The incredible advances in technology over the past ten years have made the choices not only more complicated but more important. Without the proper gear, a producer can't offer his services as a professional and hope to be taken seriously. The marketplace is flooded with so-called professionals claiming to be able to produce a broadcast-quality product for a lot less money than what used to be the norm. Professionals are being edged out by amateurs armed with nothing more than a prosumer camcorder and an iMac.
The word "digital" has further confused the situation. Clients want everything to be digital--from the shoot to the cut--but most of them have no clue about what that word really means. In many cases older technology, like Betacam SP, will yield beautiful images. There is no need for specific acquisition gear if your director of photography knows how to use lighting and your sound engineer knows where to put the mics.
The trouble with the so-called "pros" is that they may have the "digital" equipment and can bandy about the terminology but don't have any idea how to produce a broadcast quality project. Lighting, sound, set design, casting, continuity, and hair/makeup/wardrobe are every bit, if not more, important in many cases how "cutting-edge" your cameras and editing programs are.
All of which means that the issue of buying--rather than renting--is a difficult one. If you capitalize your operation to the tune of many thousands of dollars, you will be stuck at a moment in the timeline of technological advance. You may be tied to a monthly budget that will require a certain amount of work at certain prices. This will create stress and potentially hamper creativity.
If you rent, then you will be able to offer clients any level of production that they want at any time, using the latest gear. On the other hand, you may be unable to take small jobs that don't pay enough for both your day rate and the cost of the rental gear. And if you show up with rental equipment, the client may see you as "fly-by-night" and take you less seriously, if you're lucky enough to get the job in the first place.
One easy way to satisfy both ends of the spectrum is to let the projects buy the gear. If you have a line item for rental on a project that approaches the cost of a purchase, then consider buying that piece of equipment at that time. Each project can buy another piece of gear, and before you know it you'll have a total package. Certain items never really change. A good microphone is timeless. Good pro lights will never go out of style. Grip and electric is grip and electric. And so on...
But this approach has pitfalls. Money is always tight, and the inclination to spend as little as possible almost always influences choice. It is always tempting to buy on the cheap.
Don't get caught in this trap! Always buy the best. Not only will quality gear perform better and make your job easier; it will also last much longer, in some cases for your entire career. The worst thing that can happen is that you saved a few dollars on a critical piece of equipment only to have it fail at exactly the wrong moment on a shoot. The elation of having gotten a bargain price will evaporate instantly when your Key dumps during an interview and your subject is in silhouette. Always go-top-of-the-line, even if you have to wait to get it. You will never be sorry!
And don't ever buy used gear unless you have checked it out or completely trust the vendor. Every market has its con artists. Just because a so-called "colleague" claims that there are only a few hours on the heads of the camcorder he is trying to sell you doesn't mean that he hasn't, as they say in the car business, "clocked" the meters. Have the stuff checked out by a reputable service department. These guys have no investment in the outcome of your purchase andwill give you an honest evaluation of the gear you bring them to analyze. The $100 it'll cost you to have something checked out will be money very well spent.
Finally, pay attention to the image game. Clients like to see name brands. They think it implies professionalism and quality. We all know that the company that makes videotape for Sony also makes it for K-Mart. But if you show up on a multi-thousand dollar shoot with generic gear rather than respected name brands, it will hurt you in the long run. Your client will wonder why they are spending so much money with you. They will perceive you as an amateur rather than a professional. You may be the greatest producer since Louis B. Mayer, but if you show up with cheap-looking gear, you may find it difficult to get the budgets that your talent deserves. Image is incredibly important. It may not be as important as the final product, but very often it is a deal maker—or breaker.