Before I dive in, here is a little background. On the left hand side of the image you’ll see a Panasonic AG-DVC32, that’s the PAL version of the AG-DVC30. Back in 2005 I had a PAL project come up and thought it might be a good idea to have a nice PAL camera around. I shot one project with it and never had a need for it again. The camera still takes up shelf space to this day. Now on with the show.

I get a surprising number of e-mails that start off with something like this:

I’m going to be spending two weeks next month videodocumenting a medical mission, and I’ve decided to go DSLR.  I have ZERO filmmaking experience, let alone DSLR experience, so I’ve been depending entirely on folks such as yourself in the online DSLR community to soak up as much knowledge as possible beforehand.

The e-mails usually go on to run through a list of equipment with a total budget for a given project. Then finish with the request to look over the list of items chosen and recommendations on what should be added or subtracted from their inventory.

It must be documentary season, because over the last 2 months everyone of these e-mails has been from people planning to film a documentary. So should you drop $1000 to $3000 to buy your own equipment for 2 or 3 weeks worth of filming? Before you decide, lets consider a few questions.

How long is your project?

Really the first thing to consider would be time. Often in a documentary situation you have a limited amount of time to cover an event. Whether that time is spent in another country, a popular event, or an in depth set of interviews to support an underlying theme. If you only have 2 or 3 weeks worth of time to cover the event, it might make more sense to rent equipment. On the other hand, if you plan to follow musicians around for 2 years, owning your own equipment would probably be the best option.

What is your skill level?

The next thing to consider is your skill level. If the first thing you mention is that you have “ZERO filmmaking experience”, then shooting with a DSLR probably shouldn’t be your first choice. A DSLR camera does a great job when used by someone with experience, but all it takes is a few incorrect settings and the footage you’ve spent all that time filming could be useless. If “zero” is your skill level, an easier option would be to rent an all in one ENG (electronic news gathering) camera like the Canon XA10 for $20 a day from someone like A camera like the XA10 has pretty good low light performance, doesn’t require lens changes, has built in focus peaking, includes proper audio inputs, and it sports a nice big red button that you press once to start recording and again to stop. On top of that, most rental houses will provide support if you run into trouble or have problems using a feature.

If, on the other hand you’ve been using a Canon t2i for a number of years and have mastered all of the ins and outs of DSLR film making then your skill level is much higher then “zero”. In this case maybe you have a documentary shoot coming up that requires ultra low light shooting and your t2i just wont cut it. Lets say for example that you’ll be covering an event that takes place in the poorly lit rooms of a motel convention center.

In this example you already have lenses, a tripod, and other random gear. Does it make more sense to rent a 5d mark II or Mark III for $190 a week to cover the event? Or would it be a better idea to spend several thousand dollars to own the camera. If you need the camera everyday it probably makes financial sense to buy the camera, but if you only need it for a week then the rental price would make a lot more sense.

Do you own any of your own gear?

When shooting a documentary (depending on the subject) the equipment you’ll need is pretty simple. The standard practice is to film sit down interviews, chase down a few people who don’t want to be interviewed, and then fill in the gaps with shots of people and items of interest while an audio track of narration plays out.

The requirements to cover the “standard” documentary, usually include:

  1. Camera
  2. Tripod
  3. 2 sets of wireless mics
  4. fill lighting

Optionally you could add a hand held rig or steady cam system if you can afford it. If that’s out of your budget, you can do wonderful things with the careful use of a monopod.

Since the majority of a “standard” documentary is interviews, a tripod mounted camera with your subject sitting or standing in front of an interesting backdrop will probably account for the majority of your shots. If you already own some of the gear listed (see t2i owner from above), then you have to ask yourself, does it make sense to pack all of your gear up and carry it with you? Or would it make life easier if the rental company delivered the equipment directly to the shooting location?

If you own little to no equipment, would it make more sense for you to spend that $1000 on lower end gear? Or would it make more sense to spend that same dollar amount on a rental package with everything you’ll need, that includes nicer gear then you could afford to buy on a $1000 budget?

How many projects do you shooting a year?

The final thing to calculate into your decision, is whether you’ll need your gear for future projects. If you have a large number of shoots that require you to use your own gear throughout the year, It might be best to invest in your own equipment. However, if this is the only project you have planned for the near term, it might not make sense for you to own all of that equipment.

I’ve seen more then one person invest quit a bit of money in equipment (myself included), only to see them film two projects in the entire year. The next year a new camera was released and they were left wishing they could afford the latest and greatest on the market. If you rent your camera, you’ll have the option to use the newest gear available at the time of your project. For some that alone makes renting the best way to go.

Many of the indie film makers I’ve met over the years tend to overlook rental options completely. Although renting equipment isn’t the solution for everything, it’s certainly something to consider when evaluating your budget and shooting schedule. In many cases rental prices will give you a lot more bang for your buck then ownership, but it’s your job as a filmmaker to decide which option works best for your project.