Tips for Flying With Camera Gear

Tips for Flying With Camera Gear

Flying with camera gear can be intimidating. Airports, security checks, will you get your bag on the plane or will someone try to make you check it, and more sources of stress. I have some tips that have helped make the experience easier for me.

I’m a nervous flyer. The experience often causes some mild form of anxiety, though it does get easier the more I fly. These days, it is just the hassle of getting through security that is annoying and less fear of the plane falling out of the air.

But, to make the most of the time we have away from work, flying is often the best means to make the most of it. As a landscape photographer, many trips involve flying to new locations or old favorites to photograph and because of that, I have a few tips to make flying with camera gear less stressful.

All of my flying experience is within the United States and my tips are based on that. But almost all of the same applies to International flights — just double-check airport security rules and bag sizes, which might vary.

What I Carry

Let’s talk about what I typically take on airplane trips. Gear can change depending on the length of the trip and my destination, but I have carried some variation of these items at some point.

  • Main Camera Body
  • Backup Camera Body
  • Up to Three Lenses
  • Tripod(s)
  • Filters
  • Video Camera
  • Action Cam
  • Drone
  • Audio Gear
  • Batteries
  • Chargers
  • Camera Cleaning Gea
  • iPad or Laptop 

I have a YouTube channel and my trips often include some form of video, so I have an extra camera for video, an extra tripod, and so on. 

Camera Bag

The camera bag is an important choice if you are flying. My current bag of choice for travel is a Shimoda Designs Explore 35L v2. Though it won’t fit under the seat, it doesn’t take up too much space and doesn’t attract too much attention going through security or when boarding the plane.  

You want your camera gear to be carry-on, so make sure your camera bag fits the necessary size requirements for your airline. A 30L to 40L bag often works well for this - regardless of the camera bag brand. 

Packing the Camera Bag

I have a general strategy for packing the camera bag in case I am forced to check the bag.

On the outside of the bag, I attach my tripod. The Shimoda Designs bag can easily accommodate a tripod on either side of the bag. I use a tripod well suited for travel, an FLM CP30-S4. The FLM tripod isn’t the tallest, but it is lightweight and collapses to approximately 19”, allowing it to snug up against the camera bag and not draw too much attention. I remove the ball head and keep it inside the camera bag - this helps keep anything from sticking above the top of the camera bag.

Inside the camera bag, I use a medium core unit and my camera bodies and lenses go in it. I make sure anything I consider valuable fits in the core unit of the camera bag.

My spare batteries, chargers, memory cards, filters, and audio gear go in the flex space above the core unit, and use tech pouches to help organize things inside the bag. My laptop or iPad goes in the laptop sleeve in the camera bag.

Airport Security

The most stressful part of flying for me is going through the airport security line. Firstly, read the rules for security checkpoints for the airports you will be traveling through. In the US, that will be the TSA. Within the US, there are three items I keep in mind when planning what I pack. 

Batteries: Lithium batteries cannot be checked, they belong in your carry-on. Camera batteries, drone batteries, action cam batteries - they all go in your carry-on. I also keep my batteries in cases (plastic or battery bags) as recommended, though this has never been checked by security.

Tripod feet: I use the foot pads and not spikes, but if you use spikes on your tripod legs, remove them and put them in your checked luggage. 

Finally, I tend to carry a knife, either on my person or in my camera bag. Remember to remove any knives and make sure they go in checked luggage. I dread the day I forget to do this.

Once you get to the checkpoint, the rules start to vary depending on which scanning machine they are using for your line. This can vary by airport and even by line at the airport. 

If you get lucky, they use a machine that doesn’t make you remove your laptop or iPad from the camera bag. Other times, you have to remove them for scanning. Pay attention to the security agents as you approach, they are typically announcing it frequently as you wait your turn.  I have never had to remove any camera gear from the bag, regardless of which scanning machine was used.

Boarding the Plane

You’ve made it past security and now the plane is boarding. For carry-on items, there are two options for where you can put the camera bag. One is under the seat in front of you and the other is in the overhead compartment. 

There isn’t much room under the seat in front of you. My current camera bag will not fit there, so that is not an option. Using a smaller camera bag under the seat might make this part of the process less stressful, as that spot is always available.

My bag, the Shimoda Designs Explore 35L v2, fits in an overhead compartment. The key is boarding the plane early enough that there is still room in the overhead compartments for your camera bag. When those are full, the gate operators will start making people check their carry-on items.

The easiest way to avoid that situation is to be sure you are an early boarder. For some airlines, that means checking in at a specific time or paying for an early pass. I always do that to ensure an early boarding position. This has always worked for me and there has always been room for my camera bag.

But what if something causes me to board late and they want me to check my bag? I have two contingency plans for that.

They Want Me to Check My Bag

If a gate operator or flight attendant asks me to check my bag, my first strategy will be to explain that I have camera gear that is expensive and fragile. I will also note that I have several lithium batteries scattered through the bag, which should not be checked. 

Be kind. There is no reason to get mad if this happens. Try to explain your situation and see if they can help you. Maybe they can get someone else to check their bag to make room for yours or have a spot where they can stow it.

If this doesn’t work, my plan relies on how I packed my bag initially. All my valuable and potentially fragile items are packed in my core unit. I keep a dust cover bag in my Shimoda. This dust cover has a zipper and in this type of situation, allow me to remove the core unit, put it in the zippered dust cover, and let them check the main camera bag while I keep the dust bag-covered core unit with me. 

Wrap Up

With proper planning and preparation, flying with your camera gear can be minimal stress. I’ve used these suggestions outlined here many times and have not experienced issues getting my camera gear from one place to another.

How about you? Do you have some additional tips for flying with camera gear?

Jeffrey Tadlock's picture

Jeffrey Tadlock is an Ohio-based landscape photographer with frequent travels regionally and within the US to explore various landscapes. Jeffrey enjoys the process and experience of capturing images as much as the final image itself.

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Nice article!

If I may put my two cents in:

"... they use a machine that doesn’t make you remove your laptop or iPad from the camera bag" --- Get in a trusted traveler program (TSA Precheck or Global Entry), and you will never be asked to remove your electronics from your luggage or take off your shoes.

"you are an early boarder" --- Join the frequently flyer programs, and after a few long distance flights with the program partners, you are always within one of first boarding groups.

Some credit cards also place you in prefered boarding groups.

Great point on TSA Precheck or Global Entry. TSA Precheck is on my list of things to do to help reduce hassle of going through security. That would certainly make the experience a little more pleasant.

I don’t seem to fly quite frequently enough to get into the frequent flyer programs. I should do as you note and check my credit card perks and see if there is something I can take advantage of there!

Great additional tips!

I go between the US and Canada a lot, so I enrolled in the NEXUS system. Makes it a whole lot easier.

I will take a look at that! I've had a couple of ideas for photographing in Canada.

Very useful article indeed, thanks!
A couple of additional things to look out for - in some countries (notably Iran so far for me) the airport staff may make a fuss about allowing you to take a tripod in your cabin baggage. I think this has happened four or five times (I forget which other countries) but, as the author states, staying calm and friendly and polite has done the trick each time.
The other slight inconvenience I have encountered was flying into and out of Georgia (country, not state!) where I had to visit the customs office and show each piece of camera equipment whilst they filled in a form. I completely forgot this as I left the country, and was kept to one side at passport control while they fetched a customs officer to check I still had all my equipment with me - presumably to stop people importing and selling such items without paying tax.
As an aside, I travel very often, and I reckon that about 50% of airports have insisted that I empty out my camera bags at the security check. Not a big deal, but with all these things in mind, it is worth arriving at the airport perhaps a little earlier to be sure of having enough time!

Thanks for the additional tip - I admittedly have not done much International travel.

Good to know about the tripod. I was a bit nervous to try it the first time in the US, but I’ve never had any problems. Will keep that in mind for future trips, as I am not adverse to putting the tripod safely tucked away in a checked bag - I often do that with the tripod I use for video on these trips and just keep the still photo tripod with me.

And always good to allow extra time. I should have noted that in the article. I am one of those people that much prefer to get to the airport too early and wait on the other side of security than trying to cut it too close

I travel internationally and I often get pulled aside after x-ray. They make me pull things out of my camera/laptop bag and visually inspect. I think it's usually because of all the chargers, wall warts, international converter plugs and wires.

Good point! I do actually have a wireless charger that I’ve been stopped twice for after x-ray and both times it has been that wireless charger they want to check.

Good article. I had to look twice at that bag for a second - it's near identical to mine even down to the Kase lens covers and filters !

As an International traveller there may be some differences with US domestic. This year (I've been resident in China for the past 25 years) I've been home (UK), Iceland, Hungary, Germany, France, Spain and South Africa (as well as a few countries closer to Shanghai). This is typical for a non-Covid year.

The first thing I'd say is to have all your batteries in one small zipped bag (I keep this in the top of my Shimoda) as it is best to keep these separate and pull the bag out when going through security. I've never had an issue doing it this way.

The second is I'd never take a tripod on a plane as I've heard numerous stories of issues, it always goes in my hold luggage (if I don't have any then I don't take a good tripod - anything I can afford to lose or damage is fine and I take a small tripod bag to put it in and check if necessary or afford to have it confiscated if I'm already at security, though that has never happened to date). The ballhead is either checked or, if there is enough space, in my backpack.

Thirdly note that some countries have restrictions on the maximum size of powerbanks (not the numbers just the size). Check before you fly, if they do then take numerous small powerbanks rather than one large one.

Note that some countries have restrictions on Drones (I had one confiscated in Morocco, it was returned when I left the country but it will be an issue if not flying home from the same airport).

I never store my bag under the seat in front - you then have zero place to put your feet (if in economy, which I will only fly for short trips. There is so much more leniency, and extra baggage and carry on allowances, with Business class travel). So if flying economy ALWAYS buy the early boarding option and there is no reason to ever be late, buy lounge passes and spend a couple of hours hydrating and eating the 'free' food before you leave.

If it seems like they are gate-checking bags then having a backpack is much better than a roller. Often just carrying it on your bag (even if 15 kgs like mine sometimes is!) is enough not to attract attention.

It’s a great bag for traveling! I have a larger Action 50, but the 35L seems a good size for airplane travel.

Good tip on the batteries, I do keep all mine in a small zippered tech pouch (though if ever asked to check the bag, I would likely make it sound like it was harder for me to find all my batteries than it really would be… I also keep them in plastic cases or “battery bags” in case they are ever concerned about something shorting out.

I hadn’t heard tripod horror stories - maybe just the spiked feet thing. Of course, nearly all my travel is within the US. And I do take my shorter collapsed height tripod when flying to help not draw attention (with the ball head removed as well, so it snugs right in next to the bag). Usually put the ball head in the top of the Shimoda bag.

Good advice on the power banks. I should have called that out more clearly that there can be guidelines on max size of the power bank. I’ve probably gotten lazy there as I’ve never been stopped for my power banks before (I tend to travel with two these days).

Bag under the seat definitely isn’t the most comfortable. I don’t mind keeping it in the overhead, it is just sort of nice knowing if I *could* stash it under the seat in front of me in a case they’re trying to make me check it.

And much to my wife’s chagrin, I am definitely an early to the airport person. I’d much rather relax on the other side of security than be anxious hoping I timed things okay or that there are no hiccups getting to the airport, getting parked, going through security, etc.

Thanks for all the tips! Great stuff!

On a recent trip, when leaving from the Amman Jordan airport, (after 3 separate x-ray/metal detectors) had all my lenses/bodies in my backpack wiped for explosives. That was ok but my passport was taken and I was detained for 45 min. over my Giottos Rocket Air Blaster Small Dust-Removal Tool (Black)! They just couldn't figure what it was despite my demonstration. Their final resolution was an instruction for me to ship it! This wasn't feasible so I told them to keep it and I was on my way!

Oh - that sounds like an experience that would have caused me lots of anxiety! I'm not sure I am cut out for International air travel with camera gear!

Not to worry! Been to England, Germany, Switzerland, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe.... all with carry-on camera gear. Never had an issue until Jordan (probably higher security since Gaza war).

That sounds like some great traveling!! I am embarrassingly limited on the amount of International travel I've done...

Yeah they really don't like the red/black air blowers, I've traveled with a smaller blue/white one from Zeiss that seems to elicit less suspicion than the Giotto... You gotta admit between it's colors and fins it does look like a bomb, even it's it's a cartoon-y one. You're not the first photog I've heard who had an issue with a Giotto blower, so I never even tried flying with mine.

Oh wow! I tend to fly with one, the smaller-sized one, but it is a red/black Giotto!

Thanks for the tip.

I was once forced to take every lens (about half a dozen) out of my bag, small or large, I guess security was just feeling extra special that day... Generally I don't travel with a lot and most of my gear fits in a 20L Peak Everyday backpack which will actually fit under a seat. I keep some extra lenses in my carry on at times, but on a 6L Sling that I can take out if I'm forced to check it.

Generally the advice to stay calm when they come up to you and start talking about checking bags does seem to pay dividends. On two occasions I've asked why my 45L Travel Backpack would need to be checked (politely) and both times they said it's size, I then asked if they had the bracket to check the bag's size nearby and when it fit they let me thru with it both times.

So far I've only actually needed to check the 45L once, when it wouldn't fit in the overhead bin of a smaller/older plane. On Delta flights after a certain boarding group they seem to start checking all rolling bags to speed up boarding but crucially they don't seem to care about backpacks so I've sailed thru with my 20L in front (personal item) and my 45L on my back (carry-on, more like 35L if not expanded).

Traveling with a 20L bag sounds nice! I tend to take too much gear and squeeze it all into the 35L. The gear all fits, just makes for a heavy bag...

Always have a plan B when traveling! Budget carriers are perhaps the most difficult to travel on without uncharges for roll-aboard, or anything that's not an undersea bag. Not to mention that there are budget, tourist airlines that will deny carry-ons over a weight that seems ridiculously low. You have to know the rules before you buy the ticket. Those airings to the tropics will make a lot of money with cargo, and they will give yo a check it or trash it choice that's a losing option either way and will cost more than what you saved with a cheap fare.

A plan B is always good! And an excellent point on being very familiar with the rules for the specific airline you are flying with. I tend to stick with one to two airlines when possible. Some off the budget airlines out there do like to charge you for every single thing!

I've travelled on way too many flights with camera gear. I used to fly all over the country doing shoots on college campuses. Two things to add.

1) Always be early and plan for getting searched/delayed. Don't schedule flights too close to the ending time of a shoot. As a photographer, we almost always have something we can work on with our laptop in an airport, so being early and waiting a little longer before you get on a flight shouldn't be a big issue.

2) Whenever I am placing the bag on the scanner, I usually try to tell the person working there that I am a photographer, I fly a lot, and I have no problem opening up anything to show them what I have. Being polite and overly accommodating has always worked for me - I still get checked every now and then, but it generally goes quickly.

The only issue I ever had was when I was flying with a SunPak 622 Super (the potato masher) flash. I was running it off of a Tenergy RC car battery pack and it was just after the Boston marathon bombing where they used the exact same batteries. Evidently the giant capacitor inside the unit looks somewhat "bomb like". I had to show them on the internet that it is a commercially available unit and demonstrate how it worked. They still didn't want me to board the plane with the batteries (not lithium), but ultimately allowed it.

Excellent tips! I am definitely an early arrived to the airport. It just helps lower my anxiety around long security lines, the potential of getting a bag hand-checked etc, etc.

I used to tell the person running bags I was a photographer, but have fallen out of that habit. They just haven't seemed to care when I go through... But still, a good tip, you never know!

Excellent article. On my last trip to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines, I got to the ticket counter early and politely expressed concern about my Think Tank Photo Airport bag. The agent winked at me and reached behind the counter and produced a red tag that she stapled to the handle. "This one stays in the cabin!" she said with a smile.

Oh! That would have been nice! And funny - I was just looking at flights to Alaska a little earlier this week!

TSA precheck all the way. Get it, don't even think about it, just get it. Just keep in mind if you travel internationally it won't help you there on inbound flights back to the States. But if you mostly travel domestic, its a no brainer. $75 /year for quick access through a seperate TSA line, and you remove nothing.

Second, I would never trust traveling with my gear in a soft case or bag for the exact scenario of potential checked. Hard case all the way. I just picked up a Nanuk 935 carry on hard case, and have never looked back since. I got the built-in TSA locks accessory. Solid, solid case, better than the Pelican version imo. If it were ever checked, I feel confident my gear is protected and that folks aren't speedingly helping themselves to free gear.

My bro-in-law used to be a baggage handler for a major airline. Without getting into all the interesting nightmarish details and stories, you don't want to use a soft case for checked in baggage. That's akin to placing a "Toss me extra hard" sticker on it. Your damaged gear hurts you and your insurance provider, not their paycheck. You may have been fortunate thus far, but each and every instance is a gamble. Do NOT expect the airlines to care.

The tip about telling the boarding attendant you have Lion batteries on your bag/case worked for me on my last flight to Singapore. 09/17/23 when she insisted I'd have to check it because of limited space in the overheads. That almost didn't work even reporting the LiOn. It seems that Lion is a policy more than a hard rule, so it could still get checked or worse, they'll tell you to toss them.

I really need to stop being lazy and get TSA precheck - especially when I know it would help reduce some off the anxiety around my least favorite part of flying these days.

A hard case would definitely add additional protection. I'd just have to figure out what to do with my camera bag - I guess fill it with clothes and put it in a duffel so I had it available to me when I reached my destination for hiking.

I've never been sure if the batteries thing would work or not, I was hoping it would if done kindly - or at least open up some room for discussion on options.

Thanks for the tips!

One additional tip if your airline is strict on the weight of your carry-on baggage: If you are above the limit put a lens and/or batteries in your jacket until you are below it. After the check (and outside the view of the person enforcing the limit) you can put it back. ;-)

I really like this tip! Thanks for sharing it!

I recently traveled out to Colorado. I used the TSA Precheck and it was a breeze getting through security. I also paid a few extra bucks on Southwest Airlines to get priority boarding and had no trouble getting space in a overhead bin. It's worth it to me to spend a couple of extra bucks to know that you can keep your gear safe.

I definitely need to get TSA Precheck, it would help make things so much easier.

Southwest is usually my preferred airline, and I always get the early bird boarding - though on the way to Arizona on my most recent trip, I ended up with B20 even with early bird (to be fair, I had made a change to my original flight dates, though still several weeks ahead.

If feasible with every other criterion here satisfied, it's better to have a bag that looks like "just a backpack" or "just a suitcase" than one that screams "camera bag!" from across a concourse. This may be easier for amateurs than for pros who have more specific, high-volume packing needs.

Let the grab-and-go thief at least weigh the likelihood that he's making off with some underwear, toothpaste and a paperback novel -- not thousands of dollars' worth of easily fenced electronics and optics!

This is a great point - and potentially a whole other article. How do you try to prevent theft of your gear when traveling (or even in general really). Definitely agree, if you can make it look like you aren't carrying expensive gear that is a big first step!

I put all my gear into a Billingham photovest, which I then put into a carry on roller. I travel extensively and have never had an issue even though I am overweight for a carry on.

But if I ever have to check the roller, I will just wear the vest.

Someone just gave me a photo vest several weeks ago. I haven't quite adopted it into my workflow yet, but I love all the pockets!