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.
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.
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.
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.