Cautionary Travel Photo Tales

Everybody makes mistakes. I am no exception. When it comes to equipment-related blunders, I’ve made a few.

The following text is a recording of some of those lapses in judgment that have left me either with damaged equipment or a few extra grey hairs. Hopefully, this will not be an ongoing article…

Cameras break. Sadness ensues:

Before I started seriously shooting while traveling, I had not learned this lesson. I took two major trips with one camera in my bag. Only one. On both trips, I was left with a dead camera, a lot of missed shots, postcards to substitute for those missed shots and a lot of torn out hair.

On the first occasion, I had been traveling in Ghana for six weeks. My camera was resilient in the extreme equatorial heat, resistant to the country’s considerable dust content, and behaved as though waterproof when caught in a torrential downpour. Immediately following that trip, I was touring through Europe for another two months. A few drops of Scottish rain and the camera was fried.

Confounded by my camera’s newfound fragility, I fell back to a cheap point and shoot that actually managed to take a decent shot from time to time. It too, however, could not put up with the rigours of traveling. In Florence, I was forced to purchase yet another point and shoot (due to budgetary constraints). I only learned upon returning home that its lens behaved as though it had been smeared with Vaseline and most of the photos were not nearly as sharp as they should have been.

The other major trip on which my lone camera died was in South America. My camera first threatened to abandon the world of functioning gear while beginning a tour of the Galapagos Islands. I almost had a heart attack when I switched it on and got no response from the camera. There I was in one of the most stunning locations in the world, an ocean away from the nearest camera repair shop and I couldn’t find a pulse on the thing.

I pleaded desperately with the inanimate Olympus. I begged it to return to me. I told it I would hold it and caress it and sleep with it under my pillow if that would make it happy. I think I may have even sacrificed a goat to whatever deity could restore life to the lifeless corpse of a camera. Whatever I did, it worked and I was able to resume shooting in one of the most spectacular places on earth.

The same implorations, however, fell on deaf camera ears when the same startup issue befell the camera in Ecuador. Frustrated that the camera couldn’t find it in it’s now unbeating heart to last for ten more days of the trip, I loaded up on disposable cameras. Every time I took a shot, the shutter would release an unsatisfying, soulless click that made my heart yearn for the solid sound of a good mirror slap.

Of course, it’s not always an option to carry along two or more high-quality cameras. Considering, however, that when you’re traveling, you’re unlikely to find a repair shop that will quickly restore your camera to working order, you take the risk that you won’t have the chance to record those precious images.

Your gear doesn’t like to be alone:

Camera gear is alike an untrained puppy – if it doesn’t get the attention it needs, it will quickly wander from your side, possibly never to be seen again. As sad as a lost puppy is, lost camera gear can be just as traumatizing for obsessive photographers.

My small, lightweight travel tripod is the naughty puppy of my collection of gear. It’s always trying to wander away from me. Being small and lightweight means it’s easy to forget about, easy to leave behind. On more than one occasion I have had to retrieve the neglected tripod from a friend’s car after leaving it behind on an earlier date. More than once, strangers have had to point out the lonely tripod forsaken on my former seat as I left a bus or train. Worst was running halfway across a downtown core when I had left it resting on a park bench after having lunch. Breathlessly, I vowed never to leave it behind again, but I have broken my word more than once. It’s a wonder it puts up with my negligence.

While I have never suffered the misfortune of lost or stolen gear (knock on wood) I have traveled with companions less fortunate than I. In Ghana, one girl had her camera snatched from her as she watched a drumming performance. It was resting behind her back on her chair and she never even felt it leave.

The lesson here is that vigilance is paramount. Always be aware of your surroundings and take every reasonable precaution you can to keep yourself and your equipment safe.

Your gear may not like the company of others:

If you drop your camera and break it, you have no one but yourself to blame. And that’s a good thing. If your friend drops your camera and breaks it, you now have a broken camera and certain irritation at the irresponsibility towards your friend. You probably won’t actually smash their most prized possession, but a part of you may want to. (And their most prized possession just might be their face…)

So, hold onto your gear. Let’s say you let a bunch of other people pack their bags and yours into the trunk of a car. Let’s say there’s not much room for all that luggage in the trunk. Let’s say things get a little squished and the next day you open your camera bag to find your telephoto lens has been broken in half. That might upset you.

Fortunately for me, it was only slightly upsetting because the telephoto lens in question was the cheapest one on the market and I was looking for an excuse to upgrade. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault except mine for not recognizing that my bag was going to bear too much pressure in that compact trunk. So, I didn’t punch any of my friends and didn’t get too upset about the incident. But the lesson here is, make sure you entrust your valuable cargo to only the most gentle and responsible of camera-handling hands.

At least I know what the inside of a telephoto lens looks like now.

Keep your eyes on the road:

While transporting yourself from point A to point B, you may sometimes encounter mechanical difficulties. Life is like that; things break down, you fix them. Keep in mind, however, that there is a time and a place for making repairs. That time is not while your transport is still in motion.

One afternoon, my bike’s gears became temperamental and obstinately refused to change. I stopped and tried to guide the chain into place and I thought I had solved the difficulty. Upon resuming my course, however, the problem persisted.

Angrily glaring down at the offending contraption, I cursed its maker and attempted to wrench the gear shift as hard as I could so that the chain might find the correct gear. This prevented me from seeing the rapidly approaching bush directly in my path.

I soared through the air, the bush and the air on the other side of the bush to land in a heap on the cement. My body was uninjured, but I did manage to cripple the aperture preview button on one of my cameras. Every time I hit that button and now see a black viewfinder, I get a little paranoid and have to look around to see if anything is about to collide with me. Read more about the incident in this blog entry.

Avoid falling objects:

On a windy day, your bike’s kickstand may not provide sufficient support for an unattended, two wheeled vehicle. Should your bike topple, make sure nothing fragile and valuable (like, say, a camera bag full of equipment) occupies the bike’s drop zone.

The cost of this lack of foresight was minimal. I merely suffered minor heart palpitations while watching the frame of the bike slowly arc towards the bag. I thought I heard the wind shouting “Timber!” but it was probably my imagination. Nothing was damaged thanks to the padding of my backpack, but given slightly different circumstances, I could have been scouring for replacement lenses instead of writing this article.

4 Responses to “Cautionary Travel Photo Tales”

  1. Jenn says:

    Dear Darby,

    I turned on my digital camera today, and to my heartbreak discovered that the LCD display has severe internal damage – and what makes it worse is that I don’t know how it happened, so I can’t blame anyone… not even myself!

    As I was browsing the internet for camera repair shops I coincidentally found your blog entry about all of your camera losses. This isn’t the first damaged and/or stolen camera I’ve had in the past 3 years, so I completely sympathize with your stories – and I have found myself traveling with emergency disposable cameras in the past as well.

    At any rate, the real purpose for my post is because I was looking through some of your other entries and noticed that you’re based in Manchester. I’m from Connecticut, and currently working on my Masters degree at the University of Manchester. I was wondering if you know of any good camera repair shops in the area that will take in an out-of-warranty digital Olympus?
    Please send me an email if you have a chance.


  2. Jenn says:

    Although, I don’t know how you could email me, as my email address is hidden…
    Just post a reply here if you can, I’ll check back! 🙂

  3. dsawchuk says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Sorry to hear about your camera.

    There are a few places that might be worth trying in Manchester. I happen to have the addresses for a couple of them on hand:

    – Calumet: Unit 4 Downing Street Industrial Estate, Charlton Place, Manchester M12 6HH
    Phone: 0161 274 4455

    – PFD: Unit 1 Cariocca Business Park, Helidon Close, Manchester, M12 4AH
    Phone: 0161 273 3003

    – Jacobs: 16 Cross Street, Manchester, M2 7AE
    Phone: 0161 834 7500 (I’ve never used them, myself, but a friend has recommended them.)

    London Camera Exchange (Piccadilly Gardens) may also do repairs.

    Good luck with it!

    – Darby

  4. Jenn says:

    Thanks for this, I’ll give them a try!

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