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The Paranoia Episode: How Safe Are We Walking Around with Camera Gear?

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In this episode: Camera equipment is expensive — how safe is it to walk around with it?

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we discuss a string of recent news headlines with cameras being stolen in brazen daylight robberies, and cover a few tips for keeping yourself and your gear safe.

Full Episode Transcript

Hey everybody, welcome to the paranoia episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast.

If you’re a photographer — or the spouse of a photographer — I don’t have to tell you that photography is an expensive endeavor. It’s very easy for an investment to approach $10,000 for serious enthusiasts, and much more for Pros.

And we buy all these assorted lenses and accessories because we intend to use them, which means we zip them up in a fancy bag and carry them out into public. I mix my preferred locations up between landscapes, and urban settings. And while I almost always feel safe, I can’t deny that on rare occasions, I feel the need to be hyper aware of my surroundings. Am I being paranoid

Maybe so — but with all the recent news of camera thefts — many occurring even in broad daylight — it pays to be cautious. Have you heard these stories? It seems like there’s been a steady stream of news stories about photography gear getting stolen in bold public robberies.

Now I’m not an alarmist and I don’t want to overplay a few news headlines, but I’ve thought about this for a while. I’ve never had a serious problem, but I had a near miss in New Orleans where I overheard a trio of young men standing nearby on a crowded street corner sizing me up as a potential victim. When they realized I had heard them, they didn’t back away but instead focused on me even more intently. I had been standing with my camera backpack dangling on one shoulder, and my nose in my iPhone. It would have been easy for them to trip me, grab the bag, and run away into the crowd in three different directions. Luckily I managed to avoid being mugged, but it could have gone a different way had I not been aware.

There was a recent news story that’s so brazen it leaves me in disbelief. A photographer was recording himself with a camera on a tripod near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, in a public park, in broad daylight with other people around, when a young man ran up, grabbed the camera and tripod, and dashed away to a waiting car. In this case, some witnesses even got photographs of the getaway car with license plates clearly visible — but the case resulted in no arrests. According to the article, police claimed they were too busy to address cases of property theft. That photographer lost an A7RIV, a 70-200 lens, and a tripod. That’s easily a $4 to 5000 loss.

And there have been many other similar stories that have made the news recently. You probably heard about the real estate photographers who finished a job shooting a house in a neighborhood — also in the Bay area — and were observed placing their gear into the back of their hatchback. Minutes later, a car stopped beside them in traffic, a man ran to their car, smashed the rear window, grabbed the photographer’s gear bags with $7,000 of equipment, and sped away in a different direction. It took a matter of seconds for the entire caper. This was all captured on dash cam, but I never heard if those culprits were arrested.

I’ve long carried my gear in the back seat of my car (instead of transporting it the hot and bumpy trunk of my car), but I make a habit of buckling it in with seatbelts through the bag straps, this keeps it from going airborne in a collision, but also acts to slow down any potential cases of smash-and-grab. I figure if a thief smashes my window and grabs a bag, he won’t be able to quickly sprint away with it.

I love to photograph abandoned buildings and urban decay — this means I sometimes shoot in sketchy neighborhoods. There have been a few destinations where I have considered leaving my more expensive gear at home, or in the hotel, and carrying around a less conspicuous and less expensive camera. But of course, that’s silly. I go to these destinations to make photographs, and so I use my best gear, although sometimes I do scale back the amount of gear I carry and use a smaller, less obvious bag.

But the above-mentioned robberies didn’t take place in bad neighborhoods — they took place in nice parts of a wealthy and uber-expensive city. And truthfully, anyone I’ve encountered in downtrodden neighborhoods has either ignored me altogether, or was friendly and curious about what I was doing. Only once has a guy on the street made a comment that he bet he could get $100 for my camera  — hahaha, yeah a little more than that, I thought to myself.

And it’s not just an urban thing. Just a few weeks ago on a hiking trail in the woods I came upon a guy who commented on my big bag and asked if I had a camera in there. I’m sure he was just being friendly but I shut him down. And I watched over my shoulder as I went on down the path.

So, aside from paranoia, what are some useful tips to avoid getting your gear stolen?

Here are some tips I’ve gathered from various sources around the web. Most are common sense, of course, but sometimes we need a reminder.

Number one on the list — make sure your stuff is insured! Sometimes things happen no matter how careful we are.

Be sure to record and keep track of your camera and lens serial numbers.

Use a registration service like LensTag. Also, register your gear with the manufacturer when you buy it. 

Keep an eye on your bag in crowds — and if it’s a backpack, be careful that someone isn’t able to unzip and access your bag from behind you while you’re getting jostled in a crowd. It’s better to have the zippers facing forward where you can see them.

Along that same line, I saw one video where a guy had his camera slung over his shoulder and a thief distracted the photographer in discussion over a map or something while he deftly removed the lens from the DLSR with one hand.

Bring a partner who can help you manage and watch your gear when you travel or go on shoots.

Be discreet with the contents of your bag — in other words, don’t unzip your bag wide open and reveal a bunch of gleaming temptations to a crowd of strangers. 

Never put your gear in a checked bag for air travel.

Refuse housekeeping visits at your hotel. Maids often leave doors open as they move back and forth from room to room and that means someone could surreptitiously enter and steal stuff while the door is open. Even better, use the safe if you must leave valuables in the room. I generally don’t leave valuables in the room when I’m away.

Keep your gear on you or close enough that you can see it. If you’re a working photographer who must leave gear sitting somewhere (think of wedding photographers), you may want to use motion detector alarms, GPS tags, or permanent gear ID tags that cannot be removed.

Some experts recommend using a messenger bag or somehow camouflaging the bag, but I’m skeptical of this. Thieves know what a camera bag looks like, even if the brand name has been covered up, or even if it’s a ThinkTank messenger bag rather than a big black camera backpack.

Follow your gut — if a place or situation feels risky, then avoid it. Use situational awareness.

Finally — remember to keep regular backups of images — because losing your camera is bad but losing all your work is potentially disastrous. Some experts recommend taking cards out of your camera between shoots, or switching them frequently so they don’t get snatched along with the camera.

Remember, don’t be paranoid, just be cautious and aware — and have fun!
Well that’s all I’ve got for this episode.

Thanks for listening everybody — I’ll talk to you again real soon.


KTVU Real estate photographer robbed of camera equipment while driving in San Francisco

PetaPixel I Was Robbed in San Francisco While the Cameras Rolled

Keith Dotson Photography Website

Keith’s Photography Blog Shadows & Light

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Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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