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 and value of their equipment and job. To help you all travel a little easier, here are 10 tips for flying with camera gear. 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.
Ten Tips For Flying with Camera Gear
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 when flying with camera gear. 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.
Maximize Under the Seat When Flying with Camera Gear
Fit your stuff under your seat when flying with camera gear! 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.
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, 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 fly with camera gear.
Know the airline policies / legal liability tricks
The biggest tip here is that because airlines are not able or willing to offer insurance for expensive gear, they cannot force you to check equipment of extremely high value when flying with camera gear. 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.
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.
Disconnect cameras and lenses in anything that could get man-handled etc.
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 begin functioning erratically.
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, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead. Split up your batteries between your checked luggage, your overhead luggage, and your under-seat luggage.
Include user manuals for specialty / scary looking items
When flying with camera gear like 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”.
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.
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 don’t give yourself enough time! Whenever I am flying with camera gear 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!
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!
Gear For Flying with Camera Gear
Here’s a few of the items I recommend when flying with camera gear:
- Tenba Messenger Bags: $100-$140 (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!
Note: This article was originally written in 2012 and updated in 2022.
Follow his wilderness nightscape adventures on Instagram: instagram.com/astrolandscapes