A new report from ABC News 7 in San Francisco revealed where many stolen electronic devices, including cameras, are being sold. It’s a good reminder that expensive camera gear is very easy for thieves to sell, which makes it such a tempting target. You can watch the full video to see it all in action, but more importantly, we’ve rounded up our top tips for protecting your kit.
What’s going on in San Francisco?
Whether it’s a lot of media coverage or real underlying social issues, San Francisco seems to have an outsized camera theft problem. It’s not that photographers aren’t in danger everywhere, but in San Francisco they seem to be targeted more deliberately.
Here has PopPhoto, we covered a photographer who was followed home from the Golden Gate Bridge and robbed at gunpoint just a few months ago. Our colleagues from Petapixel have given even more attention to the issue, covering the Canadian film crew who were robbed at gunpoint last month, a San Francisco Chronicle a photographer who was robbed (also at gunpoint) while on assignment, and a woman who was shot after refusing to give up her camera gear, all during from last year. A Petapixel contributor even had his camera stolen while filming.
The report of ABC 7 adds an important piece of context to it all. This shows how easy it is for thieves to sell stolen cameras, laptops and other expensive electronics on the side of the road, sometimes within an hour of the theft. Unfortunately, it also shows how little the police can do about it. It’s no wonder photographers, who can easily carry thousands of dollars worth of equipment, are such lucrative potential targets.
Your equipment is not worth your life
No photographic equipment is worth losing your life. As a European, one of the things I find most disturbing about all reports of camera thefts in San Francisco is that many involve a firearm. Just in the stories linked above, one person was shot and another was shot by family members. It’s hard to deny that, especially in the United States, there is a very real risk of being injured when camera equipment is stolen. If someone threatens you, put your gear back on and leave.
Similarly, very few photographs are worth risking your life or equipment. The point of this article isn’t to say “nobody should take pictures in San Francisco”, but it’s pretty clear that popular photography spots, like the parks overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, are riskier environments, and so you should weigh your options when planning your shots. If something is wrong, walk away.
How to protect your camera gear
Whether you’re in San Francisco or any other city, there are simple, common-sense steps you can take to reduce your risk of being robbed. I’ve traveled to the US, Mexico, Europe and Southeast Asia with my camera gear and never had anything stolen.
Be discreet. Do not advertise that you are a photographer. If you’re in a busy or potentially dangerous environment, don’t keep your camera outside. You might miss a few shots, but you reduce your chances of being robbed.
Hide valuables. Don’t use an obvious camera bag and, if possible, hide other gear like tripods. A normal looking messenger bag – I use the Peak Design Everyday Messenger – fits better in most places. When I bring a tripod, I often wrap it in a sweatshirt.
Hide the mark. If you shoot with particularly valuable equipment, such as a Leica or Hasselblad, cover the logos with masking tape. It won’t prevent a theft, but it will make it look like you’re carrying hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of gear, not potentially tens of thousands of dollars.
Wear selectively. Don’t bring all your gear everywhere. If you know you probably won’t need a certain lens or your flashes, leave them at home. At least if you get robbed you won’t lose everything.
Downgrade your kit. Bring an old camera as a travel camera. I still shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III, but when I upgrade to an EOS R I’ll keep it as a drum camera for riskier situations.
Pay attention to your surroundings. It’s easy to get caught up in working on an image, so be sure to keep checking your surroundings. If someone seems to be paying you too much attention, walk away.
Don’t shoot alone. Go with your partner, a friend or another photographer. You will be less of a target and someone is there to help you if things go wrong.
Insure your equipment. You may need specialist camera insurance to cover everything, but if you shoot a lot it may be worth it. At least this way, if disaster strikes, you can recover.
And no matter what, don’t take any silly risks, don’t try to defend your camera gear, and if someone points a gun at you, give them your camera and walk away.