I Was Robbed in San Francisco While the Cameras Rolled

Last week I was in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world on a video shoot for Kelby One on Crissy Field — one of the premier spots in town — at the foot of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge when one of my cameras was stolen right in front of me.

Call this a stand-up robbery — but at least there was no gunplay.

Thursday I was doing what they call in the trade a “stand-up,” at around 5:30 p.m. Tripod extended, camera mounted, microphones plugged in, and there I was, talking directly to the camera about great places in San Francisco for the best photography.

It was then that a young teenager came running towards me — faster than you can imagine — with a giant grin on his face. He somehow was able to grab the entire tripod and camera operation and shove it within seconds into the getaway car — a blue Honda.

As I screamed “No!” and ran after him, the duo dashed off like Bonnie and Clyde and was long gone from the Presidio by the time the police responded to my call. But this being the Internet Age, two passersby somehow had the savvy to capture quick smartphone photos of the getaway and the license plate: CA 8HLL352.

The police officer said he was glad to have the license plate number but that robbery is so low-profile in the courts right now that even if they did catch him, without video proof, the thieves would be let go within a day or so. The camera and lenses would be sold, they would pocket the proceeds and go on to target someone else in the park. Sites like eBay and Craigslist would have new listings.

I’ve done stand-ups all over the world, from Madrid, Venice, and Lisbon, to Tokyo, Osaka, and Paris to sketchy parts of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City, and never has anything like this ever happened to me.

So I’m writing this now not as a “woe is me” exercise, but to let people know none of us is invincible. Be careful!

Crissy Field in San Francisco

The sad thing is that what happened to me isn’t unusual these days in San Francisco. In March, a reporter for KPIX, the local CBS station, was filming a report about thefts at Twin Peaks, home to an awesome overhead view of the city. An armed group of thugs robbed his TV camera while he was doing the report.

In February a San Francisco real estate photo team had their gear stolen while the car was stuck in traffic. The thieves saw the bag, smashed the back window, and swiftly made off with $7,000 worth of gear. This was caught on tape, from a Tesla dashcam.

In late 2020, A crew working on a TV commercial in the city had $50,000-plus in gear taken while in the midst of a shoot.

I’ve played back in my head endlessly what I could have done differently.

One bad move: I was doing the standup very close to the road, making it easy for the getaway driver to pull right up and make a quick vamoose.

Next time: Stand in the middle of the field.

Crissy Field in San Francisco

Except, let’s face it: People on bikes, rollerblades, and other wheeled vehicles dash up and down the pavement in San Francisco, making it easy to swing by and grab your stuff swiftly. Though I question how you ride a bike and hold a giant camera/tripod operation, but I’m sure if there’s a will, there’s a way.

I was shooting on the biggest lens I have: the mammoth Sony 70-200mm G-Master f/2.8 lens, which, unfortunately, I now believe, was a thief magnet, saying, “Steal me! Steal me!” A smaller lens (85mm 1.8) on a smaller camera would make more sense when out and about. Right?

I wish there was a way to chain a tripod to your leg. Either way — at least there were no guns and weapons involved. When all is said and done, despite losing my work for the day, it’s just gear. That can always be replaced.

The total haul for the thieves: a Sony a7R IV, a 70-200mm lens, Rode Wireless Go II microphone, Manfrotto tripod, and two 128GB SD cards. Total: $6,000-plus in value.

So, Paul’s Photo, you’ll be seeing me shortly!

San Francisco: I will never give up on you

I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, but I met her there. Her name is Ruth.

I have more amazing memories of great times in the City by the Bay than bad ones. (See: record store, NanSanFran, Jeff & Ed, Volare, the Columbus Motor Inn, and I could go on and on.)

I love New York, the most dynamic city I know and the place where I grew up. Los Angeles is diverse and awe-inspiring in so many ways, but there’s more natural beauty in San Francisco than any other U.S. city. Think about it. What compares?

I heard from so many of you Saturday, in response to my post about having my camera and gear stolen while in the middle of a video shoot. Thank you for that.

Among your comments:

“This is San Francisco’s fault.”

“The city is un-visitable now due to the crime.”

“Nobody can feel safe there anymore.”

I’m not buying that.

My story originally happened to run on the same day the New York Times did a piece on the growing problem of shoplifting in the city and the reluctance of local law enforcement to police minor thefts. Clearly, this is a trend that will not play well politically and will result in changes sooner rather than later.

And I believe it will because a natural wonder like San Francisco isn’t going away. Tourists will not turn their back on the city. And like I said, I will never give up on her.

I was in town for just over four days and, frankly, I didn’t feel anything but total comfort walking the streets, and I went everywhere: Chinatown, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Haight, Castro, Twin Peaks, Embarcadero, the Ferry Building, and all of the best Golden Gate spots from Crissy Field to Hawk Hill and then some. I was usually dragging at least one tripod, if not two, multiple cameras and lenses around my neck and an iPhone on a grip.

Only once did I wonder if I was playing with fire, when I shot a timelapse on a pier next to the Ferry Building at 9:30 p.m. one night. The only people out there were me and a guy fishing, playing loud, obnoxious music. It was dark and a little eerie, yet so photogenic with the evening light show from the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Pier 5 in San Francisco

But then I realized there were also offices on the pier, and this being San Francisco, they were still inhabited by the tech workers who naturally work all hours. I could see them through the windows. So I had company.

On my incident at Crissy Field: I was in broad daylight at a really popular park, one that sadly happens to have little police presence. It wasn’t my first Crissy Field visit on this trip, but my third. Again, I never felt anything but total comfort and exhilaration at being at one of the most amazing parks anywhere, oh so close to the Golden Gate Bridge.

But if I learned anything, it’s this: don’t shoot on a big camera by yourself in a major public setting because serious professional thieves are out there now looking to exploit situations like this.

Had I been talking into the iPhone, I doubt any of this would have happened.

Yoko Ono didn’t leave New York after John Lennon was gunned down there, and I’m not about to quit San Francisco. High on a hill, it calls to me. And always will.

About the author: Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles-based writer-photographer and the host of the travel photography TV series Photowalks, which streams on the Tubi TV app. Graham, a former USA TODAY columnist, is also a KelbyOne instructor and was in San Francisco on assignment for an upcoming Kelby class on photographing San Francisco.

This story is a combination of two articles that were also published here and here.