Safety Tips for Travel Photographers (Particularly Women)

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Safety Tips for Travel Photographers (Particularly Women)

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Let me first address the obvious that while this article talks about safety tips for women photographers, it does not mean that these tips don’t apply to men as well. Most are general tips that could be applied to both genders. Being a woman photographer who has started to venture out alone for photoshoots and solo photowalks, these are things that I notice and practice as I do travel photography.

Solo Hiking in the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park USA

Solo Hiking the Appalachian Trail – Great Smoky Mountain National Park, USA

It all started with a single trip. A couple of years ago while visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the US, I decided to flex my muscles and go for a solo hike with my young kids. This was supposed to be a bonding experience as well as a confidence booster that I could do this alone. So off we went, water bottle and camera in hand to hike a two to three mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Half way into the trail, my confidence took a nose dive, as I realized I had done several stupid things – I vaguely remember telling my husband the actual trail we were going to take, we only had one bottle of water among the three of us, I was carrying 20lbs of photo gear and I had no emergency kit or even a phone. My kids, then 7 and 3, were hot and cranky and there was no end in sight. In my paranoia of either being attacked by a bear or a crazy psychopath on the trail, we literally sprinted the entire way. Thankfully, my husband had started off at the other end of the trail and met up with us. While it was an adreallian pumping, nerve racking experience, it did make me realize that with a few simple tips, one can travel smart, safe and actually have a wonderful time.

#1 Research, research and then do more research

Bird Photography in Chennai India

A google maps satellite search revealed a bird photographer’s paradise literally five minutes from home when I travelled to Chennai, India

There is no lack of informational resources for someone wanting to travel anywhere in the world. Between maps, guide books and online forums we can pretty much take a virtual tour in our pajamas and not have to leave the comfort of our homes. But if you are anything like me, the wanderlust bug is very prominent and the urge to escape the clutches of everyday life too urgent to ignore. Make sure you know everything there is to know about the place you want to visit. Scope out all the possible locations that interest you in detail. There are many online photography and travel forums where you can post questions around photographic opportunities for specific locations.

#2 Record and insure your gear

This is one of those business expenses that may seem like it is discretionary but trust me, it is absolutely critical especially if you plan to travel extensively. Having that peace of mind that your gear is as protected as it can be is very liberating.

#3 Blend in as much as you can

Safe Travel Tips for Photographers DPS Article Memorable Jaunts

A simple bag pack to carry your equipment might be the best travel gear to blend in with the locals

With a camera in one hand and a map/guide book in the other, chances are you already stand out from the local crowd. Try not to make it more obvious in the way you dress or behave. The smart thing to do is to blend in with the locals. Dress like the locals wherever possible, then if you have done your research and planned out your excursion you don’t need to hold on to the map (a sure giveaway that you are a tourist).

#4 Keep an updated itinerary with family and friends at all times

Safe travel tips for women photographers DPS Memorable Jaunts Article

Have a plan of where you want to go and what you want to do and make sure you communicate that to the right people

This seems like a no-brainer but often times is easily overlooked. It’s one of those travel smart strategies that could literally save a life. This is one time when having a game plan for where you want to go, and when you want to get there is advisable particularly for solo travellers. Avoid changing plans on the fly – especially if you have taken the time to research and scope out the best photographic opportunities for your trip. If you have to change travel plans, make sure changes are communicated to the right people, at the right time.

#5 Plan for emergencies

Lets face it – this is life, not a scripted, rehearsed, movie set. Chances are things are going to go wrong – travel plans may change, equipment may malfunction, batteries may run out. Regardless, have a plan of action for some of the more obvious mishaps. Keep numbers handy for any local camera shops in case you need to use them in a pinch – definitely a much cheaper option than having things shipped or mailed to you, especially if you are out of the country.

#6 Listen to your gut

Words like “gut feeling” and “woman’s intuition” do actually exist, and more often than not, they are spot on. Trust your instincts. At the end of the day missing a photo opportunity is not as critical as being safe. Don’t do anything that you are not comfortable doing.

#7 Carry only the essentials

Safe travel tips for photographers DPS Memorable Jaunts Article

We photographers LOVE our gear and cannot imagine being away from it. Most of us feel we need every lens and gadget for every shoot for those what if situations. But challenge yourself to pack light. Maybe you only want to shoot with a wide angle lens or the nifty-fifty. Carry only what you need and not all the gear you own – your body will thank you.

#8 Carry personal protection equipment

No, I am NOT advocating carrying a gun or other such personal protection mechanisms. Personal protection can mean different things to different people and can also differ based on the situation. For a while I carried pepper spray in my purse. Then I switched to a swiss army knife. Then I decided that my 90lb german shepherd dog was my best defense mechanism especially for local sunrise and sunset photo excursions. Choose what is appropriate and practical for you.

Do you have any safe travels tips to share based on your personal experiences? Feel free to share…

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Karthika Gupta is a lifestyle, editorial and wedding photographer based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images.

  • triptikkah

    Ignore that stupid voice that says, “Well, I came this far, I can’t turn back now.” Turning around is always worth considering 🙂

  • Good tips, however I would never carry a knife or any weapon that requires my attacker to be in arms length, for fear they would overpower me and us it on me.

  • katansi

    Agreed with the person who said they wouldn’t carry a knife. A knife is useless if you don’t know how to use it and anyone out to harm you is probably better at using a weapon than you are in most cases. And if they do get within arms length a random heavy object is better since it takes no skill to do damage with. Eg, a nalgene water bottle is an excellent blunt object when it’s filled. Put a padlock on your keychain. I bike often so I have a steel bike lock with me most times.

    Pepper spray was a much better idea than a knife. Another thing to consider is a swiss army knife is not very threatening. It takes a lot of force to get a knife through flesh which unless you have the strength to do is unlikely to happen if your goal is to puncture. If your goal is to slice, a folding knife that doesn’t lock will likely cut YOUR FINGERS on the grip. Get rid of the swiss army knife, go back to the pepper spray for when your dog can’t be with you. Get the version for dogs or bears, it’s usually a lot stronger too.

  • I agree – safety first..always!

  • True…

  • I like the Nalgene bottle idea…it sure is heavy!

  • Akil

    My tripod is usually my defense tool of choice

  • longshadow

    At my age, my wife would make sure I have my phone and check in every few hours. Depending on where you go, it’s best to go with a friend or two anyway. The excursion will be also be more pleasurable with company. Luckily, she likes to go with me most of the time.

  • Mark D. Spremulli

    On the gear front, if you have a crop sensor camera perhaps a 16-300 or 18-200, or for full frame 28-300. One lens that does it all. Also consider taking a stand alone gps unit as well as a phone. If you travel in the mountains, the phone my not get service where a gps unit can

  • Aaron

    In terms of blending in and not looking like a photographer, I prefer this over a backpack when travelling

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/712098-REG/Domke_701_02B_F_832_Medium_Photo_Courier.html

    I can carry a body and three lenses and a 13″ travel tripod, and a couple of snacks, all fit.

  • The over-packing gear issue is one I think many photographers need to pay attention to (check all the “what’s in my camera bag” youtube videos). Too much gear can slow you down and keep you from hiking to the viewpoint you wanted to shoot from. Or turn a relaxing hike into a painful endurance test that limits what you can do later in your trip.

  • Ben Sanders

    A useful item is a GPS device that you can leave in your bag. This way if you either loose your bag or it gets stolen, you can track exactly where it is from your smart-phone. Recently traveling in Italy I had all of my equipment stolen when someone made off with my bag, I wish I had thought to do this for myself.

  • Christine

    A kubaton works great as a small blunt object. The Swiss army knife is not a weapon– it’s a tool. Definitely too easy to get the blade folded in on your hand or fingers as it doesn’t lock.

  • Andy Whiteman

    Agree totally – I’m just getting something similar – also unbranded camera straps.

  • Andy Whiteman

    Very useful article – always let people know where you are going, roughly how long you will be away and when you will return.

  • David Blacker

    get a local sim card for your phone (if in a foreign country) and use Google maps; far more discreet than unfolding and folding a map.

  • Marjolein Katsma

    Blend in… the guy on the photo does not, actually: his expensive shoes and short sleeves immediately brand him as a “tourist”. Try wearing sandals and a loose shirt with long sleeves.

  • Forest

    Nothing is going to protect you better than a handgun. If you won’t go that route, please consider a self defense course for women.

  • katansi

    Statistically you are more likely to be injured by your own gun accidentally or be a victim of a homicide with it than you are to use it successfully in self defense. To the tune of around 20 times more likely.

    Pepper spray and the self defense course is really the best bet.

  • Forest

    It amazes me how a statistic that has been proven wrong time and time again can survive. Just ask yourself, ‘if I knew I was going to be the target of an attack or crime in this situation in the future, what would I do?’ Then do it.

    I don’t want to turn this into a debate on firearms, which is why I advocated for the self defense course if you don’t want to go that route.

  • katansi

    It hasn’t been proven wrong ever. That statistic is math, you can’t disprove pure numbers it’s not an argument on mathematical conjecture. It is a yearly tally of successful uses of guns in self defense situations vs accidental shootings and intentional homicides with a legally owned gun (didn’t even count suicides in my previous statement). These studies are done by people who study violent crime for a living and compile crime statistics based on police reports and DOJ numbers not a phone survey from the NRA (which is where Lapierre got the 2.5 million).

    I was a trained and responsible gun owner and am not against owning guns but to say that a gun will make your life safer is just false. It raises the risk of death and injury for you and those living with you. That is fact. To advocate it as the best self-defense option is irresponsible. It amazes me how little research gun advocates do. You didn’t even recommend training when you recommended the gun, you just recommended having one but recommended training in general which would not cover gun use. You cannot just assume that when you recommend someone buys a gun for self defense that they will seek training for it and you can’t change math that says even with responsibility the risk of death and injury goes up dramatically.

  • A safety instructor told us to carry an airhorn – that thing is LOUD. The attacker is likely to decide you are not worth the trouble. Pepperspray is illegal in many countries, and traveling through airports with it is near impossible. Common sense, and listen to your intuition.

  • Ryan Gajsek

    If I got that bag I’d be sure to get a black Sharpie to black out the red logo that screams “Camera bag!” That’s also why I would hesitate to buy Manfrotto anything to travel with overseas.

  • Aaron

    Agreed, blacking out “Domke” is a fine idea. The longer you have these bags the better they are for “covert” use. After 5 years, my bag looks plenty used and nothing like a camera bag. In large cities where people commute on the subway or by train, it blends in nicely. As men in those cities, in particular, often carry similar bags.

    My point with suggesting this bag was more that it is great because it doesn’t scream “Camera bag!” compared to all the LowePro or ThinkTank backpacks that I see people carrying.

    Just to be clear, both LowePro and ThinkTank bags are good, in fact I have one of each, but I’d never use them if I was trying to keep a low profile.

  • a

    Hey! I firstly thought this would be an article about protecting your gear and keeping it safe ib between airports, on buses, trains and busy foreign cities. Would you care writing something on that? I am sooo tired of always being supervigilant. I thought you might have some better tips for protection. 🙂

  • akfishguide

    another thought, instead of pepper spray, use wasp spray. shoots a solid steam a greater distance, Also useful for bees and wasps while backpacking

  • Handguns are illegal in many places. Definitely illegal outside the US.

  • SomeBeach

    A Swiss Army knife would not be my first choice. Pepper Spray would be good, but I have heard and read of many attackers that come right through it. All it does is serve to ‘P***’ them off. A side arm is good BUT ONLY if you truly know how handle it and how to use it. Otherwise, if not, it can be more of a danger to you and your children than protection. I personally have a Concealed Carry Permit, but I have been handling firearms since I was a child. So I feel OK carrying, but it is not for everyone. I know some people that have a permit, and I guarantee they should never be around a firearm. Your best bet is to take some courses in personal protection. Then decide what is best for you. A need for this is a fact of life.

  • Thats a great idea…

  • This looks like a great bag especially if people want to travel light – one body and 1 to 2 lens are ideal. Thanks for sharing.

  • Great idea for a follow-up article 🙂

  • so true! 🙂

  • monstermum

    Unfortunately Google maps are not accurate in some countries( even in Australian cities)

  • justine

    I was also advised when Travelling n Europe to blend in camera equipment, as the thieves have a better idea of the value or resale value if your equipment then.you do. Remove the name brand camera startup with a no.name simple black band, and cover the make ofc your camera with black.tape.

  • SomeBeach

    An air horn is fine in a populated area… but for a hiker, out in the middle of no where… maybe not so affective…

  • SomeBeach

    I am pretty much a ‘pro-gunner’, but I will be the first to say that there are so many people that carry that should not.

    People that don’t have a healthy respect for a firearm should not have one for self defense. In some cases, some people can not be trained. The problem here is that common-sense is not so ‘common’.

    BUT, with that being said, I think there is too much government overreach in this matter as in many others AND In regards to statistics, they are just like opinions, everyone has one.

  • I have two suggestions: (1) for protection get one of these:
    http://www.amazon.com/Pitbull-Million-Rechargeable-Camouflage-Flashlight/dp/B00HNT04ZW
    Besides being a flashlight, it also discharges 10 million volts, enough to fend off an attacker (I bough one of these for my niece that lives in Brazil, she successfully fought a stranger at night that tried to attack here on her way back from nigh school), plus it can travel in your CHECKED suit case to most countries, unnoticed. (2) for location and rescue in remote areas I highly suggest the SPOT tracker and SOS device:
    http://www.findmespot.com/en/
    It costs $150 plus a yearly subscription. My daughter took one of these to an expedition in Belize and I could see where she was (in the jungle, in a city, at the local Zoo!), and she periodically send me messages “I’m OK” by pressing a button on the device, even on a boat in the gulf going to a remote island. And if you are in an emergency, press the SOS button! Rescue wil come, even if you are in the midlle of nowhere.
    Guys.. if you have wives, daughters, nieces that travel alone in not-so-safe pleases please get those devices, they are not infallible but they sure are better than beign alone without any protection or means of summoning help.
    Karthika: thanks for a great article! Stay safe.

  • charlesjaggers

    This is all rubbish! if you think you need this advice – stay home

  • Michael Monahan

    A tripod is cumbersome, but sometimes necessary. Additionally, if necessary, it makes a decent weapon when used as a club. One thing not mentioned is that there is safety in numbers. If possible and desirable, take a friend or two along on your photo excursion.

  • Tom

    That torch isn’t even legal throughout the U.S. let alone overseas. You would essentially be advising people to put themselves at risk or arrest or deportation depending on circumstance. Frankly ridiculous advice. Safety is about common sense not arming yourself in order to take a photo.

  • Tom

    Yep, the best advice is to be aware of your surroundings. I have used my DSLR plenty of times throughout continental Europe but was always wary or using it in London where I lived and where an A6000, gx7, omd e5 etc would be far less conspicuous and less likely to attract unwanted attention.

  • Bill

    30 year cop, 45 year photographer: your best point is to listen to that little voice inside your head that tells you things aren’t right. Read Gavin DeBecker’s “Gift of Fear.” Pay attention to your surroundings and what’s going on around you, the fancy term is “situational awareness.” For photographers that can be tough, because we are literally and figuratively focused on our subject and often buried in a viewfinder.

    Weapons of any sort are only as good as the person using them. All my family members have pepper spray, which they all leave at home or in a glove compartment where it does no good whatsoever. Always have a small but powerful flashlight, if for no other purpose than to find dropped keys in a movie theater or when there is a power outage in a 3rd World city.

    And project confidence, even if you don’t feel it. If you look like food, you will be eaten. And if people knew what happens on the AT it would be vacant.

  • Francisco J. Rueda
  • LesBoucher

    One thing that I always carry with me is a personal EPIRB. It’s a bit of emergency equipment that, should you get lost or fall and injure yourself, it will be invaluable. You hit the button and it sends a signal, via a satellite, to emergency services giving them your location.

    Something else to consider taking are emergency rations, a first aid kit and a thermal blanket with a cigarette lighter. But plenty of water is number one. you can go days without food (and it saves on Jenny Graig or weight watchers LOL) but without water you are in trouble as I found out on one photo hike. The specialist told me that I was close to dying from dehydration when I finally got back to my car.

  • obscurity7

    When traveling alone through South Dakota, I always made sure to stop in at ranger stations and tell them I would be hiking such-and-such trail alone, and check in with them when I finished. Always best to have someone on the ground who knows where you are.

  • John Braden

    No need for protection in Japan.

  • Great advice! I often go hiking alone with my camera equipment. I live in South Korea where violence among people is extremely rare. I am much more likely to get injured when no one is around.

  • TwiztedZero

    Zero weapons, you don’t know the carry laws in various countries. However, a powerful non-crenelated flashlight that kind that uses 18650 batteries that has a lot of intensity and brightness with a strobe function 960 lumens or greater will do you very well to help blind or distract potential attackers if you’re accosted during golden hour or blue hour. such lights tend to last a very long time on a single charge and are very good to have as daily use lights that you might only need to recharge once every 3 months.

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