The PIs at Red Door Investigations have thought about the very best gear for surveillance and agreed with themselves. Fortunately for us, they’ve agreed to share their findings.
The tools of our trade are usually pretty high-tech and often quite expensive. Private investigators are very opinionated on gear: We can talk about it nonstop if you let us (and sometimes even if you don’t). We’re vocal in our support of one brand or another and whether this will help us get evidence better or that will allow us to be just a wee bit sneakier.
Ultimately, the investigation equipment we use must accomplish three things: it needs to be useful, durable, and high-quality. And if it makes us feel more covert and look super-cool in the process, all the better.
Here are a few of our favorite indispensable pieces of gear we use while on surveillance:
Panasonic HC-V770 Camcorder (~$499)
This is a full-HD camcorder with a wide range of available accessories. It has a 20x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom. We want the most optical zoom we can get, and this camera doesn’t disappoint. (Between optical and digital, always go with the most optical zoom you can afford. Optical zoom is a measure of the physical movement of the lens, whereas digital zoom is some kind of internal software wizardry that usually ends up pixellating the image if you take it too far.)
Don’t go for the 4K version (the HC-VX981K). It’s overkill and will needlessly chew through your memory card.
The Sirui 3T-35K Plus Tripod
This baby is a very good all-in-one — it can act as a monopod or a self-standing tripod and comes with a ball head for adjusting the angle as well as an extension bar to give you a little more height. The three extending “feet” lock in place and give you a firm and flat support for your camera or camcorder. The legs can also fold in, turning the device into a very functional monopod. We do wish it were a bit taller, as we find that we have to either hold it or rest it on a thigh to give it the reach it needs to see out the window. But that’s really the only complaint. It’s built like a tank and feels very well-made.
Dropcams are small, battery-powered cameras that can be hidden in a particular location and keep an eye out while (hopefully) remaining undetected. They’re motion-activated and, like a trail cam, will start recording when they sense something moving within their field of view. We usually use them in hotel hallways or lobbies to catch people going into or leaving hotel rooms with people they aren’t supposed to be in hotels with.
There are two types: rotating and fixed. The rotating type (~$125) is a small camera (much smaller than your cell phone) that has a small rotating head where the lens is located. This allows us to place it somewhere and rotate the head on an angle to specify where we want the camera to look. The fixed type (~$130) is slightly larger but doesn’t rotate. It does, however, have night vision, and we LOVE night vision!
If we need to leave the safety and comfort of our cars and follow someone into a particular location, we need a video camera that is virtually undetectable. This one does the job. This is a camera disguised as a key fob. Trust me: you can’t tell the difference. We can put it on a table or hold it in our hands while we follow a subject into the mall or the grocery store and get every move they make in public. It takes both video and still photographs. It’s actually kinda unnerving that these things exist, but we use them all the time. We like the Lawmate PV-RC200HD2 (~$300).
We use a dashcam for much the same reasons that police do: to keep us honest and record confrontations. If we have an altercation with a subject we’re following (they do happen), we want everything on record. Not only does it help us should we need to go to trial, but it can also help law enforcement investigate should the unthinkable happen.
Vantrue makes excellent dashcams and is our brand of choice. For our surveillance vehicles, we went with the Vantrue X4 UHD (~$179). This one IS 4K and for good reason. It records on a loop and gets very fine detail within a wide field of view. This can also help us document the location where we lost a subject, should that happen (*hangs head*). Oh, and this one has night vision, also.
The closer we get to the person we are watching, the more likely we are to get spotted (“burned”) and ruin the investigation. To zoom in on a location from a safe distance, we carry a good pair of binoculars. Many investigators simply use the zoom feature on their camcorders, but we feel it’s better to maintain our camera on a fixed position of interest and do the majority of our surveillance through the lenses of our Nikon Monarch 5 (~$325). It has a 12x zoom and is waterproof, fog-proof, and has a rubberized body in case you fumble and it gets away from you.
Somehow, we have to keep all this gear powered up and running. For longer surveillance jobs, we have to carry our power with us. We can’t always start our car and use the vehicle’s power adaptor, so we need battery-powered capabilities. There’s nothing worse than having the goods in your sights just as your battery goes kaput.
For strict battery power, we chose the Anker PowerCore 20100mAh (~$45 each) with 4.8V output — we carry at least two of these with us at all times. We have backups of our backups, and everything is always fully-charged when we walk out of the office. Clients don’t want to hear that you missed out on the evidence they need because you were too careless to make sure you had juice when you needed it. These are so invaluable, we’ll probably end up getting a couple more.
If we’re able to keep our vehicle running, then a power inverter can be a lifesaver. This can keep your phone, iPad, computer, etc. all charged and ready to go. The Bestek 300W 4.2V power inverter (~$35), which comes with two 110V plugs and two USB charging ports, is very nice.
Air Compressor/Battery Jump Starter
You know the saying, “S**t happens”? Murphy rules the road when you are 300 miles from home, all alone at 3am in the middle of nowhere, and you can’t get a signal on your phone to call AAA when your battery dies from charging all this cool crap. Well, Pilgrim, if you have the Clore Jump-n-Carry JNCAIR 1700 (~$230) with you, then you can consider your bacon saved.
This thing has an integrated air compressor and battery charger in it that can get you back on the road like it never happened. No need for a second vehicle to jump you. It is completely self-contained. If you have a flat and your tire is beyond saving (i.e., blowout, etc.), make sure to always have a spare tire, jack, flashlight, and flares on hand to repair any flats along the way.
This one seems to be on everyone’s list lately and is self-explanatory. We go paperless when we can and, these days, a tablet is simply a must. You could use your cell phone, but if you have your GPS up and a call comes through while you’re trying to check an address change the client just gave you, etc, etc, etc, it helps to have an alternative on hand.
Plus, note-taking apps, such as Notability, can help you keep all your pertinent information right there in front of your face so you don’t have to go looking for it. This allows us to keep our phone free and not get tangled up in multi-tasking on a single device. We also have our CROSStrax case management app up so that we can keep any case-related information handy, as well as edit the master case file as we go.
We’ll probably get roasted by our colleagues for this, but we really don’t use the digital camera all that much. The cameras on cell phones these days are more than adequate for time/date stamp photos and to snap a pic of an address or a vehicle or someone coming in or out of somewhere. In all honesty, we use the camera on our cell phone way more than we do the digital camera.
But every once in a while, when we need a lot of zoom on a still image and don’t think the evidence would be better in video format, we’ll whip out our Nikon CoolPix 950 and use that sweet, sweet 83x optical zoom to snap a quick pic or two of what we see. But 90% of the time, we either get it on video (camcorder) or we just use our iPhones.
And Now for Stuff We WISH We Had (or could afford):
1. A DRONE! – Man-oh-man, do I wish I had a drone.
2. SiOnyx Aurora Night Vision Camera – Again, NIGHT VISION! And this puppy does it in FULL COLOR!!
3. Rode RODECaster PRO Podcast Production Studio – The creme de la creme of outboard podcasting sound engineering, and I want one!
4. Zoom H6 6-track Portable Recorder – Podcast from anywhere? Yes, Please!
5. DefCon Countermeasure Sweep Equipment – DefCon makes excellent countermeasure sweep equipment, but they are PRICEY! One day, if the demand is there, we will upgrade. DD1206, PRO-10G, DD802, and the crown jewel, DD1207!
A version of this article first appeared on the Red Door Investigations blog.
About the authors:
Shaun Culwell is the owner of Red Door Investigations in Fort Worth, Texas. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed pilot and certified scuba instructor.
Dannielle Rutherford is the lead private investigator for Red Door Investigations. She curates much of the content you see on the website. She has three beautiful daughters and one granddaughter. In her spare time, she enjoys photography, reading, and sketching.