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Tips & Tricks

5 Essential Tips for Flying Travel Photographers

By Joseph Cha on May 26th 2015

Prepare For Take-Off

In the past two weeks I’ve been to 7 different airports, 5 different states, flying over 12,000 miles all with my photography equipment. In the past two weeks I have also experienced over booked planes, cancelled flights, gate changes, and a handful of arguments with airport staff about my carry-on luggage. But like Mad Max, I persevered through the chaos that is traveling, and all my shoots were successful. In this article, I have 5 tips for you so you can be prepared for the worst.

[REWIND: How to Travel Internationally by Plane With Your Gear


Tip #1 Carry On Your Gear

Your camera gear is your livelihood, and you don’t want to ever let it out of your sight. Pack smart and be sure to carry on your camera gear with you on the plane. Most planes allow 1 carry-on and 1 personal luggage, so you have a few options on how you can pack your gear to fly with you on the plane. One of the best personal messenger bags to use is the UNDFIND One Bag. Because of its luggage attachment and its rain jacket cover it’s easily the most convenient messenger bag I’ve used for travel.


Tip #2 Check in ASAP

Early boarding is the key word here. The earlier you check-in, the earlier you will be able to board the plane. All planes have a finite amount of overhead compartment space and as spaces fill up, you will be forced to check in your precious camera equipment.

Tip #3 Use a Pelican Case

Whether you’re checking in your bag or carrying it on, I recommend using a Pelican Case. Zippered compartments are frighteningly easy to break into, and you don’t want your susceptible case falling into the hands of a sticky-fingered Ocean’s 11 airport worker. I recommend the Pelican 1510 for travel.

Tip #4 Insure Your Gear and Bring an Extra Body

If photography is at least half your yearly income and you’re traveling, then insuring your gear is an absolute must. You owe it to yourself to protect your livelihood and your equipment, so be responsible and insure your gear. And speaking of responsibility, be sure to pack an extra body, and if you don’t have one, then rent one. Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. So pack at least 2 bodies, because two is one, and one is none.


Tip #5 Backup Your Images and Keep Your Cards on You

Before leaving on my return trip, I back up my images onto a hard drive and a USB thumb drive. My cards stay on me at all times, my hard drive goes in my luggage, and the USB thumb drive stays with the clients. This way if somehow the hard drive fails, or you somehow lose your cards, you have the assurance that there is another copy of your images. A $35 thumb drive is far cheaper than losing a complete shoot.

Bonus Tips for Flying

User Andromeda321 from Reddit has some additional insightful tips on frequent flying.

  • Choose an airline and stick to it and get a credit card for miles. Being silver preferred is already so much better than being a pleb, though of course higher levels are even nicer.
  • Earplugs in pocket ALWAYS. You never know when there’s a baby nearby who can’t pop his ears and there’s nothing a parent can do about it. More important, planes are noisy and it can be hard to sleep without.
  • Especially for long haul flights, check before choosing the seat to see if it’s a good one.
  • If you’re under 26, book via for cheaper fares. In general, has some cheaper international fares other sites don’t. And Google Flights is amazing!
  • Try and get a seat that’ll be on the left side when flying from USA to Europe. You don’t wanna be on the wrong side if the northern lights come out! :) (won’t happen in summer tho, you’ll just see perpetual twilight)
  • When at all possible, namely when flying to go abroad, do not fly with an American carrier if you can possibly help it. They suck unless you’re in business (and I even pay a little extra to avoid United if possible). Foreign carriers, on the other hand, all better baggage allowances, toys for little kids, better movies, and free booze and plenty of it! (Including free liquor usually, not just wine/beer!) The best ones IMO are the Arab airlines, like Emirates and Qatar Airways.
  • Also note, the cheapest way usually to fly in/out of Europe is either with Norwegian (budget airline), Icelandair (budget model but has TV screens, and you get up to a week layover in Iceland at no extra charge!), and Aer Lingus ie Ireland. Obviously this depends a ton also on where you’re going/coming from, but these guys have all been really worth my while to know about at various points.
  • Opt for aisle seat if you have a small bladder or like to stretch your legs. I don’t mind standing up if awake, but airplane sleep is so precious you get really pissed if you woken up in the middle of it for someone’s bathroom breaks.
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I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Good read.

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  2. Tosh Cuellar

    Great tips

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  3. Dustin Baugh

    For me it seems about 50/50 if they want to x-ray your camera and lenses outside of the bag. I’ve learned to loosely pack my gear so repacking is easy instead of packing my bag like a game of Tetris. Nothing is worse than having a perfectly, tightly packed bag and being asked to empty it out into separate bins then repack it all on the other side while your flight time draws dangerously close.

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  4. Travis Volkman

    Depends on the airline. I usually fly Delta or American Airlines and they load front to back.

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  5. Barry Chapman

    Beware of your carry on weight if flying Qantas in particular. They often weigh carry on bags, their allowance for them is 15lbs (7kgs) per piece and they’ll make you check your carry on if it’s over. I’ve had to redistribute gear between my hard shell roller and backpack at check in to make the allowance per piece and then put the valuable stuff back in the roller for the flight.

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  6. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for sharing these great tips.

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  7. Kim Farrelly

    If you carry a lot of gear and fly with a carrier who has a low check in weight, put a lens in each coat pocket and hang a camera off your shoulder. Once through the checkin you can always repack you bag. Also some carriers allow you to group your total baggage weight (I know Aer Lingus does) so when booking, if you are travelling as a group (as in two or more) book as one also.

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    • Graham Curran

      I normally carry a plastic carrier bag and put heavy items in that until my carry-on has been weighed.

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    • Graham Curran

      While Pelican cases offer good protection they also have a look at me factor which can attract the attention of thieves, not just baggage handlers.

      The last paragraph about opting for an aisle seat seems a little contradictory. I generally pick a window seat so as not to be disturbed while sleeping but then I have short legs and (even at my age) still have good bladder control.

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  8. Travis Volkman

    Checking in early, Tip #2 doesn’t always work as usually the more budget airlines are the only ones that do not offer seat allocation before arrival. Regular airlines allow you to pick your seat upon booking. Often choosing a seat in the front of the plane will get you on the plane earlier (Think Zone 1) to ensure you have room for your carry on.

    Also, if they do ask you to check it at the gate due to space issues, if you tell them there is professional photography gear in your carry on, they will let you keep it (as many airlines do not want the expensive gear touched by baggage handlers)

    Two added tips might be to 1. Find a plane that has outlets under the seat if you wish to work on images on long return flights. and 2. Take your batteries out of your luggage during security clearance. I have been stopped at every single checkpoint when they scan my pelican case and the AA Enelop batteries are inside. They have me open the case and show them the batteries. The X-ray machines cannot see through the batteries so it always alerts them.

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    • Thomas Horton

      ” Often choosing a seat in the front of the plane will get you on the plane earlier ”

      I thought it was the other way around. Don’t they tend to load from back to front?

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    • Travis Volkman

      Depends on the airline. I usually fly Delta or American Airlines and they load front to back.

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  9. Brandon Dewey

    Great tips, Im going to the DR fir the first time this summer so ill make sure i use these tips.

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