Last Updated on February 8, 2021 by Jose Barrios
I see it every day, people just setting themselves up to be robbed or worse. This is especially true for photographers in America. Americans, and Canadians for that matter, tend to see the world as a very safe place.
Everyone knows we carry expensive equipment, especially robbers.
Throughout my years I have lived in dangerous places and been in even more dangerous situations. I have personally been in the middle of a military coup, a popular uprising, and witnessed countless crimes.
These are my basic tips from experience to keep you and your equipment safe:
- Have situational awareness
- Scout the location you are photographing
- Tell others where you are going
- Don’t stand out
- Get a camera bag that does not look like a camera bag
- Don’t carry all your camera gear
- Never leave your camera gear in your car
- Do not feel bad for walking away
1- Have situational awareness
To put it simply, be aware of your surroundings. You must understand what you are looking for: Things that are out of place or unusual.
Once identified; you should act. The military calls this OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). You can read more about it on Wikipedia.
It can be simple things like:
- A person or group of persons standing idly in the street doing nothing, just standing there.
- Windows and doors with bars (a clear sign you are in a dangerous neighborhood).
- Strange sights, smells, and sounds (you walk into a house decorated for Halloween in April).
- You have a bad feeling about the whole situation.
Bad feelings, vibes, the creeps, whatever you want to call it, are a perfectly good reason to be worried and act. Many times, you are not sure why something is wrong, but you just know it is.
Do not push your instincts aside and say it’s all in your head, remember OODA.
Keep in mind that not all threats have to be persons, they can be animals, chemicals, or material hazards. I once walked out of a home where I saw what I thought was asbestos, I was not 100% sure, but why risk it.
Once you have identified a potential threat, you should assess your exit strategy, decide what to next, and act.
2- Scout the location you are photographing
I always check out the whole property first as soon as I arrive, and I identify all rooms and exit doors. If I need to leave in a hurry I have to know how to get out.
If I’m photographing a vacant home, I always lock the doors once I’m inside.
3- Tell others where you are going
Leave a paper or send an email with the address and contact person you are supposed to meet.
Sending your client an email is also good practice because now you have left a paper trail and your client knows you left it. This is one of the reasons I always use scheduling software.
If leaving a note is bothersome, at least give access to your online calendar to a friend or family member.
4- Don’t stand out
This I cannot stress enough; you do not need to advertise to the world that you are a photographer carrying around expensive equipment.
The most common mistakes I see people do are:
- Neck-straps with your camera’s make and model (look everyone, I have $3k around my neck).
- Branded equipment bags (my bag is full of expensive Sony camera equipment).
- Vehicle signs that say you are a real estate photographer (please break into my car, it’s full of cameras).
- Photographer vests, nothing screams “rob me” better than this.
I have yet to have someone offer me a gig because they saw I was a photographer. So be discreet.
5- Get a camera bag that does not look like a camera bag
Just like the “don’t stand out” rule about branded bags, your camera bag should not look like a camera bag.
For the untrained eye, most camera bags look just like a backpack, but for a career criminal, camera bags stand out from the crowd. They know that expensive goods are inside.
6- Don’t carry all your camera gear
When I started out, I would put everything I owned into my camera bag just in case I would need it. That was a huge mistake and an unnecessary risk.
The truth is that to photograph a house you only need one lens, no need to carry around that expensive 24-70 mm or 50 mm prime.
Reduce your risks and potential loss by just taking what you need, and maybe extra equipment if you believe you can upsell the client on the spot. I personally like to take my drone just for that purpose, but if I’m photographing an empty property, I will leave it at home, since I know there will be nobody to upsell to.
7- Never leave your camera gear in your car
If you are on location and someone sees you exit your vehicle with camera equipment, it’s a safe bet that they can assume that you have more stuff in your car.
By taking your equipment with you, you cannot stop people from breaking into your car, but at least they will not be able to steal anything of value.
8- Do not feel bad for walking away
Do not let the fear of losing a gig or customer stop you from leaving a job site, your personal safety and your camera equipment are more important.
If you are unsure what to tell someone as to why you are leaving my recommendation are the following excuses:
- A family situation just happened, and you must take care of it right now and you will come back in a while. The truth is you are never coming back, just don’t tell them that yet. Call or email them later and cancel.
- You left an essential part of your equipment at home and you will be right back. Just like before, don’t return and just cancel.
Sometimes explanations are not feasible, if you truly feel threatened, just walk away (or run) to your car. If getting to your vehicle is not possible, try to make it to a group of people nearby. Make others aware of your presence and that you are in distress. Scream and yell if you must, it’s better to be embarrassed than dead.
Please do not lose your faith in humanity after reading this guide, truth be told the odds of something bad happening to you are slim.
I know some people reading this will argue in favor of carrying a gun, and if that makes you feel safer and if it is legal where you live, then do it. Just keep in mind that the best conflict is the one you avoid.
I hope this guide helps you. Stay safe.
“What can I say? I love taking photos of houses.”
Based in Orlando Florida, Jose is a real estate photographer specializing in vacation homes, working for realtors and property managers to make their properties look great. You can visit his site at JoseBarriosPhoto.com.