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Top Five Rules for Travelling With Your Photography Gear

Top Five Rules for Travelling With Your Photography Gear

Air travel is a fact of life for jobbing amateur and professional photographers alike. At some point you need to stuff your gear in a bag and get on a plane. Here are my top 5 rules for air travel.

The starting point for any travel photography piece is about determining how much gear you are going to take. This isn't about the best camera bodies, lenses, lighting gear, or tripods to buy, but rather how you can optimize the kit you do take and the space you fit it into. Along the way I'll cover my five rules.

Your Bag

If you drive to a job, then you invariably take every conceivable piece of gear you might need, shoving it all into the trunk. You could take the same approach with air travel, but that would mean a lot of bags and checked luggage. For any trip, I work on the premise of taking everything in carry-on luggage because that's both cheaper and safer for my camera gear. Nine times out of ten that works. By carry-on luggage I am working on the broad definition of 56x45x25cm which are EasyJet's current standard (with no weight limit). Most airlines in Europe are similar although some are smaller.

Rule 1: Always Check Your Baggage Restrictions

Before you can even begin to think about packing, you need a bag first. Call me a Philistine, but roller bags are pure evil. If there is something I'd like to put in Room 101, then roller bags would be up there. Sure they save your back, but that's where their benefit ends. You trip over them, someone else trips over them, you can't make them smaller if they are too big, you can't carry them on your back, you can't fold them away and, well, they are just shocking for public transport. They are easily wheeled stacking boxes. Period. Dump them if you can.

Given the above, you can probably guess that I'm a fan of rucksacks as offer great flexibility for travel. They're not perfect: there is a tendency to hit people when you turn around, the straps are easily snagged, and they pack from the top making access difficult. However this leads on to rule two:

Rule 2: Don't Take a Camera Bag

Yup, nothing screams "photographer" more than a camera bag making you an immediate target for theft. To add insult to injury, they are damned expensive, for what is a padded bag. My preference for any kind of bag that is going to hold my camera gear is to get a standard bag that is designed to be, well, a bag! Inside that you can then put any number of bespoke padded case inserts to hold your gear. Not tailor made, but ultimately flexible. For travel I now use The North Face Base Camp Duffel bag (a variety of manufacturers make something similar) which sports bomb proof construction, adjustable size, rucksack conversion, and foldable design. For carry-on luggage, go for the small size. Throw in a couple of luggage padlocks and it's a secure setup.

Your Gear

Before you can consider how you are going to pack your gear you need to know what you are going to take which leads to rule three:

Rule 3: Take What You Need

This might seem obvious, except many people work to the principle of "take what you might need"! Begin with the style of photography you are intending to shoot (e.g. street) and then research the locations that you intend to visit. If you know what you are going to shoot and where, then you can draft a shortlist of the kit you will need to achieve that.

On a recent trip I decided I wanted to do a mix of landscape, architectural, and street photography. With my preference for shooting with prime lenses, that meant taking my Nikon D700, 85mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, and 24mm f/2.8, along with my Lee Filters, and 3Pod travel tripod.

I now solely use a ThinkTank Speed Changer for packing my kit. This takes a DSLR body in one half, and then two stacked lenses in the other. The pocket on the front holds accessories, with a separate neoprene case used to pack any extra lenses. That all stows neatly in the bag leaving plenty of space for extras (like clothes!).

Your Accessories

A good exercise in de-cluttering as a pre-cursor to travel is to take the camera bag you normally use and, after removing the camera and any lenses, take everything else out. What have you got there? Probably more than you were expecting to see. Accessories are essential to successful photography, however this leads to rule four:

Rule 4: Question Everything You Take

Power is the first port of call. I use a 4-port USB charger with interchangeable mains plugs, along with whatever cables I need. If your camera charges directly via USB that's great (most Sony's do), however many camera systems supply a bespoke mains charger. Ditch them and go for a generic USB version (e.g. a Nikon one). A spare battery is a good idea, along with a power bank.

Accessories I use for the camera itself (which I've talked about before) include stepper rings (for the Lee filter holder), a wired remote control, lens hoods, and a cleaning cloth/lens pen.

Of course accessories don't actually finish with the camera, as you've got a whole bag full of stuff! Which means that rule five is a variation on rule four:

Rule 5: Question Everything You Take. It's Not All About the Camera!

Other bits of kit I routinely throw in include a folding silicone water bottle (great for not having to always buy water), a folding silicon coffee cup (bring-your-own cups seem to be the latest thing!), USB battery charger (for AA and AAA), and a packable rucksack (useful to use during a visit).

No one likes to travel with more than they need and when you can take advantage of the benefits of carry-on luggage then it's worth investing a bit of time to fine tune that. Have you got any gear tips for traveling?

Lead image courtesy of JESHOOTS-com via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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michael andrew's picture

The lead image makes the plane look like it’s falling out of the sky with that angle.

Tomas Ramoska's picture

Fake sun flare makes me Cringe

Alessandro Molinari's picture

What about the tripod? Did you ever experience problems bringing it inside your cabin luggage?

Mike Smith's picture

It is a small tripod with rear-folding legs so (as you can see in the photo) it easily fits inside the bag. Never had any questions about it.

Jeremiah Cooper's picture

If you're traveling around Southeast Asia on AirAsia they will tell you to check your luggage even if you have a tripod that can fit into your bag.
Happened to me constantly and made each flight about $20 more.

Deleted Account's picture

Think Tank airport security international is what I fly with and have done for a ridiculous number of flights.
18.5kg fully loaded. All Lithium batteries in there too. Plus laptop. When questioned about weight, show them and be straight. It's your job and livelihood. So far, zero issues.
Some trips use smaller planes, so I use a smaller Think Tank roller. I wouldn't go on a trip without it. Solid and safe for my kit.

Tripod and other non-electronic stuff goes in a Pelicase in the hold. Light stands, reflectors, etc, etc, etc. Locked with a TSA combination lock.

On trip to Brazil I was advised to look less conspicuous, so I took a 'hobo bag' One of those cheapass heavy duty laundry bags. The Thinktank fitted in that fine and earring it around Rio it didn't scream camera.

Dan E's picture

The number one rule the author forgot is have all the expensive items insured. Theft and damage.

Mike Smith's picture

Yes, definitely! Good catch

Keith Meinhold's picture

I use a men's toiletry bag for my a6000, lenses, mini tripod etc. Well disguised but a bit odd to walk around with.

Timothy Roper's picture

I use an old-school Domke, which doesn't really look like a camera bag anymore, just a generic canvas bag. Never had any problems at all. As for being a "target" for theft, if you're a white person walking around in a non-Western city, there's no disguising the fact that you're a tourist, and choice of camera bag isn't going to change that. A potential thief would be just as happy with your wallet as a camera. So I wouldn't worry about all that too much. Just be safe.

Darren Loveland's picture

How's your experience with the Domke bag? I like the look of them and want to purchase one for something inconspicuous while on the road, but I've read some negative reviews. Specifically considering the F-5XB. I've read the wax can be a nuisance, zipper is a bit of a tight opening and can scratch the camera body when taking in/out of the bag, not much padding. Any thoughts from your experience?

Timothy Roper's picture

I've had an F-6 for a couple of years now, and really like it. I have and still use a couple of different Think Tank Retrospective bags sometimes, but I wanted the lightest possible bag in the size I needed for travel, and gave the F-6 a try.

When I travel, I’m out on the street shooting all day, and my #1 criteria is being able to get my camera (mirrorless, or DSLR with small prime) in and out of the bag with one hand, and quickly. So zippers on the top would be a deal-breaker for me, too. I wouldn’t even consider that kind of design.

The F-6 cover flap has two latches, and I keep one latch undone, with my working camera on that end, and I can then "peel" the flap back and get the camera in and out, no problem. With other bags, the side “baffles” often get in the way (had to cut one of those off of my ThinkTank). The F-6 is also pretty shallow, which makes in/out easier, too. And I feel the flap is big enough that it’s pretty secure with just one clip attached.

It’s very minimal though with padding only on the bottom. But that’s fine with me. Also, I replaced all the zipper “handles” with cord, as they rattled around like crazy. The strap is also a little narrow, for when the bag’s loaded, but I’ve always like the grippy strips on Domke straps, as they keep the bag in place a little better when on a bike, bending over while on rocks, etc. Other bags can just fly forward, and that's no good. The canvas also provides some friction for this, unlike slick nylon.

The only thing I worry about is, it’s not waterproof at all. Haven’t had it heavy rain yet, but I’m heading out on a trip to Asian next week, and will see how it goes with that. I am bringing the rain cover for one of my ThinkTanks, but in general wet canvas doesn’t sound good at all.

Hope that helps!

Darren Loveland's picture

This is great man, really appreciate the feedback! Good luck on your trip! For what it's worth, I spent a week photographing the Oregon Coast this past December, dead of winter, frequent drizzle, and I used the Lowepro Nova 180, it's not as fashionable as the bags we're talking about, but the weather proofing was clutch, highly recommended if you need weather protection. Cheers!

zave smith's picture

This advice is fine if you are a tourist or traveling on a light equipment assignment. But if you are doing a commercial job where lighting and back up gear is required you are not going to make it on a single carry -on camera bag. On these type of shoots, camera gear goes into a ThinkTank Airport Security V2 bag. The computer goes over my shoulder in a computer bag and the lighting and grip gear goes into the hold. On smaller planes, I often have to gate check the camera bag since the overheads are too small. It took me a while, but I have learned to relax and not worry too much about the gear. It always seems to make it.

I do have a commercial baggage scale to make sure my bags fit the weight requirements. My rule of thumb is only to take​ what you need but I know that the one lens I leave behind since there is no possible way I will be using it, will be the first lens I reach for when I am on set and the client has "altered" the nature of the shot list.

Zave Smith

Reginald Walton's picture

Good advice, but even for rule #2, people pretty much know now what you're carrying in your bag and some don't care, if it's something they can snatch quickly, they will try. I just make sure I keep an eye on my gear and that it's insured.

Robert Nurse's picture

With whom do you insure your gear? I don't have a photography business. I just want to protect my gear.

Reginald Walton's picture

I insure it with the same company that writes my homeowner's policy (The Travelers) and you don't have to have your own business. I have a separate policy with them for my photography gear.

Mark Houston's picture

Rule#6...a complete list of all your gear, the serial numbers and a photo of all the gear laid out on the ground. Upload it to something like google drive so you can get to easily. Nothing sucks more then having fill out a police report after your gear has stolen when you are far from home. Make sure your insurance is up to date.

Adam Peariso's picture

Rule #6 - Get a Carnet

Greg D's picture

I feel you should rethink tip #2 replacing your camera bag with a high end North Face bag still screams steal me!
Its like disguising your Mercedes as a Porsche, someone still gonna assume its full of top end gear of some sort.
Best to place that North Face bag into some random beat up looking generic thrift store bag for safe travel, same with the way you dress.

timgallo's picture

Hey guys, I am going to LA (first time to U.S.) from Japan for a shoot for Japanese client. Is there an advice o what and how to bring gear to U.S. for first timer? What should I prepare myself for? I am still not sure whats easier - bring some lights with me - or rent some in L.A.

Rob Mynard's picture

Crazy trick I learned from my musician days, If you need to put anything of value in the hold of the plane, throw in an athletic starters pistol. They cost about $5, and you can fly with them fine but you need to declare it at check in. Then the airline need to treat it as a secure package, which means they document every staff member who has touched it and exactly where it is at all times, so it won't go missing. You'll also need to sign to collect your bag from a special drop-off section so no need to wait by the carousel with the rest of the commuters...