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To rent or buy? That is the question

What best fits your studio’s needs is a personal choice.

By Fred Ruckel

When it comes to production, there is always a debate about whether to buy equipment or rent it. RuckSackNY has faced this dilemma many times over the years and recently we decided it was time to take the plunge — we are now investing in the gear we would often rent.

This decision was not taken lightly and didn’t happen overnight because our choice wasn’t a cheap one. For me, it all comes down to quality control and consistent shooting. Over the course of the year we shoot as many as 20 times, which might not seem like a lot to some, but for a little company like ours it means constantly hiring crews and equipment.

Renting gear has its positives — for instance, you don’t have to worry about it taking up storage space at the office. Plus, the rental house maintains the gear, which in itself is a big plus.

What isn’t appealing is having to go to the rental house the day before the shoot. Typically, for us, it means going to the most congested part of midtown Manhattan, so it takes a few hours to get what we need. Then, of course, we have to return the equipment. For us it’s a major hassle because that requires a car to carry it both ways, parking and time. In total, the process of picking up today and returning after the shoot can add up to an entire day plus a good amount of frustration. If you multiply that times 20 shoots it becomes clear just how much manpower is lost in the process. We give up the equivalent of a month over the course of a year, which is nothing but pure loss.

Of course, some companies will pass this cost on to the client paying for the production, so it’s a wash. But is it really a wash? If you think about what you could do with all that time you lost, it could mean additional shoots or more time for pre-production or it could simply mean that you make it home for dinner with the family as opposed to waiting to return equipment after a long shoot day.

When you shoot projects as we do, many follow the same formula as the previous one. Sometimes it is a series of videos for the same client that spans the whole year as they role out new products to showcase in a video. What happens when the same gear you used on the last shoot isn’t available? When that happens you are forced to make compromises to your production, which can have adverse effects.

Using the same gear consistently affords you some time savings because you are familiar with the workings of the gear. Everything is so computer-/ menu-driven these days, so learning where all the settings you need are and making sure you set it properly is hugely important to a successful shoot. Have you ever found yourself on the morning of a shoot with a lot of excess time? If you have, then you are an exception. We are in and out fast — set it up, shoot it and tear it down, often within a few short hours. We don’t have the luxury of time on our hands, so knowing my gear before I get on set is imperative.

So after weighing the pros and the cons, we decided this month that we are over the rental rat race. We went all in and bought everything we have rented on our shoots this year, plus a few bells and whistles to make it easier. We have taken back control of our situation. We no longer will have to take the time to make a rental order, go pick it up, pray it all works, lug it back and check that it is all indeed working, pack it back up, then take it to the shoot, pray we don’t break something, then return it after the shoot is over.

New technology has changed the game. LED lighting has made great strides this past year. We purchased two full kits totaling seven lights. The new LED technology is now not only dimmable but you can dial in the color temperature that you want from 3200k to 5600k. We opted for lights with a very high Color Rendering Index or CRI of 93. This means that the lights will not make our talent feel too blue or green; they give a natural tonality based on the set temperature.

Gone are the days of trying to match different lights to the same color temp with blue gels and orange gels. All our lights match and give us a very natural feel. Add to that soft boxes for every light, dome diffusers and Fresnel lenses to help us direct and magnify light — it is one powerful lighting set-up. We added in diffusion panels. One is six-feet-by-six-feet, the other is a pop-up tri-flip kit that can be used in a lot of ways and is super compact. Our lighting needs are satisfied.

Next up was my sound solution. We are always shooting with a boom mic and lavs recording to external gear. We bring on a sound person who comes with all his own equipment, so that’s one less thing to directly rent. What are the chances that the freelance sound guy has state-of-the-art equipment? I suppose that begs the question what makes it state of the art? We opted to go the all-digital wireless route. We bought a TASCAM digital field recorder; it is really small but fully featured and mounts on our camera rig.

If there is one thing on set that irks me, it’s wires running all over the place. It’s sloppy, dangerous and no longer necessary. Welcome to a true digital workflow. We opted for all Sennheiser gear to capture great quality sound. Wireless lavs are the norm for us, so that was a given to purchase. What about the boom? Booms are notoriously cumbersome with wires down the pole and connecting to the recorder, making for trip hazards. We added in a boom pole internally pre-wired, so there are no hanging wires to get caught on grip equipment. As for the boom mic, we chose the Sennheiser MKE 600.

Typically it still needs to be wired to the audio recorder, which if that wire gets tripped on can pull the whole stand down. I have seen it happen before. That problem has been solved with a wireless boom transmitter from Sennheiser that connects right to the pole and sends the signal wirelessly to the recorder, almost like magic. My audio woes have all gone away. Our audio quality has gone up, my worries have gone down. It’s a win-win to me.

Nothing adds to production value like a quality lens to capture the moment. We shoot mainly on Canon gear and, as part of our new philosophy, decided to invest in our own lenses. Bringing our total lens count to six, we added the new EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lenses — two great pieces of glass. We have shot with both before and they will likely be our go-to lenses on our next small shoot.

As far as cameras go, we own Canon 5Ds, and some other smaller ones such as a DJI HD aerial drone, some GoPros for fast action and a couple of small Panasonic Lumix cameras with Leica lenses. We have our eye on the Canon C500, but are waiting for the next release in February to make our final decision. When it comes to the bigger cameras, such as the Alexa or Red or Sony, we will still have to rent those as we do not use them often enough to warrant purchasing one at this time.


Camera Rig & Cases
We rounded out our production equipment with a four-foot slider, a custom-built camera rig with follow focus and a rail system, a fly-cam steadi rig for fast-moving camera work and an HD field monitor.

The final thing that brings this all together is the case. If you have been renting gear like we have, it makes you nuts having grip stands loose and random boxes, and gear spread out over multiple bags and kits. We purchased multiple Pelican cases and grip stand cases to be compact. After a few hours of sorting out all the gear we have compacted it all down to a few cases that are neatly organized and easy to move. Nothing is loose, there is place for everything and when we walk into a location, you can be assured that the level of efficiency we have achieved will be noticed by the clients.

Besides all that I stated above, can you think of one thing that we now have that we didn’t have before that didn’t cost anything extra? Creative freedom. We now have the ability to shoot at a moment’s notice, we can come up with a concept and go shoot it immediately — no delays, no finding equipment, no waiting. Being prepared is a priceless for piece of mind.

Fred Ruckel is the founder and chief creative director at RuckSackNY, which provides creative, production and post. 

One thought on “To rent or buy? That is the question

  1. Mark Suszko

    My rule of thumb, established over decades, has been: Own the “evergreen” gear you use every time, like a great tripod and pan head, mics, a basic kit of lights. Things you don’t always need like jibs, dollies, sliders, real steadicams with vests, should be rentals. if it is a rapidly-evolving tech like drones, your stuff is obsolete after one or two jobs, so again, rentals, or in the case of drones, which require advanced operator skills, a special drone-experienced DOP. If it doesn’t get used every week, it should probably be a rental, otherwise, you are just eating a lot of capital depreciation. Rentals tend to cost a tenth of whatever their retail value is, so, if you’re going to use it more than 10 times, it makes more sense to own it than rent it.


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