Some lessons learned from traveling with photo gear are learned the hard way. I’ve been traveling with my gear for many years, usually dozens of flights per year through airports large and small, so I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned along the way.
- Travel light. I can’t stress this enough. When it comes right down to it, you really don’t need a ton of lenses, nor do you need two or three of everything as a backup. If you have a critical component that would end your photo trip, then yes, it’s good to have a backup, but think long and hard as to what that is. One zoom can do a lot, but primes are (in general) lighter and take up less space. They’re also usually faster and better quality than zooms, so it’s a trade-off. If you use Lightroom or similar, look at what focal lengths you use the most. You might be surprised as to how few you use.
- Keep the size of your bag in mind. Not all airplanes are created equal. The overhead bins on a Regional Jet or an ATR-45 are much smaller than your typical 737. They may end up checking your bag if it doesn’t fit, and that can mean rough handling. I fit everything into my Think Tank Airport Antidote 2.0 and it works great. There are many other similar bags that work well too, but keep in mind airline’s strict weight limits. Some airlines in Asia and Africa for example, have extremely low weight limits, even for carry-ons, so research each airline that you’re flying on and find out before you have to pay hefty baggage fees. And if you find yourself over the weight limit, offloading some of your gear to a jacket with big pockets usually gets you around it.
- Backpack, shoulder bag, or roller? If you take the advice in #1, I find a backpack to be the best, but if you’re really packing for an expedition, then I’d recommend a roller like the Think Tank Airport International. Some of those walks through airports can get very long if you’re trying to carry 40 lbs. of gear on your back, so save yourself and just get the roller. Note: I usually use one bag to get my gear to my location and then have a “shooting bag” such as a Domke F-2 to carry around just the gear that I need for that day. The canvas Domke bags fold to be very compact and are lightweight.
- What if you have more gear than you can carry on? Then a hard sided case, such as a Pelican case, is by far the best solution as a checked bag. Keep in mind though, that baggage handler thieves have come to realize that valuable things are usually in Pelican cases, so one tip is to put your Pelican case inside a duffel bag and secure it shut with a lock and cable. It’s not quite so obvious that way.
- Security. One of the benefits of some bags is that they have built-in security cables or are lockable. Keep your gear locked with TSA-approved locks at all times. There have been instances where people have had their gear stolen out of their carry-on in the middle of a long international flight as they slept, so keep those locks on at all times. I also purchased a coated metal luggage cable to lock my bag to a fixture in my hotel room while I go out at night. PacSafe also makes a metal mesh net that you can put over your bag that does the same thing. It’s not 100% fool proof, but it is definitely a deterrent.
- Going through security. Security people have a tough job, so do what you can to make it easier on them. Organize your stuff inside your bag so that it’s easily identifiable when it goes through an X-ray. If it’s a rats nest of cables on top of everything else, that looks suspicious and can get you pulled aside. If that happens, just keep your cool, be polite and never ever lose your temper. There are good and bad security people, so if there’s a problem, politely ask to see their supervisor and calmly explain things again.
- Traveling with film. This may not apply to everyone, but I’ll toss it in anyway. I always have my film in my carry-on and let it go through the X-ray. In countless airports through first and third world countries, I’ve never once had fogged film. Having said that, if your film is ISO 800 or above, or you’ll push it to that, definitely ask for a hand check. Make it easy on them – have your film in a transparent Ziploc if that happens so they can quickly see what it is. If you’re shooting large format, keep the boxes sealed but keep your changing bag handy in case they still want to open the box. The KEH blog has a whole separate post on traveling with film, so I’ll leave it at that.
- Tripods. I always have mine in my carry-on or strapped to my backpack, but then I have a super compact tripod – the Induro CT-014 (if you’re looking for that holy grail of lightweight, sturdy and compact, this tripod is it). If you have a larger tripod though, you may be in trouble. In Japan they measured my tripod as I went through security. I don’t know what the limit is, but I was under it. If you put your tripod in your checked bag, then you may want to consider keeping the head in your carry-on. That way, in the worst case scenario that your bag gets stolen, you can still pick up a tripod locally and use your head and plates. Another thing to watch out for if you carry your tripod on the plane is whether it has the sharp metal tips on the legs. Even if they’re retractable, they could cause some raised eyebrows and not be allowed on.
- Backing up your photos. If you’re shooting digital, it’s a great idea to back up your files to at least one, and preferably two places before your flight home. Those are valuable assets! You can back them up to a portable hard drive or something like a Hyperdrive. I also don’t erase memory cards in the field – I keep them as a backup until I get home and back things up yet again. Memory cards are very cheap these days and it’s well worth the extra piece of mind. Note that if you’re traveling with someone, you may want to have them carry one of your backups just in case.
- The best tip I can give (aside from traveling light) is to always keep a good attitude throughout your travels. Be flexible, try to understand local perspectives, stay calm if you run into a “situation” with security. Plan ahead and try to envision realistic situations you might find yourself in. You can’t plan for every possible contingency, so relax and enjoy the fact that you’re traveling the world taking photos!
Text and photos © Mark Olwick
Contributor Bio: I have had a camera in my hands ever since I can remember - more than 40 years. Starting with a Brownie box camera, then 35mm, medium format film, digital and everything in between. I have two true loves in my life - photography and travel.
One of my earliest memories is lying on the floor in our living room reading maps and dreaming of faraway places. Through my photography, I want to capture the emotion of travel rather than the literal interpretation of it. The dream not the reality, and film usually gives me the look that is closest to the vision in my mind.