East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

Gear: Improve Your Budget

The Filmmaker's Ultimate Gear & Stability Guide

Improve Your Budget

I hear many people say that they don't have enough budget for the stuff they need/want. Sure, sometimes that might be the case, but sometimes people would have a much better budget if they put a bit more time into using their available resources in a better way. 

First scenario, if you really don't have the options to increase your budget as I discuss in this chapter (For example, you are living on a deserted island with a volleyball named Wilson) then my recommendation is to get just the bare minimum for now, like a very low cost camera as I will discuss very shortly further on in the book, and then make the rest of the equipment from DIY tutorials, and then use that to build a portfolio.

But this book is about the ultimate gear, not about DIY gear (maybe that will be a future book), so lets look now look at the options the average independent/freelance filmmaker could use to improve their budget. Many of these will actually still apply to when you are working with less than a pro's budget, for example, if DIY gear is the only thing you can afford then you might consider also making multiple units and selling them on eBay. 

Deciding how much to invest

Many people will tell you, "if you buy cheap, you buy twice".
This means that sometimes it is best to spend a little more on something high quality, rather than spend on an item that is cheaper but will break faster. This is sometimes true, but following a few simple rules it might not always be exactly correct. The two main things to keep in mind are, the options for returning the item and the item's resellability, often those might allow you to try a lower cost item with a smaller risk, but that means that when you get it you should really test it right away to see how good it is, or if you later find it's not very useful to you, that you really do take the time to sell it.

So how do I budget?
I use a combination of these two questions:
1. Figure out how much I have and what the best way is to spend it to push me forwards. works better in the short run.
2. Figure out what I need, calculate the cost, then figure out how to get it. Works better in the long run. Set goals and do your best to get to them.

How to choose the correct items?

Here are the things I consider when purchasing my gear:

Double check the information you find.
For example, when looking at stabilizers you might come across a video by a very lovely person who says that the ProAm Autopilot stabilizer is worth buying, make sure to double check about that, because in this particular case you'd be standing there frustrated trying to get good results from something that is frankly just not very good. Consider the source and how reliable that information might be, and if you think that person got paid to make the review, move on.

Beware of Amazon reviews.
Amazon is one of the my favorite places to get stuff and a good way to easily compare products without spending hours on google looking for reviews. But there's a catch, Amazon is stuffed full of fake reviews.

There's fake positive reviews made by the sellers using fake accounts on their own products, and there are fake negative reviews left on competitor's products. So when looking at reviews, check that person's profile and see if they seem real. Have they left various good, average and bad reviews on multiple items from various sellers in various categories? Here are some things I look for in Amazon reviews. Obviously these are just my observations, not guaranteed facts.

  • Most fakes are dead easy to spot. You click their name and you get to a page that very often just has one review or several items from the same seller.
  • If the reviewer is being overly emotional it's often an indication that it might not be an honest review. It's easy to spot when you're looking for it. For example something like: "What a terrible item, arrived broken, too late to return, ruined our Christmas".
  • Fake reviews are often a bit vague, rather than describe the real uses and experiences with it. For example, "Man, great item, better than all the other ones I've tried, don't bother with any other ones." or "Never again. Very unhappy. Not a good service and not a good item."
  • I usually ignore reviews that are badly written. For example, "i h8 this batery i got it for week and then camera is now broken i cant belive this bad company". This is not necessarily a fake review, but very often that's something written by someone who might be a bit "less smart", and now I'm not saying they are bad people, I'm just saying I prefer to get my information from other sources.
  • I ignore any reviews that seem like they are written by an asshole, because frankly I really don't care about the opinions of assholes.
  • "Amazon Verified Purchase" will appear next to reviews where the item was paid for through amazon, but it is possible to fake this too. It's not difficult for a seller to purchase their own items, or their competitor's items, so don't consider this a golden seal of approval, just a step in the right direction.

So how do you know when an item is good? Usually when it has consistently good reviews from those people you see are genuine reviewers. Over 15 genuine reviews is a good start, but the more the better.

Buy carefully
This is obvious, so lets keep it short.

  • Buy from places where the sellers are accountable for their actions, where there is some safety in place. Amazon and eBay both allow you to see the seller's feedback before buying, and have various buyer protection policies that keep you safer.
  • Always check feedback before buying. I do not ever buy from a store which has no feedback except in very rare cases, for example, a custom made part for a camera that can only be bought form that one place.

Should I buy this item?
A very easy way to prevent confusion is to add the items to your Amazon or eBay "wish list" or shopping basket. I use a mixture of both a list and a basket because the basket makes it easy to see the total cost. This way is easy to keep organized and reduce a lot of the confusion of choosing gear. I add things I'm interested in to my lists or basket, then I have a place that allows me to easily compare prices without having a thousand tabs open in my web browser.

Figure out: What to go cheap on. What to spend more on. What NOT to buy.
For example, a used £20 Wacom graphics tablet should still give you years of editing fun, which is a nice saving over a new £70 model (More on that in the Computers & Editing chapter) and a GH1 camera for some $200 will still allow you to create a beautiful video, this can be a good way to keep costs down while on a lower budget. An example of what not to buy would be one of those useless ugly fake $30 matte boxes from eBay. Specific details will be given in the rest of the book.

Return on investment.
Will this purchase help you make more money or move your career forward?

Consider the item's resellability.
Some items will lose value a lot faster than others. For example, the canon 5D series of cameras held their value incredibly well for many years because they were so popular, and many lenses hold their value very consistently for many years. On the other hand, my Sony A7 went from about £1300 to £800 (approximate eBay price) in just a few months.

Spending VS investing
Remember that most of the time you can sell things on ebay again once you are done with them. Many people never do this which means that for them a sale goes like this: "I have £500. After I buy this lens I will not have £500."
For me, purchases are usually more like this: "I have £500. After I buy this lens I will have £500 in the shape of a lens - until I decide to convert it back into money again by selling it on ebay."
Of course some items can't be sold on eBay very easily, but most of them can.
And of course you also lose some money on eBay fees but this never bothered me.

Use your available resources.
Many people have things they can list on eBay, but don't.
Think about it like this, selling an eBay item could take roughly an hour to list the item including the time to take some photos of it, maybe even less time if you do lots of items together. I now list items in under 30 minutes each including photos, which is not bad considering each sale could add a lot to the budget I have to invest in other things. The new eBay listing page is much better than the old one, which is very helpful.
Think about it like this, "How long will this take me to sell?" and "How much is my time worth?". Especially when you are working with a much lower budget, and especially for those of you who have another job to make money, selling on eBay is a great way to increase your budget, even if it's selling items that are only worth £5 each, those fivers add up.

Don't get attached.
I've seen many people keep equipment they could use to increase their budget because they feel connected to it. Most often it's their camera. They feel connected to it and they don't want to sell it in order to upgrade. I can't tell you what to do in this situation, but I can tell you that I make my selling and buying decisions based on usability, not my feeling.

Sell fast.
All that s*** in the cupboard is losing value. List it on eBay.
Most people will keep items if they think they will use them sometime in the future, but in my opinion that's not the best way. Sure, it takes some time to sell and buy, but I have found that almost all of the items that I "might use soon" never get used, and simply sit there and lose value. So as soon as I see that I'm not currently using the item, I sell it on ebay. This means that:

  1. I have more money, especially since it's not just one item, it's multiple items, that easily adds up.
  2. When I need that item again, I can order the most recent one, or the one that is best for my current uses or budget, rather than the one that I chose last year. 
  3. I likely received a better price for it then if I was to wait for a year and then sell it right at the point I want an upgrade.
  4. I have more cupboard space.

Know the current market so that you know if there is an alternative to one of your current items. For example, someone shooting on a Canon 50mm f1.2 would likely gain both quality and a big money saving by selling it and getting the much newer and highly regarded Sigma Art 50mm f1.4.