I have lost count of how many cameras and lenses have been unintentionally dropped or damaged while traveling in a foreign country. In France, a friend accidentally dropped my 35mm point-and-shoot in the English Channel. In Laos, I thought it was a good idea to take pictures in the middle of a tubing trip down the Nam Song River. In Korea, I became a regular at the Nikon service and repair center in the heart of Seoul, as I dealt with a faulty camera sensor. I’ve also had not one, but two lenses damaged during a trip around the world with a travel companion who often forgot my bags had expensive glass tucked inside. In Morocco, my couch-surfer host in Casablanca happened to be an avid photographer. Upon hearing of my damaged lenses, he graciously led me into the heart of the Derb Ghallef Flea Market to his favorite black market camera salesman to buy a replacement. While I probably will always hesitate labeling myself as a “professional photographer,” I will readily admit I am a pro when it comes to dealing with damaged, stolen, or missing gear in far-flung locations around the world. Rather than react with tears upon my next dose of misfortune, I’ve outlined a few gentle reminders for myself (and perhaps you, too!) the next time my camera breaks in the middle of my trip:
First, before you go
• Invest in protective (possibly waterproof) gear. And please, avoid using a bag with a well-known camera manufacturer’s name on it. An expensive bag with a logo is an advertisement to others that equally (or more) expensive equipment is inside. While I dream of being that put-together traveler with pristine luggage, no one looks twice at my well-worn baggage long enough to realize I have thousands of dollars of equipment housed inside.
• Anonymize your gear. Remove the strap that came with your camera—immediately. Unless you want strangers to automatically put a price tag on your gear, get something like my new favorite Peak Design SlideLITE Camera Strap SLL-1 for a little more discretion on the road. Go one step further and cover up the name of your camera with a piece of electrical or black gaffer tape.
• Bring backup. If you don’t want to invest in a compact (possibly waterproof) digital camera, the Fujifilm Quicksnap 800 Waterproof 35mm Disposable Camera is an affordable option to toss in your bag for adventurous trekking, water sports, or lazy afternoons at the beach. For destinations that don’t involve water, the Kodak 35mm One-Time-Use Disposable Camera with Flash is less likely to be pickpocketed in over-populated, possibly dangerous areas around the world.
• Insure your gear. While sites like www.ppa.com (Professional Photographer Association) offer equipment-specific insurance, your homeowner’s or rental insurance might cover damage or even theft while traveling. Some credit card companies provide insurance on items purchased with your credit card. Call your insurance and credit card company to confirm if accidentally damaged, lost, or stolen gear is covered.
• Scan (or photograph) receipts and serial numbers of your cameras, lenses, and any additional equipment for which you might seek reimbursement should it break or go missing in the middle of your trip. Put your insurance information with your equipment serial numbers and receipts. Keep a folder of these images on your phone. Email a copy of the information to yourself, to a loved one or a trusted friend in your home country who you won’t be traveling with, and to your travel companion (if you have one).
During your trip
• Do not check-in your camera equipment. Keeping an eye on your equipment throughout multiple airports is the easiest way to avoid loss or theft during one or more layover. Carry your gear on the plane, even if it means sacrificing some leg room for a few hours onboard.
• Research each country and city to know the scams you’re likely to encounter. In China, “language exchanges” were held at expensive tea parlors where we were expected to foot the bill. In Tanzania, the pick-pocketing was so bad that my travel companion began putting fake wallets in his pockets. In Ecuador, we were warned of car-jackings in broad daylight. Less is likely to happen the more aware you are. Avoid traveling at night in dangerous parts of the world, and keep your expensive gear out of sight if you feel even the slightest bit of unease in your new environment.
• Back up your images on an external hard drive while traveling, or if you’re traveling short term, by using multiple memory cards. Separating your data from your camera ensures you won’t lose all of your images should something unfortunate happen.
• Should you find yourself being mugged, hand over your camera! And while not necessarily recommended, I have met more than one traveler who has retrieved their memory card before handing their camera over or have quite simply asked to keep their card before giving up their camera.
After your gear breaks (or is lost or stolen)
• File a police report (if stolen) and contact your insurance company immediately to file a report and submit a claim. Document the damage/loss/theft in any way possible. Pictures of a bus accident alongside damaged gear with a mobile phone, a letter from your guesthouse noting a theft report, just to name a few.
• B&H Photo does ship internationally, should you need to replace your gear immediately (unfortunately, not all items can be shipped to all destinations), with an added cost determined upon checkout. International shipping to your hotel, guesthouse, or even to a friend’s residential address in a foreign country are all possibilities. However, please keep in mind that some countries charge an import tax that could cost more than the equipment itself. To avoid hefty fees and import taxes, consider having a friend or family member ship and “gift” your replacement equipment to you. Oftentimes, a more personalized package is less likely to get held up in customs.
• Or, head to a local camera store or market for a new or gently used lens or camera. Before you head out, research how much your replacement gear should cost and/or how much you would spend on the replacement. If you don’t have an international cellular plan, take screenshots of the item you are looking for when connected to Wi-Fi. They should show a clearly visible price that you can use when haggling for a fair price in a marketplace. If you don’t speak the local language, be prepared for some back and forth with a calculator until you and your seller can agree on a price.
The worst case scenario on your trip is one that jeopardizes your health and safety, not your equipment. You might have a pocket camera stolen from your backpack, your camera battery inexplicably stops working, a couple of lenses are accidentally dropped, and another camera gets stolen from your hotel room. All of these scenarios happened over the span of my fifteen-month adventure around the world. Because I had ample back-up and the chutzpah (as my colleagues at B&H would say) to take my chances on buying a replacement lens in a black market, I was never without a means to take a picture one way or another. And, I had more misadventures than I could count to share with friends upon my return home. After all, it’s the misadventures that everyone wants to hear about the most. Now that you know some of mine, what are some of yours? Share them in the Comments section, below.