If you’re a beginner your first camera purchase can be scary. Especially if you have limited money.

In this article and videos, I’ll try to help you navigate two important problems:

  1. When should you buy your camera? Does it make sense to invest in a camera?
  2. Tips and strategies on how to afford any camera

Warning: This isn’t financial, legal or investment advice. Please don’t take any action solely based on theses words and videos. You are responsible for your own actions, and you must speak to professionals prior to spending any money.

Don’t buy anything until you watch this first

You’ve been pining after a particular camera for a while. You’ve googled it, read about it, watched countless reviews, and have your credit card ready.

Wait, watch this first:

When you have disposable income, you can buy anything. But as a  youngster disposable income is hard to come by. You might be struggling for work and trying to make ends meet. Therefore, it is supremely crucial to not waste money on something that will provide you immediate gratification, but long term harm.

Here’s the matrix of things to consider when you’re purchasing your new camera or gear:

Expenses related to your camera How your camera earns you money
Sticker Price of camera or gear Resale value (30%)
Financing – Interest Rental income
Credit card – Interest What you charge extra only for your camera
Repair Tax benefits
Disposables
Insurance
Taxes, fees, duties
Shipping and transport
Loss or theft

The trick here is to really start thinking of money in new ways your parents, school or society didn’t prepare you for. How do you do that?

How to afford any camera

So how do you really afford any camera. Can you afford to buy an Arri Alexa even?

Yes, if you can justify it.

Yes, even if you don’t have money, but if you can justify it.

How do you justify it? Start by watching this video:

You really need to think in terms of what you are able to provide the world, and put a dollar (or whatever your currency is) amount on your time. To help you with this I’ve put together an article you might want to read:

Unless you fundamentally transform your way of thinking about money, you’re just going to make it harder to survive.

Why should I put a dollar amount on my time?

Here’s what you might be thinking: But what about those great cinematographers who just worked and got famous? I don’t hear them speaking about this!

Here’s the deal: The number of people practising cinematography today are in the millions. Thousands of students pass out from film schools every year. Many more just buy cameras and get started. How many among these millions will be a successful cinematographer?

You can hope. You can dream. You can try. But you can only try for a few years until the financial burden starts to pinch.

The rare few that get through are the exception. The majority will have to pay the price for having tried and failed. There’s nothing wrong with failure, but the sad truth is it drains away precious time in your youth that you should have used to earn some money. The later you start, the harder it gets. I know this because I’ve been through this myself and know many people who undergo the same trajectory.

When you’re in your 20s you have your whole life ahead of you, and time doesn’t seem that valuable. But the time you spend in your 20s and 30s is probably the most valuable time you will ever have. The earlier you realize this and put a dollar amount on your work, the better off you’ll be. And the bright side is, thinking of money this way is in no way a hindrance to achieving your dreams.

How to approach a purchase

Every country is different. You might find yourself in situations that are unique to you. Further more, you might have friends and family ready to help, or not. We must all live with what we have. Thankfully, we have the Internet.

There are two ways you can approach buying anything:

  1. Earn enough to afford it, or
  2. Try to find it at a reduced price

How to reduce prices

Taxes

To generalize, a salaried professional cannot deduct expenses for taxes, but a business is allowed to (consult with an accountant). Businesses usually only have to pay taxes on profits. So it is in your best interest to form a business right at the beginning.

What if you don’t have any money and no work? Why should you start a business then?

Check your own spending habits. Do you spend on unnecessary things? Add up all the expenses you did in the last year that you probably didn’t need. Would that add up to a camera? For most people, it will come close. If you can spend on unnecessary things like extra clothes, accessories, food, drink, cigarettes, etc., then you can spend a little money starting a business and becoming for responsible.

Also, start paying taxes and factor that into your calculations. The earlier you start paying taxes the better your credit standing will be.

Looking for good deals

I don’t recommend this because you have to wait, and you will spend a lot of time looking for a deal. Multiply the time wasted by your hourly rate, and that’s money you threw down the drain trying to save money. Which is higher?

If you do find deals try to do so online. Sometimes you’ll get deals in newsletters or during holidays. If you can’f find deals in about half an hour give up and continue.

Don’t go to shops hunting for deals. It’s a massive time waster.

Buy used

You can buy an open box or demo piece or just new for very close to the price but at a good discount. If you buy a last generation model you can still use it for years. E.g., the Sony a7S is almost the exact same camera as the a7S II, but it only costs half today. The GH4 is still a great camera, and it only costs half today.

Go inspect the camera yourself, or ask a friend to help you. If you are not capable of checking a camera to find out if it’s good or not, then you probably don’t know what you want, so the last thing you want to do is buy.

How to earn and save money

Work!

You need money. So work. Full time, part time, whatever. Freelance online if you must. Finish college and get a degree. When the going gets tough, that degree might at least help you get a better job than working at a coffee shop or Macdonalds.

Save every month first, and then spend whatever you have left on rent, food, etc.

If there’s nothing left after all that then sacrifice your ‘pleasures’ for your passion. If you find that difficult, your passion isn’t what you think it is.

How do you save?

  • Travel cheaply – cycle or walk. You can always run back home everyday. You get your exercise and stay fit.
  • Stop eating at restaurants. Cook at home. It’s cheaper and healthier.
  • Use the Internet to buy stuff, don’t waste time traveling or looking for deals.
  • Before you buy anything, even underwear, ask yourself how it will contribute to your career as a filmmaker or cinematographer. If it doesn’t, don’t rationalize. Don’t say you need the most expensive underwear because it will make you feel better so you can work harder. You’re only kidding yourself. Working ‘hard’ means there’s some pain involved. Comfortable underwear isn’t a priority.
  • Get up early and use that extra time to practice.
  • Pay good money for long term gear like audio equipment, tripods and heads, etc. Cameras and lenses are only investments if you make your money back in a few months. If you don’t have guaranteed work, forget it. Don’t kid yourself.

Go look for paid gigs

Even if you only produce a few videos on your mobile phone, you are now eligible to look for work. Either freelance as a cameraman, shoot events, assist somebody, or look for corporate video work. Whatever opportunities your town or neighborhood allows, explore it.

You don’t need to carry your camera to a meeting. I’ve explained in the video what you could say if asked. Most people won’t, they’ll assume you have access to a camera. Once you land the job, go rent a camera. Treat yourself to an extra day so you have time getting used to it.

Pick the camera the client wants and is able to afford. It’s better than you saying all you have is a GH4 and then trying to convince them it can shoot cinematic video. Go into the field and find out which strategy works for you.

Invest

Put money in stocks or a interest paying bank account or bonds or whatever. Speak to experts and they’ll advise you on the best course of action. Even a small amount goes a long way.

Loans

I don’t recommend taking a loan unless you’re in business and you understand cash flows and how you make your returns, etc. You’re paying added interest.

Never use credit cards, that’s not smart at all. Sometimes you get offers in some countries to use your credit card at 0% interest. In that case go for it, but make sure you pay in full. Have a zero finance charge policy when using cards.

Learn to negotiate

Negotiation is a skill that will help you throughout your life. Always get into the habit of asking for more, for less.

Barter

You can always look for barter trades. Have something you bought that’s just lying around? Barter it for gear or money.

Rent

Renting can be cheaper or more expensive than buying. You won’t know until you crunch the numbers. Always have that as an option for every project.

There are some unique benefits to rentals you won’t get with buying:

  • If the camera dies, you’ll get a replacement (assuming you went with a reliable rental house, not some kid with just one camera)
  • Rental equipment is serviced and ready for your project, while your gear might not be serviced to professional standards
  • You will have all the gear and accessories you need.
  • You can change gear and accessories according to the project.
  • Over time, you will save money by developing a relationship with the rental house. You don’t have to buy the latest camera or lens, they’ll do it for you!

To know if it’s better to buy or rent, read this article:

What do I do until I have the money?

Good question!

Practice

I am not a fan of waiting. You don’t want to just work and save money but not use that time for practice. Today, you are lucky because you probably have a mobile phone with a camera. That’s all you need to learn cinematography.

The basics of exposure, composition, editing and lighting can all be learnt with these three things:

  • Mobile phone – you don’t need the most expensive
  • Computer that can edit mobile footage – most cheap PCs and laptops can. Use iMovie or Windows Movie Maker for starters until you get comfortable.
  • Cheap LED lights. In my guide to lighting for interviews, I go through how you can light with cheap lights and modifiers. Check it out!

You can make short films with the gear you have. If you find it limiting, trust me, even the gear you’re pining for be will feel limiting once you have it. Even the Alexa and Red cameras will feel limiting because no camera is perfect. There’s always a compromise everywhere. If you start making that an excuse, you’ll be doing that for the rest of your life.

Focus your energies on actors, production design, great audio and costumes/hair and makeup. The camera comes last.

Network

Attend workshops and network with people to practice. Go to places where your potential clients hang out. Don’t waste time going to festivals or clubs where everyone’s in the same boat. It’s okay to do that once in a while, but not more than a couple of days a year.

Work for free

Offer your services for free to working professionals over the weekend. Offer to teach in film schools, the social sector, etc. If they have the gear, you can practice on it. Volunteer for charitable organizations.

Don’t beg for work. Be professional. Understand their needs, and show them how the video you will make will help them. This kind of practice is invaluable.

Whatever you do, don’t sit twiddling your thumbs just because you don’t have a camera! That’s a lame excuse any day in any century.

Now go out and get started.