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Clandestine photography

Also known as surveillance photography.

Subjects of <!--INFOLINKS_OFF-->surveillance<!--INFOLINKS_ON--> must be unaware that photography is occurring or has taken place.
Subjects of surveillance must be unaware that photography is occurring or has taken place.


Clandestine photography, commonly referred to as surveillance photography, is the photographing in secrecy of a person, object, activity or location.


There are many reasons for clandestine photography:

  • documenting criminal activity,
  • accumulating identification photographs of criminals and terrorists and their associates,
  • gathering intelligence for military purposes,
  • documenting fraudulent insurance disability claims, and
  • filming an unfaithful spouse.

    Successful clandestine photography requires a degree of photographic proficiency to ensure the recording of relevant, usable pictures, and expertise in the clandestine arts. Tactical skill is needed to surreptitiously locate a camera where it won’t be easily detected but where relevant photographs can be taken.

    Such skills also facilitate leaving the area without detection after taking pictures and without leaving behind evidence of the surveillance operation.

    A skilled clandestine photographer is committed to recording usable images under diverse field conditions. He or she may need to do things that other photographers would never do. Some methods may appear absurd – for example, the simultaneous use of a tele-extender and a focal-reducer or deliberately under-exposing by several stops. If a technique works, permitting the photographer to capture an otherwise unattainable image, the clandestine photographer will use it regardless of how unorthodox it is. The professional clandestine photographer must be innovative. Not content with the existing state of things he or she is always alert for improved methods. When seeking a solution to complex problems and challenges, the clandestine photographer thinks beyond tradition - thinking outside the box.

    Clandestine photography is incredibly challenging. The clandestine photographer often works under field conditions that can be so unfavorable that other photographers would hesitate to attempt it. He or she must sometimes take pictures from long distances under adverse lighting and weather conditions, traversing and occupying inhospitable terrain, and perhaps working in a dangerous, active counter-surveillance environment.

    <!--INFOLINKS_OFF-->The extreme magnification required for ultra-long-range night vision photography and videography makes a night vision finder scope a desirable accessory. <!--INFOLINKS_ON-->
    The extreme magnification required for ultra-long-range night vision photography and videography makes a night vision finder scope a desirable accessory.

    You cannot choose the time or place for the photography of subjects of clandestine surveillance.
    You cannot choose the time or place for the photography of subjects of clandestine surveillance.


    Some people are dedicated photographers while for others a camera is just a tool of their trade. For example, wedding or sport photographers chose photography as a career, and image quality is uppermost in their minds. Conversely, a United States Navy SEAL is not a well-qualified photographer per se even though he or she may use a camera during special reconnaissance. Similarly, a police detective assigned to a surveillance team is a detective foremost, not a photographer, even though he or she may regularly use cameras during physical surveillance. For the Navy SEAL and the police detective, photography is merely one of the many tradecraft tools they use.


    Since clandestine photography clearly does not involve the cooperation of the subject, the photographer must go to where the subject may be found engaged in the activity that is meant to be photographed and at times when that activity is likely to be taking place. The location could be a dark alley, a building, a remote location in the countryside or a busy market – just about anywhere. And the time could be just about any hour of the night or day.

    Circumstances may require taking pictures from both extreme and short distances. On one occasion, photography of a subject from more than half a mile away may be required. At another time, filming the same subject from a distance of only a few feet in a bar or restaurant may be necessary.

    Because people function during all hours of the day, the ability to photograph under all levels of illumination is required. Although the nighttime environment presents special challenges for the clandestine photographer, the challenges are mostly manageable. In some instances, the surveillance specialist can photograph a subject using high ISO and available light. In other instances, photographing with an image intensifier night vision device may be called for.


    The subject of the surveillance (and any other persons) must be unaware that surveillance photography is occurring or has taken place. When secretly taking pictures, the photographer must either be hidden from view or working behind the veil of a pretext.

    When using a pretext, people will see that photography is occurring but shouldn’t know that it is a clandestine operation. They should believe the pictures are being taken for an unrelated reason. For example, the surveillance specialist photographing a subject on the far side of a lake could pretend to be a bird photographer. Surveillance team members, if any, could wear shirts with a club name embossed on them, and a worn copy of a birding book could be placed on the ground under the tripod which supports a camera adapted high magnification Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, ideally suited to clandestine work. A used book will support the pretext better than a new one.


    Obviously, the sharper and more properly-exposed an image is, the better it is. But, high image quality is not a prime requisite for clandestine photography. A usable clandestine image is one that contains useful information. Whether the image is esthetically pleasing is irrelevant. A level of image quality that would render a wildlife photograph unacceptable may be suitable for a surveillance photograph.

    Image quality need not be as high as a portrait. It must, however, be sufficient to identify the subject.
    Image quality need not be as high as a portrait. It must, however, be sufficient to identify the subject.


    Camera - A dSLR camera that can be controlled manually and that is capable of recording RAW images. When shooting to RAW, it is surprising the extent to which you can underexpose to achieve a sufficiently fast shutter speed and still have salvageable and thus usable images. (Camera illustration from Clandestine Photography by Raymond Siljander and Lance Juusola. Reproduced by permission of Charles C Thomas, Publisher, Ltd., Springfield, IL, USA 2012.)

    Lens - Because surveillance photography involves long-distance work, often extremely long-distances, a powerful telephoto lens is essential, one that can capture an acceptable image of a subject a very long way off. Super telephoto lenses in the range of 400 mm and larger, can be useful.

    The longer the lens, the greater protection you will have from detection. Photographers think that a 600 mm lens is powerful, and indeed it is. But a clandestine photographer will work with focal lengths in the thousands of millimeters. For example, a highly useful lens for surveillance from a great distance is the 3048 mm 12” Meade LX90GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, an instrument not normally associated with general photography. With a 1.4x tele-converter, this telescope’s effective focal length is 4267 mm. With afocal coupling, permitting photography through the eyepiece of a telescope, an effective focal length exceeding 5000 mm is achieved. The camera’s lens helps to increase the effective focal length of the telescope.

    Tripod - And not just any tripod, but one that is extremely sturdy and capable of supporting heavy equipment. A matte-black tripod is more discreet than one that is lighter in color and shiny.

    Remote controller - Optional, but recommended - The clandestine photographer using an extreme telephoto lens must manually select shutter speed and aperture settings for proper exposure. It matters not whether the photographer operates the camera by touching it or by using a wired or wireless remote controller. A remote controller helps to avoid camera shake that is likely to occur because of the high magnification involved.

    Miscellaneous items - This is a hard category for which to provide examples since the things you may need will vary from assignment to assignmment. Rain gear and camouflage are just two examples. You will have to expand on this list when planning surveillance sessions.


  • Know your camera well enough to operate it by feel in the dark.
  • Organize miscellaneous tools and equipment much as would do in the darkroom so that you can locate and use them by feel.
  • Take steps to darken any reflective or bright components of your camera and gear. This includes the face of the lens.
  • Become familiar with how your camera functions under various day and night conditions with emphasis on working with available light (no flash) and telephoto lenses.
  • Become a student of physical surveillance. You must learn about effective concealment, avoiding detection, selecting an appropriate vantage point, “escape” routes, covert techniques, awareness of your surroundings, weather-proofing when needed, learning about your subject (habits, background, known hangouts, schedule, usual attire and so on). The subject is complex and there is a good deal to learn about a broad number of topics.
  • Be inventive. Think outside the box. If you wonder if an unorthodox method will work, try it without concern for what the skeptics may think or say. Skeptics stifle rather than encourage progress. The great American investor Thomas Alva Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten-thousand ways that won’t work.” In many respects, knowing what doesn’t work can be as valuable as knowing what does work.

    This article was provided by Raymond Siljander, co-author of Clandestine Photography - Basic to Advanced Daytime and Nighttime Manual Surveillance Photography Techniques - For Military Special Operations Forces, Law Enforcement, Intelligence Agencies and Investigators, published 2012 by Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd. Although the target audience is among those groups identified in the title, private investigators and photo journalists will doubtless also be a significant part of the market. People desiring to use night vision photography for nocturnal nature studies will find information in the book helpful. It is available to the public directly from the publisher, Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd., and through and other retailers.

    Author’s Note: In the book Clandestine Photography, we place a lot of emphasis on single image photography, but we also address video. We can record usable images with a camera in single image mode that we cannot accomplish in video mode. With the camera in single image mode, we record images under lighting too low to record video. If a private investigator working for an insurance claims manager explains that it was too dark to film the subject, the client will be disappointed. Conversely, when you explain that it was too dark to record video so you recorded sequential still images to show the supposedly disabled subject stooping and lifting what appear to be heavy articles, your client will be pleased and impressed.


    Raymond Siljander is a Vietnam war veteran who graduated first in his class from the police academy, was an industrial security supervisor, a private investigator doing general and undercover investigations, a licensed process server, and retired from the insurance industry as a Senior Loss Control Specialist. He holds Master of Education degrees in Educational Leadership and in Elementary Education, both degrees received with distinction. He holds an Individualized Baccalaureate with concentrations in Criminal Justice and Human Services. His Associate Degrees are in Law Enforcement and Fire Science. He holds the professional designation Associate in Loss Control Management (ALCM®), and is a member of the academic honorary societies Phi Kappa Phi (Northern Arizona University) and Phi Theta Kappa (Phoenix College). He is the author and co-author of 16 professional books addressing police science and related topics. Favorable book reviews have appeared in such prestigious journals as the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and Security Management magazine. He has appeared as a speaker for in-service training seminars for law enforcement, the insurance industry and college photography classes.

    Lance Juusola has 20 years experience as a wedding, commercial and advertising photographer. He holds diplomas in both wedding and commercial Photography. Over the last 15 years, his work has been primarily in the commercial realm. He has worked exclusively with digital capture for the last ten years. His current position is Manager of the Advertising Photo Studio for a Multi-National Fortune 500 company.

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