Behind the scenes: Why I’m renting my camera equipment in the States

Last year I was temporary delayed at the US border in Los Angeles. It was not a stunning experience. Not after a 12-hour flight. I thought you might like a little bit of background into what goes into delivering some of the content you see/view here on Mobile Industry Review.

A few years ago I bought a top-of-the-range Canon XH A1 video camera. It’s a piece of genius. It’s a highly popular ‘semi professional’ camera and a rather magnificent step-up from the donkey cameras you see at family barbecues. You’ll often find many news channels using something in this category to get out to the middle of nowhere, quickly, and capture footage.

The great thing with the Canon is that I just point it and press record.

I make no excuses. I can’t stand arsing around with white balances and special buttons. No. I am usually in a hurry and my interview subjects are too. So with the camera’s ‘automatic’ green mode, I almost always come away with excellent quality video. And since I can plug in proper XLR audio kit, the audio quality of the videos I’m able to produce is excellent.

There’s quite a bit of kit needed to support the Canon. I can get most of it stuffed into a large carry-on-size camera bag.

Filming abroad was therefore reasonably straight forward: Stuff everything into the camera bag along with a change of clothes and boom, I’m done. I could carry the camera as hand luggage. Rarely did anyone at airport security need to check the bag after an X-ray scan.

Until that arse tried to bomb a plane using his shoes.

That made it very difficult to take ‘equipment’ on to the plane as hand luggage. Every airport seemed to have a different policy to the point whereby I ran the risk of being able to carry my camera OUT of the country but have to check it into the hold on the way back. My camera bag is sturdy but the contents wouldn’t survive the experience very well.

So I needed a flight case.

I bought a brilliant, brilliant Peli case. It’s utter genius. It’s a huge big plastic container with two layers. It fits all the camera equipment beautifully — with space left over for all my editing gizmos — MacBook Pros, chargers, batteries, leads, leads and more leads. Even the tripod fits into the peli case.

But since the case routinely runs to 32kg weight — which is not tolerated on a standard class ticket, I started having to upgrade my trips abroad. In some cases, many press trips are business class, most of which allow luggage up to 32kg.

That was my solution and it worked for a while. Many regular readers will know that up until my little boy was born, I often used to spend one or two weeks a month on the West Coast. I was back and forward with my camera and my flight case like a yoyo.


Until, that is, I had arrived into Los Angeles international airport with a few other bloggers to visit Qualcomm’s Uplinq 2010 event.

At baggage I had to stand about with no small amount of embarrassment as every other blogger eventually retrieved their suitcases from the carousel. With the huge Peli flight case, I never knew if it would arrive on the normal carousel or if I’d have to head over to ‘Outsize Baggage’ to get it. Or, as was regularly the case with British Airways flying out of LHR Terminal 3, whether anyone had bothered to put the case on the plane in the first place.

I waited about 45 minutes and eventually the Peli arrived.

I had to apologise profusely to Qualcomm’s PR team and to the bloggers all waiting, staring at me as the sweat continued to pour down my brow.

I had to keep on explaining that I needed all this equipment to produce proper video. You know. It was necessary. I felt I really had to explain why a £200 special stuffed into the bottom of my suitcase wouldn’t work so well.

As all visitors to the US will know, once you’ve got your bag, you only have the Customs hurdle to navigate before you get access out to the airport concourse. Typically this is a formality. Hand your white form to the Customs man and go about your business.

My recollection is cloudy but this is, to the best of my knowledge, how things proceeded.

“What’s in the case?” the US Customs man asked, gesturing to the flight case.

“Camera equipment,” I replied.

“Got a carnet?” he asked, clearly expecting a positive response.

“Er… no,” I replied. What the hell is a Carnet?

“All the folk with camera equipment usually have a carnet,” said the chap with some finality.

I stared, expectantly at him.

“How much is the camera worth?” he asked.

“Probably about $2,500,” I said, “It was about $4,000 new.”

“If it’s over $2,000, you need a carnet,” said the guy, a decision clearly made in his mind.

That was it.

I’d blown it.

He signalled as such by calling over his partner.

“Now see here,” his partner asked, after a bit of conferring, “You don’t have a carnet?”


By this point, my blogger friends were already hopping into their transport. Lots of normal people were walking by handing over their normal white forms to another US Customs chap who’d come to deputise whilst their colleagues circled.

“How do we know you won’t sell that camera here?” the first guy asked.

“Well, …” and I thought… screw it, “Well, you don’t know that. I suppose I could sell the camera.”

“You can’t bring goods into the United States and just sell them,” explained Customs Guy #2.

“Right, but it’s my camera. I’m going to use it to do some filming, hence all the surrounding equipment you can see here.”

I’d opened the case by now.

The chaps were not impressed.

“The BBC guys all have carnets,” said Customs Guy #2.

I wanted to respond with some kind of ridiculously offensive remark. But I didn’t. I just looked expectantly at him.

“And you don’t have a carnet?” the first guy asked. Again.

“No, I don’t know what one of those is. This is my camera, I want to use it to film some people at the Qualcomm event tomorrow.”

I was fully prepared to explain all about the event, to show them Mobile Industry Review’s video output and so on. Customs Guy #2 headed off to speak to his supervisor.

“So,” I said, stepping outside my standard Britishness, “If I’d told you the camera was worth $1,900, would you have let me pass?”

He nodded.

I smiled to myself, “But the $2,500 was a guess. I’ve no idea what it’s worth. I just made it up, best guess.”

He almost shrugged his shoulders. I could feel him itching to ask about the sodding ‘carnet’.

Customs Guy #2 returned with an even more serious look on his face. This was clearly a pretty challenging exception to the day’s normal events.

“We can’t let you take that through,” he said, pointing.

I was ready for this. I’d been preparing the logic.

“So the issue is that this equipment,” I touched the camera, “Is worth more than $2,000, based on my generic random valuation?”

They both nodded.

“And you’re worried that I might sell this equipment here in America, without, obviously, the proper import/export requirements?”

They both nodded again.

“Right then gentlemen,” I said, lifting up the first section of the internal Peli case (it’s split into two levels).

I reached in and grabbed my first laptop.

“This is a MacBook Pro laptop and it is worth at least $3,000.”

I looked at both gents. I got initial blank looks.

“This is a MacBook Air that was $2,500 new — which, incidentally, I bought in Las Vegas.”

I continued.

“This wireless microphones set is $1,500 — and including the other microphones and cabling, that all comes to well over $2,000.”

“In fact I reckon I’m carrying about $15k’s worth of goods, easy.”

I was still getting blank looks although Customs Guy #2 was beginning to get the message.

I carried on.

“All of these goods I own and use for my own computing and audio visual requirements. What’s to stop me selling this MacBook Pro for $3k in San Diego?”

If they’re going to try and impound the camera, they can explain their sodding logic, I thought.

“Er,” said Customs Guy #1, “You can’t do that.”

“Right, well I’m not going to.”

“We don’t know that,” he replied.

“You really need a carnet,” said Customs Guy #2.

“Can I get one now?” I asked.


“Right then, what do you suggest I do, gents?” I asked.

They talked.

They talked a lot.

I think they spoke to a supervisor again. I can’t quite recall.

Then they let me through.

Not before they made a note of my name on the system.

“Don’t bring a camera into the United States again without a carnet,” said the first guy.

I have since looked into the business of getting a carnet and it’s a complete arse. This is how the UK Government defines a carnet:

The ATA carnet is an international Customs document that can be used in different countries around the world to cover temporary use of goods without payment of Customs charges.

Obviously the BBC guys do use carnets. When they’re transporting $100k of filming equipment it makes a lot of sense. I can see why they’re needed. I see why they had to ask the questions.


You don’t argue with the United States Government. I’m a big fan of most things US and I can most certainly understand their policies. Ergo, I do not take my Canon to the States.

Enter ATS Rentals

I still need a decent camera when I’m in the States though.

One option would be to FedEx my equipment ahead of time. I’ve done this before. It’s fine. It’s doable. It’s quite expensive and you do run the risk of unexpected customs complications. I have a lovely Sony VAIO laptop that is STILL somewhere in Customs in Indonesia after I tried sending my laptop equipment ahead of me when I went to Bali a few years ago. FedEx obviously washed their hands and trying to communicate with the Indonesian Customs — who couldn’t understand why someone would send himself a laptop — was a total nightmare.

Recently though I happened upon the idea of renting a camera when I’m in the States.

I made a few enquiries late last year only to discover that the companies I’d spoken to were wanting upwards of $1,000 a day hire fees. Just ridiculous. Surely it doesn’t cost that much?

Well, no.

I searched. And I searched. And eventually I found a company by the name of ATS Rentals. They hire all sorts of Audio Visual equipment — projectors, video cameras, PA systems, lenses and that kind of thing.

My Canon XH A1 model was just $296 (£183) to rent for 3 business days. Very reasonable. $19 delivery, there-and-back. Done.

I thought I’d try them out.

Their online ordering system was brilliant to the point when it asked for my country. I could only select ‘United States’ during the credit card section… I tried using their Live Chat customer support. I was expecting no answer.

I got an answer right-away. I placed the order by email instead. It was a piece of cake.

Instead of the XH A1, I upgraded and went for a Sony EX1 HD. That was $100 more but it didn’t use HD tapes. Instead it used MemoryStick — far easier to transfer the footage. I ordered some wireless microphones too.

I asked them to deliver the equipment to my hotel. It actually ended up arriving the day before.

Needless to say, I walked straight through US Customs like everyone else as normal.

I arrived at my hotel and asked if they had a package for me. I knew they did. Somebody called ‘Lopez’ had signed for it. They sent it up to my room for me. In the package was a return label for UPS and some sellotape to seal the box back up. The team at ATS thought of everything.

Never again will I cart about 32kg of camera equipment across the Atlantic.

I’m pleased to say the ATS Rentals service was impeccable. I will be using them again — next week, provided the Ash Cloud doesn’t prevent me from going to San Diego for Qualcomm’s Uplinq 2011 event.

And I trust I will breeze through US Customs.

Meanwhile if you find yourself looking for camera or audio visual rental services, I strongly recommend checking out ATS Rentals. I’m delighted with their services.

One thing I’d really like — and I haven’t yet worked out how I might work this one out yet:

The ability to rent both the camera equipment and 2x 28″ Apple flat panel monitors along with a Mac Pro Apple tower.

Now that would be brilliant.

Even better, I’d like it all setup and ready for me when I arrive into the hotel! Now, I think perhaps I’m dreaming.

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