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7/10/2008 - Staying Safe In An Unfamiliar Environment : Don't Be A Lost Tourist
A significant concern of many photographers when working in unfamiliar surroundings is protecting themselves and their equipment.
When working in an unfamiliar location many photographers have a tendency to either have a false sense of security or become hyper-paranoid. Neither of these tendencies does us any good and there are safe and easy ways to protect yourself and equipment from potential predators while on the road.
As a photographer I travel often, but I learned how to keep myself, and my gear, protected while shooting a wide variety of assignments. The assignments that have taught me the most about my personal security include some of the following: spending multiple-months walking around one of the worst crime ridden and drug infested housing projects in the United States ; photographing a few dozen riots; working in a city after massive natural disaster has devastated the area; working in environments where I have clearly been in the 'wrong place at the wrong time' intentionally.
When I travel with my gear, which can be the next city over or halfway around the world, I make sure my gear is secure in a few ways. For starters, my gear is almost always out on my shoulders. I can't work if my gear is hidden away. I travel with my lenses facing inward and the of my camera facing outward. I usually keep my longer lenses in front of my body so they can't be snatched off the body, and the smaller lenses stay tucked up under my body.
When I carry my bodies I keep my thumbs inside the straps so if someone tried to snatch-and-grab my camera they'd also be grabbing my thumb. This gives me a moment to pull back and allows the thief a moment to release. This can be effective for snatch-and-grab as well as the pseudo-pickpocket.
I NEVER NEVER NEVER use the OEM straps. I don't want a huge Nikon/Canon/Leica/Contax logo on my shoulder. My gear is used and beat, and I keep it looking that way. My longer 'white' lenses are taped black. The tape minimizes the visual attraction to my lens, and while it has been beaten around, even a brand new lens wrapped in black electrical tape will look like well worn and cause many thieves to look for another target.
I don't tape over the Nikon/Canon logo, but I do have tape on the body, it minimizes the glances from would-be thieves who want the newer nicer looking cameras (although some will grab whatever they can get.)
When I walk, I walk confidently. I make sure my body language does not make me an easy target.
If I am in an unfamiliar place I never pull out a map and read it on the street. If I need to use a map I step in some place. Pulling out a map is a big red arrow to thieves. I often e-mail myself directions and read a Blackberry while walking. Everyone reads a Blackberry so it does not draw any attention, plus my directions are clear in text without orienting myself with a map.
Very often when I am in an unfamiliar area I memorize a map the best I can. Being familiar with a city you have never been to can allow you to walk clearly through a city's streets, head up, looking for images rather than stopping to read directions.
My bag selection is key in not being a target. My photo backpacks either have the access flap facing my back (ie: a thief would need to get it off my back to access it) or they are locked with small locks making it difficult to unzip the backpack without me noticing it. I choose backpacks that are not obvious 'photo backpacks.' I never travel with a Nikon or Canon backpack and choose designs that do not look like traditional photo bags.
When I am not using a backpack, which is common, I use a waist pack or belt/pouch system. With these I waits packs/belt systems I keep my gear either directly in front of my body or under my arm, towards the front of my body. By having the pack in front of you it is very difficult for someone to access your gear in stealth like manner.
As for keeping a thief from slitting your camera strap I have moved to the PacSafe Carry Safe 100 straps. These straps are slash proof. I do remove the shoulder pad, leaving me with only the thin strap, but these straps are light, easy to use, comfortable and have a safety lock so they can't even be unlatched if the thief fails to slice the strap. You can find more info on the PacSafe CarrySafe 100 strap, as well as find a link to my write up on these straps, here:
PacSafe may be releasing new versions of these straps in the future, but at US$20 a strap, pick up two!