Why rent camera gear?
Photographers have never had it so good, with DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 5DS and Nikon D810 offering incredible levels of resolution for under £3,000. So you might not expect anyone, aside from a few specialist pros, to still be renting bodies and lenses in 2016.
Yet surprisingly, the rental market is big business. Major retailers such as Calumet and Wilkinson Cameras have long offered rental services as a successful sideline, but there are also plenty of newer companies that specialise in hiring gear to various market segments.
Horses for courses
The first misconception to clear up is that photographers who regularly rent do so because they are short of equipment.
"I have plenty of kit in my stockroom, but for one-off jobs it very much makes economic sense to hire specialist lighting," says Paul Cooper, a sports advertising photographer who regularly works with big brands such as Manchester United. "I have a job next week for AON that requires one particular lighting set-up, then another for high-speed action shots, then a generator. Buying these eight lights and generator for a one-off action shoot would cost many thousands of pounds. And it doesn’t make sense when I can just rent it from Calumet."
This point is echoed by landscape, travel and architectural photographer David Clapp. "I rent something when I have no reason to buy it as I wouldn’t use it on a regular basis," he says. "For example, this week I hired a 17mm tilt and shift lens to shoot the inside of a yacht, which I don’t get asked to do on a regular basis. Earlier this year I was out in the desert in the USA, and I hired a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens to help with low light. I wouldn’t ever buy one of these lenses as it doesn’t have image stabilisation. For general use I’d find it annoying, as I’d constantly be reaching for the tripod. If I’m leading a course on shooting the Northern Lights, I’ll also rent a 24mm f/1.4 lens as it’s ideal for the subject."
While there will always be a need to rent specialist wide angle or tilt and shift lenses for one-off jobs, there is also a new breed of high-quality, more mainstream glass that photographers are keen to use,
"The demand for decent glass has gone up," notes Guy Thatcher of www.hireacamera.com. "DSLRs are offering ever-increasing resolution and people are realising that they can get amazing results with high-quality lenses, particularly third-party ones from Sigma and Zeiss – the Otus and manual-focus Milvus range, for example.
"It used to be a case of photographers going to Canon or Nikon if they wanted high-quality lenses, with Zeiss on the side: it was seen as quite old fashioned.
"But Zeiss is no longer producing lenses from the last century, and the Otus range is simply stunning: it’s become really trendy. Sigma’s Art range is getting rave reviews too, and Tamron’s range is good. So more and more of our customers are renting a high-quality, third-party lens and using it with a high-resolution DSLR as they can get results comparable with medium-format, for significantly less outlay."
Despite the adage that you should always spend on glass, some photographers are happy to rent lenses most of the time. "We have one pro client who prefers not to own any lenses at all," says Stewart Robertson of Lenses for Hire. "He’s working the Asian wedding photography market, which tends to favour big-budget productions, so he goes and talks to the couple, finds out what they want and then hires the right lenses. It enables him to go and see clients with an open mind."
Interestingly, every company we spoke to cited proven workhorses such as the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms as their most popular lenses for hire – even though many pros and serious enthusiasts own these focal lengths in some shape or form already. "That’s true, but the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM still costs nearly £2,000, which is a lot if you only do a few weddings a year in the spring and summer as a sideline," adds Robertson. "And I don’t see so many full-time pros these days. Lots of renters describe themselves as semi pros, and when they’re asked to turn their hand to a variety of jobs, renting makes sense.
"Also, companies are increasingly asking that guy who works in IT and shoots the odd wedding to do some photography work for them, rather than bringing in a pro. And that guy from IT then comes to us to hire the lenses."
Rental companies also report a steady demand from well-heeled enthusiasts who rent long, fast prime lenses when they are going on safaris, birding expeditions or other once-in-a-lifetime trips.
Try the latest kit
So what about renting camera bodies? Despite the constant discounting from the likes of Amazon and generous promotions from makers, rental companies again report a steady demand from photographers.
"If I am asked to do a quick portrait session with Manchester United players, I’ll hire something like the Nikon D810," says Paul Cooper. "You often don’t have much time, and my big, bulky, medium-format camera can get in the way. If you’ve only got a couple of minutes with Wayne Rooney, you can’t be standing there waiting for the buffer. In that time, a hired D810 will enable me to get 20 shots in the bag. Also, camera bodies depreciate quickly, so it makes more sense to just hire one for certain types of jobs."
Try before you buy
Another reason why you might want to hire a camera body is to try new models out – you might be tempted to buy the Nikon D500 for instance, but before you go splashing out for one, hiring one for the weekend is an inexpensive and risk-free way of seeing how you get on with it and whether it suits your needs.
More and more photographers are also using rental as a way to try out the latest and greatest mirrorless cameras, such as the Fujifilm X-Pro2 or the Sony A7 range. "We’ve got a great relationship with Fujifilm and get new bodies and lenses pretty much after they launch," adds Thatcher. "So people will rent the X-Pro2 or X-T1 to see if they are as good as people say, and it’s the same with Sony."
Video and beyond
Beyond the realm of stills photography, the ever-increasing sophistication of video recording is also driving demand for ‘dual-format’ rentals.
"We have over 30 Sony A7 bodies for hire, as they offer near-broadcast quality video and a stunning sensor for stills," explains Guy Thatcher. "The rise of 4K video is changing everything. More and more of our customers, particularly event photographers, are being asked to take some video as well as producing stills."
Let’s conclude with an overview of the photography equipment rental market. Most of the suppliers we spoke to report a steady demand for specialist lenses from photographers who are keen to use the best possible glass with their cameras for a particular, important job.
Also, tough economic times can actually benefit rental services. "I started this company during the recession in 2008 and my gut feeling is that a recession can actually boost business as photographers are less likely to splash out on expensive kit," reflects Stewart Robertson. "High quality lenses, in particular, aren’t going to get cheaper any time soon."
It’s true, of course, that there’s nothing like owning your own tried-and-tested camera kit. But should anyone claim that you’re mental to consider rental, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that you’re actually rather wise.
This feature was originally published in Professional Photographer Magazine, to subscribe, click HERE