Cameras on the Go: How to Travel with your Photo Gear

  By Dave Chidley

I’m just getting ready to host another photo adventure on a tour to Coast Rica and am once again agonizing over packing.  No, not over my clothes and stuff, that suitcase took just about half an hour to pack. I’m in the middle of a camera gear cyclone as I make the difficult decisions on what to take, what to leave home and then how to safely and effectively travel with my gear.

If you are like me, it takes about three days to decide what lenses, bodies and accessories that need to travel with me and which pieces stay home.  My den is a disaster, with bags covering the floor.

SO here are some of my Photo Gear Travel Tips!

  1. Make the toughest decisions first.  What gear do I have to take and what can I leave behind.   You can’t take it all, unless you are already a trendy minimalist and have a small basic gear kit.  Ask yourself, if you really need it. Will a zoom be adequate or do you need 6-7 prime lenses. Do you need that terribly awkward giant tripod.   A load of 20 kilograms on your back in your living room might be fine, but will it after a couple of hours up a trail? Remember the best piece of photo equipment is the one you have in your hand when the moment is perfect. You don’t need to take everything!!!!
  2. Pick your camera gear and the way you transport it based on your destination, not on how you operate at home.  Think about where you are going.  Is it urban, Arctic, or in a sweltering dessert, are you going up a mountain, or is it next to a subway station, or along dusty dirt paths?  Consider the topography / weather / conditions / geography / access / travel method (walk, train, coach, gondola, canoe etc). Obviously how you carry your gear, and how much you will take will be much different if you are cycling or driving a mini-van.
  3. Roll or carry.  Once you have considered how much or little camera gear you “need”.  The next step is what to pack it in. I am a firm believer that if you can roll it, why are you carrying it?   That certainly is beneficial as you roll on through the airport, boarding the plane, and boarding a bus or jumping in a taxi.  A Roller Bag, can be easily maneuvered through the traveling portion of your adventure. Sitting on the subway with a giant backpack is a big challenge.  A Roller Bag, can cozy up safely between your knees. BUT you can’t roll up a forest path, so you then need to plan on carrying you gear. There are rollers that also have carrying backpack straps, but they are not the greatest for comfort on longer walks.   It’s all a compromise! I often use a roller to travel to my destination and then use a small backpack, sling and/or fanny pack once there. Find a balance between ease and practicality. Just pick a well padded bag with plenty of dividers, that just makes obvious sense.  Eventually you will own more bags than you can count. Roll with that fact.
  4. Buy a good bag. A cheap bag for you valuable gear doesn’t make sense.  The better bag companies also have great customer service and warranties.  I’ve had two bags replaced at no cost because of zipper failures!
  5. Small is good.  In gear decisions, the smaller the better.  Thank god for the mirrorless wave! I went to Mexico recently and used primarily a mirrorless camera.  I almost had no “big gear” remorse or envy. Trust, and use the tool you have with you. Is a 70-200 f4 lens going to work as well as a f2.8 lens? It certainly is lighter!
  6. Big is bad.  Remember that airlines have restrictions on the Size and often Weight of carry-on bags.  Many airlines have a 22lb limit! SO check your airline in advance! It has to fit in the overhead bin for the aircraft you are flying on. Policies here: Westjet Carry-on || Air Canada Carry-on  Air Canada AND WestJet now state basically that: “Your carry-on baggage must be light enough that you can store it in the overhead bin unassisted.”  With that being the only weight restriction. Believe it or not. But play it safe, remembering you have to carry it!
  7. Carry it on, or risk losing it.   DON’T pack anything expensive in your checked suitcase that you will cry over losing.   Yes, cameras and electronics can and do disappear from checked bags. Only pack the less expensive thus less appealing “extras” like battery chargers, tripods, cords, filters, in your suitcase.  Tripods for sure as some security lines will consider it a possible weapon, therefore not allowed as carryon.
  8. Lithium batteries. (including spares) stay with you in Carryon.   All other standard types such as AA batteries can go in you checked suitcase. More info:  TSA Batteries
  9. Be on time.  If you have prepared and packed and everything is nicely stowed in your properly sized bag you could still be force to check it in as luggage if you are one of the last to board and all the overhead compartments are filled.   Be polite and explain what’s in the bag, but you likely are out of luck at that time. Be on time, board promptly when called and you will be safe.
  10. Me and my man purse. Take advantage of your “Personal Item” bag while flying,  I am now using a shoulder bag that holds my 13” computer. I also can fit my mirrorless camera and two lenses easily with my documents, snacks etc.  Remember to check the size and that your seat leg room will be displaced by the bag.
  11. Luggage tether strap.  Invest in a proper suitcase tether strap or Bag Bungee, so you can place your carry on bag on your rolling suitcase for travelling through the airport.  This will free up one or you hands! Always a good thing.
  12. Have deep pockets.  I’m not talking about money (although it helps) but those very practical “Cargo Pants” with plenty of pockets can if needed stash as much as your bag can carry.
  13. Stick your neck out. If necessary, put your camera around your neck. I’ve done this through security and boarding and little attention is given to a visible camera.
  14. Plastic zip-lock bags. Great at providing extra rain and moisture protection and keeping the dust out.  Pack a bunch!
  15. Don’t rain on my parade.  A simple folding umbrella is invaluable if you arrive during a downpour.  Or pack a cheap plastic poncho in your carry on.
  16. Tag it.   Make sure you have bag tags on all your bags including carry on and personal items.  AND have a separate tag inside each one in case the outside one is torn off. Include your photo number, email, hotel names etc.   In one day I had two of my travellers lose their camera bags in NYC, and BOTH were recovered. Have some faith in human nature, it does happen!
  17.  Just go and take photos Regardless of how you haul it, what gear you use.  Enjoy the journey and make lots of memorable images! That is the point isn’t it?

Happy Trails! Feel free to follow along on my latest Costa Rica adventure, or future trips under the Blog Tab, at www.phototourtrekkers.com.

Dave Chidley

Dave Chidley

Dave Chidley is a long-time photojournalist and travel photographer, having worked for publications in Calgary, Toronto, and London, as well as being a contract freelancer for The Canadian Press. He is now the Director of Photo Tour Trekkers West. www.phototourtrekkers.com