How to Travel with Your Camera Gear

It is becoming more difficult to travel securely with camera equipment. This presents problems for photographers as airlines are not responsible for lost or damaged electronic or camera equipment. It will do no good to yell and argue with airline employees, so do what you can to protect your equipment before you arrive at the airport.

Checked Luggage

Sometimes the amount of gear required for an assignment is more than is allowed as carry-on baggage. This has not been a problem since there are companies that make cases to safely ship photo gear. Pelican and Light Box are two of them that I recommend. The cases are well padded and with the proper lock are virtually safe from anything except actual theft. The problem now, at the time of writing this book, is that the only way to lock your suitcase when checking it at airports is to use a new generation of travel locks that airport security people have keys to. The locks are getting better but the manufacturers are only now making them substantial enough to offer any real deterrent to break-ins. These locks are only good if you have an external means of attaching the lock. Cases with only combination locks are not supposed to be locked when checking them in at an airport.

One solution is offered by the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP). When using a combination lock on checked luggage, tape a note onto the case with instructions that you are reachable by cell phone up until the plane actually boards and that if security personnel need to open the case, they can call you for the combination to safely open the lock. You will need to carry a cell phone to receive the call and need to have phone reception in the event security does need to reach you. Whether or not this will work every time, I do not know. At least one other photographer who used this technique did not have any trouble. This plan will only work on U. S. domestic flights. If you are traveling outside the United States, your bags are at higher risk once you enter another country. If you do lock your bag with a heavy-duty lock within the United States, you take the risk of having security personnel force your case open, possibly rendering it useless as a carry case. If you do not lock your bag in a foreign country, you take the risk of having anyone with access to your luggage steal your bag. The only way to ensure that your camera gear ar¬rives at the same destination as you do is to carry it with you, but that also poses some problems.

Carry-on Luggage

Carry-on luggage for domestic travel is now limited to one carry-on and one small personal item. However, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has an exemption for photographic equipment. If you go to their website and click on “transporting special items,” then on “Photographic equipment,” you learn that “You may carry one (I) bag of photographic equipment in addition to one (1) carry-on and one (1) personal item through the screening checkpoint. The additional bag must conform to your air carrier's carry-on restrictions for size and weight.”

TSA also informs you that your individual carrier may not allow the extra bag, so you should check with the carrier before departure. When I checked with a few of the major carriers, they told me that when transporting photographic equipment you would be allowed an additional camera bag, however I had to go through a couple of layers of customer service people to find that out. It was a surprise to them. If you plan on using the extra bag exemption, I would print out the page from the TSA website for reference and also see if I could get some verification in your file from your airline. If you are traveling international, the carrier may also allow the extra bag, however the country you are traveling to may not. At least domestic travel is getting somewhat easier.

For the cameras and lenses, you will need to use your carry-on bag allotment. I use the largest camera bag allowed by the airlines, a Lowe Pro Vertex 300, and a smaller top-loading bag for extra gear. Even though this bag is allowed on larger jets, smaller planes will require you to gate check even a bag of this size. If you have the room, pack some clothes around the loose gear in your bag for extra protection. The good news is that you can lock carry-on bags after they have been screened by security. If you are forced to gate-check your camera bag, lock it before it is taken from you. Remembering that you “get more bees with honey,” be nice to flight attendants and explain your dilemma to them. Most flight attendants will try their best to help you as long as your bag is within the size limits and you have not over-packed it. In any event, you are at the mercy of the people you are dealing with, smile, be nice, and pack your bag as though it is going to be taken from you.

Another method of transporting extra gear is to carry it in the pockets of a camera vest. This too must be done within reason. I saw one photographer have to check excess gear he was carrying on him because it was spilling over into the adjoining seat. Still, photo vests have pockets big enough for many lenses and it can cover you if all of your gear does not fit into your camera bag. It weighs you down, but I do know more than one photographer who uses this technique.

All of these packing woes is yet another reason for choosing the right equipment to bring. If you think you may need it, you should bring it, but if you know you will not be using it, then leave it home.

Make sure you bring everything you intended to bring. It is so annoying to arrive at your destination and realize the battery charger (flash cards, extra batteries, cleaning material, and the list goes on) that you put on the dresser to pack is still on the dresser. Make a list and check it off as you pack. Be methodical and try to put items in the same place every time you pack them; this way you remember where you put it and don't need to spend time trying to figure out where it is. My wife always is amazed that when I pack for a two-week pleasure trip, it only takes me half an hour. This is because I am used to traveling and I know I can easily get by without an extra shirt or pants I may forget.

I am always slow and extremely careful, however, about packing my camera gear. I need to pack the particular piece of gear and all the accessories for that gear before going on to the next piece of equipment. Therefore, when I pack my camera I also pack the extra batteries and charger. Then I go on to the lenses. When I pack my macro lens, I also pack my ring flash, flash bracket, and sync cords. This goes on until I have packed and accounted for everything I need for the trip. Only once do you need to carry pounds of gear thousands of miles to arrive and find out it is unusable because you left a sync cord at home; then you will develop this system on your own.

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