How Can I Safely Travel with My DSLR Gear? :: Digital Photo Secrets

How Can I Safely Travel with My DSLR Gear?

by David Peterson 1 comment

There are lots of photo opportunities at home and in your neighborhood. But let's face it, traveling really gives your inner photographer a chance to soar. Photo opportunities in travel-worthy destinations are easy to find and just begging to be taken advantage of, so why leave your DSLR behind?

You might be surprised to hear that a lot of DSLR owners do just that, bringing along an easily-pocketable point-and-shoot instead. This is simply because traveling with a DSLR can be intimidating. It doesn't really matter how much money you spent on your camera - whether it's an entry-level model or a professional one. To you, your DSLR is an investment and losing or damaging it would be a nightmare.

There are two major concerns that most travelers have when it comes to safely bringing along a DSLR. The first is keeping your prized possession safe from damage, and the second is keeping it safe from theft.

Keeping your DSLR safe from damage

It almost goes without saying that you need a decent camera bag. If you're like a lot of people you may ordinarily go without a camera bag, just carrying your DSLR and favorite lens on a strap around your neck so it will be easy to access when those photo opps arrive. Or you may use a backpack or other basic bag to carry your gear around in. All of this is fine for day-to-day use, but when you pack for the road you need to keep some different rules in mind.

Remember that other people are not going to be as nice to your camera as you are. Those guys in airport security may toss your bag around a little more carelessly than you would. And if you end up having to check your camera bag, forget it. You might as well leave it in the care of a pack of rabid dogs.

Your bag should have lots of padding and separate storage spaces for camera body and lenses.

The bag you put your camera in when you travel needs to be high quality with lots of padding (like this one). Choose a bag with separate compartments for your camera body, flash and each lens you plan to bring. Be smart about what you bring, too. Think about the places you'll be visiting. Will you spend most of your time indoors or outdoors? What time of day will you be likely to be there? Will you be close to your subject(s) or viewing them from a distance? Let the answers to those questions help you decide what to bring. If you think you probably won't need a zoom, for example, don't bring one. This will keep your bag lighter and easier to carry and control.

If you are flying, you need to make sure you know in advance what the maximum size is for carry-on luggage, and make sure your camera bag is well within those parameters. You don't want to end up having to check it (because of the aforementioned rabid dog thing) so find out ahead of time what your airline's rules are.

If you are traveling with a lot of equipment and you just can't avoid checking it, purchase a hard case with a padded interior and a TSA approved lock (if you're in America, this is one of those locks that has a master key, so airline officials can open it if they're so inclined. I know, tons of comfort, huh?). Without the TSA lock, officials can cut open your bag if they have reason to suspect its contents. Or even if they don't. So make sure in advance that your case has a TSA lock if you want to avoid having to replace it later.

If you do check your equipment, consider keeping the most expensive stuff or the stuff you are likely to use the most with you in your carry-on bag, such as your high-end zoom and your camera body. That way lost luggage or other mishaps won't completely end the photography part of your journey.

Pack your favorite lens and camera separately; don't leave them attached. Because of all the bumping and bouncing your bag is likely to do, keeping your camera and lens attached may cause abnormal stress to the lens housing and the threads that keep it attached to the camera--which can mean permanent damage. Make sure you use the body and lens caps that came with the units (if you can't find them, you can easily purchase replacements).

Use UV filters on your lenses to protect them from scratches and dust. This is a good idea when you're at home, too, but you may need that extra protection if you plan to visit places with unpredictable weather, dust or sand or other elements that may cause damage to an unprotected lens. Also make sure you have a lens cleaning kit, because you'll probably need it.

Keeping your camera safe from theft

The single biggest factor in keeping your camera safe from theft while you're traveling is knowing your destination. If you're going to photograph the nightlife in a seedy neighborhood that is known to have a lot of crime, your precautions are going to be different than they would be in a family-oriented destination.

The first precaution you can take no matter where you go is to choose a camera bag that doesn't scream "I'm a camera bag and what's inside of me is really expensive!" Messenger bag styles are good choices for men (I use a Crumpler bag myself); there are also a number of companies that make "camera purses" for women which just look like ordinary purses. Pick one that is a subdued color and doesn't have camera or electronics logos all over it.

If you can avoid it, don't bring your camera along to dinner or to other places where you know you aren't going to use it. Keep it in the hotel safe. When you are out with your gear, only bring the lenses and accessories you know you are going to use, and keep as much of it as you can on your body at all times.

In sketchier locations, consider keeping your camera in a discrete-looking messenger bag, worn cross-body, instead of keeping the camera itself on your body. Take it out only when you are after a shot, and don't hang out in one place for too long. People who steal cameras are visually stalking their victims, so you don't want someone noticing that you have a camera in that discrete looking bag. If you are wearing your camera on your body, use a strap like the Pacsafe Carrysafe, which has a metal strip in it to prevent thieves from slashing and grabbing. Avoid walking right next to the street (sometimes thieves on motorcycles will target tourists on sidewalks). Or better still, leave your DSLR in the hotel safe and bring a point and shoot instead. You can keep it in your pocket for easy access, and thieves are a lot less likely to target you for one. Even if they really wanted that little point and shoot, it's a lot harder to get it out of your jacket pocket than it is to grab someone's camera bag and run. In safer locations you still want to be careful, so it is a good idea to make sure that your camera strap is always worn cross-body.

Finally, make sure your gear is insured. If your camera is lost or stolen you'll lose all those photos on that memory card, and that's a tragedy - but losing a camera you can't afford to replace is an even greater one. You wouldn't travel without health insurance for yourself, so don't travel without some insurance for your camera, too.

Traveling with your DSLR can be intimidating, but if you take precautions and are smart about when and where you use it, you're going to return home happy, with some great photos and with your DSLR safely packed away in its bag.

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  1. Ray says:

    Two comments: 1) Airline baggage handlers are probably more likely to steal your camera equipment than thieves at your destination so DON'T put any of it in hold baggage if you don't absolutely have to. 2) Do you really want a steel cable around your neck if there is a chance someone will grab your bag and run or ride away with it? OK, three comments. 3) Buy lots of insurance and be careful, but don't do anything stupid defending a bag full of camera equipment that can be replaced faster than broken bones can heal.

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