Keeping Your Equipment Safe
By Les Picker
Whether you’re a pro or amateur photographer, traveling any distance with photo equipment today is a major hassle. If you’re crazy enough to put delicate camera equipment through checked baggage; well, good luck. If you take it aboard as carry-on, today’s onerous weight and size restrictions take a major bite out of what you’ll be able to pack (see my blog on packing photo gear: http://blog.lesterpickerphoto.com/2009/05/25/transporting-your-gear/).
For a moment, though, let’s assume you’ve managed to cart your camera, lenses and accessories with you on vacation to Europe (or perhaps to Asia or Latin America). For the first three days all is well as you walk along the streets of Paris, Budapest or Florence, snapping image after glorious image. Then, one of the following disasters occurs:
A. You come back from dinner and find your camera, lens and laptop gone from your room;
B. You are sitting in a restaurant, hang your camera on your chair and when you get up to leave, the camera is mysteriously gone;
C. You are walking down a narrow, crowded street, someone walks by, you feel a slight bump and shove, and a moment later notice that your camera is no longer on your shoulder;
D. A group of adorable children walk up to you, engage you in greetings and then your camera is yanked off your shoulder, sending you sprawling, with bruises to your head and arm.
Actually, every one of the above incidents has happened to my colleagues, all of them experienced photojournalists, savvy in urban environments. With the downturn in the worldwide economy, fewer police on patrol and a ready Internet market for stolen goods, the theft of tourist valuables has become a going business. The question is, what can you do to protect your valuables from theft while abroad?
I’m a believer in proper planning, which I believe can go a long way to minimizing the chances that you‘ll end up being a victim. As a seasoned traveler and professional photojournalist, here are my top ten safety travel tips to protect your valuable photo investment. My thanks to Darwin for having me share this with you.
1. Research. Before I leave home on assignment I thoroughly research the areas I will visit. I check the U.S. State Department’s website (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_4965.html) or Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (http://www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/menu-eng.asp) for alerts in every area I plan to visit. I also check Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) for recent incident reports, as well as do a Google search for the city name combined with “crime,” “safety issues,” and other descriptors.
2. Take a checklist. I always keep an updated list of my photo equipment, serial numbers and copy of my receipts with me both in hard copy and on my iPod, in case I have to file a theft report with local police and my insurer.
3. No designer labels. I’m not sure why people do this, but camera bags advertising Nikon, Canon and other high-end brands are neon signs to would-be thieves. Use a bag without the designer name or cut off the one that’s on it.
4. Bag the vest. I no longer wear photo vests in foreign urban areas. Instead I’ve switched to products by ScotteVest (www.scottevest.com) which feature hidden inside pockets, or else I use shirts and pants with multiple pockets to store accessories. Disclosure: I am a monthly photography columnist for ScotteVest, but am not paid to endorse their products.
5. Airport security. How do you safeguard from theft those camera accessories that you might need to store in your checked bags? I use PacSafe products (www.pacsafe.com), which are lined with slashproof Exomesh titanium and also come with a long wire and lock. I put my camera accessories into the PacSafe bag(s) and lock them to the interior rollbar. Since I’ve used these bags I’ve not had a single theft from my luggage (I have had six previous checked luggage theft incidents all over the world).
6. Hotel security. Always lock your photo equipment in your hotel safe, even if out of your room for a few minutes. If the hotel does not have a safe or you have too much equipment to fit into the typically micro-sized safes, invest in a PacSafe 140 or PacSafe 85. These titanium mesh bags fit over your luggage and then you secure the luggage and bag with the provided lock to any solid surface. Hotel room tip: I advise against securing a bag to the bed frame, since frames can be easily disassembled, or to the leg of a desk, which can be quickly sawed or broken. Instead, use your PacSafe wire and lock to wrap around the toilet bowl. By my reckoning, any thief who goes through the trouble of turning off the water supply, unhooking the toilet tank from the bowl and making off with my luggage is a deserving thief, indeed.
7. Insurance. Make sure your equipment is insured and updated.
8. Distribute your memory cards. As a pro I’m paranoid about this, but then again I have to come home with the goods. Whether pro or amateur, make backup copies of your memory cards and distribute them separate from your camera equipment. It’s one thing to lose your camera. It’s another thing to lose vacation memories. Buy a cheap portable backup drive for less than $100, back up to your laptop each night, or upload to a favorite photo-sharing site (see my blog on backing up your images: http://blog.lesterpickerphoto.com/2009/06/02/backing-up-your-digital-images/).
9. Be street savvy. Brush up on local scams, such as the cut-the-camera-strap-and-run, motorcycle-pull-and-drive, cute-little-kids scam, and bag-lady-on-bus scam or whatever the latest ones happen to be. Don’t leave your camera on a table, chair or counter. Use a camera strap reinforced with wire.
10. Don’t be heroic. This is injury- or life-saving advice. If thieves confront you, remember that your equipment is not worth injury or death. Give it up and file a police report immediately, then contact your insurer.
Les Picker is a professional photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic books and magazines and dozens of other major magazines and newspapers. He travels widely throughout the world. His blog is: http://blog.lesterpickerphoto.com