Apple AirTags are tiny location tracking devices that use BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) technology to connect to your phone or other nearby phones to help you find or track them. You need to be an iPhone user to take advantage of these, but Android users can use similar devices from Tile and achieve most of the same functionality. Since I am an iPhone user, I will be concentrating on the AirTags in this article. AirTags cost $29 for one or $99 for a 4-pack.
What Apple AirTags Are and Are Not
Before we get into the various ways I will be using AirTags, it’s essential to understand how they work. On their own, AirTags cannot transmit any location signal. Instead, they use ultra-wideband technology to connect to nearby Apple devices, sharing the AirTag’s location information. Importantly, this does not have to be your own Apple device, so if you lose something in a public place, it simply needs any other Apple device nearby.
It means that if you lose an AirTag in the wilderness, with no other Apple devices nearby, it will not reveal its location in the Find My application. It does not have a GPS locator or transmitter inside it or a cellular connection to transmit data. However, if you lost it in the wilderness and knew its rough location, you could find it by getting yourself in the right area. Apple says the range is 10m (33ft).
Probably of more use to people is the ultra-wideband technology that piggybacks onto other nearby Apple devices. This feature means that if you lost your AirTag tracked item anywhere in a public location, or if it was stolen in a public location, there is a good chance it will be within range of another Apple device. Then, using the Find My app on your iPhone, you can track that item.
Left Behind Warning
Aside from pinpointing the location of an item, AirTags can also prevent you from leaving them behind in the first place. When you first set up a new AirTag, you can define safe “Home” locations for the item where you will often leave it. Outside of those locations, your iPhone will give you a notification if you leave that item in another location. This function is excellent for small items such as your wallet, which could fall unnoticed from your pocket. If you and your phone get too far from your wallet, you’ll get an instant notification.
What’s great about this feature is that it tells you when your phone loses a signal to that specific AirTag. That means that you don’t need to be close to any other Apple devices for this feature to be helpful. If you are out in the wilderness and you leave something on the ground after stopping to shoot a scene, you will get notified once you walk away without it.
How Can Photographers Use AirTags?
As soon as I heard about this technology, I was curious to see how I could use it to protect or find some of my most crucial photo gear. After some testing, here are the main ways I will be using them.
Memory Card Holder
After a photography trip or a successful client shoot, my memory cards become one of the most valuable things I own until I can get them home and back them up using my 3-2-1 backup strategy. Photography expeditions can cost thousands of dollars, and clients are also paying huge amounts of money. Losing my memory cards would be a disaster, so sticking an AirTag into the pocket of my Think Tank memory card wallet was the very first thing I did.
As I mentioned earlier, another interesting option with the AirTags is the warning you receive when you leave an item in an unknown location. I can see myself using this option with my SD card case. Once that memory card wallet leaves my home or office “safe” locations, there should be no reason for me to leave it in any other location.
I have placed an AirTag into all my usual camera bags. These bags are large enough that it would be difficult to lose them accidentally. I hope that they might help me get my gear back quicker if I was ever unlucky enough to have the bag stolen, or even worse, my car stolen containing my bags. For $29, I feel it’s worth it to try and keep $20,000 worth of gear a little safer.
As much as possible, I have tried to hide their location within the bag. Although many people are selling AirTag keychain holders, I will not use one of these on the key clip in my camera bag and essentially advertise to any thief that they are being tracked. For now, I have stashed them in the hidden corners of the bags. When I have a little more time, I plan on stitching them into the lining.
Note: I am not advocating AirTags as an alternative to photographic equipment insurance. If you carry enough photo gear to use AirTags for this purpose, you should also have insurance. Period. Don’t be another person who gets their bag stolen with no insurance and has to rely on the kindness of strangers through a crowd-funding platform.
What About Cameras or Lenses?
AirTags are relatively new to the market, so I don’t think we have seen the whole gamut of photo-related AirTag accessories just yet. I’m sure at some point; somebody will make AirTag compatible lens caps that will help you track individual lenses, or at least your most expensive ones. I would undoubtedly love a covert way of attaching one to a super-telephoto lens.
Likewise, I would not be surprised to see people come up with AirTag compatible camera straps. Right now, numerous AirTag holders are available for attachment to straps or pet collars. But these are a little too obvious for a camera strap and would be removed immediately by any half-intelligent thief. What I’d like to see is a camera strap that uses some significant shoulder padding to hide the location of the AirTag. If these kinds of products ever come to market, I’ll get my hands on them and add them to this guide.
On-Set Accessory Organization
While researching this AirTag topic I came across a relatively new brand called CRDBAG that is making accessory organizers called the CRDPOUCH for photographers and filmmakers. Each accessory pouch contains a tiny hidden pocket that is designed to hold an AirTag. Brilliant!
Anyone who has worked on a large production, whether it be for film or photo, knows that there are usually cases and gear everywhere. Organizing your gear using AirTags can help you be more efficient and ensure that your gear doesn’t get accidentally packed away into someone else’s case at the end of the day. The precision location function on AirTags allows you to precisely pinpoint their position within a couple of inches, making it easy to find your kit on set.
Update: After publishing this initial AirTags article, CRDBAG offered to send me the CRDPOUCH bags to test. You can find my CRDBAG CRDPOUCH review here.
Uses For AirTags During Travel
Checked Baggage Tracking
I’ll be placing AirTags in all my checked bags when I fly. If you fly enough times, an airline is going to lose your bag. In most cases, I have found that the airlines are quick to figure out the new location of your lost luggage, but it would be nice to verify that myself and track its progress back to me. Although not infallible, I doubt you could move a bag through an airport without it coming within 33ft of an iPhone that will then ping the AirTag’s last-known location to my app.
Valuable Checked Items
As much as possible, I try to carry all my most expensive camera equipment onto the plane in my carry-on. However, sometimes some items are too big and heavy. In particular, I’m thinking about my large studio flashes and expensive carbon tripods. I haven’t done this yet, but before I next fly with things like that, I will certainly consider giving them AirTags. Suppose any light-fingered baggage personnel decide to make these items disappear from my bags. In that case, I’ll hopefully track them separately from the checked bag I initially packed them in.
Tech Case + Hard Drives
My memory card case stays in my camera bag, but all my other tech items live in my Peak Design Tech Pouch inside a laptop bag. This Tech Pouch contains the first backup of my photos on a portable SSD when I’m travelling. It often includes other solid-state drives with copies of my most recent work on them.
When travelling, an additional drive contains a second backup of all my photo from that trip. I don’t keep this copy in the laptop bag with the first one just in case that bag is stolen. It’s always best to separate your backup drives into different bags, so this one goes into my travel duffel bag, which its own AirTag will track.
Losing your passport on a trip would be a disaster, so I immediately stuck an AirTag into my passport wallet. Granted, if your passport gets stolen, the thief will likely remove the passport from the wallet. But if you lose it down the back of an aeroplane seat (yep, I did that once), or forget it in your hotel room, the AirTag will help.