Five Essential Tips for Traveling Photographers

Five Essential Tips for Traveling Photographers

Traveling for work is like viewing an impressionist painting : From a distance it looks beautiful, but up close it can look like a complete mess.

The good news is that proper preparation can make business travel less messy and chaotic for a photographer. I'd like to cover some steps you can take to make your out-of-town photography ventures more successful.

I love to travel, including my opportunities to travel professionally. As with leisure travel, there are checklists to make and precautions to take. These steps become necessary to protect our gear, career, and sanity.

My first overseas shoot began as everything I had hoped it would be. I had been in Germany translating for a video crew based out of Chicago, as well as shooting and helping out with general tasks. The conference provided me with videography experience plus a bit of time for exploration and adventure (for a work trip, anyway). Photographers seem to have more flexibility than the rest of the working public who are constantly rushing from one meeting to the next, so make use of that time if you have the opportunity.

The rest of my crew had an extended stay planned, but I had to return home for a part-time teaching gig. I was dropped off at the Cologne airport, wherefrom I was supposed to fly nonstop back to Chicago. I approached the check-in counter, and heard something no flier wants to hear: "I'm sorry, but you're not on this flight."

Neither I nor the organizer who’d hired me knew a critical condition of airline travel: When you miss a connecting flight, the airline typically boots you off the returning or following flight. You’re provided no notification, no warning that your ticket has effectively been canceled. This seems to amount to the airline’s payback for your having changed plans. Their obscure policy is now your problem.

After an unplanned 14-hour layover at Atatürk airport in Istanbul, I was finally on my long return flight to Chicago. My travel naiveté created a horrible situation, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

1. Start Prospecting Your Crew Early On

Senior Fstoppers writer Nicole York writes:

Start making connections before you need to travel. It's a lot easier to build a team if you're active in the area beforehand. I always scope out the local scene online in advance so I can make a few connections and build trust before I travel.

This step is imperative if you plan on outsourcing a team for your out-of-town shoot. Especially in the case of second shooters, make sure you've checked your new connections' references and work. Have a phone or video chat with them before confirming their role. This way you know whether they're timely and professional. Your photo or video crew is representing you and your brand, so make sure you're picking the best talent available.

a videographer smiling and giving the peace sign at a conference

Erik, my trusted videographer since 2016. This was taken at our most recent out-of-town conference shoot. San Francisco, January 2020.

Fstoppers writer Shavonne Wong adds:

I send out hundreds of cold emails and follow-ups two months before to talented makeup artists/stylists I want to work with. I send in bulk knowing most won't reply but following up at least twice helps up the chances considerably. I will also contact the local photographers for recommendations on people to work with, best agencies, locations etc.

Make sure that any subcontracted photographers who are shooting under you are keeping all receipts for reimbursable costs incurred on the trip. Also, you and your client should have written agreement on what shall be (or shall not be) reimbursable. In other words, don't forget to hash your expenses out! I've made this oversight before, and the result became a bit uncomfortable.

2. Compare Renting Gear Versus Bringing Your Own

Many shooters use websites like LensRentals.com or BorrowLenses.com and schedule everything they need to arrive at the time of (or before) the shoot. Renting is sometimes the cheaper, simpler option, but that depends on several variables. If you're considering renting, it's worth identifying the FedEx or UPS office closest to where you're staying and shooting. Compare your pickup and drop-off rentals to the costs — and risks — of bringing your own gear. Many hotels and convention centers have their own convenient UPS and FedEx locations, though some charge convenience fees. If those fees aren’t too steep, they can be well worth the convenience and time saved, especially for higher-budget corporate events.

In some cases, you might prefer to use your own gear. The comfort of your trusted cameras with all the internal settings you're accustomed to can be a major plus. If completely rented gear isn't for you, consider flying with just your most crucial equipment and rent the rest.

a silhouetted plane flying in front of the full moon

Some call this a "lucky shot." But just like travel itself, this photo took lots of planning before execution.

3. Gate Checking

“Gate checking” is triggered by a plane’s overhead storage space being entirely filled. You are then forced to hand over carry-on items, which are checked with the rest of the plane's cargo. This procedure is especially common with smaller planes. Do everything you can to avoid gate checking. Your equipment is far too valuable to be tossed around as baggage.

Some airlines offer priority boarding for a reasonable price, allowing you to board earlier before the plane's overhead storage fills up. Manny of Manny Pandya Photography says:

My airline credit card gives me free "priority boarding." I board in group #4 of 9 groups, right behind the high-miler people. The card also gives me free first checked luggage.

Manny also notes that before having his airline credit card, he would often pay for priority boarding — up to $60 per round trip for a single checked bag.

view from an airplane window of clouds below

4. Gear Safety

I have one basic rule for protecting my gear, one I've been concerned to see some photographers break: Never leave a camera bag out of sight while shooting. Thieves in high-crime locations are experts and will try to outsmart you, so research their tricks and stay ahead of them. I've even heard of a thief replacing a camera inside a bag with a light brick, providing ample time to sneak away before the photographer even notices the missing camera.

It's best to keep a low profile when on foot, especially in crowded, touristy locations. Traveling, try to keep logos hidden. I've seen cautious photographers patch up logos on bags or use non-photo bags to stay under the radar of thieves. During road trips, keep your gear out of sight from onlookers at all times. This applies to short stops, too, like stopping for gas. Anything valuable should be in your trunk and / or fully covered. Don't let any of your camera bags show through your car windows, especially if logos are visible.

Bonus tip: If you bring any gear aboard a train or plane, keeping it across the aisle a few rows ahead of you will allow you to keep a good eye on it.

5. Media Rate

Some airlines offer flat rates on checked luggage for traveling photographers, especially those belonging to specific membership societies or types of media companies. This Fstoppers article by Dylan Patrick lays out each airline's policies on checked bags, airline discounts, and more. Make sure you're using shockproof, weatherproof baggage like Pelican brand cases for any checked equipment.

Summary

Traveling for a shoot is a challenging but important part of a photography business. Large-scale shoots require lots of planning — from choosing the right media assistance to making crucial decisions about transporting and protecting camera equipment. But if you plan wisely, you should find traveling to photo or video projects enjoyable and profitable.

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14 Comments

Nick Viton's picture

6. Wash your hands and don't touch your face.

YL Photographie's picture

try to take the plane less often to preserve our planet. some famous youtuber do not stop traveling to show us a beautiful place to photograph but at what price for the planet

Keith Mullin's picture

For the foreseeable future... don't?

Reginald Walton's picture

Some good points, but hiding logos doesn't do any good. If someone is after camera gear, they know what they are looking for and doesn't really matter the brand. If they want your camera gear, hiding the logo isn't going to stop or deter them.

YL Photographie's picture

when i see the number of tourists who are going to visit the Antartica and that certain photographer lovers yet of nature organize workshops there, that scares me, leave nature and wildlife a little bit in peace please. This land was reserved at the time for the scientific world.

Manny Pandya's picture

Very true. Some of the more remote, regional connectors I've been on can't accommodate an in-cabin bag bigger than a briefcase or standard backpack, so even "international sized" rollers have to be gate checked. The good news is that these operations are small enough that you tend to see higher quality of care for your bags and less tossing and tumbling of them.

If you are taking long flights, or going to be walking all day, wear knee-length compression socks. Your body will thank you for it.

The only thing I would add is about lithium ion battery restrictions. Most operators restrict the number of spare batteries and require battery contacts to be covered.

Manny Pandya's picture

I really like the Think Tank soft battery holders. For the spares that don't fit those, they often come with plastic terminal protectors, or just a small strip of gaffing tape over the terminals.

Manny Pandya's picture

Nice job, Scott! SF was a fun shoot, despite having the crud while doing it. For those considering an airline credit card, there are lots of options. I picked the airline that has a hub close to me (American), and I picked the card that gave me lounge access, free priority boarding and 1st checked bag free, and a mile for every dollar spent on the card (I run every expense through this card now, business and personal, and pay it off each month, so pay zero in interest). There's a pretty hefty annual fee associated with that one ($450), but if you travel for work with a roller bag full of gear more than 4 or 5 times a year, it becomes well worth it. First bag checked is often $60/round trip. Priority boarding (important, so you don't get forced to check your roller bag of equipment at the gate) can run up to $50/round trip... over 5 flights that's $550 in fees you don't pay right there. Add to that, the credit card provider reimbursed me for my one-time $100 Global Entry application fee (which includes TSA-Pre for domestic flights) and you can see the benefits stacking up really quickly. TSA/Global Entry is clutch - you usually get through security faster and you don't have to take any equipment out of your bags when you go through security (who wants their lenses rolling around in one of those plastic tubs???), you just put the whole bag through the x-ray with all equipment safely in place; you don't take your shoes off and can even leave your lightweight jacket on as you go through the metal detector (you usually do not go through that scanner that bombards you with microwaves, just an old school metal detector). Also, one shouldn't underestimate the value of having access to the premium lounges. Wicked fast wi-fi, free coffee (good coffee too), decent food and often free beers, waaayyyyy cleaner restrooms and even showers in some city lounges, super comfortable seating throughout, and you can feel much more safe stepping away from your gear for a moment to grab a drink or use the restroom. The guys at my airport lounge know me and even watch the gear for me if I step away for a minute if I ask. When I'm traveling by air, I now often get to the airport way ahead of time and just relax in the lounge and get some work done before my flight. Safe travels all and happy shooting!

Scott Mason's picture

Thanks for coming along and working the SF shoot, Manny! Anyone here who travels frequently should read his above advice. The Mann' knows what he's talking about! ;)

DO NOT PUT YOUR STUFF IN ANOTHER ROW! As full as planes are you just screwed one of the people sitting there and they will have to put their stuff back where you are and there is room. Then when deplaning they have to go against the crowd to get their bag. I fly a lot and see this all the time. The flight attendants should be watching and gate check anyones bag who does that.

Scott Mason's picture

I get the point that you're making, but you're assuming worst case scenario which is that many people will put their bags in a row in front of theirs. Most people do not. But yes, too many people doing this would hold up deplaning.

So I would advise putting bags in front rows, only if there is room in front of your seat, and not behind. If there's plenty of room behind you, it's possible that those in front will stow in back.

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