As of the summer of 2017, traveling with camera equipment became a little less convenient thanks to new rules from the United States Transportation Security Administration. The TSA has announced it will now require any electronic device larger than a cell phone to be removed from carry-on baggage and placed separately in bins for X-ray screening. This is similar to the manner in which laptops have been screened for several years, but for photographers traveling with a shoulder bag of bodies, lenses, flashes and more, it presents a new challenge that is likely to change the way you pack for travel. Here’s a rundown of TSA rules and best practices for photographers flying to, from or within the U.S.
The New “Larger Than a Cell Phone” Rule
It’s a longstanding tradition that many photographers prefer to travel with their camera kit as a carry-on rather than in their checked luggage stowed in the belly of the plane. This way lost luggage doesn’t prevent them from getting the shot. That’s how Sony Artisan Cristina Mittermeier told me she prefers to travel and another reason why she’s especially enjoyed traveling with a small and light Sony Alpha system. "I like having a pack that doesn’t weigh that much,” she said, "because I like to travel with my kit with me in the airplane, so it’s carry on. And there’s all sorts of limitations with what you can carry, but having these little cameras allows me to arrive on location and have all my equipment. So maybe my underwear will not arrive if it was packed in the belly of the plane but I’ll have my camera equipment with me which is really important. So I’m ready to work no matter what.” Carrying on cameras will still remain practical, but photographers may find themselves checking backups and extras more often to speed the process at security checkpoints. The new requirements for screening are already in place at a dozen U.S. airports and are being phased in at airports across the country in the coming months.
The Value of TSA Pre Check for Photographers
For photographers who travel regularly, perhaps no investment is more worthwhile than enrolling in the TSA Pre Check program. Available at 200 airports across the country, travelers enrolled in TSA Pre Check are exempt from many of the hassles of security checkpoints—including the new inspection requirements for electronics larger than a cell phone.
Participants in this trusted traveler program do not need to remove their shoes, jackets or belts, and they can leave laptops in their cases and liquids in carry-on bags as well. There is a special security lane available at participating airports to expedite passage for TSA Pre Check members.
The cost for U.S. citizens and permanent residents is $17 per year, or $85 for five years. To join, travelers should visit one of the nearly 400 application centers across the country, many of which are located in airports outside of security checkpoints. Regular international travelers may prefer to enroll in similar programs from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, such as Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI, which also allow members to participate in TSA Pre Check without a separate application.
Wait times may be weeks or months for programs such as Global Entry, especially if you’re in a big city. Actual lead times vary from location to location so try shopping around for an interview station that fits your timetable. If you’re traveling to an airport with a less demand, you might be able to schedule an interview on very short notice. Visit tsa.gov for more information. And for more information about Global Entry, go to the cbp.gov website.
Batteries Require Special Attention
There tends to be a of confusion among photographers about batteries when flying. Spare batteries containing lithium (including popular lithium ion batteries) are not allowed in checked luggage. They can, however, be checked if installed in appropriate electronic devices, or as spares in carry-on bags. The FAA prefers lithium batteries be carried on whenever possible.
Size limits come into play when it comes to lithium ion batteries. Extended life laptop batteries, for instance, may exceed the 25-gram limit for carry-on batteries. There is a limit of two large lithium ion batteries below the 25-gram threshold. Consumer dry cell batteries (typical AA, AAA, C, D, 9-volt, etc.) as well as lithium ion batteries, Nickel Metal Hydride and Nickel Cadmium (NiMH and NiCad) and all typical camera batteries may also be carried on. With the exception of lithium ion batteries, all of these batteries may be packed in checked luggage as well.
The TSA suggests taping on/off switches in place in order to prevent electronics containing batteries from accidentally turning on during travel, and placing spares—whether in carry-ons or checked bags—in cases that isolate the contacts in order to prevent short-circuiting hazards.
Additional detailed information about traveling with batteries and other hazardous materials can be found online at phmsa.dot.gov/safetravel. Chargers can be checked or carried on, but should never contain non-rechargeable batteries which become hazardous when placed in a charger.
X-Rays and Film
For photographers who still occasionally shoot film, the TSA makes special arrangements to accommodate you. Not only does TSA recommend that you not put film in checked baggage (because the intensity of the X-ray is likely to fog film) it recommends that you opt for hand-screening of your film in lieu of running it through carry-on scanners.
Travelers are legally entitled to have film hand checked rather than X-rayed. This is imperative for high-ISO films above 800, but prudent for low speed films as well. After all, how much extra exposure is enough? Do not place your film in a lead-lined bag, as this will simply lead to increased scrutiny or the inevitable hand check anyway. Skip the bag and go straight for the hand check. And if you ship undeveloped film back home, take special precautions to avoid bombardment with X-rays. FedEx suggests labeling packages prominently with “Undeveloped Film - Do Not X-Ray” or with special labels available from 1.800.GO.FEDEX.