Disclaimer! You may or may not get your gear stolen, and just because you read this article, does not mean that suddenly you are invincible. The following tips have worked for me and I am simply sharing my experiences – not guarantees!
Let me start my saying that I have never ever been mugged (with or without a camera), never got into a fight (that I didn’t start). I have been into photography for about 10 years now, and I have never lost anything for got anything stolen (touching wood now..). Some may say this is luck, but it is more than that. I have been traveling to big dirty cities like Melbourne, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Saigon, Phnom Penh etc. It’s not luck, its conduct and awareness.
The problem is that many people look a bit like this guy when they travel. Typically most tourists also swing about a fancy camera, and generally have money to spend. Especially westerners visiting developing countries, have wealth, just in what they carry equivalent to months or years of local salary. This is something tourists don’t often think about.
This article is not just about protecting your camera, it’s also about conduct, and understanding why you might lose your camera. Because of the, sometimes ignorant and obnoxious bloke on the right, the locals have unfortunately learnt that often it’s quite easy stealing a camera or bag from visitors. If they have get 3 years’ salary from a single camera then that sounds like a sweet deal to me. These people are not necessarily bad, it’s just that temptation got the best of them. Unfortunately sometimes these events can end in tragedy; in 2005 a French tourist was dragged into traffic and killed as a man on a motorbike attempted to take her backpack in Vietnam.
I have had many experiences that drove home just how little money some people make (compared to us). Here are some examples:
I think it was in 2013 when we were visiting Hoi An in Vietnam. We had been traveling through Vietnam for about a month, and fancied a stay at one of the resorts on the coast. It was bliss, amazing service, food, pool and location. There was a bar in the pool (as there often is), and the bartender was very friendly. I spoke to him about our travels and family. The conversation shifted to his job. He got $75 USD per month. This man was good at his job, educated, and spoke very good English. He worked for a successful 5 star resort.
In 2012 we hired a tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap to drive us around to see all the temples near Ankor Wat. His rate was $1-2 USD per day. He was a very quiet young man. Very polite, but due to the language problems he came across initially as a bit unreliable or uncertain. We used him for 3-4 days. The first day I tipped him $1 extra (a full day’s wage). The next day he didn’t turn up, and I thought; ‘great there goes that, he must think he does not need to work today.’ He finally did come, and looked rather tired. Perhaps he was celebrating the tip? Or more likely he has young kids or family to take care of. As we went out we stopped by a fuel place, and he asked for that day’s pay in advanced, which was fine. It is very typical that the younger generation send money to their family when they have it.
Many years ago in the 90s I was growing up in Indonesia. My family went to visit one of the volcanos on Java. It had recently erupted, and there was wide spread destruction. The volcano was still smoking quite a lot. I remember all the black rock, and grey ash everywhere. I cannot remember how, but we picked up a local and he guided us around. At the end of it, my father paid him for his troubles, an amount I think was about $10 USD or less. The man was completely beside himself with joy, it was incredible to see.
How does that compare to the above? How many of the locals do you think know that? What would happen if they did? They just know it’s expensive, and perhaps could bring good fortune. Luckily, more often than not, these are good people that understand robbing tourists is; a) Not what they would like to do, b) not a good business model in the long run.
By conduct I mean your conduct, the way you pack your gear, the way you carry your gear and the way you hold your gear. How do you use the strap? How do you change lenses? Where do you change lenses? It’s not just about preventing theft, it’s also about preventing ‘accidents’ from happening, or preventing loss of equipment by being cautious, rather than careless.
I usually travel with a DSLR and 4-5 lenses. For this I use a camera backpack to carry it around. It’s not the most stylish, but I find it the most practical. I always make sure that anything I’m carrying can disappear inside the backpack without space problems. So if it starts raining or if I don’t want anyone to see that I have a big camera, I can get rid of my gear. My backpack’s main compartment can only be accessed if you are not carrying it – zipper is on the back panel. That is nice, as it means that no-one can just open the zipper and pull out the camera gear behind you.
When I’m on the plane, I always carry it hand luggage, and try to always put the bag under my seat in front of me. This way, it can’t fall out of the locker, because it’s already on the floor, it also means that I have my camera available for take-off and landing photo opportunities. One tip: Airlines are always wary of hard case or suitcase style hand luggage, and always weight this and sometime try to check them in. They rarely question or even weigh soft backpacks. I think they have been instructed this way to minimize luggage damage. So when you check in, wear your backpack and smile…
A good backpack is much harder to remove from you than a shoulder bag. As it does not swing about (if worn properly) it’s also much more practical than other bags. You should be clean, tidy and dynamic. Not have 10 things strapped to the outside of the bag, all clinking in the wind. Do not attract unnecessary attention to yourself. If you got a brand new bag, put some mud on it or something… Just kidding. You get the idea.
If I need to take off the bag at a restaurant for example, I usually always have it under the table between my legs. Never leave your camera bag more than 30cm from you. Always think about making it inconvenient to steal. Make it difficult for anyone to ‘grab’ your stuff.
In regards to handling your camera, there are many ways now-a-days. Lots of fancy systems and clever straps. I can’t comment on these, I just use a normal strap. But apply simplicity, and remember not to attract too much attention to yourself. If your fancy strap looks expensive it will probably work against you. What I can recommend is that you ALWAYS wear the strap, always. I try to as much as possible, to put my arm through the strap as well. That way the strap is under my right arm, see the photo below. If you wear the strap, but just have the camera hanging around your neck bouncing along on your belly, then it’s really easy to just pull it over your head – gone. Even when you wear the strap, hold the camera in your hand. I have seen a lot of people just hang the camera on their shoulder…like a woman’s hand bag.. and it’s so easy to pull it off them. If you don’t wear the strap, then the strap itself becomes a great way to pull the camera out of your hands. If you don’t wear the strap and you drop your camera – guess what happens… WEAR THE STRAP.
Finally, I just want to talk about changing lenses. As you might know, I’m a prime shooter and frequently change lenses. I try to make it as quick as possible, and I can change lens in less than 20 seconds. 20 seconds is not a long time to be ‘exposed’ for. Nonetheless I try to always find a very quiet corner to change lens. Even if it means walking 20m, its better than broadcasting that you have 6 Canon L lenses in your bag to everyone around you. Also, don’t leave the body cap off for very long. Your sensor is exposed. What you should do is this: