What could possibly go wrong?
Let me be your fall guy here. I’ve been shooting for 25 years, and I’m completely human. I’m also not the most careful person.
I’ve left a SLR in a drybag that unfortunately collected water, then sat soaking for a week. I’ve had a camera slide off the top of a car (like a coffee cup – but much, much worse) then go bouncing across three lanes of traffic. Miraculously, the camera and its lens survived! I’ve opened my car door and had my DSLR fall only 1.5 feet and break off the lens at the mount. My main 28-300mm L lens has gone into the shop twice as the fabric in the locking collar has worn out. I left a lens behind during a hike, and it was gone when I went back for it. I’ve had camera errors while shooting a wedding, and my main desktop computer has been stolen.
Bad things happen sometimes. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s not.
In this article I want to help you prepare for the the worst case scenarios for camera and lens care. I want to get you thinking about disasters before they happen and also give some advice on what to do when things go awry. Then at the end I’d love to hear your own tales, especially if they are helpful to other photographers.
We will cover cameras and lens mishaps, such as:
- Lost or missing gear
- Moisture incursion
- Corrupted/error message
What to do before things go wrong
There are steps you can take just in case things go wrong.
Whether it’s for business or pleasure, if your camera gear is valuable to you, consider insuring it. For professional photographers this should be a no-brainer, but often those in the freelance realm aren’t bringing in huge paychecks, so they skimp by and avoid insurance. Don’t!
For non-professionals, check with your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance to see if your gear is covered. You might find there is a limit for electronics, but you can always pony up a few extra dollars to ensure all your gear is insured. Also check your auto policy to see if gear left inside a car is covered (while remembering to always lock your gear in your trunk!), it often is not.
This is another part of the process many skip. Registering your gear with the manufacturer helps them update you if something should be found wrong with your equipment. We hear about food recalls on the nightly news because they have huge impacts. But did you hear about the Canon Powershot eyecup recall (14,000 units) in 2014 or the Nikon 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm recall in 2015?
These kind of recalls don’t make big news and often don’t even make the photo blogs.
LensTag is a free service you should consider using to track your gear. The online service allows you to enter camera gear to their database, verify it with a photo of the serial number and search for stolen gear before you buy. We have an article here on dPS that explains the service in more detail Lenstag: a World Without Camera Theft.
In the UK there is a service called Immobilise.com which works in a similar fashion; log your items on the site before they are stolen, alert the service when something goes missing, cross your fingers. This service seems more robust and is checked by police in the UK. You can register more than cameras here as well.
Tagging your equipment with contact information is helpful for having your goods returned when they go missing accidentally. I accidentally left a camera on a log on a trail many decades ago and the next day someone had turned it in to the park ranger’s office. Good people do exist! Give them a hand.
Avery, the label company, has a number of options for inkjet and laser printer. For instance, their 6570 label is meant to stay on permanently and can be cut to a useful size. This is a good option, though not perfect, for inkjet printers while the 6576 labels work better on a laserjet printer. You might want to write your information in permanent marker, but know that it will fade and need replacing.
Write it down
This tip is the most common sense, but I feel it needs repeating. Grab a piece of paper and an old fashioned pencil and simply write down the serial numbers for your gear. Then store it in a safe place. Saving this info online is also handy, via services like Dropbox or Evernote, or email it to yourself, so it can be retrieved from any computer if you are away from home.
What to do after things go wrong
When I realized my Mac had been stolen during a break-in to my house, my stomach churned to the point of almost throwing up. Luckily, my camera was with me at the time. If it was stolen, I was prepared in a way I wasn’t for my computer. I have my camera serial numbers written down and in electronic form that I can retrieve from anywhere online (while noting it’s pretty easy for astute thieves to scrap off serial numbers).
The first step after a theft is to report it. Whether it is a break-in at home or a snatch and run in a foreign city, any insurance company will typically desire a police report with higher value items.
If you are keen on recovering your gear, don’t trust to the police alone to find it; start looking! In the US places liked Craigslist or eBay are popular choices for thieves looking to offload gear. Pawn shops are another option, but searching them all, depending on where you live, can be time consuming.
You might also want to try services like StolenCameraFinder.com or CameraTrace.com. I have not used either service so I can not vouch for them, but they both have the ability to search for your camera’s serial number (see section about writing down this info). CameraTrace also sells those permanent stickers I talked about earlier to make a reunion with your gear easier.
Sometime we are our own worst enemy and we misplace things, expensive things. If you never do, then you can skip this section.
For everyone else, the obvious thing to do is to retrace your steps. Believe that there are good Samaritans out there (there are!) who want to get you back together with your camera or lens.
If you visited shops, ask the employees if they have seen a camera. The best way for you to get back together with your gear is to let others know you are looking. Leave a card with your contact information everywhere you might have left your gear.
You can also try other online services like CameraFound.com, which will warm your heart when you see how many people are actually trying to help others retrieve their camera or phone equipment. It lists over 1000 found cameras even in far flung locations like Oman and Kazakhstan.
Watching my camera fall out the passenger door, in slow motion, had me cringing before it hit the cement floor of my garage. I had reached over to open the door for someone and didn’t see the camera precariously wedged between the seat and the door.
This was a Canon L series lens and I thought I was out $1200 to buy a replacement. With a break this bad (the lens snapped off the mounting ring that holds it to the camera body) and no experience with repair shops, I thought I was out of luck.
Many major manufacturers provide free estimates for repairs but you will be on the hook for shipping costs. Ask around at local camera clubs as well to see if there is a trusted local repair shop in your area. They can often save you some money, but make sure they are authorized by your manufacturer. My point is to not despair; get a quote first.
I was happy that the repair for my lens was only $200. Spending $200 still sucked, but it meant I was back in business, and didn’t need to drop $1200 on a new lens because of my own stupidity.
You might want to ask around to see if there is a reputable local repair shop other owners use. I know in Seattle there is such a store, and they can tell you the moment you walk in if your camera is salvageable or a goner. They can often be cheaper than a repair from your manufacturer.
Also, things like cracked LCD covers can be replaced for relatively little money. If the LCD itself is broken, giving you weird colors and streaks, then it’s time to get it repaired. Adventurous photographers have replaced their own LCDs with success, but if you have any doubt, pay a pro to do it.
It’s no joke that moisture and electronics make horrible friends. The electronics always get the worst of it, but there are some things you can do to possibly limit or stop damage.
First, shut everything off! Take out the batteries too. Damage to electronics from water happens when the water acts as a connector between two items inside your camera, which normally won’t share power. The power from one circuit uses the water as an excellent conduit to move wherever the water touches. This is the classic short circuit that we think of that smells of melting wires and plastic. In worst cases, things can catch fire.
Limit those chances by shutting everything down, and taking out the batteries, until you are 100% sure the inside of your components are bone dry. This can takes days or sometimes weeks.
To dry out equipment on your own, go for a slow fix. Using a hair dryer may work for something like a memory card, but not for a whole DSLR. A time tested method is to use something that naturally absorbs water, like rice or the desiccant packs that come with new shoes. You want to make the new host hungry for the water inside the camera instead of just from the atmosphere itself, so put your camera, and soaked parts, together with the rice or absorbent items inside a ziplock bag large enough to hold them all.
Lenses can be tricky as water might leave a film behind on elements inside as they dry. If after a thorough drying, the quality seems affected, it’s time for the lens to get a professional cleaning.
My personal advice with salt water is to not mess around with home fixes and get the camera in to a reputable repair shop or manufacturer as soon as possible. When salt water dries it leaves behind the salt, and that can corrode your camera’s innards a year from now without you realizing it.
Corruption or error messages
“Err 99” pops up on your camera. What do you do? Freaking out seems like a good option. But better than that these days, is simply googling the error.
I can’t cover all the errors for all cameras, but I have run into these situations about four times in my 14 years of owning digital cameras. They are nerve-wracking to say the least.
The first steps are always, 1) Breathe slowly. 2) Power off the camera if it appears any image writing activity is done. 3) Remove the battery (ies) and wait a minute before putting them back in.
Some errors dictate sending your camera in to the manufacturer. Some are cleared by the steps above when your camera simply stumbles over its own circuitry. Google is your friend and will list many remedies. Read forum threads to get a feel if certain suggestions cured other people’s similar issues.
I hope the tips here have helped you start thinking about disasters before they happen in order to lessen their impact. And if things do go south in a hurry, take action as soon as you can to get your gear back in working shape.
Most importantly, I’ve seen a lot of camera and lens gear mishaps, but I haven’t seen them all. I’d like to hear about problems you have had, and what you did to fix them if you think the information might help other readers.
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