Secure Your Photo Gear or Lose It

A little over a year ago, I got to live out one of my worst nightmares. I had a day where the personification of my anxiety sprouted legs and ambled right into the middle of a wedding ceremony that I was photographing. Mr. Anxiety-Incarnate snuck into a church, and like a biblical plague, snuck right back out and took something precious with him. Never to be seen again was $12,000 worth of gear that was stored in my roller bag. That’s right, I lived out the photographer’s terrifying dream equivalent to showing up to a high school class naked.

It wasn’t all bad news. I learned a whole lot about what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right when it came to keeping my gear safe and secure while shooting an event or on location. At least for the duration of this article, let my pain be to your benefit. Here are few things I learned about keeping your gear safe from those that would take it from you.

Buy a Secure Bag

First and foremost, you need to have a bag with some sort of security. Think Tank’s line of roller bags is a great place to start. They have built-in TSA-friendly locks that will shutter the main compartment, as well as act like a bicycle chain. I like to travel light so I use a Think Tank Roller Derby. I’ve considered a big Pelican case in the past, but decided it was too much for me.

Use the Anti-Theft Features — Every Time

Whatever bag you decide on, don’t forget that you have to be diligent in using the included anti-theft mechanisms. I was using a Think Tank Airport Security roller bag the day I was ripped off. Had I chained the bag to a table or closet rod in the church, I might not have lost it. Don’t compromise your gear over being too lazy to spend 30 seconds entering a 3-number combination a few times over the course of a day.

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Gear

A locked bag is great, but it can’t always be secured to something stationary, nor is that a flawless deterrent if the bag is out of your sight.

Keep your bag within your periphery. The major thing that I let slip when I got ripped off was letting the church suggest we store extra gear in a cloak room. I’m generally not a big fan of this, but things were moving fast and I didn’t want to waste any time protesting. Bad move, because having the gear where we couldn’t see it was just what the thief needed.

Ever since, my gear is either tucked under a pew or somewhere within eye’s gaze. I’ve told a few venues that if it’s a problem, I’d like to see that my bag is locked in the office. No one has taken me up on it thus far and my bag has remained nearby.

Back-up Plans

What’s better than one set of eyes is two. Don’t work alone if you can help it. My assistant does a good job of helping me stay on top of what we are using and where it is at.

An important part of keeping yourself in order and more secure is card management. Assuming that you’re shooting digital, get yourself a tough CF or SD card case. Pelican makes an awesome one. If you fill up a card, flip it over and stash it in the hard case. I keep the case in my back pocket at all times. I’ve done this for years out of paranoia and it proved to be a logical ritual the day that I lost that $12,000 worth of gear.

No matter how difficult it was to have all that gear stolen, it would have been a thousand times worse if I had lost photos too. Luckily, my cards were in my back pocket the whole time. This is perhaps the single most worthwhile takeaway from that day. It might seem obvious, but don’t ever let your cards leave your sight.

It should also go without saying that my gear was all insured. If you’re a working professional, full-time or part-time, you need coverage. It’s a hassle to lose it, but a good policy will keep your business afloat.

Finally, karate. Learn some kung fu.

Have you ever had gear stolen? What are you methods of prevention? Tell us in the comments.

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23 Comments

Eric Mazzone's picture

Join Lenstag and register every piece of equipment there with the make/model and serial number. That way WHEN something is stolen, you can immediately mark it as stolen.

Stolencamerafinder.com is a great site.

Prefers Film's picture

I used an assistant. Every time.

Elias Hardt's picture

I have to say that I've never brought my gear anywhere unless it's in a locked Pelican case. Darn things are borderline bulletproof.

Jason Myers's picture

Lock the zippers and secure to something not moveable.

Chris Jones's picture

shout out to mirrorless cameras, my gear is on me the entire time unless I have an assistant is watching my stuff.

ocube O's picture

I used a 5d3 and D810 on last shoot and borh were on me the entire wedding from bridal prep till final dance. I use a dual holster. I still had a bag for lightstand, flash, spare 60D, etc but total value less than £1000.

David Taylor's picture

Just because you've locked the zippers don't think your gear's secure, take a look at this:

I was shocked to see how easy it is to break into a zipper locked bag, have tried this myself and it really is this easy!

Dan E's picture

pelican all the way!

Emiliano Leonardi's picture

David Taylor I love you and hate you. I have now reached a new level of paranoia

David Taylor's picture

This has cost me a fortune, I've now had to replace all my zipper luggage with hard cases!

Greg Taillon's picture

... And in what court, exactly, do you think that would hold up?

Greg Taillon's picture

I haven't heard about this kind of responsibility being assumed before, regardless of the context of the property that you're operating on (with the exception of personal injury). What happened in the 'similar cases' you are comparing to?

ocube O's picture

I personally think a photographer cannot afford not to have insurance. No matter how tight business is i always try to keep up my insurance payments.

Dan E's picture

No offense, even tho think tank is nice stuff. Tsa lock can be broken with a screw driver or bag can be cut open with sizzors. I am neurotic about equipment safety even tho my stuff is insured, it would stink for your stuff to be missing half way through a shoot.

My method, PELICAN with super strong padlocks, with a cable lock I run through the handles and connect to whatever structure. Eg... Pole, trunk bar in car, etc..., with another superstrong padlock for the branded cable. Unless someone is walking around with giant bolt cutters and a sawzaw, my stuff is pretty secure.

Jon Dize's picture

Hard to believe you do a lot of flying. The minute TSA sees you have a cable and double padlock on your case in checked luggage, they are going to take bolt cutters, open your case, rummage through your gear and leave you a friendly note telling you they were there. If you're going to tell me you run cables and padlocks on your carry on luggage, then you've answered all other questions I might have asked. I fly ALL THE TIME and 90% of the time I have TSA PRE BOARD and don't have the tight security that most do and yet... they've searched my checked luggage and there's no way they would allow me on with cables and padlocks on my carry on. Personally, I throw two sets of Smith & Wesson handcuffs in my checked luggage and when I get where I am going, I often handcuff my bags to something solid, Even then, I am surprised TSA has not confiscated them out of my checked luggage during their searches. In 1985, I got stopped in Heathrow Airport in London, because they thought the Gitzo Studio Studex tripod in my checked luggage was a rocket launcher. That's what it looked like on the scanner back then. Hard for me to believe they allow the cable that comes with the THINK TANK bags to be carried in carry on... Looks more like a GARROTE to me than my fingernail clippers do a stiletto, yet they take my fingernail clippers every time.

Jon Dize's picture

How the hell can anyone vote down the above comment? I never cease to be amazed.

J C's picture
Emiliano Leonardi's picture

Thank you for sharing! I chose pelican and in most cases it is an amazing bag. But airports are always very uneasy with something like that on wheels. It always takes me ages to go through security. A friend of mine suggested to use a backpack and eversince they haven't given me any grief. Is the think tank roller derby also a backpack?
I'm Italian. I traveled quite a lot and I guess the combination of e two gave me paranoid superpowers. What I mean is that there is not one moment I do not in about security. Keeping the car clear from anything and putting all the gear in the trunk parked against the wall, having one assistant exclusively responsible to just look after the equipment at all times and so forth.
Thank you Eric Mazzone as well for mentioning lenstag!

Brian Dowling's picture

I love my Think Tag roller, but jabbing a 50 cent pen will open the zipper lining in a couple seconds. I love my Pelican 1510, but it has the worst wheels ever vibrating all my lenses when traveling on a city street. Would love to see a hardbox come out with Think Tank(Rollerblade) wheels.

Anonymous's picture

A paranoia we all have at times. On two occasions I have been almost home or all the way home from a wedding shoot when I realised I had left a camera behind and also my whole bag of equipment cameras etc. This was in film days so no cards in my back pocket.Thankfully I scurried back and because the parties were in full swing no one really notice me slip in and slip out. Gear was where I left it. One of the reasons I always liked to work with an assistant. One day he handed me a camera I had left by a small waterfall as we were about to leave that location.The worst scare I had was on walking to my car at the airport having done an interstate wedding when someone behind me asked "is this yours?" All my cards from the wedding in a pouch that had fallen out of my pocket. You just have to be ultra careful the whole time.It is even a problem for non professionals. I recently gave my neighbour some camera lessons as he was going on a trek on the famous Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea.He lost his camera and five days of shooting over a waterfall. Did not have the camera fastened with a wrist strap or around his neck.A timely article. Thanks.

Dana Goldstein's picture

On the subject of cards, I remember a wedding photographer -- maybe Neil van Niekirk? -- saying he switches his slot A cards between his two camera bodies halfway thru the event, so both bodies end up with cards with all the images on them. I thought it was brilliant. And that pen thing with the zipper really depressed me.

Allan Yates's picture

Another scenario where theft can happen is when you enter a retail store and they want you to leave your camera bag at the checkout stand because they fear shoplifting. If you agree to do that and your bag disappears, what are they going to say? Something along the lines of "Gee, that sucks - I guess you should not have left it unattended!" They are not going to apologize and promptly write a check for the replacement cost of your camera gear and their business insurance won't either. I have my camera kit with me all the time and I have educated the stores I frequent about the fact that no one separates me from my camera gear. If I run into a store where they demand that I surrender my camera bag, I leave immediately and never go back there.

tonnie grijze's picture

I use a steelbag to secure my gear.
www.paroshasafetybag.com