How Not to Lose or Break Your Photo Gear

How Not to Lose or Break Your Photo Gear

Cameras are expensive. Anyone with a pro body and a few decent lenses won't have much change from $10,000. So how do we go about protecting them?

I was on a trip to Vienna earlier this year and took the opportunity to visit some of the impressive modernist architecture that adorns the city. I had a bucket list that included the Hundertwasser House (think Picasso meets building), DC Tower (Austria's tallest building at 250 meters), and Donaucity Kirche.

DC Tower, Vienna

DC Tower, Vienna

I had scouted out a location on a previous trip and had a mental image of a long exposure, wide angle, shot looking up at the DC Tower. I got in position, attached the cable release and then angled the camera, framing the tower. I worked out my exposure before attaching the Lee Big Stopper and firing the shutter. It was in bulb mode, so I timed it using my watch, checking the resultant image. I wasn't satisfied with the framing, so unlocked the tripod's ball head and rotated the camera. In slow motion, the filter holder slid off the top of the camera where it must have been hanging precariously and fell to the ground with a smash, shards of glass breaking apart. I just stood there staring at it before cursing. Another $130 gone, just like that.

One Broken Lee Filter

One Broken Lee Filter

Protecting our gear is obviously paramount if we want it to last. It's a significant investment and so what steps can we take to ensure this? Below is my medium length list of suggestions.

Preventing Broken Gear

The first step is to stop your gear leaving your grasp. Top of my list of solutions is a camera strap; my preference is for a body strap as I find it ergonomically places the camera in a good "at-rest" position. You have to rely 100 percent on the strap, so you need to be confident that it will do the job. I've used a Black Rapid for a number of years as they have an excellent reputation. However, the metal buckle holding the lug that screws into the base of the camera failed last year. The camera and strap subsequently parted company, luckily I was holding the camera in my hand at the time. I would have been far less happy if it had fallen off. Black Rapid replaced the strap without quibble and the engineering around this element now appears more substantial.

So, that's holding the camera at rest. When it's actually in your hand you need to be satisfied that the camera has a firm and positive grip. If you are not comfortable with it, then think twice before you buy. I have found my Nikons to be excellent, while I can think of no word to describe the (lack of) grip on my diminutive Sony RX100 other than poor. In fact, Sony manufacture an aftermarket adhesive grip (the AG-R2) which I would say is a requirement for using the camera, along with looping the wrist strap over your wrist.

When it comes to attaching your camera to anything, or anything to your camera, double and triple check every fixing. Threads come loose (I'm continuously checking the Black Rapid fixing), karabiners don't lock, buckles undo, and (in the case of my Lee filter) clips don't spring shut. It is obvious and we do it most of the time, however it pays to get into a routine about the way we operate. We want checking to be second nature because if we don't, you know there will be an occasion when things go wrong.

I was shooting some street photography a while back on the London Underground, using a 24mm lens on a Nikon D700 for close-quarters work. The Black Rapid strap was looped over my shoulder while I shot surreptitiously from the hip. When I had finished I sat down and put the camera in my lap. When we got to the next station I stood up to get off and the camera bounced onto the floor. I had actually taken the strap off while sitting and completely forgotten about it!

Even if you have a strap on, it may not save you. I was traveling on a Routemaster London bus and hurriedly clambered up the steep steps to the top deck. About halfway up, the bus shuddered into motion, jolting me, and setting the camera swinging on the strap. It lurched forward, smashing into the step in front me. It literally smashed as I heard the telltale tinkling of broken glass. I looked down and saw a large dent in the UV filter on the front element. The filter was in pieces but the lens was intact. For me, this is a great reason to use filters when you are out of the studio. Even better would have been to have had the lens hood on it.

Preventing Stolen Gear

Of course, most of the preceding won't stop your gear being stolen, although a few simple steps will help you. This well reported incident Brett Costello's theft of $40,000 of gear at the Olympics illustrates just how easy it is for teams of thieves that work together. Firstly, carry less gear. It's a smaller loss if it is stolen, but it means you are far more able to keep it physically on your body rather than separating it out into a bag. I often stick smaller primes in either socks or small neoprene pouches. If you are using a bag, then try a rucksack as it is firmly attached to you.

Above all, don't advertise that you have an expensive camera with loads of gear. There is nothing likely to garner lots of attention than (for instance) a Nikon D850 with a 70-200mm f2/8 lens attached. Primes are discreet, easily concealable and look cheap. Of course, you need the right lens for the job, but include security in your planning. Non-branded camera straps and regular bags, rather than camera bags, go along way to concealing what you are carrying. My go-to bag is a standard shoulder bag but with a foam insert.

Foam Insert Inside a Standard Holdall

Foam Insert Inside a Standard Holdall

Preventing Lost Gear

If our gear does go missing then we want the best possible chance of having it returned, and that goes for whether it's lost or stolen. There's two routes to achieving this. Firstly, take the time to label each and every piece of gear you own. Yes, it's a drag, but it means that regardless of what is lost and where it ends up, if the person who finds it wants to return it then they can get in touch with you. I use a simple thermal printer (like this Dymo) which lets me stick a thin strip with my email address on to my gear. For some items it's less adhesive and for these I place a small strip of sellotape over the top. It's simple but effective. This great story of a barnacle-encrusted camera lost at sea is testament to the power of Facebook in finding the owner, but it would have been so much easier if they'd stuck their email address on the camera.

For gear that has serial numbers (lenses, bodies, tripods) I log them on LensTag (although there are a number of websites) which provides an online searchable database. This serves two purposes: if you are going to buy secondhand gear, search the database to see if it is stolen. By not buying stolen equipment we reduce the benefit of stealing it in the first place. Lenstag also periodically scans images on the major photo sites and matches serial numbers, so if your lens (or indeed your photos) is stolen you might be able to find its current user.

Hopefully, some of the tips above will throw up some useful ideas for keeping your gear in active service for a long time. I'm sure there are some other great tips knocking around, so if you have any please put them in the comments below.

Lead image by kteague and used under Creative Commons.

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10 Comments

Jonathan Brady's picture

No mention of insurance? I recently signed up for a policy through State Farm (non-professional photographers only, according to their policy). It covers the value of the equipment with no deductible regardless of what happens to it. Mine covers $16,484 worth of equipment for $264 per year.

Mike Smith's picture

Good catch! I wasnt intending to cover insurance, but I should have included it in the round up!!

Chris 'stAn' Hargrave's picture

I find a wrist strap very good at reducing risk o camera falling to the floor.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I have a DIY paracord wrist strap. Costs next to nothing, strong and effective. I leave it on the camera, it's never in the way. It's helpful when I shoot street and need to reach into my bag. Love it.

Kirk Darling's picture

Strapwise, I've used a number of alternatives, but I've come back to a traditional neck strap. I use DIY Frankenstraps I've put together from Domke straps (love the rotating metal clasps) and a discontinued Tamrac that has genuine suede leather padding. If I couldn't have my Frankenstrap, I'd go with just Domke 1-inch straps with rotating clasps.

I prefer a neckstrap for versatility. Goes around the neck or over the shoulder. Or wraps around the wrist, loosely or tightly. Every time I pick up the camera, I casually toss the strap around my hand or arm. It wraps around other things as well, such as over the tripod as I'm attaching the camera...just in case. When I have to get the camera out of my hand, I don't have to get it into a holster or onto a latch, I can just drop it (such as when I fall and have to suddenly devote both hands to grabbing something.

How not to do it. Drop it in the toilet of an airport. Still, only the UV filter damaged. Could have been the front lens element.
I once demolished my lens and camera at a wedding shoot. Someone decided to strech his legs when I was walking past crashing me into a bench. Still the insurance paid for this.

Id like to suggest you guys check out https://mygearvault.com/ as a great way to input, organize and protect your gear as well as get actual insurance quotes.

Unlike many apps out there, we allow you to save images of your receipts right inside the app so you always have them. It also does a lot more, go ahead give it a shot.

I would also recommend storing serial numbers of the gear in the cloud with something similar to Evernote (www.evernote.com). If there's an Internet connection available, then you can pull the serial numbers.

Mike Smith's picture

Its a good clarification - I should have said that when I use Lenstag it requires you to log the serial numbers and upload a photo of them. Its great that it forces you to write those numbers down!

Eric Bowles's picture

Good article on a topic that is too close to home.

Absolutely having appropriate insurance is important. For professionals, organizations like NANPA and PPA offer access to insurance at reasonable rates. If you are strictly non-professional, in the US it is a normal addition to homeowners insurance or renters insurance.

While there is debate around "protective filters", there is no debate over the value of always using a lens hood and a lens cap.

Many drops are from being distracted and moving a little too fast. Slow down for a few seconds and make sure your gear is secure. Zip your camera bag closed. Use your camera bag to temporarily hold items rather than juggling them. Use camera straps and safety straps.

Around water, use a dry bag so all your gear is not at risk at one time. Travel lighter. Watch out for the current tipping your tripod in moving water. If your gear gets wet, blot water rather than wiping. If gear is submerged or extremely wet, immediately remove the battery, turn power off, and get it dried out. Remove the lens (and filters) so the camera is fully exposed to air. I have used a heat vent or placed items on a heating pad or other warm surface for several days rather than relying on rice or drying agents which are not fast enough.

I've had more than my share of damaged gear. Most repairs are under $400 per item for boards, motors, cleaning, etc. That seems to be the magic number.