Whether you are traveling domestically or internationally, there is always a chance that you might get mugged or get your camera equipment stolen. As photographers, we tend to explore remote locations, some of which might be unsafe to visit. Unfortunately, many thieves and muggers know the value of camera gear and they often target photographers and photo businesses, since they can quickly resell the stolen goods and make a ton of money. After traveling to a number of different countries, I decided to share a few tips on keeping your camera gear safe when traveling that I gathered myself and from our readers who were generous enough to share them with us.
Table of Contents
1) Assessing Risks in Travel Destination
The risks associated with travel often drastically depend on where you are going – some places are going to be more dangerous than others. If you are traveling domestically within developed countries like the USA and Canada, it is relatively easy to do some research and assess crime rates in specific regions you are planning to travel to. There is plenty of research and statistical data that you can obtain online and you can even find specific crime information for smaller towns through police departments and other government organizations. Unfortunately, such data is either hard to come by, or is very unreliable when assessing many other countries, so one must take extra caution to keep themselves safe when traveling to such destinations.
At the same time, relying on statistics and prior crime history is not necessarily the best way to assess risk. There are many places that are perfectly safe to travel to and yet statistically have notoriously high crime rates. For example, some countries in South America and Europe can be really scary to travel to if you are going to look at crime rates. Yet if you know what you are doing when traveling and know how to keep yourself and your gear safe, those countries that first seem unsafe could easily become your favorite travel destinations. Don’t let numbers dictate where you should or should not be going. I would caution against relying on television and other media for travel safety. We see all kinds of scare tactics used by the mass media and we see bloodshed and terrorist acts taking place all over the world, making us think that our home is the only safe place out there. That’s not the case in reality.
For example, I have traveled to a number of countries in the Middle East and Asia such as Jordan, Israel and Turkey, and I felt perfectly safe there, perhaps even safer than in some places around my own city. And yet if I were to listen to news, I would hear about all the trouble in the region and why I should not risk my life to travel to these countries. It is true that some countries are not desirable for travel today due to wars and other regional conflicts (Iraq, Syria, some African countries, etc), but some countries that rank highly as the most dangerous countries to visit are often perfectly safe places to go to. You just need to know where to go and stay away from certain locations, especially at night. For example, Mexico is often ranked #1 as the most dangerous country in the world and yet there are plenty of tourist towns and resorts that are perfectly safe. The same with Israel. I have just spent two weeks in Israel and I traveled to a number of locations within the country (such as Bethlehem and other Palestinian-controlled areas) that I was strongly cautioned against. And yet I felt perfectly safe there. Just be mindful of potential threats and conflicts and assess your travel risks accordingly. But don’t miss out seeing and photographing some of the most incredible places in the world purely basing your risk assessment from news sources.
2) Blend In – Don’t Be a Tourist
When traveling overseas, the last thing you want is to look like a lost, clueless tourist. The more you blend in with the environment, the better it is for your own safety and your wallet. When you look like a rich tourist, you will always be taken advantage of. In many places you will be charged higher fees, because the locals will know that they can take advantage of you. Forget about your negotiating power in markets / bazaars and taxi drivers. Even if you don’t look like a local in terms of your skin color or your overall looks, the way you dress is going to matter. Don’t wear expensive shoes, watches, bracelets, earrings, rings and necklaces. Those are always easy targets. In fact, you should leave all your jewelry at home when traveling overseas! Also, if you are an American, you don’t have to look and act like one. Leave your brand new T-shirts, jeans and sneakers behind and avoid wearing shorts and flip flops. Wear clothing that blends in with what the locals wear. With all the millions of images getting uploaded to the Internet every day, you can perform easy image searches and find out what people normally wear in the country you are traveling to.
3) Learn Some Key Words in Local Language
No matter where you go, knowing a few words here and there will help you to get around and also potentially keep you safe. Locals often love when tourists speak their language or at least try their best to. If the country you are visiting does not speak English, keep a small pocket dictionary with you to help you get around. Preferably, learn a few key words such as “hello”, “bye”, “yes”, “no”, “how much”, etc. Knowing greeting words is very important no matter where you go and will definitely be beneficial. For example, when traveling in the Middle East, saying “Assalamu Aleykum” (Peace be unto you) will immediately trigger a response “Wa Aleykum Assalam” (And unto you, peace) and you can be sure that the other person will listen to what you have to say, especially if you do it with a smile on your face. And when you don’t want something, knowing to say “Lah” (No) in Arabic will help a great deal, especially if someone is trying to sell you something and you don’t want it. The same goes for all other countries and languages – learn the basics and practice when you are on the streets. It will pay off.
4) Secure Your Wallet and Documents First
Always secure your wallet and your documents first. Without those, you have no money and you have no way to get back home. This means that you should not be carrying these in a camera bag or some other accessory that can be easily stolen. Personally, I always try to keep my passport away from my wallet, so that if one is stolen or lost, I still have the other. When traveling overseas, I try my best to check in a good hotel or apartment that offers a safe, so that I can leave my passport and some valuables there. If local police or security demands to see a passport, you can always say that you left it in your hotel room and present some sort of an ID instead (I always have my driver’s license in my wallet). I never carry too much cash on me and prefer using my credit card whenever possible, as it reduces chance for theft. And if my wallet gets stolen, all I have to do is cancel my credit cards.
The last thing you want to lose is your passport, so always make sure to keep it in a safe place, especially before you get to your place of stay. Thieves typically don’t care for your passport, so if they find it, they most likely won’t take it. However, if your bag of valuables contains your passport, you are surely not getting it back.
5) Best Place to Keep Your Wallet
When traveling, never leave your wallet anywhere, especially on top of a table while dining outdoors. Unless you are sure of your surroundings, it is always best to keep your wallet in your pockets, even if that gives you slight discomfort. As for pockets, the best place to keep your wallet is your front pockets. It is not a good idea to place your wallet in your rear pocket and definitely not a good idea to leave it in your jacket pockets, since those are easy to pickpocket from, especially on busy trains and buses (see keeping distance notes below). Also, make sure that your front pockets are not too wide – if one can slide their fingers into your pocket and fetch your wallet without you feeling anything, you are in trouble – time to get a new pair of pants!
When carrying a backpack, you can keep your wallet in your rear pocket, because it is not going to be visible and the backpack is going to sit over the pocket, making it difficult to access to a thief. When not using a backpack though, it is always best to carry your wallet in your front pocket as I have already pointed out above. Fanny packs are a horrible idea – they are always the top targets for thieves, so avoid those as much as possible.
6) Keep Cash Away from Your Wallet
When traveling, I always keep the little cash I have in one pocket, while my wallet with my credit cards is in another pocket. If I get mugged and the mugger demands my wallet, I can easily hand it to them without losing my cash. Also, when paying for anything, I find it better not to pull out a wallet in the first place. Speaking of my wallet, before each trip, I remove most of the contents from my wallet and keep it super clean – one or two credit cards and my ID will typically be it. I keep the cash compartment clean and use it only to store receipts.
7) Travel Light and Cheap
Many of us tend to stuff our bags with all kinds of goodies – from high-end laptops and expensive cameras, to heavy pro-grade lenses and accessories. When traveling internationally, try to keep your gear to the minimum. Don’t take a high-end laptop and instead, bring a lightweight compact laptop that you can use to do quick image backup and maybe some post-processing. Instead of taking a high-end medium format or full-frame digital camera with a bunch of pro-grade f/2.8 lenses, why not bring a 2-3 lens compact mirrorless kit? Leave your 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses behind and bring either a set of lightweight primes, or more versatile zoom lenses like 24-120mm f/4 and 70-300mm telephoto, or a superzoom, so that you can get the shots you need without all the heft, size and price. Personally, unless I have a specific project in mind, I never travel with more than 3 lenses total (two of which are typically lightweight primes).
This way, if your gear gets stolen or you get mugged, at least you did not lose much and it will be easier to recover. Plus, carrying less gear will be good on your back and your neck.
Check out this video of an American tourist getting his 70-200mm f/2.8 stolen while it was mounted on his camera:
It is a pretty crazy video – everything happened so fast that the poor guy did not know what to do. By the time he realized that his 70-200mm was gone, it was already too late. He was masterfully distracted and touched from all sides and he could not be in control of the situation.
8) Keep Your Distance
Speaking of which, it is important to know how to keep your distance to avoid a similar situation as in the above video. When traveling in busy countries such as Spain, Portugal, France and former Soviet Union republics, where pickpockets are often very common, if you happen to carry expensive gear with you, either avoid mass transportation completely, or learn how to keep your gear close, while keeping yourself away from other people. If anyone approaches you too closely, always move back and avoid getting surrounded by anyone. If it does happen to you, keep your hands out and rotate your body in all directions to avoid contact while shouting “No”. If things don’t get better, start running towards more people.
If you end up in a busy area or happen to be traveling shoulder to shoulder, either wear your backpack in the front, or put it in between your legs, while putting one of your legs through one of the straps. Keep one of your hands in your pocket where your wallet is, while always keeping the backpack close to your body. Avoid conversations with strangers that were not initiated by you.
9) Travel with a Partner / Friend
Ideally, travel with at least one more person – the chances of getting mugged or taken advantage of are far less when you are accompanied by a friend, partner, sibling or another photographer. It is a good idea to be with someone who has some travel experience and if you can find a local who you can fully trust, it would be ideal. As you can see from the above video, the photographer was not alone – the lady in the blue coat is probably his wife, but she could do nothing in that situation and she was disoriented by what was going on herself.
10) Never Leave Your Gear Anywhere
When traveling, a rule of thumb is never to leave your gear anywhere, even temporarily. If you need to grab a quick shot and you need to pull out your camera from your backpack, once you have the camera out, either put the backpack back on, or put it temporarily between your legs while you are taking a picture. Always make sure to look around before you decide to take a picture – avoid being in crowded places and make sure that you keep your distance as recommended earlier, so that a thief cannot easily approach you while you are busy getting your camera in and out of your bag.
11) Leave Some Equipment in Your Hotel
When traveling overseas, you will be taking all kinds of accessories with you – everything from a travel adapter to cleaning tissues for your lenses. Instead of carrying all that gear with you, why not leave some of it in your hotel room? Even when taking 2-3 lenses with me on a trip, I often end up leaving my laptop and all the travel accessories, along with one or two of the lenses in my hotel room. If you are not confident about hotel room or apartment security, try not to leave too much expensive gear in a single location – you can often hide certain valuables in different locations.
12) Conceal Camera Brand and Model
Camera thieves are getting smarter every day. If they see a high-end Leica, they often know that it is worth more than an entry-level Nikon DSLR. If you are planning to bring any high-end gear, I would recommend to conceal the camera brand. You can use black / gaffer tape to hide that the red logo and once you are back, you can easily remove it.
If you still have that neck-cutting OEM strap that screams something like “Nikon D810” in gold letters on it, you might want to get it replaced with something more comfortable that does not give away the model of your camera.
13) Transportation and Rental Car Considerations
When I was traveling in San Francisco last year, I parked my car in a shady area that was fairly close to the restaurant I wanted to dine in. I had a lot of valuable equipment in the trunk, because we were busy filming a video, so I had a few Pelican cases there with many cameras, lenses and accessories. I parked my car and walked away to pretend like I was leaving the area. As soon as I turned to another street and disappeared from the view, I stopped and waited for about a minute before glancing at my car again. In no time, two men appeared out of nowhere – one was leaning on the car, while the other was behind it, ready to get the action going. As soon as I saw that, I returned to my car, unlocked it and drove off. I found another restaurant further away where I could park my car safely within my sight later that day and I am glad that I did, because I know that those two guys were about to hit it.
13.1) Rental Car Identification
When renting a car overseas, you have to be extra careful about how you are planning to utilize the vehicle and whether you will be leaving any valuables behind. Ideally, you do not want to be leaving any valuables in the rented car and if you do, it is best to keep the car at your sight. Make sure nothing on the car identifies it as a rental car. Unfortunately, rental cars often have different tags or have bar codes next to rear license plates that show them as rentals. Thieves know very well how to identify rental cars and know that they might contain valuables, so if the car you rented has such a tag or bar code, it is best to not leave any valuables behind.
13.2) Locking Valuables
If you have several cases of bags that might contain equipment, make sure to cable lock all of them together in the trunk of the car. This way, if a thief wants to steal a bag, they will need to find a way to carry everything or have the tools to cut off the bags. Since car theft is something that happens very quickly, thieves want to be able to run quickly with whatever they can and they are not going to try to run with several interconnected bags / cases. Never leave anything in plain sight – not even a GPS device or its charger.
13.3) Make the Car Appear Local
It is a good idea to put a local newspaper on the dashboard to give the car a local appearance. Get rid of all other objects in the car that might make it look like you are a tourist. This will greatly diminish the chance of car theft.
13.4) Always Carry the Critical
When moving between hotels and airports, always carry the critical items such as your camera, lenses, laptop and charges in your backpack that you have with you. Put a lock on zipper pulls so that pickpockets can’t unzip and steal the contents. This way, if your car is broken into, your gear stays safe with you. As stated above, make sure that you do not put your wallet and your passport in the same backpack – always have those with you in your pockets.
14) Always Have a Proper Backup Plan
As I previously explained in my article on understanding memory cards and care for them, I avoid formatting memory cards when traveling, because that’s where I keep my first backup. After a memory card gets full, I simply turn it over in my memory card holder and keep it that way until I get home, while keeping another backup of my images in my laptop. Make sure that you not only have a proper backup plan when traveling, but also make sure that you have several backups, preferably in separate backup locations. When traveling between sites or going home, I always separate my memory card cases from my backpack and laptop. For example, during my recent trip to Turkey and Israel, I intentionally put my memory card case in between my clothes in checked luggage, while keeping my laptop in my backpack. If one got stolen, my images would still be in another bag.
15) Keep Serial Numbers in Your Wallet and Phone
If things go south and your gear gets stolen, it is always best to have serial numbers of each lens and camera with you, so that you can report that information to local police. Don’t just write down numbers, but make sure to take pictures of each camera gear with your smartphone (and email them to yourself beforehand), so that you can present the information and proof when needed.
16) Check Airline Regulations
Make sure to check airline regulations for allowed camera bag sizes and weights. You definitely do not want to get a bag that is too big or too heavy to take into the cabin – avoid getting your camera gear bag checked, since you risk getting your camera gear damaged and potentially stolen. While most international flights have no problems with most luggage sizes, domestic flights can be very problematic. When traveling in Israel, I was instructed to keep my camera bag under 5 kg for domestic flights, which was extremely limiting in terms of what I could take with me. Gladly, I found out that I could pay to have a heavier bag, although while flying domestically nobody even cared to weigh my camera bag, so it did not turn out to be a problem. Still, I made sure to keep my bag relatively lightweight, just in case. To avoid any surprises, always make sure to check bag size and weight requirements and be at the gate early enough, so that you can get into your seat before others – if overhead space gets full, you might be forced to check your bag.
17) Check Your Insurance Policy
If you are traveling with expensive gear, it is always a good idea to have it insured in case anything happens. While you might have an insurance policy against theft, did you actually bother to read all the insurance terms and make sure that you will be protected in case it is stolen? Tom Redd wrote an article a while ago titled “do you have insurance for photography equipment?”, where he brought up a potential problem with an insurance company refusing to pay out a person who had his gear stolen after they found out that he advertised prints of his work for sale in the past. Since his insurance was under his homeowner policy, the company rejected the claim on the basis of his gear no longer being “personal” property, as it had been used for commercial purposes.
Make sure to actually read your insurance policy and ask all the necessary questions to make sure that you are fully covered. If you sell prints or use your camera gear for any client work, make sure that your policy covers that. If you are a working pro, you will most likely will a separate business insurance and pay higher premiums.