Traveling with cameras, lenses and the host of other gear that we, as photographers, regularly pack for a trip, can be challenging. The rules differ between airlines, countries and even airports. It’s not unheard of for a bag to pass through without a second glance on one day, to be closely scrutinized, unpacked and even require a return to the ticket counter on another. To get some tips on how to streamline the process and, perhaps more importantly, to make sure you AND your cameras, lenses and gear get to where you need them to be, we spoke with veteran photographer Dennis Biela. As an aviation photographer, Biela gets jobs that require extensive air travel and he frequently has to do it with considerably more than the average photographer.
Never, Never, Never Check Your Camera…Never.
Ship what you can, rent what you can, and carry on the rest. That’s the crux of Biela’s philosophy when it comes to traveling with photography equipment. “Never check your camera gear,” he explains. “Check your clothes, check your tripods, check all the lesser value items, but always carry on your gear. Always. One of the reasons I switched to Sony is because my Sony system is much smaller and lighter than my DSLRs had been. Also, most photographers I know are equipment hogs and we always try to bring everything. I find that I carry more because my Sony setup is smaller and I can get more of it into carry-on size luggage. I use a ThinkTank rolling bag to carry on to the flight, and then in my luggage will be an empty shoulder bag so when I get to my location I can just pull out what I’m going to use for the day.”
“If I was taking strobes and stands and equipment like that,” Biela continues, “I usually carry some of the strobe equipment and then try to FedEx as much as I can. I like to FedEx gear ahead of time—send it to the client, or to the hotel where I’m staying, or I’ll even have it held at FedEx. I go online and find the closest FedEx and have it sent there and held with me being the only one that can pick it up, or I designate an assistant.”
“If I’m shooting in a big city like Los Angeles,” he explains, “I don’t have to worry about renting. Rental is easy there. If I was shooting in a location like I recently did in northern Colorado where the nearest rental gear is a 200-mile drive, I just rent locally and ship it. I make up the return labels ahead of time and just slap them on when I’m done. Then I drop it off at the local FedEx on my way back to the airport, or leave it with the hotel for FedEx to pick up.”
“I've been to 44 countries,” Biela says, “so I got used to living out of bags and packing and repacking. When it comes to flying, making sure gear arrives safely is less about how much you pack than about how you pack it. You need dividers or bubble wrap or things like that. Dividers can take up a lot of space, so I usually use bubble wrap and rubber bands. I also found that drink coolers, the foam things you put your beer can in, work great for lenses or a small flash.”
Every airline has size and weight restrictions for both checked luggage and carry-on bags. It’s essential to understand if your carry-on full of cameras will fit in the overhead, because if it won’t the airline might insist it be gate checked. And out of sight equipment is very disconcerting.
“If you're using a rolling bag in particular,” Biela says, “you really need to check the size of the bag with wheels because the airlines can all be very strict with dimensions regardless of the kind of plane you’re on. I never check my camera gear,” he continues, “but I've got a briefcase that has incidentals in it and if push came to shove, I'd check that, but the cameras are the last thing to go. The goal is to be packed so that if nothing but my carry on arrived, I’d still be able to do some work until other gear could be secured.”
There’s a lot of concern among photographers about air travel with batteries. Biela spreads batteries in carry on and checked bags. “I have a battery in each camera which ensures I’ll have a working camera at my destination and in case TSA wants to see the camera turn on which happens sometimes. Then I usually keep one extra battery in the bag and others in the case that I check.” For more information about batteries and air travel go to FAA.gov. Here’s a direct link to their FAQ.
Make Sure They Know You’re A Pro
As working members of the media, professional photographers are entitled to check heavier bags than the general public. Each airline’s policy is different, but when it comes to domestic travel airlines offer reduced fees for heavier bags. The catch is that you have to be able to show that you qualify. Check with the airline you’re flying and bring printed documentation of the policy and your credentials and be prepared to patiently show all of it at airport check in because the agent may have no idea what you’re talking about.
Biela also says any frequent traveler, professional photographer or otherwise, benefits from joining the TSA’s PreCheck program. For $85, the five-year membership enables travelers to breeze through security checkpoints as pre-screened passengers. Regular international travelers can sign up for the Global Entry program, designed to speed the customs process when returning to the United States from abroad. (Pro tip: Many premium airline and travel-related credit cards will cover the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry fee making it free to you.)
Insurance Is Essential
Accidents happen. That’s part of the reason Biela says he doesn’t let his essential equipment out of his sight. Still, damage can happen at any stage of an assignment, and insurance is there to provide peace of mind and ensure a traveling assignment will still be profitable. “You sit in the airplane,” he says, “and you're looking out the window, you see how those baggage handlers are throwing the bags onto that conveyor belt. So all my gear is packed with protection in mind and it’s insured.”
Cameras, lenses and other high-value photo gear should be insured through an appropriate valuable property policy. “I have mine from the same company that insures my car,” says Biela. “You can also get a temporary policy which I like to use if I’m traveling with a lot of rental gear. A lot of rental places require that you put down a deposit that covers the entire amount of the equipment or that you have an appropriate insurance policy. I get temporary policies for 30 days so that while I’m traveling, everything's protected.”
The eBay Solution
The bigger the kit, the more susceptible it seems to be to damage—even when using impact-resistant cases for protection. The safest plan is to assume things will go wrong.
“I often use strobes and I frequently have to travel with big strobe power packs. More than once, when I got to where I was going, the pack had a problem. I’ve had flash tubes crack, I’ve had the pack itself sustain damage. These things can and do happen. And when strobe gear gets broken it can be pretty expensive to repair. So I ended up buying used strobe equipment—good equipment, but not brands that are very common. I just ship that around and if something happens it's kind of disposable. I can pick up a used strobe head for $60. And I can pick up a pack for $200 or $300. I just watch on eBay when the gear comes up at a good price. The cost is less than a repair and if something happens I can just move on. I'll feel bad, but I won't feel that bad.”
See Dennis Biela's aviation photography at dbiela.com