When I pack camera gear for a trip, I’m a habitual over-packer. If I could fit the kitchen sink in a suitcase, believe me I would do it. So I am going to share some hard-learned tips and tricks for making air travel with your photography gear a little easier.
Traveling with photo equipment on airplanes is a pain in the a**. Heck, travel in general is a pain, but it’s worth it to be able to visit and photograph new and exciting locations. As an Olympus Visionary and Photo Educator I travel frequently and that travel generally requires flying with camera gear, computers, and lighting. I am frequently asked about the cases I use and what gear I take with me, so let’s dig in and I’ll show you how to ease the pain of air travel with camera equipment.
When it comes to flying… backpacks are the way to go for your camera gear.
Traveling with cameras in a backpack allows you to keep your hands free to manage your checked luggage cases, important stuff like boarding passes, and even more important: snacks!
My air travel backpacks of choice are made by Think Tank Photo. My three go-to bags are the Think Tank Photo Urban Approach 15, the slightly larger Think Tank Photo Airport Commuter Backpack, and my biggest, the Think Tank StreetWalker HardDrive V2.0. When I am not traveling with lighting, I frequently use the Think Tank Photo Airport Advantage Roller Carry-On.
All three fit easily in the overhead bins of full size jets as well as the smaller commuter jets. The Urban Approach 15 and the Airport Commuter Backpack both fit comfortably under the seats of both small and large jets.
My lighting gear travels as checked luggage in a hard-sided Pelican #1560 Case. This case allows me to carry a four light studio with stands, modifiers and transmitters. Fully loaded it comes in at about 42lbs, well below the 50lb (ca. 23 kg) maximum that most airlines stipulate for checked luggage. I’ll show you everything that gets packed in the lighting case right after I show you what’s packed in my camera backpack.
Last but not least for air travel, I also use a Samsonite Hard Sided 24” Spinner Case. This case will hold my clothing and toiletries as well as a tripod, LED light wands, and some additional modifiers and props for my Fashion Portrait demos and workshops.
It is extremely important to be organized. Create a system. Know where things go — everything should have a place and everything should be in its place unless you are actively using it. Invest a few dollars in organizers and pouches to help you accomplish this workflow.
There are a few things that go with me regardless of which of the three backpacks I am traveling with.
I carry one pouch with power banks and charging cords for recharging phones on long days when I haven’t been able to plug in. A second larger pouch has all of my computer accessories — power cords, dongles (thank you, Apple), SD card readers for both my phone and computer, HDMI and VGA connectors for projectors and presentation remote controls. A third bag has all of my camera cleaning supplies. I also have pouches for spare camera batteries and spare AA batteries. I also have a pouch for memory cards that allows me to organize them so that I can tell which ones are used and which ones are not — in a glance.
I keep all of these accessories in pouches so that I can easily move them from one bag to the next without forgetting something important. And when I am in the field, the pouches make it very easy to identify the pieces of gear that I am looking for.
If I am traveling light or for a short trip, I prefer the Think Tank Photo Urban Approach 15. Generally the gear included will be two camera bodies — in my case the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II’s and also the little Olympus ToughTG5, which is great for a quick snap or some 4K b-roll or vlogging footage for my videos.
Lenses will depend on the assignment or event, but almost always include the M.Zuiko 45mm F1.2 PRO lens, the 12-100mm F4 PRO Lens, the 7-14mm F2.8 PRO Lens as well as the 60mm F2.8 Macro Lens. For you full-frame folks, that means I am covered from 14mm — 200mm including macro.
Depending on what I am shooting or teaching and how long I am staying, if I need a bit more room — the Airport Commuter Backpack is the next choice.
All three of my bags have a computer pouch that easily handles my 13” MacBook Pro, a mouse, and an external SSD drive.
For lighting gear, I have my Pelican 1560 case outfitted with pre-cut diced foam that makes it very easy to organize my lighting equipment. This Pelican case has two wheels and a retractable handle making it easy to navigate with. Four Godox AD200 Pocket Flashes with the fresnel heads attached stand upright in this case with ample padding top and bottom. I also pack two of the bare bulb heads with bulbs, four LumoPro 7.5 ft (2.29 m) compact light stands, two spare battery chargers with duck heads, four Oben mini ball heads, and two umbrella stand adapters for mounting the AD200s. The case also holds two Wescott 43-Inch Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrellas. I also pack my Godox XPro Trigger and if I am teaching a workshop, I pack five additional triggers so that attendees with any brand camera can shoot using my lighting. A few MagMod accessories round out the kit. I’m able to get all of this in the Pelican case and still come in under the 50 lb (ca. 23 kg) weight limit for checked luggage!
The last piece of my travel kit is my Samsonite Centric 24″ Spinner Case. This is a medium hard-sided case with four wheels that make it super simple to push or pull through airports. This case will of course hold my clothing, and toiletries as well as a travel tripod, RGB LED light wand and numerous props and accessories for the shoots that I have planned. Frequently I’ll also pack some extra MagMod accessories in this case as well.
My Top 15 Travel Tips
- Book your flight with an Airline Credit Card. Most of the major airlines have a credit card program that comes with travel perks. I fly with American Airlines whenever possible and with my American Airlines MasterCard, I get my first bag checked for free and I get priority boarding which ensures that I will have overhead space if I need it. If you travel frequently enough, don’t forget to sign up for the frequent flyer mileage. Even if you don’t fly enough to earn free flights, many of the airlines allow you to use the points as shopping credits or for magazine subscriptions.
- Sign up for TSA Pre-check. TSA Pre✓ gets you expedited security screening benefits for flights departing from U.S. Airports. If you are traveling abroad, Global Entry provides the TSA Pre✓ benefit plus expedited US customs screening when entering the United States. TSA Pre✓ is good for five years, costs just $85 and you can speed through security without the need to remove your shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets.
- Handling the TSA Bag Inspection: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t have an attitude and don’t act like you are the only person in the world who is suffering through the inconvenience of extra security measures. The TSA agents are just doing their job and because of that, air travel still remains the safest form of transportation. If the X-ray screener flags your bag for further inspection, don’t try to pick up your own bag to move it to the inspection area. Just tell the agent that the bag contains expensive camera equipment and you would appreciate their care in handling the bag. As the agent is unzipping the bag calmly ask them if you could at least explain to them how to handle the pieces that they want to remove so that they don’t touch or scratch any sensitive surfaces. If you pack your bag properly, they will generally only take a peak and do an explosives swab on the bag.
- Avoid stacking things in the bag. The agents who monitor the x-ray machines have only seconds to look at and identify potential threats in a bag. If you have everything packed one layer deep, it makes it much easier for the agent to identify the bag’s contents and much less likely that they will flag your bag for a hand inspection.
- Take the lenses off your cameras. Obviously when we are out shooting we want a camera ready to go at a moment’s notice. But for air travel it is more space efficient to pack cameras and lens separately. If you tend to overpack, it also limits the potential for damage to your lens mount if the bag takes a hit. For that same reason I always load my camera bodies with the LCD in — never out.
- The expensive stuff goes in carry-on. Never check your camera gear or computers. Clothing, toiletries, accessories and props can be replaced easily and inexpensively. Camera gear cannot. If you are traveling to do a job and your checked case with your cameras gets lost — you are out of luck.
- Don’t bring more than you need. Like I said earlier — I would pack the kitchen sink if I could. You can never be too prepared. Unfortunately, that is just not practical when you are flying with camera gear. Zoom lenses are very helpful to limit the amount of gear that you need. This applies to clothing as well. I have lots of shirts, underwear and socks that can be easily washed in a hotel sink and air dried overnight. Remember that the airlines have weight limits on both carry-on and checked luggage. Be sure to check your airline’s website for the most up-to-date info, although it is generally 50lbs for checked baggage and 40lbs for carry-on. Trust me though — you don’t want a carry-on bag that weighs 40lbs. It is worth purchasing an inexpensive travel scale like this one so that you don’t find yourself having to re-pack and possibly leave something valuable behind once you are at the airport.
- Don’t forget seasonal clothing. I learned that one the hard way on a recent trip to St. Louis in early November. It was in the mid 50s when I left Philadelphia and the entire weekend I was in St. Louis the temperature never topped 35 degrees. And wouldn’t you know it — I was scheduled to do two demos outside. Since then, I’ve purchased a packable down jacket that folds up incredibly small so that I can hang it on the outside of my backpack or pack it in my suitcase without it taking up a lot of space.
- Wear comfortable shoes with good traction. Don’t take new shoes on a trip and don’t worry so much about style. When you are traveling, you are probably in for long days on your feet and you are not going to do your best work if your feet are sore or suffering from blisters.
- Use Travel Apps. This goes along with the ‘be organized” philosophy of packing. I use an app called TripIt to keep all of my flight, hotel and car reservations organized so that I have access to everything right on my phone at any time. TripIt also allows me to check in for my flight and then I can store my boarding pass in my Apple Wallet. I also keep the airline apps and hotel apps on my phone to allow easy communication and check in along the way.Don’t forget the Uber and Lyft apps for transportation and of course Apple or Google Maps for those times you are renting a car. If you do a lot of driving away from home — I highly recommend the Waze app which uses crowd-sourcing to help you avoid construction and delays and ultimately saves you a lot of driving time.I should also remind you about the importance of planning your shoot so don’t forget the apps I mentioned in this video for help with that.
- Label and tag your bags for easy identification. I use these bright orange luggage tags that I found on Amazon and my Pelican case has this bright red electrical tape that I’ve outlined it with. My bluish gray suitcase is also not the most popular color and combined with the orange luggage tag — it makes it easy to find on a loaded luggage carousel.
- Use TSA locks. It is important to lock your checked luggage. Be sure to use approved TSA locks so that the agents can access the bag if it’s flagged for a security check. If you use a non-TSA approved lock, they have the legal right to simply cut the lock open.
- Get your gear insured. Hopefully this is something you have already done long before you think about flying. If you are serious about your photography and don’t have insurance yet… consider joining PPA — Professional Photographers of America. The annual membership includes $15,000 of equipment insurance — which is worth the cost of membership — and PPA has excellent learning resources available to members.
- Pack spare Lithium Batteries in your Carry-On. TSA regulations require that spare lithium batteries must be packed in your carry-on luggage. It is okay to leave the batteries in the gear in the cases that you are checking. Just make sure your extras are in your carry-on.
- Backup your files. This should be a no-brainer. At the end of each day I transfer my files to my laptop and then from there make a copy to a portable SSD drive and then the cloud. Depending on how long I am traveling and how much I am shooting I’ll wait until I return home to format my cards, but if I need to reuse the cards on a trip — once the images exist in three locations, I have no problem reformatting the cards.
So there you have it — my travel gear and tips. I hope this gives you some ideas to help you with your air travel with photography gear.
Don’t keep all this cool stuff to yourself — share it with your photography friends. Remember: photography is not a competition. It is a passion to be shared.
Now go pick up that camera and shoot something, because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!