Don't Drop That!

The ever present possibility of dropping a piece of expensive camera equipment follows us around like Mr. Murphy himself sitting on your shoulder looking for trouble.  It's not unusual for me to hold a rig worth in excess of $10,000 USD's, amateur rigs can easily surpass $2000-$3000.  A simple drop from just a few feet high can cause extensive damage and thousands in repair bills.


Shattered front element


If we dwell on bad things they often happen.  I'll never forgot the time when I was 12 years old and I'd worked for several weeks to buy a nice telescope.  I mounted it on my balcony and used it there for several weeks.  One day my grandmother came to visit, saw it on the balcony where I was using it at the time, and really started nagging me about how it was going to fall and break.  After a few minutes of her nagging I turned around rather quickly to tell her it wouldn't fall.. when my elbow hit the telescope and I watched in horror as it fell two stories to the ground (narrowly missing her car (drat!)) and broke into many pieces.  She just looked at me and said "I told you so!"  My grandmother taught me many such valuable life lessons and I'll miss her terribly.  She died this last January at the age of 95.

Such "accidents" can and do happen at any time.  While we don't want to worry too much or be paranoid.. we can and should lessen the odds against us by practicing good habits and perhaps obtaining 'smart' carrying and storage equipment.  For instance, if you live in Japan or Southern California its probably not a good idea to store your most expensive equipment on the highest shelf of that rickety bookcase.

I've written several times before about packing your gear well for traveling, especially when going through airports or any sort of commercial transportation so I won't go into that part.  But what about just generally handling gear and using it once it's in your hands?

The other day a friend and I went on a photo outing and I had to bite my lip when I saw him pull a really nice 70-200mm F4L lens from his bag WITHOUT A HOOD and mount it on his camera.  I kept waiting for him to pull the hood out and mount it but it never happened.  At our destination I offered to let him use my 300mm F2.8L IS lens which is very expensive.  The first thing he asked me was "how to you remove the hood?"  The horror of it all.. :)  An experienced photographer he'd probably figured out a hood doesn't really do that much as a lens "shade", only rarely does it function as such.  But he hadn't yet figured out what hoods are really designed for.  Yep, they're designed to protect your front elements from impacts and even fingerprints.  They'll even shield the front elements from raindrops on a rainy day (just don't carry the camera pointing towards the sky).


$7000 USD Lens broken   Cracked filter


Many people don't use filters and there is a huge controversy on the subject pretty much evenly split among all levels of photographers so we won't go into that either, but the 300mm F2.8 IS doesn't have or take front filters.  These lenses require the smaller rear mounted 'drop in' filters.  Removing the hood would leave the expensive front element on a $5000 USD lens totally exposed to impact and prints.  Don't worry, I explained my position and he at least pacified my paranoia for the day.  Time will tell if it really sunk in.. ;o)  Lens manufacturers in the past decade or so have figured out that if you make the hood out of a high impact plastic it has a "bounce" affect and will transmit that much less shock to the lens if you knock the lens against a door frame, tree, railing, car door, etc.  Plastic also doesn't bend like metal hoods do.


Carbon fiber lens hood   Petal lens hood


Another habit people have which I've mentioned before is using a fence top or ledge to set their bag/lenses on during a lens change.  A better habit would be to always set your bag on the ground and do your changes from ground level where any accidental drops will only be a few inches instead of a few feet.

If you spend the big money for a big telephoto lens, then you really should use the thick heavy strap that comes your lens to carry the lens with.  With your camera attached continue using the lens strap because the lens will be so much heavier than the camera body and you can bend your lens mount on your body.  All it takes is just a few thousands of an inch to make your images softer on one side than the other.


Telephone lens strap


The straps that come with your camera body are usually low end junk your manufacturer contracted out at the cheapest price.  Believe me when I tell you there is a huge difference in quality both in the material and buckle design between a strap that comes with your Canon 500d and your Canon 1d series professional body.


Cheap camera strap   Better but not best strap


I'm not a fan of neck straps, in fact I have a small box of the ones that came with my cameras unopened and still in the plastic. Instead I use the Nikon AH-4 "grip strap" which is made of leather and very high quality nylon strapping with quality Velcro and other hardware.  I've used these on all my Nikon and Canon DSLRs for over a decade.  They never wear out and they've never let me down.. and I use them daily.  These cinch very comfortably around your wrist and will allow you to hold the camera at your side and "let go" to flex your fingers and relax your hand.  This is a great feature when working a long event like a wedding.  This sort of strap will also help prevent a 'snatch and grab' thief, or a simple 'slip' when your hands are wet and sweaty as they tend to get in SEA.


Excellent Nikon AH-4 Grip Strap


The main point I'm trying to make is that if it's possible for a lens to drop then it will.  Sooner or later.  A dropped lens will cost you a minimum of several hundred dollars to repair, up to a few thousand.  And that doesn't include lost income or an upset client because you're not longer equipped to finish the gig you're working.  This is one of the reasons a real pro carries two of everything they need to shoot a wedding or other important event.  Things break, both by accident and/or defects/wear and tear.

Once during a workshop a client was sampling a high dollar fast lens.  He reached for it from the bag, it was hot and humid and his hands were moist with sweat, and he got it out of the bag and he fumbled.  We both watched the lens smash into the concrete deck and we could hear the glass breaking.  Immediately I knew it was my fault because I hadn't yet incorporated proper lens handing techniques and cautions into my curriculum.  He apologized and that was good enough for me.  That night I sat down and very carefully analyzed how I handled lenses and how I'd use extra care with clients and how I'd teach them as part of the workshop.

I went out the next day and bought a few dozen high quality absorbent hand towels to keep in the vehicle and now we have them available to wipe sweat, wipe our hands before handling equipment, and so forth.  From that day on, the lesson my client taught me, has stayed with me and I pass it on to each new client.  Good habits, pre-planning, and being aware as you work and play.


Until next time..