Photography 101: PROTECT Your Photography Kit

Stephen F. Dennstedt

PROTECT your photography kit. If you’re serious about your photography you’ve already spent hundreds if not thousands of Pounds, Dollars or Euros on your gear. Photography is not an inexpensive hobby or profession—good equipment will cost you. Therefore, it only makes sense to protect your investment.

In six years of rugged international travel I’ve learned a few things. I’m basically a Trekker, Backpacker, Adventure-Traveller or Eco-Traveller—take your pick. What I am not is a typical tourist on holiday. I’ve been that in the past but now I adhere to a new philosophy: Live Simple, Live Cheap, Live Free.

I am location-independent (meaning that technically I’m homeless). But the world is my home and every new person I meet is potentially a new friend. I travel full-time (365 days a year) as a photographer and writer. I am also a slō-traveller—visiting fewer places but staying longer, seeing less but experiencing more. It’s a unique lifestyle not suitable to everyone but it suits me just fine. My brother Joel and I will soon be entering our seventh year on the road.

Pelican 1510 Photography Case with TrekPak Dividers and Lid Organiser

I carry my home on my back like a turtle or a crab—it’s the Osprey Farpoint 70 Travel Pack. Everything I own in the world in the way of personal items is crammed into this tiny house. Nothing simplifies your life quite like a good backpack—luxuries are not allowed only essentials. You quickly learn that it doesn’t take much (in material possessions) to get by in this old world—a few pieces of clothing to cover environmental weather extremes and some basic toiletries. We don’t travel for days or weeks at a time we travel for months and years at a time. For the last six years we trekked Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America.

My Pelican 1510 Ready to Go

Which brings me to my office that rolls along beside me, my Pelican 1510 photography hard case with its TrekPak insert and organiser. Where my Osprey Farpoint 70 houses all of my personal kit my Pelican 1510 is home to all of my professional photography kit (camera bodies, lenses, batteries & chargers, flash, memory cards, cables ad nauseam). So I have my home and my office and they go everywhere I go no matter the environment: jungles, rainforests, beaches, mountains, deserts, rivers and tropical islands. Right now we’re in Scotland (think rain, sleet and snow).

My Pelican 1510 Closed & Padlocked

The Pelican 1510 is shock-proof, water-proof, indestructible and comes with a lifetime guarantee. The biggest threats to your equipment are: blunt force trauma, water, humidity and theft. When my equipment is with me I have control but when it’s in transit that’s not always the case. My gear sometimes rides on top of Latin American chicken buses in the pouring rain and at other times it’s stowed underneath. Its been piled onto Tuk-tuks and stuffed into river boats and canoes. Its been slung into the trunks of endless taxis. Its travelled in airplanes as both carry-on and checked baggage.

My Pelican 1510 Unlocked & Open

I used to bundle my camera gear into my pack and duffel bag (carefully wrapped with my clothing for added protection). Unfortunately when TSA or other inspectors rummaged through my stuff they were not careful about re-wrapping my gear. The result was damaged equipment: a broken LCD screen on my Canon 5D Mark II, a jammed lens cover on my Canon G15 pocket shooter and a corroded rear element (moisture) on my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens. All preventable. Now I don’t worry at all (well at least not much).

Me in the Field For Puuc Jaguar Conservation (Yucatan, MX) in 2013

Pelican cases are completely water-proof and have a sturdy rubber O-Ring that guarantees against moisture leaks. Additionally, I have placed a few de-humidifying devices in the case to prevent internal moisture from ruining my expensive gear (especially important in the tropics). Pelican cases even float when fully loaded—a great feature when floating down various rivers in Latin America like the Amazon River. Since November 2017 we’ve been battling heavy rain, sleet and snow in Iceland, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Zero equipment damage.

Me Photographing Wild Gentoo Penguins on Martillo Island, Tierra del Fuego (Southern Patagonia) Argentina in 2016 

I use my Pelican case to transport my equipment safely from one destination to another—it doesn’t go into the field with me, it stays in the hostel, guesthouse, non-tourist local hotel or jungle hut. Soft packs are great for field carry but are less effective when it comes to destination (point A to point B) travel by plane, train, bus or boat. Soft packs don’t offer any security whatsoever against theft and water resistance isn’t enough if your pack goes overboard or is strapped topside on a bus. You need drop-proof, knife-proof and water-proof—a Pelican case will run you a couple of hundred dollars.

Me in a Jungle Hut on the Rio San Juan in Southeastern Nicaragua in 2015

But that’s a small price to pay when protecting $15,000 USD to $20,000 USD worth of professional camera gear. Not everyone needs that level of protection of course but that’s for you to decide. The Pelican 1510 qualifies as airline carry-on luggage but if a plane is overbooked (which is often the case) sometimes they will insist that you check your baggage. Once checked it is treated very roughly—that’s when a hard case really earns its money. When possible I mostly I travel using local transportation both for the experience and the cost.

Chicken Bus (Internet File Photo – Not My Photo)

When I’m not flying I keep my case padlocked at all times. The American Lock Company Series A5100 lock fits the Pelican 1510 case perfectly and is a good choice (I have both locks keyed alike and keep two sets of keys stored separately). When flying and checking my luggage I never use a cheap TSA lock—they’re crap. They catch on luggage conveyor belts and get torn off and when using other forms of transportation a thief can pry them off in a nanosecond. Instead I use plastic zip-ties to secure the latches from accidental opening and TSA can quickly cut them off if they want to inspect the case.

Me in the Jungles of Honduras in 2015

I keep an extra set of zip-ties taped to the lid of my case with a message to re-secure the latches if opened for inspection. I also have a note inside the case with more ties with the same message. So far TSA and inspectors in other countries have always accommodated my request. Once I’ve reclaimed my baggage I immediately secure my case with the steel padlocks. If you board your plane with the case as carry-on there is not problem because it’s with you for the entire trip safe & secure right above your head. Always use two locks (one for each latch) to keep a thief from prying up one side of the lid.

Our Jungle Thatched Hut on the Rio San Juan in Southeastern Nicaragua in 2015

You will notice that I also have a lot of travel and equipment manufacturer stickers on my case. Some would caution against this because it advertises what I have in the case. It announces to the world that I am a professional photographer with professional equipment—this might actually act as a deterrent to the casual opportunistic thief. I might have more security devices inside like a tracking device and pedalling equipment with serial numbers might be difficult in some countries. Like an assassin a determined thief will steal regardless. In over six years of international travel I’ve never had anything stolen or been the victim of street crime.

River Transportation on the Rio San Juan in Southeastern Nicaragua in 2015

For hard travel I can strongly recommend the Pelican 1510 hard case for your photography kit. My case is getting battered, scarred and beat up but it still functions perfectly. Given its compact size (approved for airline carry-on) it can hold a lot of stuff—I carry two big pro-level DSLR camera bodies with battery grips plus five lenses (four zooms and one prime). My 70-200mm f/2.8 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lenses are both big and heavy. In addition to cameras and lenses it holds all of my accessories too. I no longer worry about equipment damage when I travel.

Me in Clifden (County Galway) Ireland in 2018

Field Notes: Joel and I spent our first six years trekking Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America. After a five-year absence we went back to the USA for a short visit with family & friends and to refresh our travel gear. We left the USA in November 2017 to embark on World Trek Part II and started in Iceland. Leaving Iceland we spent three months in Ireland (the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland) and will soon complete our third month in Scotland. The Muppet Brothers (which is what we call ourselves) will soon be in England and Wales before crossing to the Continent. We continue to head east towards the sunrise. SFD

7 responses to “Photography 101: PROTECT Your Photography Kit

  1. YOU ARE MY HERO. I would normally be a tiny bit jealous of someone else who gets to fulfill my life dream of being “location independent” and traveling the world. But in your case I admire your approach and work so much that I can’t help being grateful you “Muppet Brothers” are able to have this experience — and grateful you’re sharing it here too. Thanks too for the practical tips, especially about the Pelican cases. I’ve wondered for a long time whether they’re worth the expense and extra weight, and you’ve answered with a resounding YES. Happy travels, and please keep the wonderful posts coming.

    • I hope that someday you will be able to fulfil your life dream too. It is certainly possible but many people are unwilling to give things up or they’re afraid. But fear is usually ephemeral and goes up in a puff of smoke when faced head-on. Joel and I spent a month in the jungles of the Rio San Juan (hammock photo) photographing the monkeys and tropical birds. No internet and no social media . . . Nirvana. Here’s a link to an earlier post from that time.

      • I have no doubt I will follow in your footsteps to some degree, because it’s almost like a calling. But I doubt I have the courage to embrace the experience so fully as you and Joel have, and for so long because I am afraid of the risk. Who knows, though? You have me thinking about what it would be like to face those fears head-on and see if they do go up in a puff of smoke …

  2. I’ve heard of Pelican but never seen anyone use it. It’s nice to know there’s stuff out there that can take a beating.

    On something totally different, do you ever miss not having a home base? Or does every place eventually become a home?

    • We don’t miss it at all. The reality is that someday we will be just too damn old to continue . . . however, until that day arrives we will continue to roam the world as nomads. We look at each new place we visit as a possible final destination when we can’t travel anymore, it will have to be affordable, beautiful and warm. We don’t know where that will be but I suspect Southeast Asia or back to Latin America. Until then we’ll keep on truck’in.

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