10 Great Tips for Shipping Your Valuable Camera Equipment
Eventually almost everyone who takes pictures is faced with the prospect of shipping their prized cameras off to a distant location-to have them repaired or adjusted, trade them in, send them to eBay buyers, etc. Since most cameras, lenses, and related equipment are valuable and can be easily damaged, proper packing is essential to ensure they arrive at their destination unscathed. While the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), UPS, FedEx, DHL, and other services do a reasonably good job in handing packages, you can't assume they'll always be handled with kid gloves. In fact, the mindset behind proper packing assumes exactly the opposite-that they'll be bounced around, or even fall off the back of a truck! Follow all 10 packing suggestions below and you can be almost 100% sure your camera equipment won't be damaged in transit.
1. Use a sturdy box of the right size
The most robust boxes are made of reinforced cardboard that has a corrugated layer sandwiched in between their inner and outer surfaces. Single-layer cardboard is less resistant to impact damage. You can obtain suitable boxes for free at your local Post Office providing you use them to ship via USPS Priority Mail, which includes free tracking and $50 worth of insurance. Other shipping services can also provide sturdy boxes at nominal cost. You can re-use any suitable boxes you have on hand, but make sure they're not damaged or dented in any way.
The packing box you use should be sufficiently large to accommodate at least 1-1/2 to 2 inches of soft pliable packing material on all 6 sides of the wrapped object, to provide maximum impact protection. Using too small a box and/or insufficient packing material are primary contributing factors in items that are damaged in shipment.
2. Wrap each item in bubble wrap
Yes, bubble wrap is a petroleum-based product that's not great for the environment, but it's convenient to use, provides excellent impact protection, and it can be re-used if it hasn't been damaged. Wrap each item separately and tightly in two to three layers of bubble wrap and secure them in place with clear or opaque packing tape using a handheld roll-type tape dispenser. Use bubble wrap with small- or medium-sized bubbles that folds easily. Ship your cameras and lenses in their cases, if possible, to provide an additional layer of protection.
3. Use soft pliable packing material
The object of proper packing is to immobilize and insulate your wrapped photo equipment in the center of a protective cocoon of impact-absorbing material. Suitable packing materials include bubble wrap, clean rags, foam rubber, Styrofoam peanuts, excelsior (wood shavings), packing straw, and tightly packed, crumpled newspaper. All these materials are compressible and attenuate impacts to the outer box. Avoid hard materials like large Styrofoam sections, hard cardboard blocks, wood or other substances that will transmit impact.
4. Pack it the right way for maximum protection
Place a two-inch or thicker layer of packing material on the bottom of the box, then place the wrapped object in the box, wedge-in packing material evenly on all four sides of it, and finally cover the top of the item evenly with sufficient packing material to completely fill the box. There should be slight tension on the flaps of the box when you close it, but none of the sides of the box should bulge out when it's fully closed. Make sure the wrapped object is totally immobilized in the box before you seal it, and that it cannot move around in transit. If you're sending more than one item at a time, you can place wrapped items right next to each other so they're held in place as a unit by the packing material. Before you fully seal the box, secure the package with a single strip of packing tape and test it by shaking it to make sure that everything is securely in place.
Cover all seams of the box securely with packing tape. And before you seal the box, place a copy of the packing label in the box so the shipping service can identify the sender and receiver if the box is severely damaged. Use a handheld roll-type tape dispenser to seal the closed package. Double-tape the main closures on the bottom and top of the box, and seal all edge openings with pieces of tape folded 90 degrees over each seam. Tape over any pieces of tape that do not adhere completely to the box.
5. Label it legibly, and tape over the label
The best way to make a label is to print it out from your computer with an attached printer, but you can do it by hand with a magic marker if you write legibly in block letters. Make sure to list the full address, including zip code and country (for overseas packages) of both the sender and receiver, and include both telephone numbers, if possible. Use a large 22- or 24-point font if possible. Make sure to list the sender after "FROM:" and the receiver after "TO:" so there's no confusion. You can also print out your own "FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE" stickers in large red type or buy them ready made. The Post Office will be happy to stamp "FRAGILE" on your packages, but the ink can rub off if it's on packing tape.
Attach the label to the package using clear packing tape, and tape over the entire label with strips of clear tape that reach over the sides of the box for maximum security and to prevent the label from being obliterated if the package is subjected to moisture.
6. Select the best shipping options for your item
Everyone has a favorite shipper, so by all means, use the one with which you feel most comfortable. After shipping thousands of packages for more than three decades, I have found USPS, UPS, and FedEx all to be very reliable, with FedEx having a slight edge. However, UPS and FedEx charge for home pickup, and this adds extra cost if there's no nearby depot where you can drop off the package. Also, be aware that if you're shipping to a remote location, USPS may make the final delivery anyway. If you're shipping internationally, use USPS Registered Mail or DHL. Both are more expensive but they're the last word in reliability and they track your package every step of the way. USPS Registered overseas delivery also requires the package to be signed by the recipient.
7. Bring the package to the shipper yourself
The best way to ensure that your package has been shipped is to bring it to the shipper yourself, and get a receipt proving that you sent it. This is easy if you drop it off at your local Post Office or there's a nearby UPS or FedEx depot. I do not recommend leaving valuable packages in UPS or FedEx boxes because you have no proof you shipped them until they're in the system.
8. Insure the package for its full value
As mentioned, you automatically get tracking plus $50 insurance if you ship via USPS Priority Mail, but that's often not enough to cover valuable camera equipment. The best rule of thumb is to insure what you're sending for the amount you paid for it, and can prove it with a receipt. Collecting insurance on items damaged in shipment is a daunting procedure, and quite challenging if the outer box is in perfect condition and not dented, perforated, etc. Nevertheless, full insurance is well worth the extra cost in the unlikely event your package is lost.
9. Always include tracking
It's an extra-cost USPS option if you don't ship USPS Priority, and is automatically included with most UPS and FedEx services. If tracking is not included in your shipping option, add it so you can know when your package has been delivered to its destination. Tracking alone does not provide ironclad proof of delivery (see below).
10. Add signature confirmation when shipping valuable items
If you're shipping a camera that's worth up to, say, $200, you can save a few bucks by not requiring the recipient to sign for it, and then receive a return receipt. But if you're sending a $2,000 camera to someone you don't know, it's a worthwhile precaution.
Do you have any tips for shipping sensitive, delicate camera equipment or horror stories about gear that arrived in less than "perfect" condition? Feel free to share them with us in the Comments section, below.