IMG_6873-Edit-2_1-3Wedding in Florida, 2010

What is one of your worst nightmares as a nationwide / international professional photographer?  Losing your luggage.  It happens all the time, unfortunately.  Not just one airline in particular; almost all airline companies utterly fail in customer support when it comes to understanding professional photographers and the importance / value of their equipment / job.

Don’t think it will ever happen to you?  Jeremy Cowart, an internationally renowned photographer , was the most recent victim of air travel’s many absurd policies and un-helpful employees.  (Read this)  He was forced to check his overhead carry-on luggage at the gate because attendants claimed that the plane was full, (even though it wasn’t!) …and when he arrived at his destination, sure enough his checked bag was nowhere to be found.

Definitely a worst nightmare, like I said.

ms1_7153_1Wedding in Texas, 2011 (Blue Bonnets, of course!)

The question is, what can you do?  This seems like a “no win” situation with no escape or alternatives.  Every photographer knows not to check their expensive equipment in the first place, because airlines simply refuse to insure luggage for more than a few bucks.  However even if you do your homework and research overhead bin size requirements for your specific airline and location, (both are important!) …what do you do if the plane is totally full?  What if the TSA or airline employees are just having a crappy day, and refuse to budge on their policies?

Well, in an effort to help you all travel a little easier, (and to avoid having nightmares, maybe!) …I have collected my all-time list of airline travel tips for photographers.  For many of you who have already had a terrible experience or even lost your valuable camera equipment, my heart goes out to you.  Hopefully this article will help you minimize your hassle, and maybe even eliminate the possibility of equipment loss almost entirely.  You’re welcome!

air travel with cameras 1My carry-on, under-seat camera bag – Seville, Spain, 2008

air travel with cameras 3Wide Autos, Narrow Streets – Seville, Spain, 2008


I have been a wedding photographer for about 10 years and have shot weddings all over the US. I have also traveled internationally a couple of times.  My job requires airline travel 1-3 times per year, and transporting a considerable amount of gear.  As a wedding photographer I cannot get away with simply “packing light”‘; I absolutely must bring a full compliment of equipment, backup camera bodies, and a moderate sized lighting setup.  Maybe if I were just a general “travel photographer” I could pick and choose my smaller more compact zooms etc. but as a wedding / portrait photographer, I simply refuse to go into a job without my pro glass. Yes, there are a few ways I can cut down and we’ll get to that in a minute, but the bottom line is that there is no way around traveling with $10,000-$20,000+ worth of equipment.

In an emergency I could commandeer uncle bob’s beginner DSLR and kit lens, of course.  But such a compromise would significantly alter the final product of images, and I just can’t do that to my clients…

air travel with cameras 6Wedding in Virginia, 2009

Your Main Priority

Here’s my biggest secret.  I thought this was a more widely known tactic, but evidently the world could still use a little reminder. Here it is:

air travel tips carry-on under seat bag

Fit your stuff UNDER YOUR SEAT!  Overhead compartment availability and regulations are just too wildly different to be trusted, in my experience.  Your absolute best move, your most powerful ally, is your under-seat bag.

Even if you do all your homework and you have an overhead bag that totally fits, you still might find yourself on an over-booked flight with zero room left in the overhead bins.  Unfortunately this problem cannot be solved by just arriving super early and being the first person on the plane, because layovers are common and you never know what situation a delay can put you in.

So, take advantage of the under-seat “personal item” option.  It is by far the most liberal and un-regulated option.  Yet with the right packing method and the perfect size camera bag, you can easily fit two camera bodies, 2-3 medium / large lenses, a flash, and a laptop.  Your absolute minimum set of equipment for getting the job done right, and it fits under your seat which is a space that no flight attendant will ever hassle you about.  :-D

My favorite bag is the Tenba Messenger bag; it comes in two sizes and a few colors, it’s perfect for the kit I like to carry.  If an ordinary shoulder bag is a little too ugly for you, an Undfind bag fits about the same amount of gear and looks pretty sexy.  But I personally don’t mind the “kinda ugly” bags because they are a little less conspicuous in my opinion.

You may have to make a few compromises compared to your usual kit, but nothing that stops you from getting the job done.  If you’re used to full-size cameras like the Nikon D4 or the Canon 1Dx, you’ll need to scale down to the “half-size pro bodies” such as the Canon 5D mk3 or the Nikon D800 / D700.  …Or, just take your vertical grips off.  If you absolutely must have your full-size body, you can still fit it under your seat but you’ll have to leave out a lens or two.

Your 3-4 lenses could be a 24-70mm, 17-35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.  However, adding 70-200 2.8 might require some organization changes.

Thankfully on that note, my next big recommendation is to split up your gear anyways.  If you only have two cameras, (I carry three) …then it’s actually kinda risky to put BOTH your cameras in the same small shoulder bag. Therefore, my favorite thing to do is to put one camera body and a full set of primes in my overhead luggage, and another camera plus my set of three 2.8 zooms in my shoulder bag.  (lens hoods go in my checked luggage of course) This way if my shoulder bag gets stolen, or if my overhead luggage gets “force-checked” and/or goes missing upon arrival, …I still have enough professional equipment on me to avoid a panic.

Lastly, before we move on to additional tips I’ll point out that if you don’t need a laptop on a particular job, or if you don’t mind putting it in your overhead bag or checked luggage, you can use the space in your personal bag for other things like a couple hotshoe flashes and radio triggers.

Ten Tips For Airline Travel

  1. Your memory cards are your life!!!
    First and foremost, I have to mention this one major, hopefully obvious tip:  Your memory cards do not belong in ANY camera bag, period.  They belong in your pocket.  Even as you go through security, they should not leave your sight.  I put my card wallet in the same little bowl that you put keys, and I hand it to an an agent and say “these memory cards cannot leave my sight, can you please hand-check them instead of putting them through the X-Ray?”  We’ll get into image safety a little more at the end of the article, but suffice it to say that your images are, of course, just as important as your passport / plane ticket.  Luggage can get lost, bags can get stolen or damaged, but your memory cards should never, ever leave your possession.
  2. Do your homework for international / hotspot destinations
    Every airline is different, and so is every destination.  If you’re photographing a wedding in the Caribbean for example, you really need to be read up on your destination’s policies on traveling with professional equipment.  Sometimes they may require documentation for everything you own, they may even attempt to assess the value of the gear and refuse to allow more than a certain amount of gear without proper documentation.  So do your homework, and be diligent to acquire any necessary paperwork, insurance, etc. before you travel.  It’s the professional thing to do!  (In fact as a wedding photographer, you may mention this professional diligence as a selling point to clients who are considering a destination wedding!)
  3. Know the airline policies / legal liability tricks
    The biggest tip here (which we learned from Benjamin Von Wong) is that because airlines are not able / willing to offer insurance for expensive gear, they cannot force you to check equipment of extremely high value.  Notice, however, that I didn’t say “force you to check a bag of equipment.”  They can still force you to check the bag.  Unfortunately, this may mean, worst case scenario, that you literally empty your overhead bag and wear your equipment around your neck onto the plane.
    Allegedly, (read the fine print on airline websites!) if an airline forces you to check a bag that you are originally promised to be able to carry on, you MAY be eligible for total compensation if that luggage gets lost.  But again, do your homework!
    Contrary to what you might be inclined to attempt, don’t just pretend you’re dumb and don’t know their rules.  This usually just gives them a green light to play hardball with you, because they think you’re an idiot.
  4. Update your knowledge of size / weight requirements
    Unfortunately, neither does the line “I’m a seasoned traveler, this bag always fits!” work 100% of the time.  Rules change!  You need to continually update your own personal knowledge of specific airline overhead requirements, because they may change over time or based on which plane you’re taking to which destination.  Smaller connecting flights may have VERY strict requirements, for any of you who are “Island hopping” to get to a final destination.
  5. Disconnect cameras and lenses in anything that could get man-handled etc.
    While a “fragile” sticker always helps, there are plenty of sadistic people out there who think it is funny to go “Ace Ventura” on your luggage.
    So for any gear that absolutely must be checked, disconnect it and double-pad it.  A camera+lens combination can be stressed at the lens mount which can cause your lenses to, at the very least, begin functioning erratically.
  6. Consider Lithium and other safety regulations
    As photographers these days, we actually carry quite a bit of lithium with us!  In fact a while back the airlines or the FAA published a new policy that restricted lithium (among other things) and this caused a panic among photographers, fearing they might only be allowed on a plane with just 1-2 camera batteries.
    While this isn’t really true, (I routinely carry EIGHT camera batteries!) …it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.  Split up your batteries between your checked luggage, your overhead luggage, and your under-seat luggage.
    There are other items you need to be careful with, too.  Eclipse lens cleaning solution is flammable, for example.  Although I have routinely (accidentally) carried on my teeny-tiny 0.5 oz bottle of Eclipse, I leave at home my big 2oz bottle with the large “flammable” label.  ;-)
    Also, some photographers have reported that their allen wrenches were confiscated, so I always put those in my checked luggage.  (I’ve noticed that some of a plane’s interior uses allen or similar wrenches; maybe they think you’re going to dismantle the plane mid-flight?)
  7. Include user manuals for specialty / scary looking items
    Especially if you travel with larger strobe flashes that require battery packs, it is a great idea to include the owners manual and bookmark the section on safety.  As Benjamin Von Wong mentioned regarding his “Ranger” battery packs- by removing a fuse or performing other necessary safety procedures, you can ensure that larger, scary looking items are more clearly “travel safe”.
  8. Have a battery available if they want you to turn the camera on
    Sometimes to prove that something isn’t a weapon or a bomb, they may ask you to power on the equipment. If all your batteries are in-accessible, this can be a huge hassle or even a show-stopper.  So always be ready to turn on your camera or laptop if they ask.  If you’re the sarcastic type, just remember it is NOT a good idea to point your camera at the TSA agent and say “bang” as you click the shutter.  That won’t go over well at all.  ;-)
  9. The starter pistol trick – declare a firearm
    This one sounds a little crazy, (unless you’re Texan?) but here is a sure-fire trick (no pun intended) to exponentially increase the chances that checked luggage arrives safe and sound at the proper destination:  Place an un-loaded firearm (or just a starter pistol) in your checked luggage, and inform the checking agent politely when you check your bag at the ticket counter.  (DO NOT try to approach the gate, lol)  This forces them to clearly mark the luggage, do some additional paperwork probably, and take extra, extra special care of it.  Because while they don’t care if they lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, the last thing on earth they want is to misplace a $30 quasi-gun.  BTW this trick is only recommended for US travel; don’t blame me if you wind up in jail in South America or something…
  10. Threaten to take a later flight, Allow extra time!
    When all else fails, if flight attendants or gate attendants are just having a bad day and couldn’t care less how much your equipment is worth, just ask to be put on a later flight.  If you’re lucky they might be more lazy than they are stubborn and they’ll just let you go so they don’t have to do all the hard work of finding you another flight.  Of course you should be ready to back up your threat by actually taking that later flight.
    Of course this tactic doesn’t work if you dont’ give yourself enough time!  Whenever I fly for a destination wedding, I like to give myself a 1-2 day buffer between my flight and any required shooting.  If it is in winter to a city that can have blizzards etc, 1-2 days of buffer time are an absolute must!
  11. BONUS TIP: Be polite and professional
    Contrary to popular belief, “making a scene” isn’t always the best option.  Depending on the mood an employee is in, complaining loudly might only dig your grave deeper.  As long as you can, be professional and polite even in extremely frustrating situations.  I totally understand the “hold your ground / let them know how upset you are” mentality, but sometimes friendly compromise and a personal connection can make a world of difference!


Additional Travel Advice For All Photographers

Regardless of whether you’re a wedding professional or just a globe-trotting adventure photographer, there are always a few things to keep in mind that do not involve encounters with nasty TSA agents etc.

As a general rule, you should always take good care of your images.  Back up your photos as frequently as you safely can, and never travel with all copies of your images in the same bag, or even on the same person.  Even if you complete your travels with a delightfully polite and accommodating experience, some punk in your own hometown could snatch your camera bag right off the curb if you turn your head for just one second.  And while you can always insure your equipment, you don’t want to lose your precious images.

So, I always travel with my entire set of memory cards in my pocket, and a separate copy of images on my laptop. On professional travel jobs, I separate complete copies of my equipment between two photographers.  If I have the time, I’ll even mail myself a hard drive and/or upload mid-res JPG images to the internet.  You know, just in case your plane goes down.  You never can be too prepared, right? ;-)

Brief Recommendations

Here’s a few of the items we travel with very frequently, and highly recommend:

Tenba Messenger Bags: $100-$140 (Fits nicely under a seat)
Undfind One Bag: $130 (Fits nicely under a seat)
Thinktank Airport Rolling Cases: $300-$400 (Fits most overhead bins)
Pelican 1510 Series Rolling Hard Cases: $175 (Fits most overhead bins)
The LensPen: $6-17 (instead of flammable cleaning solution!)
Thinktank Pixel Pocket Rocket & battery holders: $10-$20
Domke Lens Wraps: $12-$15 (For when you need a little extra padding!)
TSA-Approved Luggage Locks: $18 (For a set of 3, with indicator of opening)

Travel safe, and keep clicking!
=Matthew Saville=

air travel with cameras 5