Today, dear reader, let me tell you a story of heartbreak, redemption, and the kindness of strangers: It all began when my sister's beloved Canon S95 spent a long, multiple-theme-park weekend in Florida, happily snapping dozens of family photos. All seemed rosy until disaster struck: Mere minutes after accidentally leaving the camera on a hook in the ladies room, she dashed back to retrieve her prized shooter only to find it had already been snatched up and was nowhere to be found. After frantically filing a report at the Legoland lost and found, and checking back multiple times throughout the day to no avail, my distraught sister had to come to terms with the fact that she would likely never again see the photos of her children frolicking under the Epcot sphere or floating past animatronic can-can dancers to the strains of "It's a small world." (Insert video montage here.)
Fast forward two months and imagine her shock and awe when she receives an email via her alma mater's alumni affairs office from a stranger who contacted them after viewing photos left on the camera from her college reunion. Armed with only her maiden name (from the caption of an old photograph she had snapped a picture of for laughs) and the year of her graduation (off the buttons fellow alums were wearing in other shots), he tracked her down and is shipping the camera back, refusing to accept reimbursement for his expense saying only, "I am happy to rescue your memories."
Unfortunately, not every lost camera story has such a happy ending, nor a good Samaritan protagonist with such sharp detective skills (though some do -- remember the viral Sea Turtle Finds Lost Camera story of 2010?). So for the rest of us, here are some tips to raise the odds of being reunited with your lost or stolen camera:
Firstly, in case your camera does find its way into the hands of a kindhearted stranger, do him or her a favor -- leave a photo on your camera with your contact info. It doesn't have to be as elaborate as this; just a name and email address and a note saying "if found, contact..." will suffice.
With that said, there are a number of online resources that you can use to search for your camera.
IFoundYourCamera.net - Launched in 2008 by Canadian blogger Mathew Prepost, the ifoundyourcamera.net blog lets folks post images from found cameras in hopes that a visitor to the site will recognize someone among the images and get them in touch with the camera's finder. The site has had over 7 million visitors since 2008 and has posts from hundreds of lost cameras. Roughly 30 "found cameras and orphan pictures" as Prepost calls them, have been reunited with their owners since the blog's inception.
CameraFound.com - Similar in concept but a bit more technically savvy, this site lets you upload photos and uses a Google Maps platform to let you mark the exact location of the lost or found camera. You have to create an account to upload photos (there are currently over 12,500 members) and you can even create an RSS feed to publish your lost or found entry across Google, Yahoo, and Bing search engines to increase your reach.
About.com Lost and Found for Digital Cameras - About.com's Lost and Found for Digital Cameras similarly tries to connect owners of lost cameras with those who have found cameras, but it works more like personals ads, with short headlines and descriptions. Losers and finders enter information into a form (e.g., camera description, date and time lost or found, etc.), and can optionally upload images from found cameras. It's harder to scroll and search through than the previous two sites (and listings include the questionably useful but mildly amusing "Lessons Learned" section for each listing), but it does have the advantage of About.com's greater reach and traffic.
stolencamerafinder.com - Created by British software engineer Matt Burns, this site takes the hidden EXIF metadata that is attached to every photo you take with your digital camera (e.g., make, model, date, and serial number), and scours the web looking for new photos that have been uploaded from a camera with the same serial number. All you have to do is drag and drop a saved JPEG image that you know was taken with your missing camera and the site extracts the EXIF information and submits it for matching. If you don't have a JPEG, but do have your serial number, you can also manually enter the number to be searched. Unfortunately, stolencamerafinder.com cannot crawl sites that remove or modify EXIF data when photos are uploaded (e.g., Facebook and MySpace). Some cameras don't store serial numbers in EXIF data and therefore aren't compatible with the site -- there's a list of compatible cameras here. As with CameraFound.com, there's an integrated Google Maps function that allows you to pinpoint lost, stolen, or found cameras. You can do a basic search for free, or sign up for Pro or Business plans which provide more search results (maximums of 100 or unlimited, respectively) and search for more data points, such as lens serial number and copyright, making them useful for pro shooters looking to protect their copyrights. Fees for Pro and Business plans are £4.99 and £99.99 a month, respectively (yearly plans are discounted by one month).
CameraTrace.com - CameraTrace.com works in a similar way to stolencamerafinder.com, by crawling photo sharing sites like Flickr and 500px for matching EXIF data. You can trace a single serial number for free or pay a $10 fee to register your camera so the service will keep searching as new photos get uploaded to sharing sites (and as they index more sharing sites) and email you if they find a match in the future. The fee also buys you a durable metallic CameraTrace tag to adhere to your camera, providing anyone who finds the camera with a URL and code to enter that will allow the person to communicate with you anonymously. Brought to you by ActiveTrak, Inc. (makers of GadgetTrak theft-recovery solutions), CameraTrace also offers an online system for filing police reports with many local police departments and even offers to speak to the police on your behalf.
Do you have any other good tips on finding lost or stolen cameras? TalkBack and let us know!