In the Rush to Video, Don’t Get Caught in an Endless Upgrade Cycle

“Convergence” is a great buzzword, and even a good thing. But if you’re not careful, you can “converge” your photography business right into the poorhouse.

Everyone, it seems, is falling in love with the notion of being able to capture HD video as well as high-resolution stills from a single capture device (the artist formerly known as “camera”). I’m excited, too. But I’ve followed technology long enough to see the dangers ahead — most notably, the trap of the endless upgrade cycle.

From Film to Digital

My earliest experiences as a photographer, professionally and personally, were with still film cameras.

My workhorses used to be Nikon F4s bodies, with a mix of autofocus and manual focus lenses. I have a Nikon FG (circa 1984) that hasn’t had a roll through it in about six years, but still works. I recently acquired a Rolleiflex Automat from 1951 that still works perfectly. In fact, an Olympus point-and-shoot my mom got me as an eighth-grade graduation present still works.

While I barely use 35mm at all anymore, I still use 120 pretty frequently in bodies both a few years and several decades old. Looking back, the $10,000 in equipment hasn’t been a bad long-term investment at all.

Fast forward to the digital era, when tens of thousands of dollars invested in hardware may only last a few years.

Since about 2002, I have been stuck in an almost endless upgrade cycle. Where before I could do my job with some downright ancient hardware (by today’s standards, at least), today I have to move quickly to keep up with expectations.

I had a couple of D1 bodies that I dumped as soon as something visually better came along, and proceeded along that very expensive path over three or four bodies until the release of the D2X, about the same time that all the brands hit 10-15MP in their top-end models.

I keep using those D2X bodies today because the quality is there, the reliability is there and they meet the technical requirements of nearly all of my clients. They’ll need to be replaced at some point, but only when they no longer work.

The Video Upgrade Cycle

So here we are, faced with what could be the beginning of another big upgrade cycle — as video capture becomes a more-expected capability, and manufacturers edge towards dual-functionality bodies.

What have I learned from the film to digital progression that I can apply to the digital to still/video progression?

It’s really easy to hemorrhage money and shoot your business in the foot if you’re not careful. That bleeding can drive you to raise rates (if you have clients in this economy who will tolerate it) or, more likely, take less home.

True enough, you have to spend money to make money. A mechanic needs his tools, a painter needs his brushes, and a photographer needs her cameras. But think about the sustainability of your tools before you whip out the AMEX.

What’s Cool vs. What You Need

I just read a certain “professional photography” magazine while at the doctor’s office, and was blown away by the glut of hardware available for “converting” the new Canon 5D Mk. II into a shoulder-fired missile launcher cum video camera.

Pretty cool that you can do it, but at what cost?

Video capture has always required more equipment than still capture. That’s true whether it’s a combo DSLR or an IMAX camera. It’s a high-cost proposition from the get-go.

Add to that the amount of equipment necessary to turn your digital body into a more fully featured video camera (off-camera finder screen, audio inputs, rails systems, focusing tools, etc.), and you’re talking about a pretty hefty investment.

The question isn’t whether to purchase the tools to do the job. It’s how to do so wisely.

Tools with Staying Power

Now more than ever, it is critical to pick tools that have some staying power in your kit. You should look for equipment that will let you squeeze every last dollar out of them before they fail or become unacceptable to your clients.

If an all-in-one capture device suits your needs practically and financially, by all means, shop away. But do so bearing in mind that all the bolt-ons for a certain body may or may not work with the next generation body — only a year or three down the road.

When buying new hardware or accessories, keep an eye toward standards. Buy bodies that accept standard microphone inputs so that you can preserve the audio capture hardware over a few body upgrades. Having standards-compliant hardware also makes a lot more sense if you find yourself renting “extras” often.

Consider a standalone HD video camera that you can use with, or instead of, your still rig. It might be an extra piece of equipment to lug (and get used to lugging lots if you’re into video), but it can extend your flexibility quite a bit. And if you kill one on a job, you’re not out both.

If you buy an audio recorder, make sure that it can handle the microphone rig you bought for your video camera or dual-function body.

Renting vs. Owning

Perhaps most importantly, if you don’t use a piece of hardware frequently, rent it. Rental shouldn’t really change your books too much, since you should be charging clients a price that reflects your equipment overhead costs anyway — whether you rent or own the hardware.

I know photographers who are quite successful (and much smarter than I) who keep an absolutely basic amount of equipment. In some cases, they own none at all. They rent what they need when they need it to avoid the upgrade cycle and to simplify their books.

There’s a lot of good stuff out there now, and undoubtedly better and more exciting stuff around the corner. But spraying money around on frequent and poorly planned “upgrades” and one-off doodads will only harm your bottom line, and put you on the fast track to a cubicle job to pay off the credit card. 

Make sure you have the tools for the job today — as well as the cash flow to stay in business tomorrow.

One Response to “In the Rush to Video, Don’t Get Caught in an Endless Upgrade Cycle”

  1. I agree mostly. Unfortunately a great deal of this business is image. If I show up on a job with a 5 year old camera then it reflects on my image. I don't like it but I accept it. I think comparing my film cameras with digital is not balanced. They are just not the same thing. The equipment changed radically I wish my cameras would last for 20 years but I know they won't. Photography has always been tied to technology and when it went digital that technology moves faster. I don't use my Apple 8500 and Photoshop 3.5 any more either. I have better tools now!

    I tend to skip at least one cycle of upgrades in equipment and software, sometimes two in computers.

    With cameras I am spending more on lenses as I believe I will get the best ROI and better glass can cope hi res camera bodies.

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