer for me” would routinely enter my mind to justify purchasing something.
Making More Consistent Return on Investment
After doing the math, I set out on a new path. I would track every single rental for every single item. I would look to see what items I would also rent for a majority of the projects I was on, and purchase those. I would avoid purchasing items that did not return an ROI. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t allow myself to purchase something experimental to try new things; but my spending would be more more controlled and targeted.
As the industry started to come back to life, I set this plan in motion, and diligently kept track of every project and its equipment needs. I saw what types of equipment were needed for the clients and industries I work in to achieve a successful outcome for the project. After a few months of analysis, I started to only purchase additional items that were being rented and used on most projects.
I was pleasantly surprised that this strategy started to work. The majority of my equipment started making consistent income for the first time. All of the accessories and peripherals that I used to think were boring, were actually huge staples for every single project. Things like monitors, for example, that get used on every single project.
What Should I Do?
Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations with various colleagues about equipment. Many of those conversations were aspirational; owning high end cameras, lenses, etc. – some of which cost as much or more than a luxury vehicle – in some cases more than a house in certain parts of the country. Speaking from experience, there definitely seems to be the perspective that by owning a high end camera that one will be taken more seriously, have their work go to the next level, and so on.
I sometimes get asked my opinion by colleagues on whether or not they should buy a piece of equipment. All I can do is ask questions to help them talk through it. What is the goal of owning that piece of gear? Do they want to make money? If so, what does the ROI timeline look like? Will it make their lives easier and save them time from not having to go to a rental shop? Do they want to appear more high end/serious to prospective clients? Everyone has different reasons for owning equipment, and not all of it is financially motivated.
After going through the gear purchasing cycle for years, I can say that without a doubt, equipment is important. I’ve come to a place where I’m fortunate enough that I do not need to own a specific piece of equipment to work in given industry. Companies hire me for my expertise, and the decisions are made on equipment after we assess what they are looking to do and how much they are willing to spend to get there. In some instances, owning equipment that doesn’t take a lot of maintenance and storage space – and would otherwise be rented through a rental company anyway – could be a great source of additional income.
ALBERTO AND THE CONCRETE JUNGLE
|Written and Directed by Oday Rasheed
Short Film, Drama
Status: Contact for Private Link Available for Viewing
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