Prior to a planned visit to Road America in for the Tudor / Continental sports car races this August, I decided to rent a telephoto lens so my son and I could each have a lens to shoot during the event. This isn't my first time renting, but it's my first time doing so by long distance, so I'm eager to see how well this process works out.
As I mentioned, I've rented previously through my local favorite shop - Midwest Photo Exchange, and I've always been thankful to have a local option like them, since it's so convenient to just run down to the store for pickup and drop-off, but looking through their inventory, they just didn't have a lot of great telephoto options past 200mm or so -- specifically, they didn't have Canon's 100-400, which was the first lens I'd thought of. I think I might have been tempted to look at Sigma's 120-300 f/2.8 or Tamron's new 150-600, but neither of these was available for Canon.
Since my son and I are traveling a fair distance for this race, the other big problem with MPEX was that I'd need to rent for a full week to cover our drive time, so I figured I'd check out some local stores closer to the track. Camera Casino is a great store up in Oshkosh, and they offer rentals, but only Tamron lenses. Again, if they'd had the 150-600, I'd have snapped it up in a heartbeat, but this lens is so new that nobody seems to have it for rental yet. Finally, I checked out Art's Cameras in Milwaukee, and they had the 100-400, but it wouldn't have been very convenient and wound up being slightly more expensive than LensRentals, so they were out, too.
This left me with the two big online alternatives -- LensRentals.com and BorrowLenses.com, so I started comparing these next. I've known about LensRentals for quite a while -- in fact, I'd purchased some used CF cards from them a couple years ago, so I was already quite comfortable with them. I haven't used BorrowLenses yet, but I know they've been making customers happy for a number of years, too, so I was comfortable with them from a reputation standpoint. Browsing offerings and prices from both sites, I confirmed that Canon's 100-400 looked like the right option, price-wise, and pricing out the whole order, LensRentals was a little more competitive, so they were starting to look like the winner for me.
As far as I know, LensRentals is among (if not the) oldest online lens rental shops, and their experience shows. The user interface is easy to use and it let me choose any lens rental period I wanted (unlike some of the local shops that offered day / weekend / week options only).
In my case, I wanted to have the lens shipped to where I'll be -- not where I am now, and this turned out to be easy to set up, too. This is one of the most intuitive date-picking screens I've seen, and it's really helpful for them to have broken out "arrival date" and "ship back date" so clearly - kudos for this!
Next, I needed to arrange shipping. I was originally going to just ship to a family member I'm staying with in WI, but when I saw the bit about the package requiring a signature, I decided it would probably make more sense to have the package held for pickup at a local FedEx office. Once I found the office I wanted, I was initially inclined to leave the shipping address as I'd entered it and add the FedEx office in the order notes area, but I noticed the screen had a "chat" option, so I gave that a try. Unlike some sites that will have you sit on hold for five or ten minutes while a support person gets hooked up to chat, on the LensRentals site, I was connected to someone in a couple seconds -- almost instantly. She was friendly and helpful and got me pointed in the right direction. I completed my order and received a confirmation email in short order.
So far, so good!
Unpacking, Packing, and Returning
One of the benefits of using FedEx is their excellent communication. I knew when the lens shipped and when it arrived at the FedEx office for pickup. The LensRentals folks had done a great job with packing, as you might expect, and there was a perfectly-fitting folder right on top of the box with all the important information I'd need for the rental (including the return label).
Of course, the real point of all this was the lens, which I enjoyed greatly. Be sure to check out my report from the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase at Road America to see some examples of Canon's 100-400L in action. All too quickly, though, the weekend had wound down, and it was time to send the lens back.
Re-packing was a piece of cake. The perfectly-fitting foam insert made it super-easy to prepare the package, and with the pre-printed return label, I was ready to go in no time. I just dropped the package back at the same FedEx office where I'd picked it up, and they took it from there. When LensRentals received the shipment, they sent me an email indicating so, and informing me that they'd inspect and restock the lens within 24 hours, and that if they needed anything else from me, they'd let me know.
Any experienced photographer realizes how crazy-expensive some of the specialized gear we need can be, and even if we only need it once in a while, having the right lens for a shoot can make all the difference. I'm lucky enough to have a local camera shop that does rentals, so I've got even more options than most photographers, but as I discussed in the opening of this review, options like LensRentals can still be the best option for me because of their huge inventory and ability to make a lens available right where I need it to be. LensRentals showed why they're the cream of the crop, too -- a fantastic online experience, great customer service, and outstanding packaging made the whole experience completely worry-free for me.
Out of the entire experience, the only part I'd like to see a change from LensRentals was that very final return / restocking step. Since I'm a little over-the-top in terms of detail orientation sometimes (to put as positive a spin on this as possible), I'd have appreciated a final email when inspection / restocking was complete -- just a final punctuation point on a great overall experience. If you need to rent equipment in the future, I'd highly recommend giving these guys a shot -- I'll bet you turn into a repeat customer.
[update - 2014/10/3] -- LensRentals just introduced a "keeper" program that'll give you an option to purchase the equipment you've rented (at a price adjusted for the age of the equipment) less your rental fee. Since LensRentals already sells all sorts of used equipment at very fair prices, I'd trust this price to be very competitive, and you've obviously got the benefit of being able to take it out and shoot it for a while to make sure you like the copy you're considering. Way to go, LensRentals! You can read more about this program on PetaPixel or the LensRentals blog.