Dodging Security Guards

I like to do photos downtown, in the public spaces of big buildings, looking out at the glass and steel towers and the skylights way above. And I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m accosted by a security guard who will inform me of The Policy Against Photography.

Photograph of Minneapolis Minnesota

If you’ve had that experience, you know the futility of questioning the reasons for The Policy, or of pointing out the obvious fact that people with smartphones are taking the same photos every day. The guard might be polite, or he might be a jerk, but he has his orders: photography – currently defined as someone holding a black camera with a big lens up to their eye – is forbidden. For “security reasons”.

There’s been a lot of discussion of this online, most of it ridiculing the idea that photography has something to do with terrorism, and casting doubt on the legality of interfering with photographers in public spaces. But an indoor space isn’t really public, just publicly accessible; the building owners apparently do have some nebulous rights to regulate what happens there. And while the stated reason is always “security”, I suspect other motives. A serious looking camera with a big lens implies a purpose – i.e. you’re up to something. Maybe the corporate types feel like we’re profiting from their asset – i.e. the building – by selling photos of it, making money that is rightfully theirs. Maybe they think we’re planning bogus lawsuits. Maybe they just want to give those expensive security contractors something to do. We’ll never know.

Photograph of Minneapolis Minnesota
IDC Center Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Whatever the reasons, once the guard is on you you’re not going to get another shot. Start telling him how you know your rights under the law, and you’ve revealed yourself as a “professional”, his ideal prey. Refuse to comply, and he’ll use that walkie-talkie he’s been fingering to call for “backup”, and then you’re dealing with a city cop.

A more sophisticated photo acquisition strategy is needed. Mine calls for 2 trips to the site: one to figure everything out in advance using just a smartphone, and another one to get the actual shot in one smooth, barely noticeable, surgical strike.

On the first trip, walk through casually, assuming security cameras are everywhere. You’re not a photographer, just an ordinary guy on his way somewhere, looking around at the Big City. Dress nondescript; you don’t want to be “that guy in the orange hat” on the security video. After checking things out for a bit, pull out your phone like any tourist and take a few pictures. Don’t worry about getting it right but cover the scene and try to get at least one that roughly captures the shot you have in mind. Memorize your exact shooting spot and note where the “security” people are positioned so you get an idea of how long you’ll have from the time they spot your camera until they can hassle you. Plan a getaway route so that after you take the shot you walk away from the guard and straight out an exit. Don’t read any posted signs, because they might include bans on photography; if you get stopped later, you want to sound totally honest as you deny knowledge of The Policy.

Use those photos at home to work out how you really want to get the shot. You need to know the effective (35mm equivalent) focal length of your phone camera, which for my Samsung S8 is 28 mm, and you can probably get a good idea of f-stop, shutter speed and ISO. Convert that focal length for you camera’s sensor size and decide what lens you need, so you’re not fumbling with equipment on the spot. Plan to shoot a larger frame than necessary because you don’t want to spend time composing and leveling; just crop it later. Shoot in burst mode, so if someone walks in front of your scene you can combine images to remove them. Silent electronic shutter isn’t necessary in public unless the place is deserted and quiet – in which case you’ll probably have to come back anyway when you’ll be less conspicuous.

On the second trip, you bring the camera, in a plain carrying bag that looks like it holds a laptop and your lunch. Walk in and check out your spot from a distance – if there’s a crowd that needs to dissipate, wait by the entrance where you have some cover, and just stare at your phone.

Get to the spot, pull out the camera, bring it up and take a few shots, put it back in the bag and walk away quickly on your predetermined getaway route. Don’t look around, that just incriminates you. Guards aren’t interested in chasing people, and they’re not expected to. Many are not in adequate physical condition to engage in any sort of pursuit.

Photograph of Minneapolis Minnesota

If you do get stopped, no problem, just play dumb and nod. All the guard will do is -wait for it – Inform You Of The Policy, and you’ve already accomplished your mission. He actually likes you now, because your humble body language and nods of assent says he’s in charge for the moment, and he’s scoring points with management. No one is going to invite a lawsuit by trying to take your camera or memory card. I’ve been busted a couple of times and never had a problem.

Will this craziness ever end? I don’t think The Policy will ever be changed, so Real Cameras with Big Lenses will always be targets. At some point in the future, maybe smartphone cameras evolve so we don’t need wide angle, fish eye or telephoto lens, and then it all becomes moot because there will no longer be any enforcement. But today, as homeless and transients become more of a problem in downtown areas, restrictions of behavior on private property are tightening, and more rules are being posted. The game will continue.

Photograph of Minneapolis Minnesota
Minneapolis City Center

Have you ever been pointlessly hassled by a guard while taking a photo? Leave a comment.

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