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Lessons Learned From A Studio Burglary

Lessons Learned From A Studio Burglary

Sunday, July 11, started off wrong and, then, got worse.

I was up early watching the Tour de France. I’m an addict. Smack dab in front of my big screen, one of my heroes, Lance Armstrong, had an accident that would take him out of contention for the Yellow Jersey.

And, then, I got the phone call. My studio had been broken into. Someone had kicked in a large display window and ransacked the place. Storage room doors had been pried open, drawers and boxes emptied on the floor — and things had been stolen. Lots of things.

Not the least of which was my sense of serenity — the peace I felt in my “creative place”.

Since then, I’ve been trying to put my studio and that part of my life back together. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a crime victim. I’ve been car jacked — with a gun to my head and almost shot. I’ve had other things stolen.

Each time, two things happened. I searched my mind to figure out what I could have done differently, better, to prevent the crimes. And, I dealt with insurance companies, trying to replace the physical, tangible things that I lost.

In this post, I’ll write about both journeys — the critical analysis of my attempts at crime prevention, and what I’ve learned from negotiating the obstacle course that often makes a trip down the path of the insurance process difficult and unpleasant.

My goal is simple: To give you the benefit of the lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson #1 — There Is No Way to Prevent a Crime: At Best We Can Make It More Difficult

If burglars want to break in, they will break in. It’s that simple. We cannot stop them.

At best, we can try to deter them. We can make it more difficult. And, we can raise the risk that they will get caught.

But, if they are willing to break down whatever barriers we erect, and if they are willing to risk of arrest, there is nothing we can do.

However, that does not mean that we should not try. Many years ago, when my Pacific Palisades, California, neighborhood was facing a string of burglaries, we had a neighborhood meeting. The local police sent a representative. His message was clear — make it difficult, make it risky, and hope the burglars move on to another target.

Hide the “Given Objects”

Perhaps, the most important lesson I learned was “Don’t tempt them. Hide the ‘given objects’. Keep them out of easy view. Don’t let them know what’s behind the doors and locks.”

“Hide the given object.” Hmm. For many of us that’s kind of hard to do. We are photographers. We have signs on our studios. Pictures in our windows. Not  much of a secret about what’s inside. There’s a good chance there are cameras, computers, expensive things in there — whether they can be seen or not.

Actually, I had followed that advice — most of the time. My studio is in a Design Center — a place where there are showrooms full of expensive furniture and rugs. All of the tenant spaces share a common feature — our front walls are all glass, huge display windows that go from ground to ceiling. We live in a fishbowl. My front room is very plain and simple. Office furniture and computer equipment. Plain white walls — no prints (I know that’s weird but it’s me — I feel more creative in a blank space). All of the good stuff is in my camera room and a locked storage closet — neither of which can be seen from the outside.

But, on the night of the burglary, I left some “given objects” in plain view in the front room. On the previous day, my daughter Jenny was shooting some senior portfolios. When I shoot, I often wheel some of the lights and things I won’t be using out of the camera room and store them in the front room. That day, I put several lights on stands — replete with soft boxes, up front to get them out of the way. Since Jen was going to shoot the following day, I did not put them back. And, because I knew I’d be back the following morning, I left my MacBook Pro on my desk. (I usually take it down and home. Didn’t do it that night and I really kick myself, now. That day, while Jenny was shooting, I wrote two articles that I was going to post on this site, for the July “content”. I didn’t back them up. I’m unusually anal about backing up; but, that night, I let it slip. And, that’s why there has been a big gap in updating content.)

So, “given objects” in plain view. But, I don’t know. I’m not sure the stands, lights, and boxes were all that tempting. In fact they were not stolen. If anything “lured” them in, I think it was the computer. I’ll never leave one out, again. (Actually, that’s not quite right. I’ve got a collection of old Mac’s in the office — a virtual tour down Mac Memory Lane. I think they are funky looking. They are always in plain view. But, only the current and valuable model was stolen.)

Lock Things Up Tight

I did. And, it didn’t help.

The entry doors to my studio have a dead bolt. So, the burglars kicked in a display window. Why mess with a lock when one swift blow can create a huge entry way?

The door to my storage closet has a deadbolt. So, they pried it open.

One of the storage cabinets has one of those Kryptonite type bike locks on it; they didn’t try to break the lock; instead, they grabbed onto it, used it as a handle, and pulled the cabinet door off its hinges. (That’s the picture you see at the top of this article. I’ve diddled with the image; in its real form, the stark reality still upsets me.)

Yes, I could have used more dead bolts, stronger hinges, with better reinforcement — but I remain convinced that there is a way to break into most places, and the only thing we can do is make it so hard that they won’t take the time to do it.

And, that’s where the safe comes in. I have a large safe, bolted to my floor, in which I keep all of my most valuable gear. It has my Nikon cameras and lenses. They did not even try to get into it. What was bad could have been worse — but for the safe. If I could turn my entire studio into a safe, I would. But, I can’t.

Adding Insult to Injury

One of the things that upsets me most was also one of the hardest lessons to learn: the crooks used my camera bags and rollers to carry away my stuff.

First, they took my entire off-camera-flash kit that was thoughtfully and carefully organized in one large camera bag; 4 of my cherished, impossible to replace SB800’s, my supreme commander SB900 (not as loved but functional), dozens of batteries, several chargers and clamps, mounting hardware, and modifiers — all easily carried away because I had packed them in a bag. Frankly, I don’t think they knew what they were getting. It was just so easy to take that they did. More than anything, I’m going to miss that kit.

And, then, they took my Large Tenba Roadie, threw away the dividers and filled it. So, too several other bags.

Lesson Learned: I’m going to try to figure out a way to secure my bags so that they cannot be used against me. Maybe chain them up. Hang them from the ceiling? If you can think of a better way, let me know.

So, that’s the story of  Part 1 of the Journey — the burglary itself.

As painful as that was, more pain was to follow. I had to file and pursue an insurance claim. The burglars were in my studio for maybe 15 minutes; the insurance companies have been in my life for the last 6 weeks, and there is no end in sight.

Insurance: The Real Back Stop (?)

I think we all know that no matter what we do, we cannot stop a determined thief.

That’s why we buy insurance. We know bad things might happen. So, we get insurance to give us the peace of mind that should something happen we will be able to get back to where we were before the painful event.

Would that that were so. Although I’m sure that many of us have had very positive experiences with insurance companies, some of us have not.

Unfortunately, my experience with my carrier, so far, has not been pleasant. My claim has yet to be resolved. I am having a dispute with one of my companies as to the nature of the policy and the scope of its coverage. More on that later.

My goal in this section is to discuss insurance in broad terms — to raise some potential issues, to give you some things to think about as you insure your equipment.

Before I go further I want to make one thing clear:  Nothing in this article is to be construed as either legal or professional advice. Please, use what is written as the basis upon which you consult with your insurance agents and attorneys. Let them guide you. Each of us has different needs and only professional guidance will make sure they are met.

(And, therein lies my problem — and possibly yours, too, if you have a loss. I bought my policy through one of my professional organizations. I heard it described at a convention. I did not have an “agent” in the traditional sense of the word. I did not see the actual policy. I did not have a personal connection to the protection of my equipment.)

Before we start talking about the different kids of insurance policies, we need to talk about something that crosses over whatever type of insurance we get.

We Need to Keep An Up-To-Date Inventory of What We Are Insuring

Most insurance policies — be they special schedules or professional coverage — demand that we keep an accurate inventory of the equipment we want insured. And, they ask us to file that inventory with them on a set basis.

Most of us keep our receipts. I’ve gone one step farther. Several years ago, I created a database in Filemaker Pro that lists my equipment and keeps track of what it is, when I bought it, what I paid for it, and the serials numbers, when applicable.

Creating it took a couple of days. I carried my laptop around the studio and entered everything I thought should be insured. I did the same thing at home. It wasn’t fun, but it was essential.

Now, I have a ritual. Whenever I buy something, before I take it to the studio, before I start to use it, I enter it in the database.

Here’s a copy of the base form I use. This is the data entry layout:

To make entry easy, almost all of the categories have drop down menus so that I do not have to type in much data. Here’s an example of the drop down for the “Vendor” entry:

Most of the columns are self-explanatory. The “Total Replacement Cost” column keeps track of all of the items in the database. When I get rid of something, instead of taking it out of the database, I “retire it” from use and take it off the insurance policy. There are some things I do not insure or do so with another carrier — so I have a drop down “Yes” and “No” in the form.

Actually, my current database has more options. I have an entry that tells me what was stolen on July 11. And, to which insurer I am submitting the claim. I also added a column with a URL for the insurance company showing what the current cost of replacement is; all the claim adjustor has to do is click and the item and price pops up. The easier we make things for the claim adjustor the faster the claim will be adjusted.

Over the days following the burglary, I took a print out of the schedule to my studio and used colored markers to mark what was there and what was not. I then entered the data into the form and printed out the inventory of what was lost. That’s what I sent to the claim adjustor.

Whenever I want to update my insured inventory, I use a second Layout to send information to the insurer. Here’s what it looks like:

Without this database, I’m not sure how I’d have gone about proving my loss. I would have taken a lot of searching through old records — some of which are in storage.

For me, the maintenance of these records has been well worth the effort. I strongly suggest that you develop a system of your own.

One last point: Make sure to put everything on the schedule; if it is not listed, most companies will say it won’t be covered. I lost a hard drive and cable; the hard drive was listed; the cable was not; the cable was not covered. It’s a pain in the butt, but to be on the safe side we have to list every little thing that we want insured. And, that’s understandable. They need to know the nature of the risk they are covering. When filling out the inventory, pay attention to the details.

But Wait! There’s More!! Something Free!!!

To make it easier for those of you who don’t want to “program” a database, I posted a copy of my template for you to download. To use it, you’ll need Filemaker Pro which runs on both the Apple and Windows operating systems. From what I understand, but have not tried, you can import this template into other databases and spreadsheets. You can edit the drop down menus such as “Type”, “Manufacturer”, and “Vendor” by going to the bottom of the list and hitting “Edit”; you will be able to add or delete at will.

To get your free copy, click here. You will be asked for the password which is — FreeTemplate. Duh! Not too creative. But, it will work.

Choosing the Right Insurance Policy

Most of us have insurance on our equipment. But, do we have the right policies?

There is nothing worse than having an insurance policy only to find out, at a time of loss, that the policy we have is not the policy we thought it was. That’s where I’m caught right now. In “coverage hell”.

I bought a policy that I was told would pay for the “replacement” of lost or damaged equipment. In the world of insurance, “replacement” usually means that we will get something of “like kind and quality” — whatever the cost of doing so. My written policy was consistent with that representation.

But, when the claim was sent to an adjustor, the ground rules changed. I was told that I would be paid the “scheduled amount” of my loss or the cost of replacement — whichever was less. The scheduled amount was the amount I listed in the “cost” columns of my spreadsheet. When I told the adjustor that under that interpretation, one that I did not accept, I would not be able to replace all that was stolen, I was told something to the effect of “Well, you’ll just have to decide what you can do without.” In other words, the policy that had guaranteed that I would be able to replace whatever I lost had turned into a policy that would not.

With this type of policy interpretation, we, as photographers, face a scheduling dilemma. Our photography equipment often appreciates in value. That’s rare in the world of consumer spending; most of the stuff we buy goes down in value. However, for example, I paid about $100.00 less per SB800 than I will have to pay to replace them with SB900’s. Why the 900’s? Because I can’t get the 800’s anymore. Wish I could; in my eyes they are a far better unit. But, the 900 is considered the unit of “like kind and quality”. The same can be said about the prices of some Nikon lenses. They’ve gone up, not down, in value.

And, that’s why most of us want true “replacement value” insurance. If we buy a policies that pay the “scheduled amount”, we are forced, on a daily basis, to track the value of each piece of equipment to make sure it is listed at its current price on our database. In essence, our equipment becomes a commodity and we are tracking its value; it’s like following the stock commodities markets on a daily basis. And, with each move up and down, we have to file an amended schedule with the insurance company. We are in the photography business — not the scheduling business. With policies that demand daily updates, we are at risk because, most of us will not have the time to do it.

The “daily update policy” is a nightmare. And, one that both the professional organization that represents my plan, and the broker that sells it for the organization, claim is not what I bought.

But, today, as I write this column, that is how the adjustor is handling my claim.

To the credit of my professional organization, their officers are strongly and steadfastly working to clear up this coverage mess. I am confident they will do so. They want the best policy for all of us, the one that will give us true coverage, and I’m sure they will get it.

The Bottom Line Is: Most of us want to know that if we lose a camera or lens, we get it replaced by a camera or lens of like kind and quality. We want “replacement” coverage.

There are other types of policies. Some pay the “actual cash value” of the loss — which to most insurance companies means the market value of the lost item on the day it was lost; in most cases that’s a depreciated amount; we’d have to read the fine print, but I’m pretty sure the companies will not want to pay the “appreciated value” should that be the case.

One last note on “replacement policies”. Many pay you the actual cash value UNLESS  and UNTIL you replace the item. If you replace the item you get the replacement cost. Under this scenario: you lose a lens that will cost $1,000 to replace; it’s current value, depreciated, is $750; if you take the money, you get $750; if you buy a replacement lens and pay $1,000 for it, they give you the remaining $250.

I write this so that when you buy your policies, you will know to ask careful questions to make sure you are getting exactly what you want and need.

Important Lesson Learned: We have to do more than ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers — WE HAVE TO READ A COPY OF THE POLICY BEFORE WE BUY IT. And, that’s not the way most of us buy insurance. Most of us talk to an agent and buy a policy without seeing the actual language of the policy we are buying. Later, we receive what is known as a “binder” or “dec page” — a summary page that commits the company to coverage and states the nature and limits of the policy; the “dec page” does not contain any of the fine print that sets the scope of the coverage. Later, we get the actual policy. In the best of all worlds, the policy we are told we are getting will be the policy we actually get. But, we don’t always live in the best of all worlds. Best Practice: Ask to see the actual policy before you sign the dotted line.

Here are some things to think about when you talk with your advisors and agents:

1. Household Insurance

Relying on your home owners or renters insurance carries some risks. Most policies will not cover “professional” equipment. I’m not sure how they define professional, but I do know that the more you have, and the better it is,  the more professional you look. For most of us this is not a safe insurance path. First, you run the risk that your loss will not be covered at all. And, second, even if it is covered under the general “personal property” coverage, you run the risk that the deductible will be so high that you will not be able to replace much of what is lost.

2. Business Policies

Most of us who rent space have liability policies that cover the premises and some of our belongings. However, once more, there are risks involved with relying on these policies to insure our equipment. These, too, are often limited to a percentage of the policy coverage. And, they, too, may exclude specific “tools of the trade”. But, most of these companies will insure our equipment if we “schedule” it.

3. Equipment Policies

Therefore, most of us will want policies specifically designed to cover photographic equipment. There’s nothing exotic about this coverage and many companies can do it. It’s simply a matter of finding an agent who knows what we have, understands it, and helps us get the right coverage. In almost all cases, a proper inventory will be essential to the process.

A Few Final Words About Insurance

We buy insurance to give us peace of mind. We buy it to know that if there is a loss, we have a partner standing beside us who will help us get back on our feet. Each year we go without a claim is a good year — for us and for the company. And, we think little about the relationship.

It is at the time of loss that we need that partnership to work. We need a company that takes our claims seriously and responds, promptly and diligently to perform the promises it has made to us. And, we need to do everything we can to facilitate the company’s handling of our claims.

The more prepared we are for a loss, the more we can give the claim adjustor, the more likely we will have a prompt and proper administration of the claim.

My claim has been delayed for other reasons. There is a dispute as to what coverage my association was selling and the nature of my policy. As soon as that conflict is resolved, I’ll update this article, name names, and give a bit more insight as to what I perceive the value of the policy to be. I will say that at this time, I’m investigating other policies. I’ll share what I’ve learned, soon.

In the mean time, it might serve all of you well to take a good look at your own policies and discuss them with your agents. If you want “replacement” insurance, make sure you have it. And, make sure what responsibilities you have in terms of tracking and updating the values of your equipment.

But, Wait! There’s More!! A Word About Alarm Systems!!!

I know it’s a little late. The cameras are out of the corral. But, I’ve installed an alarm system at my studio.

I did it with mixed feelings. Truth be told, I’m not sure how much it will help.

The idea is that if someone breaks in, an alarm sounds, and a call goes out to the police. The police come and arrest the bad guys.

In theory, that’s great. But, it’s all dependent on one thing — the response time of the local police, how quickly they get to the studio after the alarm goes off.

If they can get there in less than 5 minutes, the chances are that they will catch someone.

But, in most cities, response times are much slower — and burglars know that. I’ve been told that most burglars count on being in and out in less than 10 minutes and know, if they are that quick, they will most likely get away.

So why did I put in the alarm? To raise the risk of getting caught AND to give myself peace of mind (even if it is a bit “false”).

The burglars cannot count on a response time. They will not know if there is a car in the vicinity of my studio that will get there in a couple of minutes. When that siren goes off, they will either leave or rush their survey of my stuff, both of which are good for me.

I did a lot of research on alarm systems and have chosen one that I think best meets many of our needs. I’m in the process of testing it. If it works well, I’ll write about it. I’ve also negotiated a discount program for my readers. So, if I think it’s worth installing, I’ll do a complete article on my research, why I chose this system, and offer a discount code for all of you.

More on this later.

(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2010)

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17 Responsesto “Lessons Learned From A Studio Burglary”

  1. Tom Folger says:

    Very sorry to hear about this. Unfortunately, we all have to live with the fear of something like this happening every day. Even knowing the risk, I fall into the category you describe as not being prepared. After reading your article, I intend to follow your recommendations. I’m starting my equipment inventory today and calling my agent tomorrow! I’m looking forward to your next installment and what your research on insurance carriers and alarm companies has revealed. Best of luck in rebuilding, and hopefully recovering, your equipment assets. If there is any way I can help you, please let me know.

    Tom Folger

  2. First, I am so sorry for your loss. As I read this article, I of course began to think of my own studio. My studio is located on the sixth floor of an office building with 24 hour security. Cameras everywhere. Doors to the building are locked after hours. The studio has the same type of display windows your studio has, and I have a large safe as well.

    I’m a FMP user too, so thanks for the template.

    Can we also go into things we can do as photographers to protect our equipment while on location?

    Will be placing links to the post everywhere I can, as I think this is important for all photographers to read.

  3. Rob Johnson says:


    Sorry to hear about the theft. It is something we all want to avoid if possible. Great articly though and thanks for the reminder. I have had business insurance for years and have a partial inventory but really need to get it updated. Some additional thoughts being a wedding and event photographer, you should always have an up to date inventory of what’s in your camera case/bag. I know of a few photographers who were at a wedding and theiry gear was stolen. Just one additional step to make a theft less painful.


  4. Linda Gregor says:

    We had two breakins within a span of less than two months. In response to this, we put up steel bars on the windows and we created two false doors – one to hide the storage room and one to hide the computer room. It has never been tested with another break in but I really think it would have kept those rooms from being entered. Both looked like regular shelving and you had to look close to figure out there was something behind them. We already had a security system before the breakins but that didn’t stop them. Both times we lost a plasma tv and the first time we also lost a laptop. They didn’t bother with any workstaions or monitors probably because that would have taken too much time to unhook them. Great article! I like your database idea for tracking equipment. I’m going to have to try that although I’m partial to Access databases myself.

  5. Carol Andrews Jensen says:

    Steve, so sorry about your break in. Thank you for your extensive article, and all the insurance “hooey” I had an extensive fire, and loss from Hurricane Ike, almost two years ago. @@ years of negatives, all digital backup, equipment, teaching materials, art materials, displays, you name it… even my car…. My suggestion, that really helped me, was PHOTOGRAPHS of everything… personal, as well as business, auto, home everything. I had just done that, the day the storm was approaching and had that camera with me….thanks goodness.
    I got really screwed because of the “Replacement value” with my insurance company….also, dealing with content, auto, and structure….three different policies, same company, three different Diaster teams, etc.
    So, please be sure you keep the inventory,photograph your property and contents, back up your schedules, contracts etc, and take ALL that with you, in case of evacuation.
    I hope that everyone will find time in their busy schedules, to invest in a bit of preparedness….while it cant erase the emotional pain of your loss, it can at least guide you to “get through the system”, and finally, move forward in your life, professionally, and personally.
    God Bless, Carol

  6. Laura Brown says:


    I’m so sorry to hear that you have had to go thru this learning lesson.

    You are so generous to turn this around to help so many people, including myself. I have just downloaded your template, so I feel I have just the quick start needed to get my inventory out of a (flammable) box, and into the “cloud” for safekeeping.

  7. Cindy Romano says:


    So sorry to hear about your break in. I worry about that to with having my studio out in lala land. I have a security system and it has worked. Of course I have set it off a couple time and my family has set it off a couple times, but it works. They come … try it! No just kidding …

    If you need anything in equipment for awhile, let me know. I have extra lights and soft boxes I can loan you if you need it.

    Hope the bad guys get caught ….

  8. Addison Wong says:

    Really sorry to hear about your painful experience. Thanks for turning your experience into a teacheable moment for the rest of us.

    May I suggest you look at one of the online backup services or even google docs for your electronic documents. It’s one thing to replace equipment. It’s another to restore a creative work.

    Take care,

  9. Renae Carr says:

    Not sure if this is the same with the business, but I know with our home owners, we will actually lose money by cancelling our security system. We get a discount by having a security system, and that amount is larger than the actual cost of the monitoring of the alarm system.

  10. Alvin Gee says:


    Thanks for sharing. I had one break in years ago. Had a security system and the police arrived and scared them off. Our present studio has a hurricane shutter system that covers the entry way and show windows at closing time. Slowing the bad guys is key. All of our doors are dead bolted with one inch throws that lead into the suite and production areas. Security systems help too but you must arm them, even if you are out for a short time. Engrave your drivers license on your equipment to make it harder to fence and easier to identify if stolen.

    I was told that wasp/hornet spray is better than pepper spray for personal protect in the home and office.

    Alvin Gee

    • Mike says:

      Steve very sorry to hear about the break in. Sounds like a huge hassle and major major inconvenience.

      Alvin WASP Spray is not more effective than Pepper Spray. That is a MYTH that is going to get someone hurt. !” Police departments worldwide use pepper spray because the inflammatory effects of this agent work on those which cannot feel pain (very important). The inflammatory effects of pepper spray cause eyes to close involuntarily and produce a loss of breath sensation. Pepper spray has been proven effective on deterring and incapacitating aggressive, combative, intoxicated and drug induced individuals for over 20 years.
      To date, no human testing has been conducted on WASP spray and it’s a violation of federal law to use in self defense. Pepper spray is a safe, proven option which is trusted and relied upon by police officers worldwide. Also, . There are many home defense pepper spray options which will deploy up to 25 feet and unlike WASP sprays, these pepper sprays do not require the user to be as accurate because their spray pattern will cover an entire doorway.

  11. Levi Nilsson says:

    Automated backup: Buy a decent firearms safe (they are usually much more affordable than “standard” safes, and thieves still hate them). Punch a hole in the back and feed a cable through to connect a 2 GB HD (or a hard RAID) to an Airport Extreme Base Station that sits on top of the safe. Power also goes through this hole (might require a little snip and solder job to get it through a small hole). Set all machines in the office to back up on a 15 minute rotation to this drive. Level 1 archive achieved. Put the rest of your critical gear into this safe as well.

    Alarms: An alarm system will be enough to deter about 95% of thieves (actually, just the sticker SAYING there is an alarm system), unless you are located in a remote area or an area that is deserted in the evenings (industrial space). We live about 6 blocks from our studio, so if our alarm goes off, I am there within about 3 minutes with a gun in my hand. I have never had the police get there before me, but I have also never found a burglar after the alarm had sounded (attempted pried open doors, yes, actual thieves, no). The building I am in also has patrol security provided by the property owner. Thieves REALLY do not like this.

    Security screens: you can have retractable security screens installed on exposed windows that can be completely or nearly completely retracted into housings, hiding them when not in use. Coupled with an alarm, this is a strong deterrent because the thieves will have to defeat the gates while the alarm is sounding, eating into their valuable thieving time… 😎 If security screens bother your sensibilities, call your local security experts and ask about having your windows “bulletproofed”. They can apply a “thin” (not so much) window film that is specially formulated to resist bullet and impact attacks. Applied correctly, it is nearly invisible. When they hit that window with a hammer and it goes crunch instead of crash, many thieves will bail right there. Combining both is just killer and as close to armoring as you can get in an open window display facade.

    Heavy frame security space: Most of us build the interior of our studios from bare walls in. It is actually not that much more expensive to make a “secure” storage space. Secure in this instance means pry and ram resistant, not back the truck into it resistant, though that could be accomplished too… These techniques can also make the space more fire resistant, which is also good. First, frame doors with 4×6 beams on all 4 sides (yes, this means you will have a 4 inch raised threshold), reinforced with steel deadbolt plates sunk 6.5 inches deep into the studs with STEEL screws or lags (bigger is better if you pre-drill, and BOLTS are OUT OF CONTROL strong). Use standard 2×4 construction for the walls, but put up sheets of 3/4 inch plywood on the exterior under the sheets of 1/2 drywall (offset the seams) with double studs at the seams (this allows the screws for the 3/4 to be inset a whole inch into the side of the sheet, significantly increasing the sturdiness of the mount). You do not technically have to put anything on the inside of the walls, unless you want it to look nice from the inside. Use 4 inch screws to secure to the framing (2×4’s are actually only 3.5 inches thick), spaced at about 8 inch intervals (more screws in closer intervals are even better). Bottom plates should be lagged into the concrete if possible. Top plates should be 4×4’s and hopefully have cross braces to add crush resistance to the whole wall (for when they use the battering ram on the door, which is next). Now for the door. Use a SOLID CORE steel fire door with full steel jacket on both sides (about $350 at Lowes here in Anchorage AK). Mount with piano hinge style security hinges (also makes the door super easy to operate because it supports the weight of the door along the entire length of the hinge side). If you want to get even crazier, you can also “pin” the hinge side at top, center and bottom. There are many resources online that describe simple and inexpensive pinning techniques. Many folks do not know that the hinge side of the door is what they will attack if they can not get into the lock side because you have multiple dead bolts. A piano security hinge is simply the strongest thing you can get without going to a full vault door that pins on all four sides. Now dead bolts. Three along the opening side and one on the top and the bottom of the door, keyed the same. There are other, more expensive options (a basic vault style locking system can also be installed by a security expert), but this is a simple and effective one. Buy DECENT deadbolts, not the cheapo ones. Door should swing INWARDS. This will encourage the thieves to try to battering ram it instead of pry it, not understanding that they are trying to drive those deadbolts through 4 inches of reinforced wood… So they will switch to the hinge side, which is even stronger in this configuration… 😎 After a couple failed minutes, they might leave a guy there to work on it and move on, but that means one less guy carrying stuff or searching the office, and, they wasted TIME on the door… Very frustrating. The 3/4 inch plywood probably ads an hour to the fire resistance of the room (that is a guess, not a scientific analysis, as I have never had that tested). For the shooting room, consider doing just the door this way. If they tried the storage room and were frustrated, they will likely see the deadbolts on the shooting room door and not even bother to try it. This SOUNDS like it would cost a mint, but you can build an 8×8 foot storage space (packed floor to ceiling with “gorilla” racks 24 inches deep by 4 feet wide by 9 feet tall) for about $1200 more than having it built with traditional 2×4 stud construction, including the better door and added locks and hinge (which account for about $800 of that cost). All you are adding is 4×6’s and 7 sheets of 3/4 plywood. Most thieves do not carry a heavy sledge or reciprocating “rip” saw around with them (could you please explain why you are dressed all in black with heavy construction equipment at 3 am sir…). Short of heavy equipment operators, this room would foil most all thieves. If you want to get REALLY mean, do your studs at like 6 inch intervals and strap rebar to the insides of them. In this situation, even if they HAVE a reciprocating saw, they will burn like 10 blades and take half an hour to cut a hole large enough to get through, oh, and the racks are butted right up against the walls, so they will have to work around those too… 😎

    Backup: In addition to an “automated” backup system such as the Airport Extreme or Time Capsule with Time Machine on the Mac, you should also consider a rotational manual backup. We use a removable hard drive on a network connection that allows our critical terminals and laptops to back up wirelessly on an hourly basis. We take the drive home with us each night and bring it back in the AM. We also do a weekly “archival” backup that we rotate every other week. So, if the office burns down and our fire safe fails, we lose nothing but the on-site archive. If I crash my car on the way back to the office and IT bursts into flame and I forgot to take the HD out of my car, we loose a week. If my office, my house AND my car all explode in flames at the EXACT SAME MOMENT and the two fire safes fail (one of which is poured in concrete), well, just take me out back… Online systems are nice, but they can provide a false sense of security. Unless you verify that backups are happening, and they have a FANTASTIC redundancy system with a second site archiving scheme, they are equally likely to be breached. And large data storage facilities, even civilian ones, are more likely to be attacked by hackers or tech anarchists than your personal studio network is… I have a friend who spent months setting up his studio operating software through an online, “cloud”, based system. He had everything in fine form. He came in one morning and the system said “click here to accept the new terms of service and your service upgrade”. Like most of us, he clicked “ok” and walked away. Ten minutes later he returned to see that his files were completely wiped. None of them were saved, and there was no option for a local copy, so he was hosed. Just an FYI. Use online storage in addition to your physical storage for files that need to be mobile, but I would not rely on it solely as a backup solution.

    Protecting gear on location: We use locking hard cases for our location gear that we want “secured”. Only your camera case really needs this. Light stands are not as attractive as camera gear, and a locked hard side is less likely to be snagged than a black ballistic nylon bag that looks “just like uncle Harry’s”. Thieves are looking to pick up something that can be carried easily and looks like something logical that they would be carrying. If the other guests might ask who they are, or for their help, if they are carrying it, they will likely leave it alone and go for the purses and video bags, etc. that folks leave around their tables at events. Also, keep your bag in the room with you or with your assistant. At the reception, if your assistant leaves, put your bag behind the DJ podium. Whenever possible, do not leave a bag unattended. When we load in and load out, we do a relay. One of us carries whatever we can to a place where we can JUST be seen by the other, then we head back while the other person does the same in the same direction you are coming from. Repeat until you are in the car with all your gear. Using this technique, none of the gear is ever “unwatched”. Also, do not pile gear into the car and leave it open when you can not see it. Instead, use the relay technique and pile the gear in plain sight where you can observe it. If you fly solo, you can still use the relay technique, just make shorter legs on the relay so you can monitor both piles of gear at the same time.

    Lastly, photographing your inventory is a GREAT idea. Make fields in the FM database to store those images (which you can do in the last 4 versions I believe) and you have all you need in one place. I put those weekly backup drives, along with our insurance, mortgage, wills, birth certificates, social security cards, vehicle registrations, etc. into a bright yellow (safety orange or green works too) Pelican brand brief case that sits right next to the firearms safe in my bedroom. If there is a fire or emergency that requires quick egress, the clothes I took off from the day before are on the floor (yeah, I know, that is what my wife says) to jump into, grab the gun and the case and we are OUT the bedroom window pushing the kids in front of us.

    I could write another three pages on home security. 😎 Most importantly, don’t buy a house that has the kids rooms on the main floor and a “master suite” upstairs, or any modified configuration where the parents are separated from the kids in such a way as to make it easier for the intruders to go after the children first (basements, etc.). In these houses your invaders have immediate access to your most precious possessions and you have to clear your own house to get them back. Parents bedroom should be at the top of the stairs, or first door in the hallway, preferably with a security door (see above) in the hallway protecting the entire sleeping wing. Have a secure egress (preferably into the garage where your car waits with the keys nearby), a security flashlight (which you check monthly and replace the batteries in not more than every 6 months) with momentary on and at least 100 lumens of beam strength at a minimum of 20 feet and a firearm (with extra ammo) to protect your self and your loved ones (I am also an NRA Certified Firearms instructor). Any “spray” has significant drawbacks. If they are wearing sun glasses, much less goggles or safety glasses (which many thieves do) they may not penetrate to the soft tissues and be completely ineffective. Also, you have to be reasonably close to a perpetrator to hit them effectively. Close means opening yourself to retribution or offensive fire from other hostiles. Not good. Lastly, if your guy has a firearm and is in the least bit hopped up on narcotics of ANY kind, they might go nuts when you spray them and just start shooting in a random manner, increasing the risk of them hitting your loved ones, not to mention you. I do not know of many criminals who would not openly laugh at you if you call out “DON’T COME ANY CLOSER! I HAVE A CAN OF RAID!”. Most of them WOULD think twice if you call out don’t come any closer, I have a gun… 😎 (yes, I use the smileys A LOT… Deal with it.)

    Sorry about the long post, I do a lot of physical and data security consulting and lecturing for the tech and photographic communities, in addition to being a full time photographer, husband and parent of twins and a dog. 😎

  12. Tree Vaello says:


    I am saddened by this news, and knowing that a creative soul, such as yourself, has had to live through this experience!

    My car was broken into at the Houston Galleria on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. I was parked in the front row, in front of the Macey’s front doors, Inside the Nordstrom Garage, between 2 security cameras!
    They took all of my Hair & Make-Up gear, as well as $500.oo worth of summer work clothes purchases!

    The security officer with Simon Malls lead me to believe they were screening video footage from the 2 cameras which between I was parked, but when I followed up at 7PM same day, the security dispatch told me that it takes 3 days to get “written permission” from the Director of Security before they can even screen the footage.
    I did not even bother following up after that bomb dropped, I am well aware it was inside job!
    Fast-forward 2 weeks to a shoot in the Galleria, and a former Galleria security officer was on set with her model daughter said the cameras are usually off to keep elecricity expenses down until the ecomomy brings more money dropping to the Galleria!

    In the end, I know it was just material items that were taken, and I know they are replacable!
    It is just the livelyhood factor that gets my gourd here!


  13. Debbie Chapman says:

    Dear Steve,

    I, too, am saddened by your loss, and grateful to you for sharing the experience for our learning. When the thieves broke into our home in December, 2008, and took my cameras, brackets, tripods, and scoping equipment, I had made it easy. It was all in the bag! The thieves cut the glass window so that the alarm would not go off. The HPD Officer who responded to our call that evening, told me he thought security cameras were better than alarm systems. Maybe that’s a case for having both. As you said the important thing is to slow them down and or make it so inconvenient that it is not worth the effort. In addition to the things you learned, my lesson was “don’t play with your expensive toys in your front yard.” Hang in there. I look forward to future articles. And again, I am so sorry this happened to you, Steve.



  14. Mary Buck says:

    When I read your article I couldn’t believe the timing. I just experienced a burglary at my photography studio in Duluth, Ga.
    I was awakened at 5:45 AM the morning of the Aug. 23rd and told that my studio had just been broken into. I quickly brushed my teeth and headed to my studio, still clothed in my pj’s. I was met by at least 4 policemen. I entered my studio to find that the door had been kicked in ferociously, enough to damage the door, molding inside and out and the interior wall. I looked around in the front reception room and it looked like everything was in its place. Then I entered my camera room and realized immediately that my camera had been stolen. Next I realized that my camera bag with 3 lenses, filters, back-up batteries, flash, flash back-up battery and some other misc. items were gone. It appeared that the thieves had just enough time after the alarm went off to get to the good stuff. Shortly after the police came, a detective came. I knew just what was stolen and handed the detective a print-out of photographs of all my equipment.
    As the next day rolled along, I realized that several other misc. items i.e. memory cards, card reader, close-up filters and my pocket wizards had also been taken.
    Today, just 1 week past the burglary, I have a check in hand for my equipment loss and for the repair for the front door.
    Here is what I provided for the insurance co:
    1)A photographic inventory sheet of the stolen equipment. About a year ago I decided to photograph all my equipment and furniture, room by room.
    2)Receipts for 95% of the stolen equipment.
    (I purchase most items on amazon and they archive all your receipts. I did not have receipts for some equipment purchased before 2005.
    3)I filled out an inventory form and in 1 day I had the check.

    I switched ins. companies about a year ago to: Auto-Owners Insurance which also insures commercial businesses. I am so glad I made the switch. They were very easy to work with and never questioned me about anything.

    So moral of the story; always keep good records and make sure you know if your ins. company pays replacement cost for your equipment. I had an older dslr and now I am able to upgrade to a newer one.

  15. John says:

    My experience with alarms…
    When I worked at a retail computer store we had a number of breakins/burglaries. The place has monitored alarms and video surveillance. It doesn’t deter the thieves if the “prize” is big enough. on one occasion the police were there in about 2 minutes, the burglars were long gone. We had good video footage of them smashing the window clean out 13 MacBooks as well as some other laptop, and then drive off in a stolen truck, all in only 37 seconds. Truck was stolen so that didn’t identify them, burglars were masked so that didn’t identify them, and they were FAST.
    The video footage did help in eventually arrest them after burglarizing about 30 some odd places, but nothing was ever recovered.
    We ended up putting in laminated glass in the windows, haven’t had an incident or attempt since.

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