Why The Art of Observation Is The Most Coveted Skill of Good Private Detectives

Why The Art of Observation Is The Most Coveted Skill of Good Private Detectives

Today in this post I will try to shed some light on Observation which is the most critical job of Artists as well as Private Investigators like us! Observation is a critical aspect of surveillance detection. It also supports antisurveillance, particularly in identifying the need to elude surveillance by detecting it. The Principal’s perceptive ability to observe and retain specifics regarding the surrounding environment enables him to identify indications of surveillance and subsequently confirm them through repeated observations of surveillance operators or vehicles. A sophisticated surveillance team rarely commits tactical errors that allow the Principal to identify its presence during an isolated incident.

Although there are specific surveillance detection maneuvers that are designed to expose surveillance immediately, most depend on the Principal’s ability to observe his surroundings and confirm any suspicions such observation might elicit at subsequent times and locations. When I use the word ‘Principa;’ I imply a person who is being followed. As such this article can also help you become more aware of your surroundings and also help you spot people who you think may be following you.


Best Private Detectives PI's IndiaObservation is the act of seeing or fixing the mind upon something for the purpose of recognizing and retaining some fact or occurrence. It is conducted through the body’s senses of perception. Perception is an individual’s awareness of the elements of environment, gained through physical sensation in reaction to sensory stimulus. Sensory stimulus is perceived by the body’s senses, which consist of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. For surveillance detection purposes, observation relies primarily on the sense of sight, but it can be enhanced by hearing and, to a much lesser degree, smell. Effective observation requires a conscious and continuous effort. This consists of a keen awareness of surrounding activity to observe and retain the images of specific individuals, objects, and occurrences. This includes the perception of shape, size, and features; colors, shades, and lighting; and speed, time, and distance. The process of observation consists of three sub-processes: attention,  perception, and retention.

Attention is the aspect of observation that is most critical to surveillance detection, because without attention, perception and retention are impossible. Attention is the awareness of surroundings that provide the sensory stimulus on which perception is based. People will normally apply voluntary attention to the activity they are undertaking. An item or occurrence that does not fit within an individual’s frame of reference for what is the statusquo normally draws involuntary attention. For example, someone may walk through a crowd of faceless people until a person with a limp immediately draws his involuntary attention. People who are particularly large or small have this same effect, as do bright colors and loud or sharp sounds.

As mentioned, an individual’s attention is normally focused on the activity he is undertaking at the time. His attention is limited to items and occurrences that have direct impact on that activity, unless it is seized by an unusually large, loud, or relatively unanticipated item or occurrence. An individual driving down the road will normally focus his attention on those factors which impact that activity-primarily the traffic and road ahead. The Principal practicing surveillance detection, on the other hand, must expand his attention to include the entire surroundings.The skill of observation requires a knowledge of the principles of perception and an understanding of how they are employed. The most basic detractor one must overcome in attempting to enhance perceptive skills is the tendency to perceive and retain only those items or occurrences that fall within his range of interests or understanding. Everyone has a unique range of interests and understanding based on mental capacity, education, and background.Personal interests are conditioned throughout a lifetime, and to expand observation beyond those requires a conscious and focused effort. Perception is also limited by an individual’s base of knowledge.

The mind tends to either subconsciously filter out items and occurrences for which there is no frame of reference by which to describe them in known terms or retain them for subsequent retrieval. An individual must be constantly aware of these tendencies in order to overcome their impact on observation. Every individual perceives his surroundings uniquely. In the context of observation for the purposes of surveillance detection, the Principal’s frame of reference for how people and vehicles are observed must be expanded through concentration and training. The unassuming individual may view all individuals equally-or ignore them equally. A person who holds ethnic prejudices will immediately avert his attention to those who do not conform to his standard of “normal,” whereas those who do conform will pass unnoticed. A person who has been the victim of a violent crime at the hands of an someone of a particular race or category of persons will display vigilance in directing his attention to those who meet this profile in comparison to others individuals around him.

Another common example of how attention is programmed is that attractive individuals of the opposite sex will normally seize people’s attention. This brief psychological synopsis illustrates the impact an individual’s frame of reference has on his attention. As mentioned previously, perception and retention are only possible after attention is applied. Most people’s perception of what a surveillance operator looks like comes from Hollywood interpretations and spy novels. This frame of reference will only serve to filter out the actual surveillance operators because, contrary to popular perceptions, they will be among the most unassuming individuals on the streets. This perception must be overcome for surveillance detection purposes because otherwise the Principal’s attention will be focused on misconceived indicators.


A basic understanding of the principles of observation is a critical aspect of surveillance detection. Much of surveillance detection depends on observing possible or suspected surveillance operators or vehicles, retaining their images or key aspects thereof, and confirming that they are surveillance operators or vehicles through subsequent observation. Once again, perception and retention are contingent on attention. The Principal’s voluntary attention must transcend the frame of reference that has developed over his lifetime and he must apply attention to all surrounding activity to the greatest degree possible. Then, through a keen knowledge of surveillance tactics and an ability to detect indicators of surveillance, he can eliminate those individuals and vehicles that are not indicative or suspicious and key on those that are.

Any sophisticated surveillance effort operates based on a keen understanding of the principles of observation. A surveillance effort will conform to what most people see as the statusquo or the norm with respect to the surrounding environment. This minimizes or negates the degree to which it draws the involuntary attention of the Principal. Although the Principal cannot discount unique individuals and vehicles immediately, it is safe to say that they will rarely be representative of a sophisticated surveillance effort because of the attention they attract.For the purposes of surveillance detection, the primary objective of observation of surrounding individuals is to retain their characteristics-consisting of features, form, dress, and mannerisms-for later recognition. It is not feasible to retain all of these for each individual observed. The Principal must attempt to key on those characteristics that are the most dominant and difficult to alter.

By so doing, he can concentrate on retaining specific characteristics of a number of surrounding individuals in a short period of time. By keying in on characteristics that are difficult to alter, the Principal does not squander mental resources retaining those that are easily altered and possibly of no subsequent value.

Observation of Features

Detectives Private Eyes Spies India Mumbai PuneBody features consist primarily of face, head, and hair. Three things that directly impact these are gender, race, and age, though these are not considered features in and of themselves because none can stand alone as an identifying characteristic for surveillance detection purposes.Body features are the most accurate characteristics by which to identify individuals. With the exception of hair, these are generally the most difficult and time-consuming to alter. Body features, however, are the most difficult to observe because they require that the Principal be close to the individual under scrutiny. The tactically sound surveillance operator will rarely place himself in a position that allows this degree of observation.

Additionally there are some long-term tactical disadvantages to the Principal’s being in close proximity to a surveillance operator. Facial features consist primarily of the eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, lips, chin, and ears. They can also include wrinkles, scars, dimples, birthmarks, moles, complexion, or other such markings as applicable. With many individuals, these variables can be the most distinguishable for observation purposes. Generally, however, the primary features will be the ones used for retention. The most effective method of observing an individual’s facial features for retention is to first develop an overall image of the face and then key on the most distinguishable feature or features. The head is normally distinguished by its shape. Although this could also qualify as a characteristic of form, it is included in the category of body features because of its impact on facial features and the overall development of a facial image. Additionally, the shape of the head includes the shape of the face. The shape of the head is generally differentiated as being round, high in the crown, bulging at the back, flat at the back, or keel (egg)-shaped. The shape of the face is distinguished by its height and breadth.

Although oval is the most prominent facial shape, faces can also be round, square, broad, fat, thin, or long. Body fat, or the lack thereof, may have a significant impact on the shape of a face.Hair is a significant aspect of an individual’s appearance. It can be a very deceiving feature, however, when one is operating against a sophisticated surveillance effort. As will be discussed in a subsequent section, hair is the surveillance operator’s quickest and most effective method of altering his appearance without resorting to elaborate disguise techniques. Hair is generally distinguished by color, length, texture, body, and style. The lack of head hair is a particularly prevalent feature. Facial hair, which is primarily distinguished by color, texture, and style, is yet another prevalent feature. Additionally, body hair such as arm and leg hair can assist detection observation.

The observation of surrounding vehicles for surveillance detection purposes also depends on the perception of features. Whereas each individual’s appearance is unique in many ways, there is much more duplication among vehicles with regard to makes, models, and colors. For this reason, the ability to observe features that may distinguish one vehicle from like models is critical to surveillance detection. Unique features such as dents, scratches, tires, hubcaps, designs, and distinguishable license plates are examples of those the Principal must concentrate on in order to isolate a possible surveillance vehicle from others on the road. At night, features such as a unique headlight appearance are useful for surveillance detection.

Observation of Form

Form consists of shape, build, and size. The overall body shape is formed by the neck, shoulders, trunk, stomach, buttocks, hips, legs, feet, arms, and hands. Distinguishable aspects of any portion of the body can be isolated for observation purposes.

Body shape is directly affected by body fat and muscularity. The fit of clothing must be considered, as it may distort perception in the observation of body shape. Build is generally categorized as heavy, stocky, medium, slender, and thin. This too is directly affected by body fat and muscularity and an also be distorted by clothing. Size is a relative characteristic based on individual perceptions. It is generally described in terms of height, width, and breadth. In assessing an individual’s size, one must factor in the distortion to perception caused by distance. Height is categorized as short, medium, and tall, but it should be estimated specifically by feet and inches. In assessing an individual’s height, the observer must factor in the distortion to perception that may occur when he and the individual under observation are situated at different levels.

Additionally, height can be altered by thick soles or heels on the shoes. Body width and breadth are particularly subjective and relative to the perception of the individual making the observation. For example, some individuals may be heavy or stocky in build but relatively small in overall size, whereas others are simply big without necessarily being fat or muscular. Again, width and breadth can be distorted by clothing. Finally, posture can have a significant effect on overall form, but this is normally considered a characteristic of mannerisms. Form is also applicable to the detection of surveillance vehicles. From a distance, a vehicle’s form is more readily distinguishable than its features. At night, the form projected by the silhouettes of following vehicles is one of the few things which can be discerned for surveillance detection purposes.

This same silhouette characteristic also applies to forms inside a vehicle, such as those of the occupants.

Observation of Mannerisms

Mannerisms are those characteristics or idiosyncrasies that are unique to an individual. They are peculiarities in action or bearing, including posture, stride, pace of motion, and voice quality. The number of examples is unlimited. Mannerisms that stand out or appear awkward can be effectively exploited for surveillance detection. An individual’s demeanor and bearing are established through myriad mannerisms. These are actions which are either programmed over a lifetime or result from physical characteristics. Those that develop through the years become subconscious actions and therefore can only be controlled by a conscious effort. Mannerisms that result from physical characteristics are much more difficult to alter because the mind cannot control and conceal what the body is unable to. For these reasons, the observation of unique mannerisms in surrounding individuals is an important aspect of surveillance detection. Whereas a surveillance operator can effectively alter appearance through disguise, most mannerisms require a continuous conscious effort to conceal or alter, and many are physically impossible to conceal.Physical mannerisms such as stride and posture are the easiest to observe. Unique physical mannerisms such as limps and nervous twitches are particularly conducive to surveillance detection.

In addition to representing themselves through physical mannerisms, people do so through their outward manner or demeanor. Demeanor generally consists of attitude, disposition, and temperament. These factors significantly influence how people carry themselves. For example, extroverted individuals normally display a more outgoing, positive, or aggressive demeanor. Regardless of his degree of extroversion or introversion, every individual exudes unique characteristics of demeanor that require a conscious effort to alter or conceal. Some of the most difficult mannerisms to control are those associated with nervousness and anticipation. Although surveillance operators will attempt to maintain an inconspicuous demeanor at all times, there is a natural tendency to become driven by the increase in adrenaline brought about by a surveillance operation. This can result in conspicuous actions or mannerisms such as pacing, focused staring, and continuously checking the watch. Other mannerisms that are unique to surveillance operators and may be exploited in surveillance detection observation are those associated with wearing body communications equipment. Many sophisticated surveillance teams equip surveillance operators with concealed body communications equipment for enhanced operational effectiveness. As a result, operators develop such tell-tale idiosyncrasies as adjusting upper-body equipment, talking into their chests, fidgeting with their hands in their pockets, and checking their ears with a finger.

Observation of Dress

Habits of dress are characteristics an individual develops over a lifetime. They are influenced by factors such as background, heritage, status, profession, and life-style. Some individuals are meticulous in the selection and maintenance of their clothing while others give this aspect of their outward appearance little concern. A person’s position along this spectrum of dress dictates the fashion in which he feels natural, comfortable, and confident. This is an important factor from the perspective of surveillance detection because individuals have a tendency to appear unnatural when dressing in a manner that does not conform to their standard of fashion. A surveillance operator may be required to dress in a manner that is not natural for him in order to blend in with a particular situation and surrounding. The appearance of dress and mannerisms associated with discomfort or unfamiliarity may be detected by the Principal.Dress is an aspect of appearance that is more readily observed from a distance than many others, such as body features. Unless someone is making an active effort to observe the dress of surrounding individuals, his attention will normally be drawn only to clothing that does not conform to his standards.

Unique, striking, or colorful clothing will usually draw involuntary attention. Although clothing is an important criterion for the observation of surrounding individuals for detection purposes, a sophisticated surveillance team will make efforts to minimize the impact that dress might have on the compromise of surveillance operators. They will there ore dress in a manner that conforms to the standards of the surrounding populace. Furthermore, the surveillance effort will likely capitalize on the ease with which appearance can be altered by changing clothing in order to degrade the effectiveness of surveillance detection. Dress also includes jewelry. A sophisticated surveillance effort will generally forego wearing it because the purpose of jewelry is to attract attention-which, of course, the surveillance effort is actively attempting to avoid. There are, however, some cases in which wearing jewelry lends itself to surveillance detection. Most basically, there are some minor items of jewelry, such as wedding bands and watches, that surveillance operators may continue to wear despite the risk. A watch is an extremely important piece of equipment to surveillance operators. Since they will rarely own enough watches to match the number of times they are required to change clothing, they will generally accept the risk of wearing the same watch. Rings will generally leave identifiable marks such as tan lines on the fingers. When a surveillance operator changes clothing, he may opt to continue wearing a ring if there is no replacement, because otherwise the resulting identifiable mark will appear even more conspicuous to the individual practicing surveillance detection.

Observation of Disguise

The fact that a sophisticated surveillance effort will use disguise to minimize the probability of detection is n aspect of surveillance detection that can make observation difficult. The initial exposure of a surveillance operator to the Principal is not critical, but all subsequent instances of exposure disproportionately increase the probability of detection. The use of disguise allows a surveillance team to project the appearance of different individuals, making it much more difficult for the Principal to isolate a single surveillance operator for detection. Recall that for the purposes of surveillance detection, observation involves concentrating on features, form, dress, and mannerisms. Surveillance operators use disguise to alter each of these aspects of appearance and thereby deceive the Principal. Many characteristics of appearance are easy to alter, while others are difficult if not impossible. Most features require extensive disguising techniques to conceal or alter. The primary exception to this is hair, which is the single most effective means of altering appearance. By cutting, dying, or restyling hair, or shaving facial hair, a surveillance operator can drastically alter his appearance.Form is altered primarily by clothing. Changing to or from loose-fitting clothing can project the illusion of a different form. Deceptive devices such as shoulder pads or pregnancy pillows may also be used to alter form. Height can only be altered by thick-soled or heeled shoes, which are readily detectable through observation.

Changing posture can also alter form. Surveillance operators use clothing to alter appearance by simply changing clothing from one portion of a surveillance operation to another. Altering mannerisms is more difficult because it requires constant concentration on the part of a surveillance operator. Some mannerisms are physically impossible to alter or conceal. Although disguise makes surveillance detection much more difficult, there are techniques that can be used to minimize its effectiveness. The first critical factor to understand is that if a disguise is not complete, it actually increases the surveillance operator’s vulnerability to detection by an actively observant Principal. Normally the degree of disguise that a surveillance operator employs is proportionate to the degree to which he has been exposed to the Principal. This is a subjective judgment that is also influenced by an assessment of how observant the Principal may be. In many cases the surveillance operator will employ only a partial disguise as a standard security precaution after a period of minimal exposure to the Principal. A total disguise is reserved for circumstances in which the surveillance operator was forced relatively close to, or received a degree of scrutiny from, the Principal. This can be exploited in surveillance detection. The Principal should practice observation in a manner that is natural and unalarming. This serves to deceive surveillance operators into employing partial disguise as opposed to total disguise. One of the most effective methods of surveillance detection is to confirm that a surveillance operator is using disguise. By using a partial disguise, a surveillance operator may alter some characteristics of appearance while leaving others unaltered. For example, the  urveillance operator may shave his mustache, restyle his hair, and change clothes, but leave on the same pair of shoes, the same atch, and walk with the same stride. This can completely reverse the effects of disguise by confirming to the observant Principal that surveillance is present.

Observation at Night

Observation is significantly limited at night due the obvious physiological limitations of the eyes. Visual illusions are also common when observing at night. An understanding of the principles of darkness adaptation will assist in the effectiveness of night observation. Darkness adaptation is the process by which the human eye increases in sensitivity to low levels of light. Since vision is made possible by reflected light, effective observation is directly proportional to the degree of light available. Although individuals vary in degrees and rates of dark adaptation, eye sensitivity generally increases about 10,000 times during the first 30 minutes in the dark. After that point eye sensitivity increases very little. Visual sharpness at night is about one-seventh of what it is during the day, significantly reducing visual acuity. This dictates that object identification at night is generally limited to silhouettes and forms. Depth and color perception are also affected. At night, color perception is generally limited to distinguishing between light and dark colors, and even this is dependent on the intensity of reflected light. Adaptation is adversely affected by exposure to bright lights  such as matches and headlights. In order to maintain darkness adaptation, the eyes should be covered to avoid the effects of such lights. Recall that initial adaptation takes up to 30 minutes. Recovery from exposure to bright lights can take up to 45 min utes. Adaptation to darkness is adversely affected by the use of night vision devices. If full adaptation is made before using night vision devices, however, it can be regained within two minutes after their use. The use of night vision devices decreases the senses of hearing and smell due to the concentration required for effective sight. There are two methods of observation that can be used to enhance visual effectiveness in darkness. Both are based on the fact that central viewing, or looking directly at an object, is ineffective at night due to the night blind spot that exists during low illumination. At night, it is essential to avoid looking directly at a faintly visible object because of this night blind spot.Scanning is a method which enables the Principal to overcome many of the physiological limitations of the eyes as well as reducing confusing visual illusions in darkness. This method consists of scanning from left to right, or right to left, using a slow, standardized eye movement. Figure 1 depicts two typical scan ning patterns. Off-center viewing is another way to avoid the limitations of central viewing at night. This technique consists of viewing an object by looking slightly above, below, or to either side rather than directly at it. Figure 2 depicts points of observation (circles) around the target object.

Even when off-center viewing is used, the image of an object becomes a solid, bleached-out tone when viewed for longer than three to five seconds. For this reason, it is important to shift the eyes regularly from one off-center point to another to maintain an uninterrupted peripheral field of vision.

I hope this article has enlightened you on the skills required for our job. It sure aint easy and it is why we charge what we do and deliver what we promise to!

Author Bio

Amit Sen, a commercial pilot by training, has over 15 years experience in the space of corporate investigations, handling Copyright & Trademark infringement cases, Pre – employment verification Industrial Espionage investigations, Asset & Net – Worth assessment assignments and vendor / supplier verification cases, among others. Co-founder of Alliance One – which is the best private investigation firm in India. Amit has also successfully completed assignments in a wide range of sectors, including the machine tools industry, pharmaceutical industry, hospitality sector, specialized equipment (Oil & natural gas sector, aviation industry etc.), telecom industry & the IT & ITes sectors. These cases have all involved both offline and online investigations.

Article edited and co-written by Atin Dasgupta who is the co-founder and marketing head of Alliance One. Read more about Atin here.

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