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Safe Traveling with Cameras and Film - Update
by Jim McGee

Ever since the first issue of VLP was published in March of this year, the column that we've gotten the most feedback on, and continue to get feedback on, is the Safe Traveling with Cameras and Film column from that issue. Here are some updates to that column in response to reader feedback.  Thanks to everyone who sent in their experiences, comments, and suggestions.

We received a lot of feedback on this one. Several  people reported that officials in London refused to hand check high speed film. Given the ready availability of quality film stocks and processing labs in London this problem is easily remedied by purchasing and processing high speed films while there; though we admit that this is a hassle.  Remember that film that has been exposed, but has not yet been processed is still susceptible to x-ray damage.

Caribbean Film Fiascos
A number of people reported both high prices (as much as $15 per roll for Fuji HQ that sells for $1.50 a roll in multi-packs in the States) and problems with film purchased while on vacation in the Caribbean. When we asked for details, almost all of these folks reported that they had purchased the film at outdoor locations where the film was exposed to heat and humidity and was not refrigerated.  Problems reported included exposure problems, color shift, and muddy, poor images. They were back home and far away from the salesman when they discovered the problem. Once again the prevention is simple.  If you find yourself running low on film, try to find a reputable photo shop that keeps it's film indoors and properly stored.  

As one woman told us "I wanted to get that sunset so badly I ignored the fact that the film had been in the sun so long that the Kodak label was completely faded on the film box.  I would have been better off spending the $8 on a drink and just enjoying the sunset."

Checked Baggage Theft
This is a biggie.  I've gotten more mail on this than on anything else in this topic.  Numerous people reported that their checked baggage had been rifled and equipment or personal effects stolen.  One gentleman even wrote that he was insulted that thieves who had gone through his bag saw fit to steal several pairs of jeans but didn't rate his old manual Minolta worth stealing!  

Several folks suggest combination locks as an alternative to the cheap key locks that come with most zippered baggage. Combination locks provide zero protection against a determined thief, but it will at least be obvious that someone broke into the bag. Casual thieves want to get in and out quick without leaving any evidence and the presence of a lock they'd have to damage is often a deterrent.  

The best suggestion I heard was from a gentleman who suggested using zip ties through the zippers.  Zip ties are those plastic ties that, once secured, must be cut to be removed.  They're dirt cheap, provide the same protection as a combination lock (none) but do provide indisputable proof that your bag was tampered with. 

Hotel Room Theft
Several folks reported equipment disappearing from their room while at meals or while just out of the room.  In every case, when asked, they admitted that the equipment was left in plain sight.  At minimum, put your equipment in a drawer with some clothing over it.  Someone entering a hotel room is going to be worried about getting caught so they want to grab what they can see and get out.  Make them dig and you've got better odds that they won't find your stuff. 

Better options are a safe in the room, which is becoming more common in better hotels, or leaving your gear with the front desk staff.  Another good option is the new pack safe from LowePro.  This is a steel mesh bag that can swallow a large backpack and is then secured to something that won't move (such  as a radiator).  The thief may be able to see your gear but they won't be able to get to it without tools and sweat.  That means they're most likely to just go find an easier target.

Street Theft
Preventing street theft in most places comes down to simple common sense and a little bit of street smarts.  First listen to those little hairs on the back of your neck.  We all have a sixth sense regarding danger and we are fools to ignore it.  So pay attention to those gut feelings - no matter where you are.

One gentleman reported that he pulled into a parking space at a major U.S. airport despite a gang of young toughs that were walking down the aisle toward that spot.  He and his wife were robbed, lost all of their equipment, and he was assaulted.  It could have been much worse.  A better solution would have been to look for another parking spot or to even drive to an adjacent lot.

Another woman reported that she wanted images that conveyed a "feeling of urban decay".  So while on a business trip in Detroit she drove into what she described as "a really bad ghetto" and stopped to photograph what she felt was the "perfect urban landscape", ignoring the fact that there were 15 to 20 gang members on the corner who promptly relieved her of her N90 and her bag of lenses as well as her purse and cell phone.  She considers herself lucky - she walked away without any physical injury.

Egypt, Italy, and parts of Spain have a reputation for being black holes for camera gear.  I received emails from a number of folks reporting cameras being stolen off their shoulders while walking through thick crowds in these tourist areas.  The victims had the camera strap slung over their shoulder so that the actual camera was behind them.  The thieves would walk up behind, cut the strap, and disappear into the crowd with the camera.  Wearing the camera around your neck so that it is in front of you seems to be the best deterrent for this kind of theft since the thief would have to be in your field of vision to steal the camera.

And don't let yourself get lost in the viewfinder.  Another guy reported that he lost a bag full of lenses, a spare body, flash, and 30 rolls of film while composing an image on a crowded street in Rome.  He set up his tripod and spent "several minutes completely involved in shooting and playing with compositions in the viewfinder of my EOS."  When he took his eye away from the viewfinder to grab another lens his bag was gone.  He described the reaction of the Roman police as "uninterested".  

A few folks wrote about how they keep their valuables in special money belts and hidden compartments.  I usually just pare down my wallet to the bare essentials when traveling and keep it in my front pocket and I've never had a problem.  Also I rarely carry much over $40 in my pocket.  These days ATM machines are everywhere in developed countries.

They're great for steadying your camera but they're a pain to lug around - especially when traveling.  Several people wrote to ask where I stored my tripod when traveling.  Well it depends on what equipment I'm packing.  If traveling light, with no heavy pro lenses I have a little travel tripod that's so light I can slip its handle in my back pocket when hiking.  It's only around 16 or 17 inches when collapsed so it fits easily into my carry-on. 

But this lightweight won't hold any kind of heavy zoom.  Until recently I was using a well worn old dog of a tripod.  It was so banged up I figured that no self respecting thief would bother stealing it so I threw it into my checked bag and didn't think twice about it.  I recently retired the old dog and bought a sturdy new tripod that now gets bungeed onto my carryon bag.  Now, a big heavy tripod strapped to your bag pretty much says "camera equipment inside" to anyone who's looking.  So I usually pop the head off (it goes in the bag) and drop the tripod into a small vinyl bag that I picked up on the discount table at a camping store for $5.

When hiking, my preference is to have the tripod bungeed to a pack.  If I'm traveling with just a camera bag I'll usually leave one of the tripod legs partially extended for a hand grip and carry it over my shoulder.

Not directly connected to equipment, but equally important, several frequent travelers recommended making copies of your passport, drivers license, and tickets before leaving and keeping them in a separate safe place.  This way if they are lost or stolen you'll have a much easier time completing your trip. 

Other worthwhile suggestions centered around creating lists.  They included a list of any credit cards you're carrying, their account numbers, expiration dates, and the contact phone numbers for the credit card companies.  This makes it easier to cancel the cards and notify the credit card companies in the event that your wallet is lost or stolen.  Another list suggested by several folks was a complete, typewritten list of the equipment you're traveling with to prevent any questions as to the origin of your gear.  And a final list suggestion was to create a list of what you want to take a week or so before you're leaving when you're calm and unrushed so that you're unlikely to find yourself in the rainforest without that one piece of gear that you absolutely need.  While all these are great suggestions, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not nearly as organized as some of you guys are!

Surly Travelers
Thankfully I've never been afraid of flying but I've always hated it.  Lets face it; air travel is exhausting.  Add to all the normal bumps and grinds of travel the constant overcrowding and flight delays that have become the norm (at least in the U.S.), harried airline employees and travelers, shrinking seats (yes they really are getting smaller), bad weather, lost bags, and mechanical problems and its no wonder that travelers are a surly frustrated lot.  Its gotten so bad that airline employees increasingly have to deal with the result of the mess their employers have created - the aggressive passenger - who sometimes escalates into the violent passenger.  I was prepared to hear stories about theft, but was surprised to hear about the number of confrontations that readers have either witnessed or experienced.

I'm basically a mellow guy and I've found that a smile and a joke often goes a long way towards diffusing a situation.  Thankfully I haven't experienced the fellow traveler who's really blown a gasket.  But from the mail I received it seems that airline employees often aren't taking the time to discover who the instigator was.  If a confrontation ensues, verbal or otherwise, you may find yourself without a flight, or worse, dealing with law enforcement.  Even if you were minding your own business and were provoked.  

In today's climate your best recourse if presented with someone who is angry and out of control is to back off and grab an airline employee and make it their problem.  It may not sound very brave or chivalrous, but it will ensure that you get to your destination rather than into a jail cell minus your expensive plane ticket.

Carry-on Problems
A flight attendant with 25 years experience wrote us concerning what to do if you arrive late for a full flight and there is no place for your carry-on.  First he reiterated that being nice will get you a long way. Because so many passengers today are grumpy, a smiling face will often get the royal treatment.  If the attendant is insisting there is simply nowhere to put the bag, try opening the bag and showing them that there really is something more valuable than your dirty underwear inside.  If anyone knows the realities of travel it's these folks.  Letting them know the value of what is really in your bag can often free up space in a cubby hole somewhere.

And if that fails?  When all else fails just smile, and say "OK, but I am going to need to declare excess value, and I need the baggage insurance receipt before the bag is out of my possession."

"Gate agents do not have these forms, nor are they equipped to run a credit card. And they cannot refuse this request, as this is in the airlines' "tariff" rules.  So now the agent is looking at delaying the flight for 15 minutes to process your insurance, unless the agents and flight attendants are morons, which is possible, they just aren't going to do this.  At this point they WILL find a place for your camera bag.  And if it really is not your day, and you get someone who insists on checking your bag, and not letting you purchase insurance, get a name and employee number, and ask to see a supervisor. This is no longer a baggage issue, as the agent has violated the tariff rules. You are covered."

In my first column I stressed that it was important to be nice.  He took that to another level when he stated "So for me, the passenger who says "good evening" tomorrow night is a shining star in a sea of confrontation. He/she will be the one who gets the "good wine" with dinner".  God bless these folks, I wouldn't want their job.

It's Not Really That Bad
Reading some of these experiences I begin to wonder why any of us travel at all!  But the reality is that these are the painful exceptions rather than the norm.  I've done a lot of traveling, and with a little common sense and luck I've managed to avoid problems with theft.  Airline foul-ups have been the bane of my existence.  They're out of your control and more common than ever so the only thing you can do is grin and bear it.

And, while we received emails on those that ran into the worst of society, we also received reports of people who encountered great folks.  There was one gentleman who got into his hotel room and realized he'd left his camera bag in the cab.  He figured it was gone but decided to call the cab company anyway.  The dispatcher told him that the cabby's next fare had spotted the bag and that he was already in route back to the hotel.  When offered an additional tip for his honesty, the cabbie replied that he shouldn't get a tip for doing the right thing.

In my travels I've found more good people than bad by a wide margin.  I've been directed to great photo sites, had folks buy me a cup of coffee or a beer, and even been invited into folks homes for meals.  So by all means travel, see the world, and meet people.  Just know the rules of the road and use a little common sense and you'll have a great trip.

New Restrictions
In the wake of the hijackings and terrorist attacks the FAA will be implementing new rules regarding carry-on and checked baggage.  The best we can suggest is to be flexible and don't make any assumptions when traveling for the next few weeks.  Please keep in mind that, as we said in the first installment, "Security folks are doing a tough vital job as best as they can."  Just how vital is more obvious now than it's ever been.

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