Does Travel Damage Cameras?

This is a question I get all the time, because people know that I travel near constantly. Recently, an article by Roger Cicala at Lens Rentals about Sony IBIS breakage re-raised the question.

Here's the thing you probably don't want to hear: yes, you can damage a camera (or sometimes lens) with travel. Or with simply rough handling. 

With full frame now up to 61mp, manufacturing tolerances are now down to very small numbers, and keeping a camera within tolerance is getting tougher. The sensor-to-mount tolerance these days is down to within 0.01mm, and side-to-side mount variances are also incredibly small. With DSLRs, the mirror mechanisms, focus screens, prisms, and separate focus sensors add additional items that need to be positioned near perfectly.

I'm going to assume that you got a camera within tolerance from your dealer. The question is: can you keep it in tolerance?

Let's deal with the most common scenarios that cause issues: drops, bumps, and vibration.

The usual thing I hear from someone is "I dropped (or badly bumped) my camera, but it looks fine and seems to work okay." Not necessarily. If you ever drop your camera, you should have the manufacturer check it for mount variation. No questions asked. I've seen far too many "I think it's okays" turn into "oops, needed a mount fix." These pretty much all started with what the user thought was a drop that didn't create any visible damage.

The screws in the lens mounts are actually designed to break away easily (so as to preserve body/frame integrity; without body integrity a camera can't be fixed). One screw no longer making full contact can cause side-to-side mount variation. But in many camera designs it's also possibly for a mount to be "pushed" so it is no longer properly aligned to the sensor the same as it was from the factory. Drops and hard bumps are the usual thing that causes this.

Traveling with lenses attached to cameras is also asking for trouble. The proper way to use a camera backpack is to have bodies with body caps placed in separate padded areas, lenses with lens caps on placed in other separate padded areas. Do not travel with a lens mated to the camera, and the larger and heavier the lens the more this advice should be followed. You're putting stress on the mount doing so, and in order to fit those big lenses mounted on bodies into a pack, you may also be compromising the protection the pack offers, too. (I've seen too many body+lens jammed into the full length of the bag so that any bump on the bag is also a bump on the camera/lens combo.)

Likewise, there's the issue of using bigger and heavier lenses when the camera is being held from a neck strap. If a lens has a tripod mount, then it's big and heavy enough so that any strap should connect to it, not the camera. If you see me on the sidelines of a football game, you'll see that I've got two BlackRapid straps with a quick mount system to which I attach the lens, not the camera. This hangs the combined weight more evenly without stress on the mount, and as I walk I steady the combo with my hand, further reducing mount stress.

blackrapid plus plate

The liability of the BlackRapid plus quick mount approach is you have to be ruthless in constantly checking whether everything is locked down or not. You should also use a light emergency tether cable between the lens plate and the strap.

I've watched a lot of guys walking and running around with a 70-200mm off the front of their camera and seeing that flopping around, because they're still using neck straps attached to the camera. This is a recipe for future mount issues.

Finally, now that we have IBIS we need to talk about that, too (I talked about lens IS in another article). Nikon's Z system IBIS seems to lock on power off. But are you sure your camera will always be powered off in the bag? Nope. Power off and remove the battery before packing it. Other IBIS systems are different. Sony's early A7's with IBIS were very prone to breaking the mounts. Judging from Roger's most recent article, he's finding that even some more recent Sonys have a similar problem. This could be a design issue, but I'd still do the same thing with my Sony's that I do with my Nikon's: power off, battery out, lens off, body cap on, put in a well padded area within the bag.

On safari, I need to have my camera handy as I'm bouncing around the savannah. If I'm not driving, I support my long lens with its soft Aquatech lens hood to the floor while gripping the smaller end of the lens between my legs. Yes, this transfers some minor vibrations up through the lens, but this is pretty much better than any other method I've come up with for keeping the lens handy and ready without compromising it. My other body with the 70-200mm lies crosswise on my lap. Putting lenses on seats almost guarantees that they'll fly off at some point (I'm not traveling on roads all the time). 

Just to be clear:

  • Drops. Really bad. If the lens hit the ground it almost certainly put high pressure on the mount, and the mount needs to be checked (both on the camera and lens).
  • Bumps. Still can be bad, particularly if it's a bump against a hard surface (e.g. side of building, side of car, etc.). Generally I don't worry about this as much unless it was a bump that involved the lens and mount.
  • Vibrations. Contrary to the Beach Boys, there are no good vibrations. Putting the camera/lens on surfaces that are vibrating (ship, plane, car, train, etc.) is something to avoid whenever possible. Even a thin cloth wrap dissipates much of the issue. So be prophylactic, always. 
  • Hanging. Don't hang heavy lenses off the front of a camera and then carry the camera using a neck strap. As the lens bounces around, the mount is being stressed. Carry from the lens whenever possible.
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