Tales of catastrophic gear loss...

VSL reader and now contributor, Kurt Hansen, suggested that automatic file transfer from cards in cameras to alternate storage, while shooting, traveling, having coffee, etc. would safeguard valuable files from loss in the field. He used as an example the scenario where a camera is accidentally dropped overboard on a ferry crossing. A few literal minded readers immediately went to the position of, "I've never dropped a camera overboard from a ferry." I suggest they take a wider view and assume that a ferry accident is "stand-in" shorthand for any kind of camera-tastrophe. And I imagine we've all had one or two, at least.

Thought I'd share one of my most depressing. I was working with an assistant on an annual report for a company that does water and waste water treatment plants in cities and regions across the U.S. It was early days for digital so we were supplementing our digital camera gear with a few well chosen pieces of film gear that still seemed better suited to outlier shots. One day our team of client, ad agency representative, assistant and myself found ourselves at a plant with a large, primary wastewater intake tank.  A catwalk stretched about 60 feet across the tank, about 35 feet above it. For some crazy reason we decided that it would make a great image if I climbed up the ladder and walked across the catwalk to the center of the tank and then shot directly down with a super wide angle lens.

Wide angles weren't as wide on the APS-C sensors of the earlier cameras so I grabbed a Leica M6 rangefinder camera with its usual 50mm and, in a small shoulder bag, a 15mm f8.0 Hologon lens along with a circular, graduated neutral density filter on the front and a (not very accurate) bright line finder. I kept the expensive 15mm in the bag as I climbed the ladder so it wouldn't accidentally bang around.

I've never been particularly comfortable in high places but we used to push through our lesser phobias on a routine basis in order to get the shot for the client. The catwalk flooring was made of metal deck plate with the usual diamond shapes on it and it had metal railings on either side that camera up waist high. I slowly edged my way across to the center and surveyed the scene. My assistant and some of the others would be in the final shot unless I moved them. I pulled a small Motorola walkie-talkie off my belt and toggled the talk key to get my assistant's attention. We spoke and she moved the group out of the shot. I put the walkie-talkie back on my belt and started to prepare the camera.

I took the 50mm lens off the front of the camera and tucked it into the bag. Then I pulled the 15mm out and started to put it on the camera. I can't remember if it was a gust of wind or just a momentary lack of courage but I felt a bit of vertigo and, in a panic, grabbed for the railing. But in order to grab for the railing I had to ..... drop the lens. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The lens turned over and over again as it rushed toward the churning contents of the tank. It hit with a plop! wavered for a second or two and started to sink. By this time I'd regained whatever composure I had left and pulled the walkie-talkie off my belt again. I yelled to my assistant, "Quick, jump in there and grab the lens before it sinks too far!!!" Of course, I was kidding. She grabbed her walkie-talkie and replied, "I quit."

While the lens would not have been saved by an automatic back-up I think Kurt's approach has much merit. I am reminded of a first world tragedy that struck one of my peers. He placed his new, super deluxe camera and zoom lens on the roof of his car as he took a cellphone call. He became so engrossed in the call that he got in, started up the car and drove off. The camera finally slid off as the car was negotiating a turn at around 45 MPH an it hit the pavement with lethal impact. My fellow photographer didn't realize what he had done until he pulled into the driveway of his home and went to unload his gear.

He would have been well served with an automated, remote back-up system for his files....

But I am assuming that none of my readers have ever done anything nearly as zany with their cameras, right?


typingtalker said...

Re: stuff on car roof. This has happened in my family. It was a purse and thankfully recovered.

Many years ago I was advised that this could be avoided by NEVER putting ANYTHING on the roof of a car. If you must put something somewhere, put it on the hood so you'll (hopefully) see it before driving off. Better yet, put it on the seat.

Re: dropping stuff. The rule should be when handling delicate expensive stuff to do it only in a place where a drop won't be disastrous. This means over a counter or table, not standing in the middle of a room. If you are in the middle of a room, get down on the floor.

I don't know how to swap lenses without putting one of them down on something. I am a klutz and live my life accordingly.

Re: camera on the ferry. Always use a neck or wrist strap. My only disasters came when I tripped while carrying an un-strapped camera. As I threw my arms out to cushion the fall the camera went flying. Better to break the camera than an arm. Best to break neither.

Unknown said...

Automatic backup through the ether sounds nice.

What happens when it is used to hack your system? Both where the images are going and back into the camera you are using?

Unknown said...

Sounds nice but some problems may well arise.
What happens when some malicious jerk hacks into the account - both where the images are going and back into the electronic marvel you are using?
As you say, you might not even know what is possible.

Dave Jenkins said...

Took my family swimming at one of those gravel-pit/lakes in southwest Miami about 47 years ago. Loading the kids in the car to leave, I put my Nikon F on the roof and drove away. I didn't lose it, and it continued to work, but from then on, I had to move the film advance lever back to the rest position by hand after advancing the film.

Keith Mallett said...

My nearest similar experience occurred many years ago when shooting a wedding. I left my aluminium gear case sitting on the pavement outside the bride's house. In my rush to get to the church first it got left sitting there. I had my 645 Camera & flash with me, but all my film, both shot and unused, as well as other lenses etc. was left behind for all to see and anyone to grab. The bride's car driver kindly dashed back for me to get it. And .... it was still sitting there by the road side. Phew. Thank goodness it was in a small county town. One of my lucky days. I was considerably more neurotic about checking gear before driving off after that!

Gato said...

I have never driven out from under my gear, but did once drive off with my business bank deposit on the roof of the car. Luckily it was only a few blocks to the bank and my stuff was still lying in the street near my house when I got back.

I did once leave a lens under the seat in a theater after doing photos at a play. I shot on Friday and, my great luck, the lens was still there on Monday when I missed it and went back to look.

Losing the image files, especially from a job, is one of my greatest fears in photography. Some sort of wireless backup sounds very interesting. As others point out there are risks from hackers, technical failure and the rest, but overall it seems good.

Henning Wulff said...

I still have the 15mm Hologon I bought new in 1974. Never dropped it from any of the tower cranes I climbed nor from their booms, nor all the helicopter doors I leaned out of.

However, just yesterday I left my iPad on the roof of my car (just a terrible place to 'just leave things for a minute'), drove about a mile in traffic and then made a turn and accelerated. A loud thwack was heard. I stopped within a block, pulled over and realized what probably happened. I got out and ran back to try to watch my iPad being run over by one of the many lanes of traffic. Didn't see it. As I walked back to the car, I realized what had probably happened and was proven correct. The soft, velvety iPad case had gripped the car tenaciously, and the thwack was the sound of the cover suddenly flying open and hitting the top of the car.

Saved again, through no fault of my own.

With today's technology, I don't want to have my shots instantly transferred to the cloud. However, I do prefer multiple cameras, multiple lenses, double card slots and multiple backups as soon as I get to base.

Kurt Friis Hansen said...

Meeting the pro's

August 1, 2015. A wonderful summer day in Marseille. Noon. I had walked the city, and decided to cool off with some ice cream in a restaurant in the central harbor area, Le Vieux Port - the old port. I had parked myself, as far from the center aisle in the restaurant, as possible. Left shoulder near a wall, and my shoulder bag just to my right. A fake hedge and a row of seats separated my table from the walkway outside.

I enjoyed my ice cream. I felt in heaven. This was li..

A young guy said something to me on my left - over the wall. I turned my head for a moment, a few seconds. Then started to turn back, when another youngster started talking. After a short glance, I decided to ignore the interruptions. For once I didn't suspect anything untoward.

I continued enjoying my ice cream a few seconds, when - suddenly - it felt wrong, and empty, to my right. My bag was missing.

It's an extremely odd and enormously empty feeling.

All in all I may have been interrupted 10 to 15 seconds, definitely less than 20 seconds. I never saw who did the actual deed, and the same could be applied to my Macbook Pro, my Panasonic GX7, my 9-18mm, my 14-140mm, as well as my primes 14, 20 and 45 mm. They were never seen again. My Olympus LS-3 audio recorder also went missing, together with a few other bits and pieces, cables and thingys. As also did my PackSafe theft-preventing shoulder back. Ahem!

I never carry money, credit and other cards, my passport and smartphone in my bag; luckily they were in the inside pockets of my "walkabaout-west". Or else I'd have a much harder time, like some of the other "guests" at the commissariat seemed to have, that afternoon in August in Marseille in the year 2015.

The photos, videos and audio of the day naturally went missing, but the data from the previous days were back in the hotel on my disk with backups.

I am a seasoned traveller, and have been in many tight spots all over the world over the years - even inside the favela Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro a few days after the "liberation" in 2011. More than ten years went by with only minor hick-ups. The bastards got me anyway. In the blink of an eye, or what felt like it. They were real pro's, and I probably didn't have a chance in hell, once they targeted me.

A few hours of that friday afternoon, was spent in the shade on the Commissariat de Police a few hundred meters/yards away in La CanebiƩre, where I got the opportunity to tell madame le commissaire my story, and complete the paper work involved.


I used the remainder of the day switching the most necessary passwords and access codes in my various online accounts. It takes forever with fat fingers on a small iphone screen (never, ever use the hotel computer if at all avoidable). My computer was encrypted, but this may only last for a few days. It gives you some respite to prevent the worst scenario, that's all. All in all it took nearly a week, before everything was done and tight again. Several hundred online accounts had to be visited.

You never know, if, when and where it will hit you. Some will never experience anything untoward, others - like me - are hit, but compared to others....

My insurance covered some of the loss, but ma'an was I mad, that summer afternoon in Marseille!

A similar experience will of course never happen to you. That's why you have no insurance either, or...?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

HI Kurt, a sad story to be sure. I pull my memory cards each night and store them when traveling. And yes, we have lots and lots of insurance for the gear and liabilities. Always prepared, even if it costs too much. Thanks for the great post!

Bill said...

The bottom line is that the loss of a contemporary camera is now no different than the loss of your computer, your smartphone, your tablet, etc. You back your computer devices up automatically and continuously (I use Time Machine over WiFi), or you should. I should be able to transfer the contents of my camera's internal memory automatically and wirelessly when the camera identifies the network or device it can pair with.

typingtalker said...

Be Prepared. Do you know how to erase your phone if stolen or lost? How about your computer? How would you do this if both were stolen and you were away from home?

These are good things to know before the fact. Just in case.

Here's one I see all the time. Someone is working in a coffee shop or library. They get up to refill their coffee or visit the facilities. All their gear including their phone is sitting unguarded on the table. Sometimes they ask a stranger, "Will you watch my stuff for a minute?"

Gato said...

You mention one of my habits -- I do not leave cards with important photos in the camera or camera bag. I keep a supply of small envelopes in my bag and at the end of the job or day the card goes into an envelope which I then label.

I carry the card on my person or out of sight in the van until I get home. Folded in half the envelopes are a fit for a shirt pocket. (I like shirts with pockets when I'm shooting.) At home, once the files are in the computer the card in its envelope goes into the safe where it stays at least until the job is delivered.

I have seen people carry their camera, laptop, and backup drive all in the same bag. That's not for me.

George Beinhorn said...

Kurt, if it makes you feel better - I drove with a car full of friends from Nevada City to San Francisco to photograph an event - must have been 1978. We stopped in Sac for lunch, then happily drove off. After a couple of miles, I noticed a car to the left whose passengers were pointing anxiously at our car's roof. Yes - I had left a Nikon F up there while unlocking the car. Drove the rest of the way to SF in total silence.

garyB said...

Kirt Hansen i can relate.. i've been robbed of equipment a few times in world travels. the last time however the laugh was on them. I was traveling back from three months in Vietnam and going through london. I was sitting in the lobby of a train station when a well dressed Indian gentleman approached me and asked me if i had change for a 20 dollar bill, I told him no, but he persisted in keeping the bill in my face, it was probably only 30 seconds, he diverted my attention, i ran him off suspecting something was up. Sure enough his slimy assistant had managed to take off with my sparkling new Nikon Bag which was sitting behind me. Their only mistake was not picking up my army green old duffle bag which contained a full rolleiflex sl system and a leica m with three lenses and about three hundred rolls of exposed film. somewhere in the 20K value at the time. They must have been quite shocked when they received a load of dirty laundry from the nikon bag..lol.