I have traveled around the world with photo gear and feel very fortunate to have done so with few misfortunes, such as theft, breakage, or loss of images. I attribute my success to choosing the right bags and always packing carefully. Following a few simple tips for packing photo gear for travel will help you arrive at your destination ready to shoot.
Aside from what gear and how to pack it, preparation is also key.
- Do your homework and know as much as you can about your destination – perhaps the most important piece of advice. Get as much information as you can about the environment you will be shooting in. Wind and sand can be much more challenging than wind and rain. Severe cold will have a completely different impact on your shooting than stifling heat and humidity.
- Find out as much as you can about your modes of travel, especially air travel. Know the weight and size restrictions of carry-on luggage before you depart to avoid surprises at foreign airports where security may demand you check valuable gear you were planning to carry-on with you and are not comfortable checking.
- Stay flexible. Travel becomes an adventure only when you hit your first travel delay or encounter your first significant weather event that forces you to adjust your plans. Staying calm, cool and collected will allow those events to develop into great stories as opposed to disasters that risk ruining the day — and perhaps your trip.
Now that you are prepared with information and the right attitude, it’s time to pack. But what?
Choosing your photo gear for travel
As a professional photographer, I typically travel with two camera bodies, three lenses, two flashes, pocket wizards, a tripod, and an assortment of accessories. If I am traveling to a location that requires shooting wildlife I’ll swap one of the lens for a larger telephoto. Traveling with a 500mm or 600mm telephoto lens provides a bit of a packing challenge due to their size. Generally I carry those lenses in separate cases.
You may travel with a different assortment than I do. For example:
- If you are a novice, you may only want your camera with its one fixed (prime) lens, as well as your SD cards, extra battery and charger.
- If you are a more advanced enthusiast, you may want a couple of lenses, a tripod, a few filters, and of course cards, batteries, etc.
The continued improvement in the quality of smartphone cameras means you generally always have what we might call a second body with you. And strobes and other lighting obviously aren’t necessary if you only shoot in available light or are not intimately familiar with using them.
I do believe that a tripod is must-have gear. Even for your smartphone. You just can’t hand hold your camera steady enough in low light. Joby makes some terrific small, compact lightweight tripods for traditional cameras and smartphones. The company’s GorillaPod SLR-Zoom will even hold a larger camera up to 6 lbs.! Be sure and checkout the cool smartphone gear for shooting videos too.
A couple of other items that I think are must haves when you are packing photo gear for travel are extra batteries and memory cards. Frankly, I find it easier to carry extra batteries as opposed to some type of battery charger. Camera batteries aren’t that expensive and 2-3 extra batteries take up less space than a cell phone.
You may be able to find memory cards at your destination, but I suggest buying them at home. I use 32GB SanDisk Extreme Pro cards. They go on sale regularly at Amazon, B&H, etc. I prefer to pack numerous memory cards in the 32GB size. Why don’t I just buy one or two 128GB cards? Because, if you have one larger memory card containing all your images and it goes bad, you may lose every shot from your trip at worst, or every shot from the last several days of shooting at best – neither scenario is a good one. If you one 32GB card goes bad and you are changing up memory cards in your camera every day, you risk losing only a day’s worth of shots – still bad, but not a disaster. Carrying a number of smaller cards gives me increased peace of mind while I’m traveling.
This is a good time to mention that I watch my gear like a hawk at all times. Fortunately, I’m frequently traveling with a companion, and we always make sure one of is on “gear watch” at all times.
Packing photo gear for travel
Packing well and efficiently is of course the key to safely traveling with your gear. Whether you’re packing your clothes or camera gear, taking time to purposefully arrange and organize everything enables you to maximize space and protection.
I put the large items in my bag first, and then carefully pack the smaller items in and around the larger pieces. Every nook and cranny is filled to reduce shifting and movement. Many of the accessories are packed into separate and smaller padded pouches, which adds to overall protection. Once I’m done and everything is packed, I always take time to weigh the bag. Weight restrictions are a moving target, especially on some smaller non-North American airlines, and I strongly suggest you do some research before you leave home. I’ve only had one incident with weight restrictions and that was flying on small bush planes in the Arctic. Fortunately, I made arrangements with a couple traveling companions and was able to give them a few items to carry for me. Travel with good friends!
Bags for packing your photo gear
What bags you choose to carry your camera gear is a very personal choice that is related to quantity of gear and preferred mode of carry and use. Photographers carry a wide assortment of gear and sometimes the choice in gear for each trip means a different bag or packing method for each. Fortunately, there are a number of great manufacturers producing great camera bags for travel. Some of my favorite brands are: F-Stop Gear, Think Tank, MindShift, Mountainsmith, Pacsafe and Lowepro.
My current bag of choice is the Lowepro Pro Tactic 450 AW. You may travel with less gear than I do — perhaps because you are a go-light type or working up on the scale of experience — and thus can get by with a smaller camera bag or can possibly even manage to pack all of your camera gear in a carry-on. Therese, being more focused on going very light, says she loves the UltraLight Camera Covers from MindShift Gear for protection that fits, if needed, in another pack or carry-on (or consider MindShift’s Multi-Mount Holsters).
If all you carry is your camera body with a lens attached, plus an extra battery and a couple extra cards, then the Zoom/Medium from Mountainsmith is a good choice. I use these top load two bags a lot as I can shove the entire bag in a larger backpack. This allows me to keep one camera over my shoulder and my second body and lens at the ready in my backpack.
Carry-on or checking with photo gear
This is another simple decision for me. I don’t check photo gear — ever. (Ed. Note: As a young photographer, Therese once packed a beloved 35mm SLR, and it was stolen en route! Lesson learned.) Now, I don’t travel with huge teams of people and am capable of shooting most of my assignments on my own. When I do travel with a larger team we always make sure the photo gear is in carry-on bags and our personal items are checked. It’s much easier to pop into a local shop on arrival and replace clothing, shoes or toiletries than it is to replace trusted camera equipment.
Protection for your photo gear
Adequate padding and the ability to adjust that padding is key to protecting your gear. There are things you can do when packing photo gear for travel to enhance almost any bags level of padding protection, but a bag must have solid padding and adjustability to begin with.
Travel safe, capture great images, and have fun!