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by Bart Arondson

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I'm going to travel individually in Sub-Saharan Africa where the crime rate is high. Most of the time I will do landscape photography and only a few shots in urban areas. I've been there already, but without valuable camera gear. I'm not sure if I should strip down my equipment to low budget but evidently suffer loss of quality and focal range.

How do you pack your stuff when travelling such regions? What is your experience?

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Thank you all for your detailed answers! –  Thomas Rawyler Feb 28 '11 at 18:47
    
In some ways related: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/10104 –  mattdm Apr 1 '11 at 19:21
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And as with that question, check out this very interesting article from a reporter in Egypt: lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/… –  mattdm Apr 1 '11 at 19:22

7 Answers 7

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I live in a country where crime-rate is quite high but that doesn't prevent the photographers here from buying/using expensive gears. All you have to do is be a little more careful than usual. I'd suggest:

  1. Avoid lone journeys. If possible gather a group of people.
  2. Use public transports as much as possible avoiding taxis.
  3. Try to avoid late night and too early in the morning shootings.
  4. Be as inconspicuous as possible. Prefer black lenses over the white ones!
  5. Ask hotel/resort manager about the place before going to shoot there.
  6. If possible, ask someone local to assist/accompany you during your walks.
  7. Do not carry any company branded (Canon/Nikon etc) camera bag. Use something that doesn't make it obvious that you're carrying expensive gears.

One of my friends once got in the hand of a group of thugs. He introduced himself as a journalist of a local leading newspaper and later successfully managed to escape them paying a few dollars only for their treat. Just in case, you might use the trick! =)

EDIT: It just came to mind, several companies offer insurance for your photographic equipments. If you're seriously worried, you can try reading through their offers and get a suitable plan for you. A simple google search helps!

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As another denizen of a very high crime rate country I agree with all of your points. Some comments though. Visitors always look conspicuous, usually the pale winter skin is a dead give away, not to mention differences in dress. I carry pepper spray, it is very effective and the police of my locality swear by it. The most important point, I think, is situational awareness. Be aware of people watching you and following you. Then do your best to keep a distance, never let them crowd you. The warning signs are two or more young local males who seem alert and watchful. Always look behind you. –  labnut Feb 27 '11 at 20:27
    
Continued. It really helps to have someone watch your back. You are terribly vulnerable while you compose your photo in the viewfinder. –  labnut Feb 27 '11 at 20:35
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beware of pepperspray, labnut. In many countries it's considered a weapon and there are severe penalties for having a can on you. These can range from a fine of several thousand dollars to years in prison. –  jwenting Feb 28 '11 at 7:19
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and... a way of backing up your photos onto cards or a hdd in a different bag, or in the hotel safe, so if you do get robbed, you're only losing that day's photos not the whole trip –  drfrogsplat Feb 28 '11 at 12:29
    
lol if i get robbed while carrying a 5dmkII and a 24-70mm L, i wont mind losing the photos of the trip as well! In fact I might throw them out the card the moment I reach the hotel! –  fahad.hasan Feb 28 '11 at 12:37

Interestingly I have a different perspective than @ShutterBug. I live in a safe country but travel often to ones that are not.

The main difference is that I do not blend in with locals. That means no amount of being inconspicuous, hiding company logos, etc will put me out of sight. Everyone nearly instantly knows that I am there. I've been followed and approached by friendly curious, unfriendly, aggressive and dangerous people.

Avoiding lone journeys is good advice and applies everywhere. I know that 2 people together are 10 times more safe than one. You cannot always be in a group, particularly for early morning and evening shoots. I have used a police escort in several countries, sometimes they do it for free, sometimes there is a fee and sometimes a tip will do.

Public transport is very dangerous in many countries. I've been to places where the bus driver watches while someone gets assaulted in the back of the bus and he continues his job as usual to avoid problems for him. I've been always recommended to use official taxis. They may cost twice as much as others but are worth it. You can usually get those from hotels, high-end restaurants and important business areas. They should have a traceable number and clear identification. If you are worried, use a cell to SMS the identification to an email address.

A shot only matters if you can bring it back. Shoot when you have too, unless you cannot do it safely.

When asked, pay bribes quickly and move on. It's sad to have to do that but away from home, it can be much more problematic not to.

My experience is that most danger tends to be concentrated around high population centers. Also in outside areas of tourist interest, national park trails, known vista points, etc. In rural areas, there are usually less danger and people are more friendly and willing to help.

Disclaimer: I've only been to 47 countries, so I may be wrong about the other 146.

EDIT: Just realized I did not answer the first part of your question:

I pack my gear in a shoulder bag. It is a regular camera bag and I do not think what it looks like matter because the moment I take a picture, people know there is a camera in there. The most important is that I wear it across my body and always in front of me where I can see it.

All my gear for a shoot fits in that single bag and I don't let it away from me anywhere. Backup gear remains in the hotel in a hard suitcase tied up to a permanent fixture with a special cable and lock. As much as possible, the primary and backup gear bags are kept separate.

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+1 for "I've only been to 47 countries" :D –  JoséNunoFerreira Feb 28 '11 at 0:46
    
Thanks for your valuable thoughts and your experience from travelling "only" 47 countries. –  Thomas Rawyler Feb 28 '11 at 18:50
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+1 for the hard suitcase suggestion! –  Alessandro Mar 2 '11 at 17:15

some things I use:

Gaffers tape - if my bags, cameras, and my camera gear looks like it is being held together by gaffers tape people are less likely to steal it (doesn't mean they won't, just less likely). Nothing looks bright, shiny or new.

The equipment bags i carry in high crime areas look like something a homeless person would stuff their belongings into, shabby and torn on the outside, reinforced on the inside. All gear bag straps and camera neck or wrist straps are reinforced with wire so they aren't easy to cut with a knife.

I try to dress as much as possible like everyone else in the environment - don't stand out if you don't have to.

Local currency in small bills, each one folded separately so when you do pull out money to pay for something you aren't flashing a handful of money.

and if possible enlist an aide to keep an eye on your bags while you're setting up a shot.

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+1. I'd use black gaffers tape to tape over all identifying logos, and, as you said, make the gear look like it's falling apart. –  Greg Feb 27 '11 at 17:29
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Just remember when taping over logos not to use a 2" x 3" length of tape that's obviously taping over a logo. I've seen that at the airport a couple times and just laughed. To follow along with kloucks' point though, it sometimes works better to take a knife or seam ripper and remove the logo permanently. The "damaged" look that results adds to the "make it look less like it's valuable" camo, and if done right won't compromise the bag. –  cabbey Feb 28 '11 at 5:29

Don't overlook some of the upper to high-end pocket and point-and-shoot cameras. You can get very high quality glass on them, with a good wide-angle to long zoom lens. Something like Nikon's P7000 would work really well.

Many pros keep those available for inconspicuous shooting, without seriously sacrificing the image quality, leaving their expensive gear for when it's safer.

A small monopod or table-top tripod, and a couple flashes could fit into a tiny bag or even pockets in cargo pants.

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And said monopod can in an emergency make a decent club to defend yourself. Carry it strapped on your wrist and you might deter assault. Look armed when you're not (and I've yet to see a country outlawing monopods as deadly weapons, in contrast to nightsticks, pepperspray, and knives). –  jwenting Feb 28 '11 at 7:25
    
I think this is especially true for landscapes (unless you're shooting for super high res / large prints), because you're not using high ISOs or large apertures, so glass quality is a little less crucial than other types of photography. –  drfrogsplat Feb 28 '11 at 12:27

I'm a fan of the Pacsafe 'exomesh' bags when I travel. Both in terms of locking down camera gear that I'm leaving behind in the hotel room (where I can't necessarily trust the hotel staff to keep their hands off it), and also for putting around my 'walk-around' bags when I'm going out for the day. Obviously nothing replaces vigilance and situational awareness, but it does make me less of a target of opportunity due to being an 'easy, dumb tourist.'

Not getting anything for mentioning pacsafe, BTW... Just a fan of their gear.

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Pacsafe is great. That's how I tie my bags to the hotel, as described in my answer. –  Itai Feb 28 '11 at 0:11

One specific strategy is to have the strap be metal so it can't be sliced through easily - eg the sun sniper steel. Of course that particular strap is going to make you very conspicuous, so it will be suitable for some situations, but not all.

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looks nice, didn't hear of that before –  Thomas Rawyler Mar 2 '11 at 7:27

If you think about a metal-strap please visualize the scenario! If someone tries to cut your camera-strap with a knive, he will be caught with that knive by that metal-strap.

So you will have someone with a knive next to your body (meat not camera). And maybe he will panic. I don't like that thought.

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