Travel is picking up again. Countries are reopening borders. Life is getting back to some semblance of what our normal is now. And that means that a lot more people will be packing up their cameras and hitting the air. This is such an exciting moment for many people. To see the world again, have new experiences, and meet people from other cultures. And that also means packing up the camera gear and travelling with it. We put our cameras through a lot, bouncing in turbulence on airplanes, falling from overhead bins on trains, bouncing around on automobiles the world over. To make sure they get to their destinations in working order, ready for you to do your job, you need to pack them properly. Cameras are rugged, but there is a right and a wrong way to pack them. And as much as you can pack them properly, the better chance you won’t be replacing parts or missing shots.
This is episode 86 of the Travel and Adventure Photography School Podcast. Today we will cover everything you need to pack your gear for your next plane trip. Perhaps your first trip in a long few years. As always, I’m your host Robert Massey. Thank you for being here with me today.
Alright, let’s get into packing your gear for getting on a plane. Now, I will be talking about this from the perspective most of us will be taking. We are heading out to shoot or document something, but moving fast and light. If you are being hired for a big production, shooting something specific, whatever, you’ll know that not all of these principles apply to you. But for your general trip, for those moments where you’ll be moving fast and going to lots of places. This is what we are packing for.
With that said, let’s start with the pre-departure phase of packing with your camera equipment. So, at this point, you know where you’re going, you know when you’re going, and you are packing up your kit.
My first rule is probably the most difficult to follow.
Keep it simple.
Keep your kit as simple as you can. When flying, having one body and two lenses tend to be what fits best in a personal item (leaving your carry-on for all your essentials). Now, I haven’t flown since making the switch to mirrorless, and if you are running with relatively small bodies (like the Sony A7C or a Fuji), then you can probably get away with two bodies, a lens attached for each body and one additional tiny lens (think something the size of Canon’s RF 16 f/2.8 or the RF 50 f/1.8) or a small telextender. But that’s it. You’ll likely be leaving that 600mm lens at home (unless you’re heading on safari and ready to put it in the bottom of the plane). But, if you are travelling fast and light, this tends to be the kit. I’d suggest sticking to some classic ranges. Right now, my ideal travel setup is the Canon RF 24-105, RF 100-500 and the RF 16 f/2.8. This gives me the range and capabilities to shoot nearly anything within a compact package. Of course, this is if I won’t be shooting any portraits or needing that nice shallow depth of field. If that’s necessary, I’ll typically rent a piece of gear once I arrive at my destination, as travelling with something like an 85 f1.2 is a tricky proposition. You could also go with the classic trio of a 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200. Or a trio of primes like a 14mm, 50mm, and 85mm. It all depends on your preference, shooting style and what you plan to shoot when you arrive at your destination.
The key here is to avoid overpacking. It’s tempting to just fit in everything and have whatever you need. But honestly, I find when I do that, I tend to use one or two lenses and then leave the others in the bag. So, be critical about what you will need; you have other pieces of gear you need to pack beyond bodies and lenses that you need space for. Think batteries, memory cards, filters, off-camera lighting (if you use any), a shutter release system, whatever. There’s a lot there. Bring the accessories you need to make that photo happen.
While we are on this topic, let’s talk about batteries. Batteries are a bit of a touchy point with airlines. Most airlines will not allow you to place lithium-ion batteries (like those you find in cameras and cell phones and essentially every rechargable product) into your checked baggage. You must have them in your carry-on, and each battery must have its cover on. Now some airlines will only let you take two lithium batteries, but I’ve never had a problem having four or so as long as they were all covered, well packed, and not touching each other. The big problem here is that the contact points on this type of battery can spark off each other - especially if there is turbulence and the batteries start hitting and rubbing each other repeatedly. So there is a substantial risk of a fire if they aren’t packaged properly. But, when I’ve packaged everything up properly, I’ve never run into a problem with an airline. So just take a couple of extra protections, and you should be able to get four or so batteries onto your flight.
Speaking of accessories, decide on if you need that tripod or not. If you’re a street shooter, perhaps a tripod will not serve you well. But, if you’re a landscape photographer, you will need one. So think carefully about the tripod you bring and if you need one. In these situations, I’d opt for a lightweight tripod like the MeFoto or the Peak Design Travel Tripod, as they are light and don’t take up a ton of space.
Alright, so this is the tricky part out of the way. Choosing what gear to pack into your bag. So now, let’s talk about packing. I always avoid placing my camera equipment into the baggage compartment of an airline. Baggage handlers are not careful with bags - they honestly don’t have time to be as airlines push their employees to move faster and finish quicker. So, do your best to get all your camera equipment into your carry-on. I typically achieve this by using two pieces of carry gear. Firstly, I pack my camera and lenses into a bag that matches the personal item size. This is the bag that can sit at your feet. There are a couple of advantages to this if you can get away with it. Firstly, these bags don’t have a weight rating on most airlines. So you can pack all of your camera equipment, accessories, whatever into that bag, and they don’t care how much it weighs. Secondly, this should mean you can get all of your essentials into your carry-on - leaving you with more space to bring what you need without checking a bag. So, aim to get what you can into that personal item - and then pack the rest of your gear into your carry-on and make sure it gets into a bin right above or near you. This helps ensure that someone doesn’t walk away with all of your gear.
For my personal item, I use an f-stop gear internal camera unit - or I had been until I got my Shimoda backpack. Now I’ll start using the Shimoda internal camera unit. In my eyes, this is the perfect way to carry kit. These boxes are designed to protect camera equipment from dings and bangs, and they can be customized for what you need; best of all, you can slip them into your carry-on when you get to your destination and use it to protect your gear while on your feet. For my carry-on, I use my camera backpack. This way, I’m not carrying around a whole second bag with me. I can just change up what’s in the bag - leave some stuff behind in my room and pack my bag to head out shooting. Nice and simple.
While packing your equipment, remember to cover up those batteries with their covers and place them in separate places in the bag so as not to irritate airport security.
Also, detach the lenses from your camera. This helps prevent any possible damage because if your bag does take a spill, that lens connection spot is a weak point, and the lens can forcibly become detached from the camera, which can damage both. So, pack them detached, and you could save yourself a pretty hefty repair.
Finally, don’t forget that you will need to get through airport security. And bags of electronics are eye candy to them. So, be prepared to show off your camera equipment when you go through security. Make sure that your kit is easy to access and easy for them to swab. This is another reason I love the internal camera units. You put them down in security, pop open the zipper, and they can easily see everything: no digging, no fuss, and no muss.
So, you are finally into wherever you are going. You and your gear are there safe. You are in your room - at your bunk, in the car your sleeping in - whatever. You are there and ready to head out exploring and shooting. There are just a couple more things you will want to keep in mind while you are out and about.
Firstly, you don’t need every single piece of gear with you every day. There are many days in the mountains where I just run around with one lens and a circular polarizer. That’s it. And honestly, I love those days. They are fabulous! My backpack is light; I’m not thinking about changing lenses all the time. I’m shooting with what is right in front of me. So, decide what you need that day and - if you have a safe space to store equipment - only bring that with you.
Secondly, be cognizant of your surroundings and the people around you. This is something I do even when I don’t have camera equipment. But carrying around a fancy camera makes you a prime target for scammers and thieves. You will need to be extra aware of who is around you and what is happening. Thankfully, I’ve never had an issue with this while travelling *knock on wood* but I’ve had enough close calls and situations where I know I was close to having a problem. Some of the things you’ll want to watch out for are people who you repeatedly see in different locations. They could just be other travellers, or they could be people following you waiting for the right moment to grab something. You’ll also want to be sure your gear is permanently attached to some part of your body in busy spaces. Having your backpack near you isn’t enough if it’s just lying on the ground. It isn’t that hard for someone to come running by, scoop up the bag, and keep going. This has become one of the most frequent ways for people to steal cell phones. They will run up and grab it from a person’s hands while they are using it. So, keep your gear lashed to you, a chair, something so someone can’t just run up and grab it. This isn’t as much of a problem when you aren’t in busy locations. When I’m shooting out here in Banff, I put my bag down a lot. But even here, you want to make sure someone is at least sitting with it. We had a film crew have an entire backpack of equipment stolen off of them because they set it down and turned their backs to look at a viewpoint. It can happen anywhere, so be smart. Other everyday situations include crowds of people, people trying to get you to sign things, and people asking you to follow them because someone needs help. You need to think carefully while you are out shooting and watch the situation around you. You can’t just be solely focused on the shot.
Thirdly, back up your memory cards every night. IT doesn’t matter if it’s hard drives, your phone, a Gnarbox, anything. Just make sure you back up those memory cards. And this goes beyond corruption, which is a huge problem. You can misplace a card, have it taken, forget it, lose it; anything can happen to those flimsy pieces of plastic. So, ingest and back up those cards whenever you get the chance. And, if you can get away with it, don’t format your memory cards until you get home.
Lastly, a couple of common questions about flying with camera gear: no, x-ray machines cannot harm your electronics. They may do some damage to film with repeated scanning, so you can ask airport security to manually look at your equipment, so that doesn’t happen. But beyond that, your gear should be just fine.
Most airlines suggest you keep all valuables with you and never put valuables underneath an airplane. So - if at all possible - never put your gear under a plane. If you have to, the best way to do this is to buy a hard-sided, water-tight case that you can cut the foam out to match your gear perfectly. This should protect it even if the box bounces around during loading and unloading. Then use zip ties to secure the closures to ensure the box doesn’t pop open. The TSA locks are useless in this case, and if airport security wants to get in, they will just cut off your lock, and down the drain goes $5 or even $10. Instead, use zip ties. Now also make sure to do this. Put a note inside the case that explains the camera equipment, your contact information, and a few extra zip ties asking them nicely to resecure the case so you don’t lose your gear. I’ve never needed to do this personally, but I’ve had a few other photographers tell me this, and it has worked well for them, especially when transporting large lighting rigs or other pieces of equipment that don’t look standard.
And that’s it. As we get back to travelling more frequently, these tips will hopefully come in handy. Let me know if you’ve got any tips or tricks up your sleeves for travelling. I’m always looking to make the experience better. You can find all the show notes to this episode and all previous episodes on robertmasseyphotography.ca. And you can reach out to me on Instagram at Robert Massey Photography.
Thanks so much for tuning in today. I hope these tips help you out and that you are enjoying the podcast. Now get out there and travel. LEts adventure. Bye for now.