The Dead Pixels Society podcast

Camera hardware technology and trends, with Drew Cicala, co-owner, Lensrentals

April 02, 2021 Gary Pageau/Drew Cicala Season 2 Episode 39
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
Camera hardware technology and trends, with Drew Cicala, co-owner, Lensrentals
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
Camera hardware technology and trends, with Drew Cicala, co-owner, Lensrentals
Apr 02, 2021 Season 2 Episode 39
Gary Pageau/Drew Cicala

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with  Drew Cicala, co-owner of Lensrentals, one of North America's largest photography rental companies. Cicala talks about what is driving the rental market, the challenge of keeping up with the latest technology, and what keeps customers coming back.

Founded in 2006 by Roger Cicala, Lensrentals is the largest online rental provider for photography, videography, and lighting equipment and accessories in the United States. Headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, with a satellite office in Nashville, Lensrentals ships gear to customers in all 50 states and also provides in-person pickups and returns to local customers.

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Show Notes Transcript

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with  Drew Cicala, co-owner of Lensrentals, one of North America's largest photography rental companies. Cicala talks about what is driving the rental market, the challenge of keeping up with the latest technology, and what keeps customers coming back.

Founded in 2006 by Roger Cicala, Lensrentals is the largest online rental provider for photography, videography, and lighting equipment and accessories in the United States. Headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, with a satellite office in Nashville, Lensrentals ships gear to customers in all 50 states and also provides in-person pickups and returns to local customers.

Support the show (

Mediaclip strives to continuously enhance the user experience while dramatically increasing revenue.

Buzzsprout - Let's get your podcast launched!
Start for FREE

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Gary Pageau  0:02  
Hello again and welcome to the dead pixel society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by Drew Cicala, one of the co-owners and vice president of lens rentals down in Memphis, Tennessee.

Drew Cicala  0:15  
Hello, Drew, how are you today? Doing great. How are you?

Gary Pageau  0:19  
So for our listeners who are not familiar with LensRentals, can you kind of give us the elevator pitch? What, what was the idea that, you know, people really need to start renting some lenses?

Drew Cicala  0:31  
Sure, absolutely. My dad, you know, is the photographer in the family, I'm just, you know, the the son that was on the business side of things. So for him, he was just a really, really, into the gear side hobbyist, really enjoyed, you know, learning more about glass getting the latest class and, and Memphis is not a very large town, and it was just, you know, we had a camera stores, but there was nowhere that you could rent here at all. And even if you were somewhere like Chicago, or New York, and you walked into your local camera store, you could rent you know, a beat up copy of a handful of lenses, and pay a deposit that was the same amount, you know, as the cost of the of the new product. So, right, he just really was looking for a way to write off his gear, you know, he was okay. And so he said, what they got to be other people like me, I'm gonna put it all on a website. And by that weekend, I mean, it was all gone. And it just kind of went from there. You know, back then they were probably seven, eight other people doing what we did at the same time, and I just kind of buying as much gear as you could as quick as you could. And since then, we've just kind of went wherever the markets taken us.

Gary Pageau  1:44  
So how many how big is your staff there?

Drew Cicala  1:48  
We fluctuate right now, probably 175 total across all of our locations.

Gary Pageau  1:53  
That's a sign of growth over the last decade.

Unknown Speaker  1:56  

Gary Pageau  1:58  
So just just from a trivia standpoint, how many lenses do you have in the catalog?

Drew Cicala  2:05  
unique copies are like, you know, sk units just

Gary Pageau  2:09  
yeah, if you got 10,000 lenses or?

Drew Cicala  2:13  
Yeah, that sounds about right. Maybe about 5000 cameras, but you know, it's a it's a large number, and it's, it's weird how desensitized you become to it when you work here.

Gary Pageau  2:27  
What does that mean by desensitized?

Drew Cicala  2:28  
Oh, you'll just see people who, you know, they've worked here for two months. And they'll have a bin full of you know, five D fours just mounded up, you know, right, so that's a, that's a, that's a six figure bin you have there, this is no different than taking out the trash moving that from desk to desk. Just sometimes you stop and think like, Wow, that is a lot.

Gary Pageau  2:51  
So you've obviously expanded beyond once you got into camera body. So what are some of the other what are some of the array of items you can rent, from lunch rentals, like as deeds as again in a lighting, tripods, anything like that?

Drew Cicala  3:05  
Absolutely. At this point, we will rent just about anything that we can fit in a box, and FedEx will let us send out to people that they want to rent. So, you know, there are a few things people want to rent that we can't rent, you know, we would love to rent, you know, 20 foot cranes, but that's not really a thing we can do through FedEx. So we carry lighting, we carry video equipment support, we carry production tools, you know, we have iPads, walkie talkies, projectors, drones, you know, it really has kind of crept upwards over the years. Just little side steps into further markets.

Gary Pageau  3:43  
So what about like the liability side of that in terms of, you know, let's say you're running a drone to somebody, and they may not be aware of some of the restrictions of where you can fly a drone, or something like that. What How do you handle something like that? Is there a pre screening process?

Drew Cicala  4:02  
We do verify our customers to some degree, you know, we want to make sure people are obviously good stewards of our equipment. And part of that is to make sure they know what they're doing, and they have the skills necessary to do it. So with our drones, specifically, we kind of go through a warning process with people make sure they understand all the requirements, right. But on top of that, you know, if we saw if someone told us they were going to do something with a drone, that's ill advised.

Gary Pageau  4:35  
But so I want to do and in Grand Canyon, I can do that on a drone.

Drew Cicala  4:40  
I mean you can it's not a good idea for you or the drone, but theoretical.

Unknown Speaker  4:50  

Gary Pageau  4:51  
one of the ideas that kind of inspired me to reach out to you to do this is sort of the idea of the overall trend. Have people wanting to rent more as opposed to actually own things? How has that impacted your business? Because there is a lot of just overall feel that, you know, subscriptions are going to replace software licensing. And, you know, I know you're not going to own a DVD collection, you're just gonna run from a streaming service. So is that what's part of driving  LensRental's growth?

Drew Cicala  5:26  
It is to some degree. But I think more importantly, it has stopped being a failure. You know, when we first started, we got lots of people who would look at a rental price compared to a retail price and go, right? Why would I pay 5% of what it costs to own this to use it for a week, but I think everybody has come to value a little bit more than they did 15 years ago, what it means to, to have the costs of owning something, you know, it's great, that it has a resale value for you, but only you know, if you're not going to use it, you're not going to use it. And I think Brian really do appreciate that more now that that paying per use of something, you know, makes a ton of economic sense for people.

Gary Pageau  6:06  
Now, how much of your business is are professionals who are renting for a gig, versus let's say, an advanced hobbyist who either wants to try something out before they buy it? Or maybe they're going on a once in a lifetime trip? And they you know, and they need that piece of gear?

Drew Cicala  6:26  
You know, I would say probably a third of our customers are just truly hobbyists, right? You know, and then there's, there's a big blurry middle batch where people make money, you know, but maybe not full time. And then we do have our professional photographers, people who, you know, they own their own single person studio, but then we go all the way up to broadcast crews, you know, full, you know, independent motion pictures, TV shows. So it really runs the entire gamut.

Gary Pageau  6:58  
So that's interesting, because, obviously, there's a lot of rental houses that work with the established studios, right? I mean, obviously, in Hollywood, in New York, there's large established players, are you competing with those?

Drew Cicala  7:14  
No, we don't see ourselves really competing with that, you know, when I've been in LA, or I've been in New York, and I've talked to cinematographers, a lot of them have a personal relationship, you know, that's been built up, sure, over decades in the industry with these local rental houses. And you know, that's not a relationship we can replace, right. But at the same time, these days, everyone shooting so many different formats, that a traditional rental house just doesn't have everything you need. You know, there's people who can afford to shoot on $60,000 cameras, but are choosing to shoot on 20 $500 ones, because it makes more sense for what they're shooting. And that's really where we come in on those things.

Gary Pageau  7:58  
So, for example, let's say there's a there's a movie shoot, and they need a camera for a specific effect shot, or an action sequence where they made like, may they may need like 10 GoPros, or something, is that sort of application you think you'd be more suited for?

Drew Cicala  8:19  
Yes, it's, it's a lot of that stuff, a lot of unique one off, you know, we're trying to pull off this thing and it needs you can have 25 camera bodies we've done you know, tons of those where we send out 25 identical kits, and we know somebody's doing something cool with it. Just never quite sure what it is. But we've gotten stuff all the way up to those you know, $60,000 video cameras for the people who are branching out into that it just tends to be the established you know, cinematographers tend to use the they use for that stuff.

Gary Pageau  8:47  
So video is really come on pretty strong, hasn't I mean, you started as still photography, because your father was a photographer, right? But video has really taken off for wide variety of uses.

Drew Cicala  9:01  
Yeah, we hired our first video techs in 2010. And it was a had to do 22 year olds, because people kept asking us about different accessories they wanted to use with a Canon five v2, you know, microphones and stuff like that we've moved on from from that all the way up through higher and sentiment, it's really just been us carrying what the customer is asking us to because, you know, a customer jumps from one level to another and we start carrying more equipment and that brings in a higher level of customer and then those people jump you know, in their career higher up and were there. So it really we've just built up along with our customer base.

Gary Pageau  9:46  
So in terms of video, there seems to be a rapid escalation in the new equipment being reintroduced, you know, there used to be, you know, one time a year maybe at nav or something like that, you would have no question. being introduced. But now it's almost an unending assault, if you will, new products being introduced, how much of a challenge is that for your company to keep up with that?

Drew Cicala  10:10  
It's a challenge. Because every new camera, especially, you know, these higher, like, so much of it right now is focused on the high end of the market. So, right, it's really pushing technological boundaries, you know, a lot of these cameras, and it takes us time to have enough customers with them in the field to really understand them. So it almost feels like as soon as we start to understand the camera, then you know, that company is releasing a slightly different version of the same thing. But but it's really become fragmented on the top end of the market. Much almost like the low end used to be with consumer DSLRs coming out every three months. Yeah.

Gary Pageau  10:51  
So when you have this rapid escalation, how long do you support a model? Let's say for example, you know, you've got a popular model and about camera body. And let's say it's even out of service from the original manufacturer, do you keep those in line? How long do you keep equipment for?

Drew Cicala  11:12  
It depends on how well the manufacturer supports it. And the customer interest, obviously, lenses are easier. So we might, we might have a couple of really dusty copies of a lens that's been discontinued for five years available for rent for people who just really, really want that. But obviously, cameras are a little bit harder to keep alive once you know they stopped supporting them. So we tend to probably keep stuff a year past when it's discontinued. But it really does depend on the camera. Do you want?

Gary Pageau  11:43  
What do you do with your discontinued product? I mean, I imagine in some ways, you get some stuff that's pretty beat up and can't be resolved. But I imagine a lot of it is by in pretty decent shape. Because you're maintaining stuff when it comes in your pipe cleaning every single time when they come in, you're probably doing a look at the shutter and making sure it's all good before consent, probably better maintained in most people's cameras. So what do you do with that stuff?

Drew Cicala  12:08  
Yeah, we have an in house repair department who, you know, not just right before sale, but keeps up with the cosmetics on the lens throughout its life, it's just a lot easier to replace things like rubber belts, right? You know, every three months when they look a little dusty, right? So our gear stays in really good shape for sale, and we sell stuff on a rolling basis. Honestly, from, you know, as early as six months after it's launched, we might be selling off copies of it. And from then on, we kind of cycled in and out, you know, sell off the older ones, buy new ones, keep it fresh. So write pretty much anything but new releases, we have up

Gary Pageau  12:42  
for sale, I imagine you've got a pretty that's a pretty decent sized revenue stream, actually. Because I imagine people are, you know, they're always looking people always looking for a deal, right. And they can pretty much be assured that what they're getting from you is going to be maintained, at least rather than some random off eBay,

Drew Cicala  12:59  
it's going to be maintained. And also people really do tend to trust our ratings, which is a big point of anxiety, when people are buying used gear, you're using somebody else's subjective, you know, this is an eight out of 10, or this is in good condition or very good. We're fortunate to have a lot of trust in that department. So I think that's one of the things that really sets it apart, then it makes people want to come to us as opposed to eBay. Just a little bit more like buying retail.

Gary Pageau  13:26  
Because, you do have people, let's say they're, they're a customer of yours. And they've realized, you know, hey, I'm getting used to this body, are they using this, this platform, and they're discontinuing this camera, I might want to pop for that. Right? So in May, so I imagine a lot of your sales are to existing customers.

Drew Cicala  13:43  
Yes, and we also have people who, you know, there's a ton of, especially on the amateur and ad market, but it's really throughout all the market of people who are simply renting because there's nowhere to pick up a camera lens and drive anymore. So, you know, it's just a, I don't want to spend five grand on this till I pick it up. And I put it in my hand at some point. And so we had a lot of people just asking to buy the copy they had in their hands. So now these days, we kind of have a two button, way to just, you know, whatever's in your hand will give you a depreciation price based on how beat up it is right there and just keep Wow. So people really like that, because it you know, if you are renting it to try it out, then you've got a copy you like was in the back and get another one. So that's also a really popular way people end up, you know, keeping that equipment permanently.

Gary Pageau  14:30  
So how has COVID affected the business? Because, clearly, you know, people aren't traveling as much. So that sort of segments decline. People are, you know, I don't know what's even happening and in the production world of movie media, or television media. So as we come out of COVID How to things look.

Drew Cicala  14:55  
I think things are looking pretty good for the industry, relative to what I would have thought they'd be like, if you asked me the same question last summer. You know, we're seeing demand come back, we're seeing production pick back up. And I think when we get into the warmer weather months here this summer, I think we're gonna really see a good boom. You know, there's a lot of people who've been cooped up for a long time who want to get a creative outlet. So I mean, for us, you know, it's not always about marketing budgets and commercial activity, it's just about people wanting to rent a lens and do something interesting, right? You know, we haven't rented a lens to anyone who just used it to go walk around a strange city in a year, you know, that, that'll be great to come back.

Gary Pageau  15:38  
So curious, you know, the sort of encroachment into the pro space with some of the smartphone technology? How do you see I mean, I am assuming you may rent a smartphone here or there. But do you see that as impacting some of the pro AMS space, if you will?

Drew Cicala  15:59  
Probably not, I think it's, you know, it's obviously replaced the DSLRs people would buy at Target, you know, or, or Walmart right there off the counter. It's replaced that part of the market, but that part of the market really only ever existed for the manufacturers. I mean, even camera stores didn't make a ton of money off, you know, consumer level cameras. So, right. I think it's not really harming the industry, because people who need cameras still need cameras, you know, you're not going to show up to shoot a wedding with a smartphone and get paid for it at least. Well, yeah, I don't

Gary Pageau  16:34  
know. I mean, it's funny, you hear tales of that. And it frightens me that Uncle Bob is trying to take a picture of or take photos at a wedding and sell them. Right. Like you said, I think there is sort of that distinction between the pro market and the pro am market in the amateur market. And it's certainly true that smartphones have encroached and replaced the bottom. And it's just some does. I mean, I just had some some recent discussions with folks who are like, you know, I'm starting I can see it almost being a pro capture device. And I'm not sure I'm there yet, but people are talking that way.

Drew Cicala  17:13  
Yeah, it depends on what you're using it with to, you know, with the Ronan's and things like that, I mean, these days, some of these camera stabilizers, you know, when you don't have motion going on, they do look pretty good. I mean, you know, but then again, if you're stabilizing phone, you might as well stabilize a camera, right? It's a little bit like when you see a mirrorless camera, and it's really compact, and that's great. And then they put a nine pound lens on the front of it. And it's like, well, is that? Is that really saving you any space? Or wait, you know, honestly, looks like it's more difficult to hold them with a DSLR. So I think you see some of that, too.

Gary Pageau  17:48  
Yeah. You know, it's funny, he says that, because I see a lot of press releases and new gear. And there's all kinds of attachments and gimbals. And craziness, you can add on to a smartphone, for example, to make it a production level piece of gear, and I'm looking at this thing going. Wow, that's that, that takes away some of the portability and convenience when you've got this sort of array of equipment all around it.

Drew Cicala  18:14  
Absolutely, yeah. You know, I think smartphones do they'll replace like the GoPro behind the scenes type cam, I'm sure you know, the guy, the guy running around holding the GoPro on a gimbal. You know, but I mean, the great production tools, I would say that that's that's part of the reason why we do rent some smartphones. I mean, they are, we don't read them for the cell phone purpose, but like people, they are useful production tools to have a little touchscreen in your pocket that can control 50 different things through apps. So

Gary Pageau  18:41  
yeah, I agree. I mean, I'm not I'm not dissing them from a, from a tool standpoint, it's just it's just interesting to see how, you know, there's hype versus reality, right? So we'll see how it goes. We never thought GoPros would be as popular as they are right in terms of you know, I mean, I look at shows like you know, survivor or a lot of reality TV shows almost shot completely on GoPro looks like

Drew Cicala  19:08  
Yeah, and 4k too. You know, it's amazing what you can can make with 4k hidden GoPro footage on some of these nature shows and things like that.

Gary Pageau  19:16  
Yeah, it's crazy. So going you know through 2021 you think the future is bright? What do you think the industry should be looking out for in terms of what you're hearing from the manufacturers on equipment trends is aka finally going to be the thing or smaller better? Or is it more of the same?

Drew Cicala  19:43  
I mean, everything's gonna have 8k I think is kind of where you're going to go in the same way that for a while there. When 4k first became a thing. I mean, they were shoving 4k in the cameras that didn't need 4k, right? The 4k you know, mode was not good. And at that time You know, no one owned a 4k TV and we're like, Why do $1,000 cameras need 4k? But no one has. So I think we'll probably go through a wave of that to some degree, but where people just they have 8k footage, and they can't they, they don't have a computer that's worthy of it. Right? So there's gonna be some of that. And we've kind of gone through waves of that, where some part of the technology has kind of leapt forward. And it's like, well, that's great. But how useful is it? You know, the da 100? You know, those high megapixel cameras. Same thing with Linux there for a minute, it was like, well, we need 50 mega you need it? I don't know the game standards.

Gary Pageau  20:35  
Yeah, I don't know. Who knows. 50 megabytes? Personally, I'm holding out for for 24k on my next camera, that's what I'm holding out for.

Drew Cicala  20:43  
You get there?

Gary Pageau  20:45  
I know, that's what's getting used to say silly things. Like they'll never have 50 megapixel cameras. And here they are. And now yet 24k will be here. Are you seeing just one last thing? Just kind of curious. We haven't touched on this yet? Are you seeing any interest like real interest as from a trend standpoint, and like AR and VR, I mean, I'm sure the equipment's out there, but actually people shooting reasonable amount of content with it, because there's, there's the hype machine, and there's the reality of the situation.

Drew Cicala  21:15  
It is a growing area for us, you know, it started small. So it's not like it's a big engine for us. But the people that rent it tend to do it full time, there are people out there who make a living at this, you know, a good living, you know, doing events, especially in the pandemic, I mean, there's been a lot of a lot of people wanting to capture things and alternate ways to make experiences happen. So there's definitely a market for it. But I don't think it's gonna be an everyday part of, you know, expectations as a professional that you can do that type of content, you know, in the same way that these days, people almost expect you in some ways to be able to handle at least some video basics. I don't think we're ever going to get that point with VR where it's that common, but you can definitely make a living at it. It's a lot of corporate stuff, a lot of stuff that you know, we see people doing with it that you don't realize is, you know, shot 360 things like that.

Gary Pageau  22:18  
And when it becomes a thing i'm sure LensRentals will be there.

Drew Cicala  22:22  

Gary Pageau  22:24  
Well thank you drew for your time and looking forward to catching up with you soon.

Drew Cicala  22:31  
Thank you