To Tape or Not to Tape, That is the Question…

You may have noticed that some photographers ‘tape’ their cameras. Odd that. Why, having spent often a considerable quantity of your hard earned on a lovely new DSLR, why would you then stick scrappy little bits of black tape all over it? There must be a reason; I have some theories to offer…

A simple explanation might be using tape to protect your investment, covering vulnerable surfaces, the base, around the strap lugs, etc., to reduce scratching and surface wear.  A sound enough explanation, although there are far more elegant solutions, a half case perhaps, or maybe ‘Camera Armour’. Taping does have the advantage of costing less though, and does not restrict things like battery/card replacement, or changing film.

Much taping activity revolves around branding, or to be more accurate obscuring the branding, the camera’s make and model. This is not a new phenomenon, it has been widely practiced by photo-journalists for many years, although not necessarily for the reason that you might first think. The assumption is that the purpose of ‘blanking’ the brand is to avoid the attention of thieves or muggers who might take a fancy to such an obviously expensive bit of kit. Well it might, but somehow I doubt it. Street criminals are essentially opportunistic and the idea that they are that choosy or brand conscious is probably unrealistic. You may feel safer with your camera’s brand obscured, but in reality it probably makes no difference.  Perhaps if your camera is mummified in roughly applied duct tape and as a consequence resembles a well worn and battered camera of no great value, then maybe there is a case for suggesting that this makes an effective disguise or deterrent.

So why bother then? Well, perhaps the most plausible explanation I have found is that it is not the brand that requires masking, but simply the text.  Most relevant for documentary and ‘street’ photography, this tactic is intended to avoid not so much the unwanted attention of undesirables, but rather that of the of the subject itself. The argument goes that text is something we ‘see’ readily, we are conditioned to recognise it as significant and respond accordingly. We encounter text everywhere, particularly within the urban environment and whether it be as signage/advertising  or a more expressionistic, subversive  form like graffiti, we find text easy to consume, easy to decode. When we hold up a modern DSLR camera, with its bold, proud sponsorship splashed across the front, its a bit like holding up a sign. The subject’s attention will be ‘grabbed’ by the text simply because it is text. Consequently they are more likely to notice the camera, and thus by association, the photographer wielding it.

An extension of this position is that flashing the brand around will attract the attention of camera ‘enthusiasts’ (in extreme cases we might even say camera ‘bores’), prompting an unsolicited interaction which breaks your concentration, ‘cramps your style’ if you will. By way of example, when shooting a wedding or similar social function, you may often find a guest will sidle up and say something along the lines of  “Is that the new D70000? I’ve got a 790D with the 400 focus points and the triple card slot.  Did you not get the Signor 28-80mm GTi to go with it? I did. I bought it because… blah, blah, blah…”, and so it begins.  Now I am not suggesting for a moment that I do not find camera talk interesting, or that I never discuss gear; of course I do. In fact I am very happy to talk about cameras, most of the time. However, when I am on assignment, I am on assignment. I am taking pictures, I am in the zone. The last thing I need is to become embroiled in a debate as to the relative merits if this camera over that, while I’m working. If I do, I will miss my shot.

I have also read articles which claim that even in more formal photography such as studio portraiture, the branding on top of the prism can distract the subject, especially at close quarters, drawing their eye and causing them to look above the lens, rather than directly into it. I am not sure that I buy this argument completely, but I cannot entirely dismiss it either.

Right, confession time; I am a taper! There, I’ve said it. I am in the habit of taping up my cameras, not all of them, and not all of the time, but I do tape. I don’t know to what extent it matters, I cannot scientifically quantify the benefits of the taping, all I can do is justify my reasoning. Firstly, I find the ‘text’ argument somewhat compelling. Anecdotally, I recently organised a visit to London for my adult learners, to the Tate Modern to be precise. In the cafe I queued for coffee along with a few of my party. We all had proper cameras, around our necks. The waitress, clearly interested in photography, immediately noticed and began to discuss the particular models of cameras with the students, but seemed completely oblivious of the fact that I had a camera at all. Now of course there might be for any number of reasons why I was not included in this interaction, (too ugly/scarey/uninteresting camera, etc.), but coincidentally, I was the only one of the group who’s camera was ‘taped’.

When I am out and about shooting, I do feel less conspicuous with the branding covered and I believe that this helps me to work in a less obtrusive, more observational way. I may be deluded, but I believe that this works. More importantly, as am not the most assertive or aggressive photographer, I find working with a taped camera helps me feel just that little bit more invisible. For this same reason, when practicing ‘street’ photography, I tend wear more discreet , unbranded clothing, avoiding bright colours or T-shirts with slogans and graphics that invite others to ‘read’ them, and so draw attention.

A quick word about the tape itself. If any of this convinces you, if this taping is something that you are considering, then get some proper camera grade gaffer tape. This is a low reflectance, low residue tape which unlike duct tape or the electrical insulating tape that I used to use, doesn’t slide around or fall off in the warm or when you have been holding on to it all day with sweaty hands. (I use ‘Magtape Matt 500’, FYI.)

So, there we have it. The primary objective of camera taping is camouflage, not for security, but to help you blend into the background. Does it work? Well, let’s say that the jury’s out, but if like me you think taping helps*, if you feel it gives you an edge or more confidence to shoot in less comfortable surroundings, then go for it. Of course, it might equally well be utter nonsense. I know that many consider taping to be a ridiculous activity of no proven value, but hey, its your camera and what possible harm or offence are you causing by applying a few bits of sticky tape to it. Chances are, if you do, nobody will notice anyway.

*I also on occasion tape areas of my camera for more pragmatic reasons, such as extra grip, protection against knocks and abrasion, or dust/moisture incursion.

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