Whether it is for fun or for a job, traveling with photography gear can be quite an ordeal, depending on how much gear we’re talking. Recently, all within a stretch of about 3 weeks or so, my illustrious assistant (and husband) and I traveled from Dallas/Fort Worth to Sacramento to Portland to Vancouver and back to DFW. Today we are heading to Austin and then NYC this Thursday. We travel frequently, and I know it can be somewhat nerve-wracking, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences on successfully traveling with beloved (and pricey) gear. I will also share some of my personal travel photos from recent trips!
I have two basic strategies for airline travel with camera gear. When I travel just for fun, but want to bring a camera with me to capture memories (something I’m trying to do more of, as I have relied on my iPhone in the past), I pack my Kelly Moore bag (I have the Songbird in orchid and it’s bright pink, so I’m not losing that sucker) and carry it on. I can fit my macbook pro, one canon body (5d Mark II), 3 lenses (usually my 85mm, 100mm macro, and 45mm tilt shift), batteries, cards, cords, etc in that bag. It isn’t light, but it does fit under the airplane seat. The only issue I have had with this bag/gear setup is that when it goes through the TSA scanner, sometimes it opens. I have never lost anything that way, but once did have a TSA agent put someone else’s cell phone into my bag, thinking it must have fallen out because it doesn’t completely close with all that gear inside. Thankfully, it was just a cell phone and not something I wouldn’t want to claim as my own at an airport!
My second travel strategy is mainly for professional shoots or weddings. For this I bring my Think Tank (I have the Airport Takeoff bag, which is midsize). This is a great, sturdy bag that I constantly get compliments about from random airport strangers. Inside there are velcro dividers that you can re-arrange to fit your specific needs. I currently have somehow managed to fit all of the following into this bag: Canon 5d Mark II body with 100mm macro lens attached, 45mm tilt shift lens, 85mm lens, 50mm lens, Mamiya RZ67 Pro II camera with 105mm lens attached, grip for the Mamiya, small LED/video light, batteries, cards, package of 10 rolls of Fuji film, macbook pro, magazines for the plane, miscellaneous cords and rain covering accessories. This is also extremely heavy, but it does roll, which is a huge plus. The only thing that could improve this bag for me is if it rolled all ways like many of the newer carry on rolling bags do. It can also convert to a backpack, which I find cumbersome, but useful in certain situations that I will discuss next.
So because the Think Tank rolls and because we pretty much always fly coach and get stuck in the last zone to seat, by the time we are allowed to board the plane, the overhead bins are full and the flight attendants are asking people to check their rolling bags at the gate. For a photographer with a rolling bag filled with approximately 20-25 thousand dollars worth of gear, this is a nightmare situation. Here’s how you get out of having to gate check your bag (this has worked for me over 5 times, while each time my husband has had to gate check his bag and I got out of it). First, if you can quickly utilize the backpack straps on your Think Tank, do it. Change it from a rolling bag to a backpack in moments and no one will notice or give you any hassle. Granted, you will look insane. This is not a small bag and it’s not light. Just play it cool.
If you aren’t able to convert your rolling bag to a backpack, resort to begging. Use your nicest, most pleasant tone of voice and quietly (because you don’t want anyone to know the value of the items you’re traveling with) request that you be allowed to at least attempt to store your bag under the seat in front of you, as this is your livelihood. Even on small planes I have been able to store my Think Tank under the seat ahead of me, thankfully. It isn’t the most comfortable leg room situation, but it’s so much better than not knowing where your gear is. The third thing you can try is if you can’t fit your bag under the seat, just ask (very sweetly) a flight attendant if they could possibly ask other passengers with smaller bags or jackets placed in the overhead bin if they wouldn’t mind placing them under the seat in front of them to make room for your roller bag.
Running out of overhead bin room on flights is something I have not experienced until just this year, and I’m not sure why it is becoming such a thing, but it is. When I fly, I expect for this to happen and instead of freaking out (as I did the first two times it happened), I just have my plan in place and hope for the best. The Think Tank is also great for car, bus, and train travel. It’s also something I definitely have my assistant in charge of on the wedding day, as he can roll it around easily and I don’t have to worry about leaving my gear somewhere and having it stolen, or not having the lens or camera body I need right when I need it. It is plain black and doesn’t distract wedding guests or interfere with the day, which is important to me.
I hope this has been an interesting topic, and I hope you find it helpful! The best thing is to be prepared. When I first started traveling for photography, I don’t think I put much thought into my traveling with gear strategy until the last minute, and I know you’ll find that you will have a much more successful and relaxed journey if you simply invest in good traveling bags to get your equipment there safely and in working order. You can always try to pack your lenses in a regular bag, but I have seen one too many cracked lenses on Instagram that way, so I recommend just going ahead and purchasing the best traveling bag you can afford, along with (as always) equipment insurance.
Hi, I’m Ashley Noelle Edwards, a photographer and business owner who specializes in weddings, portraits, and editorial shoots in natural light. I also enjoy blogging, styling, floral design, and mentoring other artists. I want everyone to be a photographer and feel I have the greatest job in the world! I am currently based in DFW, TX but travel frequently all across the US and abroad with my camera and for one-on-one mentoring sessions.