Video Equipment

Video equipment is perhaps the most important of all the tools in the investigator's bag. Nothing convinces more than video. It trumps eyewitness testimony, audio recordings, and any other type of evidence as far as believability and reliability.

Electronic surveillance laws vary from state to state. On the National Conference of State Legislators Web site,, you'll find a chart of all surveillance laws by state, with links to each. It's critical to be aware of surveillance law before unwittingly doing something that's not permitted in a particular state. See Chapter 18 for more information on surveillance and Chapter 12 for information about audio and video laws.

Surveillance Camcorder

Camcorders are available in all types and sizes, and they come with many different features. New camcorders are remarkably small and easily concealed. You can pay several hundred dollars for a camera that's adequate or several thousand for an excellent camcorder. Remember that changes and updates in the technology of video surveillance equipment occur almost before you can get your product home! If you don't have a good bit of discretionary income, don't buy the top of the line and expect to keep it forever. In a few months, you may want to purchase something better. Yet you mustn't buy the cheapest product possible or you'll definitely have to replace it, whether you want to or not.

There are certain things you want in your camcorder. They may not all be possible if your budget is small, but these features will give you an idea of what's important to the work of a PI:

  • Image stabilization. This is very important in helping keep your video steady.

  • Time/date stamp. This is essential for film that you want to enter into evidence.

  • Zoom lens. Some cameras have 35X–45X optical zoom — the longer the better because you won't need to get as close to your target.

  • Night vision feature. This is a low lux feature that allows you to film at night.

  • Auto focus. With auto focus, you can concentrate on the target instead of the camera focus; it also enables you to shoot quickly without needing to make any changes.

  • It is important to purchase the correct video equipment for the type of investigations you specialize in.

    A camcorder with still-picture capability is great, but only if you're going to use it — and remember that the quality won't be as good as a stand-alone camera. Many people purchase a camera with features that aren't user friendly, so the camera is never used. It's not unusual for a PI to use nothing but his camcorder, while others have multiple cameras — camcorder, 35mm or digital camera, and covert cameras for use outside the vehicle or during foot surveillance. You should use whatever works for you.

    Several new camcorders have entered the market — HD or high definition, and the digital camcorder complete with a built-in hard drive. With the latter, footage can be downloaded to a computer or DVR. High definition is more costly, but it's great if it fits in your budget.

    Camcorder Accessories

    Accessories for your camcorder should include extra batteries and tripods of different sizes and types. Tripods are invaluable during stationary surveillance. Setting up a tripod in the rear of your van or placing a small, short one in the front of your surveillance vehicle will keep your shots steady and will stave off the fatigue of holding the camera for long periods of time.

    Tripods come in different styles. You can buy one to fit on your shoulder. Tripods that fit on your dashboard are also available, as are telescoping monopods. Check out the most popular and varied tripod products at the JoEnterprises Web site: This company specializes in tripods that fit various investigative needs. They also sell hard cases for the protection of your sensitive equipment, binoculars, and some of the more unusual items. One of these is a self-contained cooling unit for those unbearably hot summer surveillances. Dry ice placed in a container is sometimes used to cool a van, but this cooling unit is infinitely more efficient and less messy.

    If you have a camcorder that still uses tapes or one that records onto a DVD, keep extras nearby. It's important to keep an inverter in your vehicle for charging your technology in the cigarette lighter. Alternatively, some PIs have hooked up a marine battery for this purpose. Some cameras can be equipped with telephoto lenses and some cannot, so consider the types of investigations you plan to do and purchase accordingly.

    Still Cameras

    Many PIs use a camcorder to take still pictures as well. If you can afford it, get a 35mm or a digital camera with at least seven megapixel capacity. Digital cameras are smaller and easily concealed. If you decide to purchase one and you're a bit technologically challenged, take your laptop with you to the store so you can be sure that the camera will interface with your computer.

    As with camcorders, be sure that your digital camera has the highest power of optical zoom that your budget can manage. It's difficult to obtain all the essentials in one camera, but zoom is one that you shouldn't sacrifice for another feature. For many reasons, optical — not digital — zoom is the important feature. An optical zoom gives you enhanced clarity and a greater ability to enlarge the picture while retaining much of that clarity.

    Many cameras and camcorders come equipped with lights. Be sure you know how to turn the light off; with low lux you won't need it, and all it will do is call attention to your location. It'll also blind you for a few moments, taking away your night eyes or night vision.

    This brings up an extremely important point: Any lights after dark will become a beacon to anyone within sight of you or your vehicle. Even reflective items and material have no place in a nighttime surveillance. Police departments issue dark uniforms and utility belts, and dark or black items such as handcuffs, flashlights, buttons, and even clothing trim to swat teams in order to avoid any reflection that can give away their position. It's dangerous to even light a cigarette at night. Play it safe and keep it dark; your eyes will adjust.


    Binoculars are one of the essential pieces of surveillance equipment. They range in price and size, just as so many other items do. But, hey — a binocular is a binocular, right? Wrong! You should purchase the best set of binoculars that your budget will allow. You won't need those huge Coast Guard looking binoculars, but neither do you want a tiny pair that is inferior in quality.

    Powers of 7X50 or 10X50 will be useful all around. High quality 7X and 8X binoculars work well in all terrain and environment because images are brighter when the field of view is wider. The wider field of view also ensures that you'll miss less of any quick movements made by your target. The 10X and higher will provide more detail and better viewing for longer distances and open terrain.

    With a high-power, high-quality compact you'll need a steady hand or a tripod because of the sensitivity. If you wear glasses, look for binoculars with long eye relief. A popular binocular size is the midsize of 8X32, lighter and less expensive than full size. Most binoculars can stand being out in light rain, but cannot stand a downpour or being submerged in liquid. If you anticipate a lot of work in this kind of weather, purchase a waterproof set.

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