I’ve rented photo gear my entire career. Before the online solutions existed, many major camera stores had rental departments. Most of the remaining large camera stores still have in-house rental departments.
Although I’ve owned lots of gear, there have been times when owning it didn’t make sense or even transporting it didn’t make sense, so I rented to make my life easier.
Along the way I’ve had everything from very bad to very good experiences. I’ve learned that there are some things you can do to protect yourself from the bad experiences, and increase your chances of having a good one. Here are some things to consider.
1. What is the rental company’s reputation? Do your research. Ask your friends. Look at online reviews. If a company consistently fails to deliver on its promises, you’ll probably find out about that if you look in the right places.
2. Be specific in what you want. Again do research. Does the camera you’re renting come with a lens? How about an Arca-Swiss l-plate or mount? You can say “Give me everything I need to make this work” and sometimes you will be lucky. Sometimes you won’t. On a recent trip I did that and got lenses without plates making them useless to me. I take the blame. I should have made a detailed list myself and made sure each item I needed was included.
3. Ask lots of questions about the condition of the gear you are renting if you can’t find it locally. I rented a slider online that was in horrible shape. The tracks on the slider had so many dings that the unit was 100% worthless. I should have asked the clerk to make sure I got a newer model that hadn’t been used up. If a piece of gear has been in the rental company’s inventory for a long time, you might be better off finding another unit somewhere else. The rental company has every incentive to hold on to that gear and rent it out for as long as possible. They might cut corners to make money so buyer beware.
4. If you are able to pick the gear up, don’t accept it in a closed box or bag from the rental company. Demand to inspect it on the spot in front of the clerk. That way you can agree on the condition of the gear BEFORE you become responsible for it. Back in the day, there was a company in the midwest that was famous for claiming that photographers damaged gear when the damage was already there. Much like you should inspect a rental car before signing the rental agreement, inspect the gear first. If you are dealing with a mail order company, inspect the gear immediately upon arrival. Use time and date stamp photos to establish any damage you see to the gear BEFORE you go out and use it and make sure the company is aware of that damage so you don’t have to pay for it when you return it.
5. Be very clear about when the gear is supposed to arrive and when it is supposed to be returned. While the gear rental companies are usually pretty good when it comes to shipping gear on time, there are occasions when I’ve had my gear arrive late. If it’s super important pay for the extra day rental and get it one day early. If it arrives late don’t pay for the extra day. And recognize that while the rental company will expect you to cut them slack if the gear arrives at your destination late, they won’t be as charitable when it comes to you getting the gear back to them. Use reliable shipping companies and absolutely demand that the rental company sign for the gear. Without a signature, you cannot prove you returned the gear and may end up in court finding yourself facing a big bill otherwise.
6. While I am at it, keep copies of everything. Keep copies of emails, receipts, insurance, serials numbers, names and contact info for everyone you talk to, names and contact info for shipping company employees, etc. A few years ago I returned some gear to a rental company via FedEx. The rental company claims they didn’t receive the gear. The label they generated was out of date so I had to pay for a new label and since it didn’t match, their system shows the gear not retuned. I’d bet my bottom dollar it got there. Whether they misplaced it, one of their employees stole it or their system just got screwed up I don’t know. I had purchased their optional insurance so I was covered either way.
7. Insurance – get some. Either your own or the rental company’s insurance. Note that some companies won’t insure theft. They only insure damage. Make sure you are aware of that. If the rental company won’t insure theft, you might want to look for an alternate source or buy outside insurance. Especially if you’re renting expensive gear.
8. Treat the gear as if it were your own. When you rent gear, try to protect it, and keep track of it as if you owned it. This will leave it in good shape for the next photographer and buy you some good karma.
Renting gear makes sense. For many of you, it makes more sense than buying. It’s a good way to try something new before you buy. It’s a good way to supplement your existing inventory. It’s a good way to get gear to a location that you don’t want to have to carry gear to. Just make sure that you are alert and aware during the process – dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s so that everything goes smoothly and you should be just fine.