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Mobile & Covert Surveillance

Link to detailed Video Examples:

When it comes to surveillance there are many aspects that determine if an operative is average, proficient, or great at conducting surveillance. In most cases, a surveillance operative's main focus is to covertly video document the activities of a Subject, also called a Target, for a predetermined amount of time. The amount of time a surveillance is conducted will ultimately be outlined by the objective and budget.

Surveillance Private Investigator with a Camera

Similar to an artist who paints or sculpts, the artist creates something that will live on through time. A Private Investigator's video will be reviewed and stand as evidence in the future. An Investigator's ability to document and obtain great video is what clients are expecting and what will be remembered. It has been said that a picture tells a thousand words, then video is worth a million.

3 Key points about getting great video as a surveillance operative

1. You need to be There, meaning if you’re not present when something happens, you can’t get video. The skills required to be able to maintain surveillance using 1 investigator, in an average size city, are complex and many, for which I will write about in another blog.

2. You need to have great timing and relative positioning. Meaning if you are present but not in the right position or angle, then the video might be limited or useless in depicting or telling the story. This skill is acquired mainly from doing the job, years of experience, and learning from mistakes or hindsight.

3. Video Recording Equipment – what you use to record the events of an investigation and what ultimately will be your final product and body of work. This evidence will be the visual total representation of an Investigator’s skills, knowledge, and abilities.

There are many factors mentioned in points 1 & 2 that are within an Investigators control (based on experience and skills) and there are some that are totally out of an Investigators' control. Examples of things out of an Investigator's control.

  • If a Subject or Target is located and identified and is not active, goes nowhere or does nothing. Thus, no video evidence is obtained.

  • What the Subject actually does within the given budgeted time frame. If the Subject's activities don’t expand a client’s knowledge and or lead to mitigating outcomes.

  • Some traffic situations or scenarios that lead to losing visual of the Subject or Target

  • Budget – It's generally a balance of Risk & Reward. If the risk is higher budgets should reflect the need to investigate, in an effort to attempt to learn more and possibly mitigate whatever is reasonable given the case specifics.

Key points about Video Equipment

Equipment for video recording is generally not understood from the client’s perspective. As a Professional Private Investigator for 23 years, having traveled domestically and internationally conducting surveillance. One of the things 100% within the control of a Surveillance Operative, is what equipment they CHOOSE to USE in order to obtain video evidence.

What is really hard to accept is that an Investigator is able to execute Key points 1 & 2 and then fails only because of a poor choice of equipment. How can this happen? Lack of understanding of the (Firm or PI) lacks the professionalism to care enough about the faith and expectations their clients have entrusted in their profession.

Key points, functions, or specifications necessary in selecting a primary video recording device or system.

  • Manual focus

  • Optical + Digital zoom

  • Viewfinder

  • High definition 1080p or greater

  • Image stabilization of some type (optical is best)

  • SD card memory storage

  • Time & Date function

  • Audio – off function

General entry-level cost for these specifications for a Camcorder, DSLR or Mirrorless camera start at about $1000.00 + tax

Earlier I outlined things out of the Investigator's control and things that are. Equipment is 100% a choice.

The 2 main functions listed above, that cannot and must not be overlooked or dismissed.

Time & Date – if you can’t document the time and date as an Investigator, well I would suggest you’re not an Investigator, maybe an aspiring filmmaker.

Manual Focus – this brings us to the reason I wrote this article. Why is the topic of Manual or Autofocus so vitally important for a Private Investigator? It might seem like a trivial or not important subject.

Manual focus will only be a function of video recording devices, priced at and around the $1000. Like the analogy of a professional artist, they wouldn’t buy equipment or materials that were going to limit their abilities to be the best artist they are capable of being.

Recording devices that only have autofocus will lead to obstacles that should not even be a factor. These obstacles will lead to less overall video evidence, lower quality video overall, and even worse no video at all.

British Columbia Flag with a Private Investigator

Example: Rain and Windshield Wipers

Video recording devices with only autofocus or worse an Investigator using autofocus, when the option to use manual focus is a function of the device.

*time & date function was disabled for these examples


Vancouver Private Investigator
Private Investigator Vancouver
Vancouver Private Investigator

An operative will encounter rain often while conducting covert surveillance. As the pictures illustrate the device's autofocus function will focus on activities or movement in the foreground or whatever is closest to the optics of the device. In the example assume the vehicle in the background in the centre of the picture was the Subject’s or Target’s vehicle.

The resulting video is intelligible and if the rain persisted and the wipers were needed, the end result in the setup would be meaningless. This should never be an issue because it’s only a result of the limited function or improper use of equipment.

Manual focus

Private Investigator Vancouver
Private Investigator Surrey BC

This is only one of many regularly encountered scenarios where autofocus is so limiting. Another nemesis of autofocus is chain-link fences.


Private Investigator Surrey BC

Manual Focus

Private Investigator Surrey BC

Clients that hire Private Investigators would never think or expect that a little detail like manual focus is so important to the final product and potentially mitigating video evidence. In many cases, clients will never know anything different from what is reported. Clients rely on professionalism and experience to eliminate these types of variables.

Companies that appreciate the details and “Art of Surveillance” will likely mandate minimum requirements, resulting in an investment of $1000 or more for video recording devices for their Investigators. These firms and Investigators are great examples of those who care about the client’s needs and are driven to produce the best possible product.

As Professional Private Investigators technology should always improve the final product and enhance the Investigator's abilities to document his or her body of work, rooted in integrity, honesty, and pride.

No Autofocus!

Link to detailed Video Examples:

Author: Sean Cote

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