Sometimes its difficult to get to see and try out certain cameras and lenses you might be interested in. There are also situations where for a certain job or a certain special trip you identify that a particular lens or piece of equipment would be very useful. You might just want to spend some time trying something out for a while to see if it works for you. So what alternatives are available?
If you're lucky you have an accommodating friend who will let you borrow something for a while. If not the other options are to either buy the item and sell it later or hire it. A while ago we did some work for a science education video and this required producing some macro shots. In order to accomplish this I bought the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X Macro Lens. This is a monster of a lens and difficult to get to grips with.
By buying it I was able to spend a while learning to use it, use it for the job and then re-sell it a few weeks later at a slight loss. There was no advantage in hiring it as hire charges are very expensive.
To give an idea of how much hire charges are.
A Canon 5D Mk II camera costs £470 for a weeks hire. This is cheaper per day than a daily rate which is £117:50. Lenses can vary from £75:20 per week (£18:80 per day) for a Canon 50mm f1.4 to £352:50 per week (£77:00 per day) for a Canon 600mm F4.
If you fancied trying out or using a Nikon D3X for a week this would cost £635:50. In all cases you have to pick up the equipment from the hire shop and leave a security deposit equivalent to the full replacement value. So in the case of a D3X a deposit of around £4800 is required.
By buying a piece of equipment you obviously have time to get to know it, to use it as and when you want and to decide, if you're trying it out, if its something you want to keep. At this current time because of the economic situation, prices on new equipment are not dropping over time at anywhere near the same amount as they did before. I bought a Canon 5D MkII for just over £2000 in December 2008. The current new price, from a reputable dealer, is just less than £1700. Not a huge drop. This means that prices for well looked after second hand copies will still be high. So even if you keep a camera for a while and then decide to sell it, you're not going to make a huge loss. In certain cases prices have risen, so you can end up with your camera or lens being worth more than you paid for it.
I regard this loss that I make on a piece of equipment as a "hire fee" I regard this as the cost of being able to use that equipment over a period of time. As demonstrated in the figures above, that is substantially cheaper that hiring it from a company. This does mean however that you need the funds to be able to buy the equipment in the first place, and that you can cope with having a large amount of money tied up in equipment.
If you are able to do it, it does work very well. As a full-time photographer I can have a fluid and flexible stock of cameras and lenses, taking advantage of new products, at a relatively low ongoing cost. When I buy a camera or lens I have this in mind. Its not a situation whereby I'm going have that piece of equipment for years and years until it stops working or breaks. When I pay for something I'm not writing off that money as gone for ever. I expect to recoup a substantial amount of that back. I'm careful to check out the best prices and also look for special deals and good second hand items. For example if I buy a camera I will generally buy a kit. If the kit includes a lens that I don't want I'll sell this on ebay. Lenses in kits are generally cheaper than buying them on their own and you can often reduce the cost of a camera by selling off the kit lens that comes with it.
When I sell items on ebay people often comment on their good condition and often express surprise as to why I'm selling it so soon. There's still a difference between those who buy a piece of photographic equipment and assume they will own it for ever and those who take a much more flexible approach. Its an approach that we take with other things. Its rare that we buy a car and drive it until it rusts away and then buy another. Until recently our homes were seen equally as investments as well as places to live. Its rare that we would would ever consider a microwave or fridge freezer as an "investment" and ever imagine we would recoup our money on it, but photographic equipment, if looked after well and bought judiciously can hold its value over time. The shorter the time between buying and selling the less money is lost. While a Leica lens may be around for a long time, the same may not be true for a mid-level DSLR which can go from being state-of-the-art to obsolete in a very short space of time. My wonderful Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar will, I suspect be here for a while. However my Canon 550D, which I do like very much at the moment, will probably last only as long as the arrival of the 600D.
It wasn't like this with film cameras which I tended to keep for years. But those days are gone, Digital is completely different with the sensor in the camera. If I was keeping digital cameras the length of time that I kept film cameras I'd still be using an Olympus E-10 with its 3.97MP sensor. A fine camera for its time, but not particularly useful now. So as to what I might be using in a years time, I have no idea. However I'd be very surprised if it looked much like what's sitting on the shelf currently.