Personal Security for Photographers & Their Equipment
|Copyright 2022 by Michael Brochstein
I like to think that because I am a native of New York City, attended its public schools, regularly ride its subways, and have lived most of my life there that I have some street smarts - and therefore some ability to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Maybe I do and maybe I don't but in any case I'd like to share some ideas to help you avoid being mugged and / or having equipment stolen.
Not Attracting Attention
A major part of my strategy is to avoid attracting attention...
Clothing - Some of this is obvious but I'll state it anyway; Avoid wearing flashy clothing, jewelry, expensive watches, designer labeled clothing and the like. I want to minimize the likelihood that I would attract the attention of anyone. Solid colored clothing generally attracts less attention than clothing with patterns or images.
Coats - A coat can be a great way to hide your camera when you are not using it if you wear the camera strap inside your coat and only open the coat to shoot with it.
Labels & Logos - Just about everything we own has a brand's label or logo on it. Some can attract unwanted attention. Some photographers use black gaffer tape to tape over the name brands on their cameras. I admittedly don't do that but I do take brand labels off of all camera bags as the name brands of camera bags are well known to experienced thieves.
Camera Backpacks - If you have a choice of a backpack with a bright color or a colorful design and plain one then I think you know which one will attract less attention. Some camera backpacks look like generic backpacks and others look like nothing else but camera backpacks. The most secure backpacks for cameras are ones that look like generic backpacks and are not flashy in any way.
Camera Backpacks II - Some backpacks have easy access openings on their sides. Some open from the front such that a person standing behind you can open it while standing behind you as you are wearing it on your back. In my opinion, the most secure ones open their main compartment on the back, on the same side as the backpack's main straps. These are virtually impossible to open while you are wearing them and are my preference.
Hard Cases - A hard case (i.e. those made by Pelican) usually looks like exactly what it is, an expensive case designed to hold and protect expensive equipment. Short of putting it into a soft case to make it look like generic soft sided luggage or a plain corrugated box to look like a generic package, I don't have any ideas about how to keep them safe other than to use locks on them. Attaching large logo stickers to them will certainly increase the amount of attention given to them.
Luggage ID's - While it is a great idea to have your name on a luggage tag, you don't need to put the type of work (photographer) you do or company name on it. You also don't need to use an exposed luggage tag - use one that normally that covers your name unless someone opens the cover.
Cars - If you have an expensive or flashy car and a less expensive or flashy car then I think it obvious which should be left at home when going to a potentially unsafe area. If one car is a convertible and the other a hardtop then a hardtop is a more secure car to be in given that you will have more than cloth between you and a worrisome individual (knives can easily cut into convertible tops).
Cars II - SUV's and pickup trucks are very popular but many have at least one relevant flaw, no covered storage. Anyone can look into it and see all that may be in it. I prefer a vehicle where there is inherently covered storage. I use the word "inherently" as if you try to cover something up in an unnatural way then that by itself can attract attention.
Photographic Equipment - Loud cameras attract more attention than quieter ones, a distinct advantage of mirrorless cameras. Larger (i.e. gripped) camera bodies will attract more attention than smaller ones. Bring only what equipment you are likely to need - if your equipment is stolen then you will lose the least amount of it.
Flash - the use of a flash will certainly attract attention. If it is an option not to use a flash then don't.
Camera Straps - Many if not most photographers use the free camera straps that come with their cameras. They announce in bold lettering that can be read from afar what brand of camera you own and usually also which exact model. Great advertising for the camera manufacturers as well as to thieves looking for targets. I recommend a plain dark colored strap with no design on it.
Press / Photographer ID's - When I am working at an event and need to wear my ID then I always do that. When I am traveling to and from an event it goes into my shirt pocket and if not there then somewhere else. I do not need to advertise my name and what I do except where I am required to.
Hotel Rooms / Hiding Your Gear - A thief in a hotel room might not rummage through your laundry pile and it could be there that you hide expensive equipment. There is of course no guarantee that this strategy will work but keeping your gear in plain site certainly is not the most secure option. Hotel room safes are an option worth exploring. If your hotel room is visible to the street (i.e. on ground level) then close any curtains so that no one can what you have inside the room. Leave a light on when you leave so that a thief might think that you are inside as most thieves wish to avoid a confrontation. Use a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door so that even the hotel staff does not know what is in your room. Having your room cleaned everyday just opens it to strangers every day.
Equipment in Your Car
Equipment in the Trunk - A very long time ago my father gave me some advice that I always try to follow. If you have stuff in the trunk of your car and intend to take some out and leave some there then take it out before you drive to your destination and not at your destination. The reason for this is that someone at the destination can see you taking stuff out of the trunk and, most importantly, that you are leaving stuff in it. Knowing this, then when you walk away, they then will know to target your trunk.
Open Car Windows - If you travel with a camera sitting on the seat besides you so as to have it ready then I recommend generally covering it with something (i.e. a jacket) so that it will be less visible. A visible expensive camera on the front passenger seat and an open window can be an open invitation to someone to grab and run away with (i.e. when waiting at a traffic light). Covering your camera can also protect it from the heat of the sun. Keeping the driver's window open can also invite trouble as someone can reach in and grab a necklace or with a knife or gun and threaten you.
Rental Cars - I always try to rent a car that can store all of my belongings in the trunk so that no can see if / what I am carrying. If necessary, I will rent a larger car in order to do this.
Leaving Anything Visible in the Car - Anything left in a car that is visible from the outside could interest a thief. For instance, even a bag that you know is empty can tempt a thief as the thief may not be able to tell that it is empty. A visibly empty car is the best strategy to lessen the chance that a thief will take an interest in it.
Valet Parking - Some cars have a master key which can do anything and also a valet key which can only open the doors and start a car. The valet key can not open an otherwise locked trunk. Other cars only have one type of key. When parking at a parking lot where you give a key to the attendant then try to only give them a valet key. Most (all?) parking lots have very visible signs that absolve them from liability for any items stolen from a vehicle parked in their parking lot.
Camera Straps - Some manufacturers (i.e. PacSafe) make straps that are not easily cut with a knife by putting virtually uncuttable strands of material in them in a non-obvious way.
Secure Backpacks - Some manufacturers (i.e. PacSafe) make backpacks with a multiple of security features such as cut resistant materials, virtually uncuttable straps, and other features.
Security Straps - Some camera bags have security straps that allow them to be secured to a non-movable or heavy & large object. I have mixed thoughts about these. While they certainly make it harder to physically abscond with a bag, they can't protect a bag with other weak spots such as a zipper that can sliced through with a sharp knife (i.e. cutting parallel to the zipper along the fabric that it is immediately attached to).
Security Locks - Some cases have built-in locks for their zippers and/or the ability to use TSA friendly locks. While locks can slow a thief, they may only do that as a bag may have other weak spots (see Security Straps above). A thief can also steal a bag and later, in a private place, work to overpower the locks.
Limitations of TSA Locks & Security Straps - In my opinion these will only slow down a thief at best. They are generally not at all robust and can easily be overpowered with various tools such as a bolt cutter in a matter of seconds. On the positive side they may slow down a thief and move their attention to an easier-to-steal option - hopefully not also owned by you.
Situational Awareness / Look Like You Belong / Miscellaneous
It may not always be possible to avoid but looking like a tourist is a good way to attract the attention of problematic people. One stereotypical behavior of a tourist in a new area is to be constantly looking around, craning one's neck, as they may never have seen the area they are in before.
If possible, dressing like locals will generally help you blend in and attract less attention.
Look like you are walking with a purpose, that you know where you are going, will convey to others that you are not a stranger to that area.
Pay attention to what is around you but don't stare. Avoid eye contact. Staring at someone is a great way to get their attention.
Be able to pay attention to what is around you by not staring at your phone, having a conversation on it, or listening to music on it. Earbuds and headsets do not enhance one's ability to hear what is around them. If in a car then keep the radio volume low so that you can better hear what is going on around you. Similarly, if in a sketchy neighborhood, avoid having a loud telephone conversation while you drive.
Try to look like you know where you are going. If you are in a potentially unsafe area then try to study any map you are carrying before heading off and do not hold a map in your hands. A map is a giveaway that you are not familiar with the area.
Since maps can now be seen on one's phone, try to only look at it in places where you are not out in the open and everyone can see that you are staring at your phone and therefore potentially oblivious to what is around you.
When holding your phone do it firmly as cellphone theft is common.
Don't keep your phone or wallet or anything important in a back pocket. These can be seen either directly or by pocket bulge shape and are common pickpocket targets. Keep a wallet in a front pants pocket if you have one. A zippered pocket is preferable if that is an option. If you wear a suit jacket then the inner jacket pocket is another common pickpocket target.
If you are concerned that someone may be following you then look at any store or car windows you may be passing as you may be able to see if someone is behind you. If you think someone is following you then head into a store and then on the way out nonchalantly look around to see if you see the same person(s) who you thought was following you. If you see that you are being followed then consider abruptly hailing a taxi and taking it to a safe area. Alternatively, stay in a store and call the police on your phone. If there are no stores nearby but there are residential buildings with concierge's or other building staff in the lobby then consider going into these buildings and speaking with the staff about your problem - or calling the police.
Quiet, dark and deserted areas are probably great for sleeping undisturbed when safely indoors but are also the preferred areas for bad actors outdoors. In general, avoid them if possible and don't park your car there. If you think someone is following you then avoid these areas and stay in populated areas.
When traveling on a subway, avoid deserted cars and platforms as they may offer no escape from bad actors that arrive and no one who might possibly come to your aid. Similarly on an empty public bus, sit near the driver and not alone in the back of the bus.
In general, if I am at all worried, I try to park my car in a place that gets regular foot traffic or is in plain sight of a doorman or security personnel. Thieves generally don't like to work while being observed.
If your car is in an area that is sketchy then make sure have your car key ready well before you get to your car so that you can enter it quickly, lock the doors, start it and drive away. Do not unlock your car until you are close to it because if you unlock it when you are far away from it then a bad actor can also see that and see exactly where you are heading and have time to head you off. If you have something that you wish to put in the trunk but can also take it into the car with you then do the later as standing by your open trunk gives a bad actor more time to accost you.
If you are staying on a quiet street and you think someone is following you then do not head to that area as a bad actor will then know where you are staying and if they attack you then there will be no one around to help you. Instead, stay in populated areas and walk away from where you are staying. If they continue to follow you then contact the police or jump into a taxi to go home. You want to avoid a bad actor knowing where you are staying especially if it is on a quiet street.
On a sketchy street's sidewalk, walk closer to the street and not the buildings. If something bad starts to happen then by doing this you can run into the street and possibly escape. If you walk near buildings then you may have no escape route and might be pushed into a doorway or alley.
If in a restaurant, sit with your back against the wall so you can see people approaching you. Keep any bags close to you and not near the far side of a table to avoid someone grabbing and running away with it. If you can keep the bag out of sight then that is preferable. Be careful with coat checking a bag in a sketchy area. If the bag is on the floor then put your foot through its straps. If next to you on a seat then consider putting your arm though its straps. If there is a choice of putting your bag between you and the door and you and a wall then the later is generally more secure.
If standing with your bags make sure to keep them physically in front of you so that you will have the best chance of noticing someone trying to take one. Putting your foot through a strap will make it much harder to steal as they would have to drag you away with it.
If sitting in a waiting area then make sure all your bags are in front of you and not to the side unless they are attached to you. Try to pay attention to those around you or approaching you.
Many times thieves work in teams where one diverts your attention while the other steals your possessions. Alternatively, one may push you while the other steals your bag,
Traveling with a friend has many advantages. One can watch bags or equipment while another goes somewhere. Two sets of eyes and ears can be better than one. Two people usually are a less inviting target than a single person alone.
It is common at press events for there to be a multiple of video cameras set up on tripods. The operators of these cameras are generally nearby most of the time tending to or simply watching their equipment. Sometimes a kind video camera operator will let you keep your camera bag under their tripod or where they safely store their bags while you roam.
Personal Protection Equipment & Weapons
Some people carry mace or other chemical irritants to ward off attackers, some carry weapons of various types, and some carry loud horns. I admittedly am not very knowledgeable about these items such that I can recommend any and am aware that they are not legal in all places.
I have known people who carry whistles in a handy place so that they can blow them to attract the attention of others if they think they are being confronted by bad actors.
You can follow all of the advice in this article and still have equipment stolen. Your last line of defense is to have insured, for replacement value, your equipment. There are multiple companies which offer insurance policies aimed at photographers.
I mainly use two backpacks when working as a photojournalist; A Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter and a charcoal colored Mindshift Gear Backlight. Both are non-flashy. I used to use black Domke Gripper straps all the time, also non-flashy, before switching to black sling style straps. I am aware that none of this gear is specifically designed to be secure (whereas PacSafe gear is) and I accept the risk (I do insure my equipment).
Your life is most definitely worth more than your equipment and I advise you remember this if it ever becomes one or the other. If you have a choice to avoid going into sketchy areas or situations then make the safe choice even if if means driving or walking a longer route.
I hope that I have given you some ideas about keeping you and your
equipment safe. I would be interested in any ideas that you have so please
feel free to contact me with them.
Michael Brochstein is an independent photojournalist based in Washington, DC and New York City.
Last update: 1/16/2022
Copyright © 2022 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.