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Photography for Private Investigators

Photography for Private Investigators

Photography for Private Investigators & Close Protection

It always amazes me how many people in the investigation, close protection and even media world can’t take decent photographs or videos. Most cell phones come with cameras that can take decent stills photos and video that is more than adequate for operational purposes, so there is no excuse why people can’t take photos these days.

I regularly come across private investigators people who have completed close protection and firearms courses but have no clue how to take a half decent photo or video. If you ask me what is more relevant, knowing how to use a firearm or knowing how to use a camera, I would say knowing how to use a camera is priority. Knowing how to use firearms maybe a required skill, but it’s not a priority for most people and if taught properly, it does not take long to get someone up to an OK operational standard.

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These days photography is simple compared to what it used to be say 20 years ago. Back in the day you had to understand such things as shutter speeds, exposures and film speed, these days you can just point and shoot. I still have my old stills camera, a manual SLR with a 300mm lens, a x2 converter to boost it up to 600mm, a 28mm wide angel lens and filters. These days most cell phone cameras are way more effective, versatile and powerful than my old SLR and its accessories.

The issue with professional SLR cameras for private investigators and close protection work is their size, walking around with an SLR camera and a large lens draws attention, especially if you’re pointing it at someone. For static or mobile observation posts sure, they have an application, but for everyday street use, I would say their applications are limited. Even back in the day I tended to use zoom compact cameras a lot more than my SLR for no other reason than they were a lot more discreet.

Many times, I have heard expert private investigators telling their students and staff etc. to always but the best equipment they can afford, don’t go for the cheap option. This I can understand if you’re in a government agency or spending money that’s not yours, but I will always say buy what’s adequate to get the job done. The issue with buying equipment that’s going to be used for operations is that it’s going to be banged around, abused and ultimately broken. Also, remember if you are looking to lend your cameras to those working for you they will not look after them, why should they, they didn’t pay for them!

Why spend $2500.00 on a fancy camera when you can get a decent refurbished cell phone for $200.00 that can do the job just as well, more money in your pocket right!  Of course, you will get better picture quality with a professional camera, but you must ask yourself how high of a definition do you need the photos to be? If you’re looking to sell your photos and become a professional photographer a $5000.00 camera maybe a good investment. If you spend $5000.00 on a camera hoping to get some surveillance work, then will say you have been given some really bad advice!

Even if you’re traveling you can buy smartphones with decent cameras at airports or on the streets virtually everywhere these days. So, if security is an issue you can buy a smartphone at an airport, use it to take what photos you need, upload the photos or video via a Wi-Fi hotspot, delete the pics/apps, then dump or resell the phone before you leave the county, you don’t even need a sim card. These days you must always remember to keep your online accounts and your communication devices secure but that’s another article…

Photography, both stills and video, have a lot of applications in private investigators and close protection operations, a picture can speak 1000 words! In the planning phase of close protection operations, photos of locations, facilities, hotels, hospitals, obstacles on routes etc. can be very useful to see. If you need to set up the security for a residence, photos of the perimeter, grounds and buildings will be useful when you are briefing your team or if you are considering putting in CCTV. In protective surveillance operations, the operative should always have access to a camera to help them identify any opposition surveillance, suspicious people or vehicles among other things.

As I said earlier, photography is an invaluable skill, photos and video are used to collect, confirm, or reinforce other intelligence. At a basic level I always tell people working for me to get photos if they are visiting or watching a location to verify to the client that they have actually been there. A few years ago, we had a surveillance job on one of the Islands in the Caribbean, the target should have been there for business meetings but stayed in his 5-star hotel suite with his, let say secretary. The client doubted our story claiming we must have been at the wrong hotel etc. but we had video of the hotel, the suite door, room service trolls in the corridor etc. This client had not thought about the timings for the job and would not listen to our advice so, they got what they asked for.

The best way to learn how to take decent photos and videos is to go and start taking photos and videos. These days with digital photography you don’t have to worry about the cost of developing film, if you shoot 100 photos and none are any good, then delete and take another 100, it costs you nothing.

When using a camera think of it as a firearm, to get good photos or video you need to be able to aim and shoot. Always ensure when you’re operational that you have enough storage space and battery life on the camera, if you think you need extra make sure you have a spare memory card, battery pack and charging cables etc.

You need to know what to take photos of, but you also need to know what not to take photos of. For example, team members, clients, residences or safe houses etc. Anything that could compromise an operation or leak sensitive information, always check the backgrounds of your photos, you might have something in there that you did not intended to have.

Types of photography

  • Documentation photography: This is used to record printed documents, when doing this ensure that the print is in focus and readable.
  • Object photography: If you need to take a photograph of an object, say a knife, try to get as much detail and possible such as markings and any serial numbers. Also, photograph the object with an object of a know size such as a pen, lighter or car key, then those viewing it can get an idea of the objects size.
  • Identification photography: This is photographing individuals or groups of people to record their identity. The targets may or may not know that they are being photographed, an example of this would be photographing groups of protesters who may later be a potential threat. If you’re taking photos of a specific individuals try to focus on faces, tattoos, scars, jewelry or shoes, anything that can be used to identify them at a later date.
  • Location photography: This is used to provide an overview of a location, security systems, possible surveillance sites, avenues of approach, access and exit points, vehicles on site, perimeter security etc. This maybe done covertly or overtly for defensive or offensive purposes. The main issues I have seen with location photography is that people do not take enough photos and tend to have a narrow focus instead including wide angle or panoramic shots, which if anything interesting is identified can always be zoomed in on. A good video sweep can be worth a ton of narrow stills. When taking video footage describe what you’re looking at and what direction you are looking at it from; north, east, south, west etc. This is essential as locations can look different when approached or viewed from different angles.
  • Surveillance photography: Surveillance and counter surveillance photography is used to gather covert intelligence on individuals and locations etc. Surveillance photography usually involves some imaginative practices such taking posed photos of individuals just to get what’s going on in the background or using the selfie camera on a smartphone to get photo’s or video of what’s going on behind you. Where there is sufficient budget remote cameras and drones can be employed.

Most private investigators or close protection operators will need to combine the principles from most of the above types of photography. For example, using photography in and advance security detail as part of a close protection operation to check out a restaurant that might be visited by a client could include:

  • Document photography: Photos of menu’s and venue evacuation plans
  • Identification photography: To record the type of crowd and key members of staff
  • Location photography: Approach routes, overall venue, internal layout, bathrooms and exits etc.

Small details can be of great intelligence value, such as what shoes someone is wearing, what’s on the screen of a person’s smartphone, what the weather is like at a location, road surfaces, the flooring in a building or where the buildings water tanks are. It’s always better to have more photos and video footage of the target than to be missing one critical detail. These days for surveillance its best to take video footage as this is easier for most people and if required stills photos can be taken from the video when editing.

When you have your photos and videos you need to save them in a secure location be it online or on a hard drive. Save the originals and edit copies if required. Ensure you save the photos in a file with a description of when and where they were taken. Photos from a route check done on a weekend afternoon may show light traffic on a road but at 0830 on a Monday morning the same road could be congested.

I think we can all agree there is no excuse these days for someone in the private investigation or close protection industry not to have access to a camera that can take respectable photos and video. My friends in Somalia take some brilliant photos and post them online all the time so, why can’t you?

This is only a short article that in which I have spoken about some key points on photography for private investigators and close protection operations, I hope it gives you a few things to think about!

Orlando W.

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