How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out...

How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
A lot of photographers worry about keeping themselves and their gear safe while out shooting. There
is never any guaranteed way of making sure you never have your gear stolen – if someone really wants
it, they’ll find a way of getting it. However, the vast majority of thieves are opportunists and will move
on to something easier if you make things difficult for them, and there are a number of simple,
common-sense things you can do to keep yourself and your camera gear safe. The tips below cover
both travel and home situations.
It’s easy when reading an article like this to start feeling a bit paranoid, but remember that the vast
majority of people are helpful and honest and you’re far more likely to have lost photographic
equipment returned to you than to have it stolen in the first place. It’s good to know what steps to
take to stay safe, but it’s also good to keep a sense of perspective as you read about how to do it.
We’ve divided our tips into those aimed primarily at keeping your gear safe, and those aimed at
personal safety, but of course there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Some of this will apply
wherever you go, even if it’s just down the road, and some will only apply if you’re travelling
somewhere far from home.
Get insured – make sure your camera and gear is fully insured, so that if it does get stolen or damaged
you’ll be able to replace it without being out of pocket. Your household insurance might be enough,
but if you have a lot of expensive equipment it’s probably best to take out specialist photographic
Make a list of the serial numbers, makes/models, etc of all your equipment. Make several copies and
keep one that’s accessible online – using, for example, cloud storage, a web email draft, or similar –
and several printed copies that you keep in your suitcase, handbag, wallet, etc. You should also leave
one at home or with a trusted friend. This will come in very useful should your equipment be lost or
Back up your photos – have some system in place to back up your photos. If you have a laptop or
tablet with you, upload to it after each day’s shooting and copy your shots to an external hard-drive
which you can then keep in a separate place. Alternatively you could upload everything to cloud
storage – probably the safest option.
Use your intuition – if you get a gut feeling that you’re not safe, then don’t rationalise it away, take
note and do something about it. This is your first line of defence and if your intuition tells you
something is wrong, don’t let politeness get in the way of keeping yourself safe.
Use confident body language – always act like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.
Timidity and lack of confidence make you look vulnerable and attract thieves.
Keeping your gear safe
When it comes to carrying your gear around, most advice centres around making it look a lot less
desirable than it is.
Use an old camera bag – a beat-up old camera bag, or even one that’s just well-used, is less tempting
than a brand-new shiny one, which catches the eye, implies that you have money, and perhaps that
you haven’t been around the block much.
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How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
Use a non-camera bag – lots of bags lend themselves to being used as camera bags and won’t make
it so obvious that that’s what you’re carrying. Women probably have a bit more scope here than men
– large handbags, nappy bags, tote bags, vanity cases, etc, will all work as camera bags. If you’re male,
then a normal backpack or messenger bag will do the job. You might be bothered by the fact that
your gear will be less well physically protected – if so, you can buy padded inserts that will work in any
bag to turn it into a camera-carrying one. You can find these on websites like ebay (,
Etsy (, and Folksy (
Beat up your camera – some people go so far as to stick pieces of duct tape all over their camera to
make it look as if it’s about to fall apart. A little extreme, but we offer it as an option. Leica owners
often stick a piece of tape over the giveaway little red dot – Leicas, costing what they do, are a prime
target for thieves.
Change your strap – a strap that has Nikon or Olympus blazing out from it in great big letters will draw
attention, so you might want to change it for a plain one. And ladies, you could go the other way: if
you buy a strap with frills and flowers on it – and yes, you can find these on Etsy – your camera will
suddenly become much less tempting. It’s the photographic equivalent of putting a basket on the
front of your bicycle – bicycles with baskets never get stolen. Never just hang your camera off one
shoulder. Put it across your body or around your neck and keep one hand on it at all times. Or use a
wrist strap.
Wear your bag upfront – if possible, keep your camera bag to the front of you. This is easier if you
don’t use a backpack, but still possible.
If you are using a tripod – take the camera off the tripod and keep it around your neck or across your
body, before moving the tripod. Reduce the length of the legs so you aren’t going to trip over them,
or poke someone with them when walking along. Keep a grip on the actual camera with one hand
and the tripod with the other.
Always keep a grip - on the camera strap, not the tripod, when taking photos. At night other people
can trip on the tripod legs or drunks will deliberately stand in front of your camera.
Use the hotel safe – leave equipment you’re not using in the hotel safe or in your room safe, if there
is one.
Leave used memory cards in your room – that way, if your gear is stolen while you’re out, you’ll still
have the photos you’ve taken up till now. You can put your memory cards in the safe too, or if you
just want to hide them, use masking tape to secure them underneath a shelf or a drawer.
Avoid leaving cameras or equipment in your car – if you must leave equipment in your car, make sure
it’s in the boot and not on show. Most insurance companies won’t cover you unless your gear is locked
in the boot.
Secure your bag or camera at all times – when you’re sitting in a caf‚, keep your camera or bag strap
looped round the leg of your chair, your own leg, or your wrist, so that it can’t be grabbed and run off
with easily. Don’t sit your camera on the tabletop, and keep all gear in full sight. Never let go of your
camera and bag, whether you are in a caf‚, using a tripod and don’t put your bag on the ground behind
Become familiar with your gear - and how to use it quickly. The longer you spend trying to get
organised, change lenses, etc, the less you will pay attention to your surroundings and who is watching
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How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
you. Carry a torch for night photography so you can see what you are doing and where you are
Pacsafe make luggage with anti-theft protection – see their website here: There
are other manufacturers, too – just google ‘anti-theft luggage’.
Staying in hostels – a hostel won’t have the same facilities as a hotel, and there may only be lockers
to leave your stuff in. A small combination lock can be useful for extra security, and Pacsafe – see
above – make a wire mesh backpack cover that can also be secured to any fixed object like a bedleg,
a pole or a seat. This is also good if you’re travelling in buses or trains – you can secure your backpack
to your seat and if you nod off it should still be safe.
Looking after your camera
Threats to your camera don’t just come from thieves and criminals – there are plenty of natural
hazards to keep in mind.
Airport – carry your camera, and gear if possible, with you on the plane – don’t pack it in the hold
luggage. X-rays won’t damage it or the memory card.
Protect your lens – use a UVA filter or a clear glass filter to protect your lens, especially in areas where
it’s more prone to scratching – eg, from branches or sand
Avoid excessively hot temperatures – don’t leave your camera in your car on a very hot day if you can
avoid it, and if you’re having a picnic on a hot day cover it with a light-coloured blanket or cloth or
piece of tinfoil – don’t use a dark-coloured cloth as it will absorb the heat.
Very cold temperatures - if you’re in a very cold area, remember that batteries will lose their charge
much more quickly. Keeping a spare battery inside your clothes against your skin is a good idea.
Humidity – keep several little packs of dessicants in your camera bag to soak up excess moisture.
When moving from a cool to a warm environment, wrap your camera closely in a plastic bag or
newspaper until it acclimatises. The condensation will form on the covering and not on your camera.
Beaches – hostile territory for cameras! Do everything you can to keep your camera away from sand,
as even just one or two grains of sand can do considerable damage. If your camera gets splashed with
salt water clean it off immediately with a microfiber cloth.
Water – salt water is the worst, but fresh water is a hazard too. On a boating or canoeing holiday, it’s
a good idea to keep your camera inside a dry bag while you’re not using it. This will not only keep it
dry in normal conditions, but even if it falls overboard it should stay dry and will float as well.
Alternatively, you may want to leave your DSLR at home and stick with a smaller, cheaper camera that
you won’t be too upset about if you drop it in the water.
Mist, fog or rain – if you don’t have a proper protective jacket or housing for your camera, put it inside
a plastic bag, making a hole in the closed end that you can poke your lens through.
Dust – avoid changing lenses in a dusty or sandy environment. Keep your camera protected in its bag,
or in a plastic bag, while not using it.
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How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
Keeping yourself safe
Stay aware of what’s around you – when we have a camera up to our eye and we get absorbed in the
process of shooting, it’s easy to become oblivious to what’s happening around us. This is where it
helps to have a travelling companion – perhaps one who doesn’t do photography! If that’s not
possible, use your other senses to help you stay alert – be aware of sounds and smells around you,
keep looking up and around. You can also use the reflection in your LCD screen to check what’s behind
you without turning round.
Check the area before setting up – are other people taking photographs in the area? If you plan on
taking photos in the seedy side of town, then don’t do it alone, or learn to work very quickly. If there
are many others taking photos, you are likely to be at less risk, but don’t make assumptions. Practice
setting your camera and tripod up in the dark so that you can do it quickly and efficiently.
Get a photo buddy – it’s good to have someone to go shooting with when you’re in a situation that
might be a little unsafe. One of you can cover the other’s back while they lose themselves in getting
that shot, and then you can swap over. This is a particularly good idea when doing night photography.
It’s also useful when you want to get a shot that involves, for example, standing in the centre of the
road. It’s much easier for someone else to keep an eye out for traffic than it is for you.
Or travel with a group – groups are also good for keeping you safer and are off-putting to potential
Wear appropriate clothing – avoid looking a lot more prosperous than the people around you, and
wear clothing that won’t draw attention to you. Ladies, avoid the kind of shoes you can’t move quickly
in. Do your best not to look like a tourist or an outsider. This applies even if shooting in your own
country – don’t wander into a deprived area looking like a yuppie.
Look before you step back – numerous accidents have happened because a photographer has taken
a step backwards without checking what’s behind them. A year or two back, professional
photographer David DuChemin had a very nasty accident where he fell ten metres onto concrete doing
just this.
Don’t take risks to get the photo – no photo worth getting killed or injured for. People sometimes
forget to use their brains when desperate to get a good shot – I’ve seen people deliberately step away
from a designated safe path on mountain ledges and risk falling to their death, or step into traffic, just
for a photo. Be wary of wild animals and don’t tempt them closer with food. If there’s a young animal
around, then a protective Mama will be nearby.
Learn about local customs – before you take a trip anywhere, read up on local customs and beliefs.
Some cultures fear or hate being photographed because they think a photograph ‘steals’ their soul. It
might not be your belief, but have some respect for theirs.
Be aware of sensitive areas – find out beforehand which areas are considered sensitive by the local
government. It won’t always be obvious to you what these are, and many photographers have come
unstuck because of that. If you don’t obey the rules you might have your camera confiscated, be fined,
or even arrested.
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How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
Ask before you shoot - many of the locals in popular tourist areas are simply sick and tired of being
photographed all the time. It’s courteous to ask first, if possible, and to stop shooting if anyone seems
upset or annoyed. If you don’t speak the language, just hold your camera up, point to it, and give your
potential subject a questioning look. Most people will give you a nod and will appreciate being asked
Don’t be a hero – if someone threatens you, just hand over the goods and don’t try to be a hero. If
you’re adequately insured you’ll get your equipment replaced, and no camera is worth dying or being
injured for. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re under personal attack and can’t
avoid it, remember that a tripod makes a very useful weapon, as does a pen.
Isolated places
Most of what’s been said so far refers to urban environments with lots of people around. However
there are also some things to keep in mind safety-wise when going into isolated areas.
Leave details of where you’re going and when you’ll be back – a no-brainer, this one. Make sure
someone knows where you’re planning to go and give them a rough ETA for your return. Give them
a phone number for the rescue services for that area so that they know how to contact them if
necessary. It’s best if you can let more than one person have this information.
Take a mobile phone with you – make sure your phone is fully charged and have it with you. There
are some areas where mobile phone coverage isn’t great or even non-existent, but it’s better to have
it than not.
Remember you can use your mobile in other ways – you can use it as a memory aid to photograph
the points where junctions between trails intersect, and you can even use it as a lighting device in the
Make sure you follow safety advice – find out before you go what the safety advice is for the kind of
environment you’re heading into. Take extra food and water, a torch, and basic survival gear. Have
enough gear with you to survive 24 hours outside.
Check the weather forecast – check that no adverse weather conditions are predicted.
Pack a map – take a detailed map with you of the area you’re heading to. If you know how to use it,
take a compass as well.
Don’t give away vital information – if someone starts chatting to you in the car park and asks
questions concerning how long you’ll be gone for, where you’re going, or what your gear is worth,
avoid giving detailed answers.
If you do end up injured or ill – do your best to make it easy for rescuers. Stay in one place, and make
yourself as visible as possible. Think about what you can do to attract attention and help people find
Finally – relax and don’t get paranoid!
Reading something like this can make you feel the world is full of threats and horrors, but the chances
of anything bad happening to you are quite low, especially if you use some common sense. And if you
follow the tips in this article you can make them lower still!
Copyright Hairy Goat Ltd 2013 €
How to keep yourself and your gear safe while out and about
Copyright Hairy Goat Ltd 2013 €