My Ugly Camera

by Jimmie on May 17, 2009

Photo by Chris Conners

At the last Noise Night, Chris stopped by and noticed my camera. He thought it was interesting, so he took a picture. Since the camera has already made to Make, Dig, Gizmodo, and Boing Boing, I thought I should write up a bit of information on the camera’s story.

Back in 2005 I went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to do some volunteer work. Within the first week my camera was stolen. Being that I was volunteering in some of the communities there, I spoke with some people about it. They said that all digital cameras are worth money, but none of the film cameras are unless it’s an SLR.

One of the other volunteers has this model of camera, and I thought that with the LCD closed, it almost looked like a film camera. So I bought one in the US, had it shipped over, and then I covered it in tape and sharpie marker. I also took off anything shiny.

I would take a picture or two, and then check the light levels with the LCD. After that, I would then close it, and would proceed to take pictures with it as if it was a film camera until light levels would change. The camera lasted me the remaining five and a half months in some of the most impoverished areas of Rio. Just about every picture in my Flickr is from this camera.

I was able to take over 5,000 pictures with it in Brazil. I was able to follow around a number of well known graffiti artists, and you can check out some of the pics here. I was also able to go into some fairly dangerous areas, and walk out with my camera. I was even mugged a second time, and they left my camera alone, and took my $20 cell phone instead.

The reason wasn’t just the camera. It was my whole image. All my clothes I had bought in the communities, and I had little of anything on me when I went out. Speaking some Portuguese helped as well. I also NEVER took pictures of people openly (you’ll get your camera taken regardless). I don’t advocate going into the same areas I went, but try to be smart anytime you are in a place that theft is common.

Oh, and for the picture, Chris set my camera on top of my box of circuit bending supplies. I sell components for bending at Noise Nights, as well as electronic kits and the like.

{ 11 trackbacks }

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marcos Dutra May 18, 2009 at 11:37

As a Brazilian, I think it is important to notice that he went to the worst parts of Brazil, regarding robbery. There are many, many poor areas in Brazil where people are honest and won’t steal. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear about people returning wallets and even money lost. Sao Paulo was rated recently among the most civil cities in the world, meaning that people will open doors for you, help you when you are lost, etc.
Suburban Rio is a case apart because of the influence of drug dealers.
Do NOT take suburban Rio for Brazil !

2 Jimmie Rodgers May 18, 2009 at 12:42

You are absolutely correct Marcos. I traveled a bit while I was there, and Brazil is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. People were also wonderful pretty much every where I went.

I knew exactly where I was, and what I was doing. I even expected to be robbed in the areas I was going to be in, and I was, three times. However, to your point; The last time I spoke portuguese, and I talked the mugger out of robbing me by pleading for my cell phone and bus fair. He left me with my phone, and $10 reais to get home with (just took the rest of my money).

In most cases, they are just people who have been placed in bad situations. Some however have chosen the lives voluntarily, and become banditos, but even then, it’s sometimes due to family need. The whole issue is so monumentally complicated that I’m not even going to try and boil it down here though.

I was actually quite well protected in the communities I did volunteer work in. In Rochina I actually had an escort that also acted as a tour guide. I was brought to places that no tourist would have ever seen. Most of the communities in Rio have the most amazing views of the city. Like this picture which was taken from near the top of Prazeres (a community in Santa Teresa). Though sometimes they won’t let you take pictures, or will ask you to erase the pictures you’ve taken (which I would do on occasion so they wouldn’t just take the camera).

The only times I had problems were in the communities that my organization didn’t do work in, or if I was in a new part of the city that people didn’t recognize me. Word travels fast in the communities though. Towards the end my portuguese leaned towards the style spoken in the communities I worked in. Combine that with the clothes I wore (also bought in the communities), and people generally left me be, even in new parts of the city.

3 Marcos Dutra May 18, 2009 at 12:55

I have to add my gratitute for the work you developed there.
Thanks a lot and may God bless you !

4 Aku May 18, 2009 at 18:16

It looks almost steampunk, actually. I might do this to my camera one day, despite the unlikelihood of it being stolen.
Call me strange, but I think it looks better that way than shiny.

5 Scott Snyder May 18, 2009 at 18:25

I agree with Aku. I think it just looks cooler like this….nevermind the theft protection. I’m gonna tape mine up.

6 guptaxpn May 18, 2009 at 19:09

How exactly did you do this? I own the style of camera! (powershots for the epic-win)

7 Jimmie Rodgers May 18, 2009 at 19:40

guptaxpn, you can check out Chris’s photo set for a full look at the camera:

That was also the link that the picture brought you to in the blog post.

Basically I used some masking tape, an x-acto knife, and a sharpie marker. Very carefully I covered it and cut the tape to fit, then sloppily colored everything black. I made sure to give a bit of clearance to any of the moving parts. Originally it was quite a bit darker, but the black quickly wore off and turned a dirty brown as I used it.

What you are seeing now is over four years of wearing the tape down, which is why some of the shiny corners are now visible. I made sure that the buttons would all still press, and that I could get in and change the batteries and connect the cable.

I did lose the capability to get the CF card out, but with a 2GB capacity (HUGE for the time), I’ve not filled it in a single photography session.

The important part was that I used it like a film camera most of the time. I also got really good at taking shots off the hip. I would just take 10 pictures, and generally a few would come out really well.

Sometimes I would let the kids run off with my camera and take pictures. Since they were in my classes, I knew I would see them again. I never had a problem, and I got back some really great pictures from them.

8 TheSaltyDog May 19, 2009 at 04:58

I joined the Peace Corps in 1978. Music was not a big part of my life, but news was so I wanted a decent battery powered radio. I bought a modest boom box (it was the ’70s). I was concerned about theft. I took some masking tape and wrapped it around one of the handle corners (as if it were broken). Next I took off the treble and bass knobs (does anyone use them) and put them in an envelope. Next, I used duct tape on the cord. I brought it back home with me to grad school. PS – I was robbed 3 times, but the boom box was always there. LOL

9 chaitanyak May 19, 2009 at 08:56

very creative solution!
i did the same with my psp case. instead of using the one the psp comes with, i use an old plastic “pencil box” .. i lined it with a little foam and now it looks like something not worth stealing 🙂

10 Rubens May 19, 2009 at 15:33

Friend congratulations on creativity, I have a machine equal to his, I do the same, because it already had one stolen, you are to be congratulated.


11 penn May 21, 2009 at 18:51


my camera bag is an insulated lunch box, and people are always surprised to see the ~ $1k worth of equipment I pull out of it. I once had a camera stolen on a greyhound (it was in an obvious bag), but they left the laptop that was right next to it (in an old-fashioned briefcase). disguising ftw!

12 Celeste May 21, 2009 at 19:00

My brother did the same when he had a problem where his cell phone was stolen. Since then he always puts tape across the back as though the battery cover is broken.

13 Big_D_Little_t May 21, 2009 at 21:57

I cart my camera gear around to sporting events in an ice chest. It has wheels and a long handle that makes it easy to pull. It can double as a seat. It only cost about $20 or so at WalMart and doesn’t scream expensive camera gear inside, come help yourself. I haven’t uglied up my camera yet, but I’m considering it.

14 cecube May 22, 2009 at 07:34

From what I see, this is quite common with Leica cameras, for example. With a little duct tape over that red dot screaming “I am woth $$$”, they look pretty nondescript and utilitarian.

I don’t have a Leica, but I have a Konica Hexar which I love and do NOT want stolen. I’m happy I covered it generously with black masking tape. It’s got much better grip that way, and the tape protects from little scratches and buffs

15 Curtis Copeland May 22, 2009 at 15:54

Great article. Our teams have been sent into the garbage dumps in Guatemala, the Gypsy villages in Romania, downtown Miami as well as other rather risky areas to take photographs. This is a helpful idea to be more prudent about keeping our equipment safe. Thanks for the great idea!

16 Michelle McGee May 25, 2009 at 03:43


17 Joe May 25, 2009 at 16:53

I know you’re commenting on camouflaging expensive cameras but I use a number of Holgas; they NEED gaffers tape to stop light leaks. You never have to worry about them being stolen or lost either! 🙂

18 alexus2k July 5, 2009 at 17:24

Thanx for good idea, really brilliant solution for anti-theft system for your digital camera. But it will be useful not only poor areas of Rio…

19 Linic December 12, 2009 at 21:57

haha, I’m Brazilian and I thought it was really funny, because people thing Rio is a good place, but every Brazilian knows that they are the most capital with most criminals ad the most violent one. Normally just poor foreign people goes there. At least U went there trying to help.

20 Rafaela December 30, 2009 at 22:12

I agree with Linic, there are so many beeeeeautiful places here, but people seem to enjoy taking risks.. haha Oh, and i’m not just talking about the coast and the forests, but also about the historical cities and our south countryside cities (that match -perfectly- southbrazilian and european culture)

21 jerry May 24, 2010 at 12:55

brilliant! I have good camera is there a kind of tape to use or a way to “dirty ” it up but be able to get it back to looking good again. I might want to sell up some day

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