Most photographers travel with their gear from time to time. If it’s not something you do regularly, it tends to be one of those dreaded things that nobody looks forward to.
This holiday season, I traveled from my home in La Verne, California to where I grew up in Traverse City, Michigan. I left from the Ontario, CA airport, traveled to San Francisco, to Chicago, and finally to Traverse City. Now, the Ontario airport is almost always a quiet, almost dead place that makes it very nice to fly from in the early, early mornings. Well when I flew out, all the lines were extremely long. By the time I put my bag through x-ray, my flight had been boarding for over 20 minutes. Now, I was hoping to go quickly to my gate, but when I walked out of the body scan, I saw they had my bag pulled aside.
I think almost every photographer can empathize with what happened. X-ray equipment has trouble with everything in my carry-on bag, mostly due to all the lenses and technical equipment. So I stood by the little metal counter, putting my shoes, belt, and sweatshirt back on, while checking the time every 2 seconds, since my flight had been boarding for about 25 minutes at this point (for those of you who don’t travel often, they start boarding 30 minutes before takeoff). The security officer finally walks over with my carry-on, bursting at the seams, and immediately asks, “Do you have a projector in here?” Nope, I had a camera and lenses, which I told him. Then the usual question, “Is there anything sharp in here that will stick me if I reach in?” Nope, do what you’ve got to do, sir.
I think people might be using photography-looking items to hide drugs nowadays, because he swabbed my bag for traces of drugs. I forgot I had some peptobismol tablets in there, but they said I was fine with those. By the time he let me re-pack, I heard my name being called over the loud speaker for my last call. My gate was on the other side of the airport. Thank goodness it was small, but let’s just say I got my cardio in that day. I wasn’t the only one booking it to the gate after that security line.
I was the last one on the plane before they took off.
The other part of the journey made uncomfortable by my over-full bag was that you don’t want to put it in an overhead bin in case it falls down, so you have to stuff it under the seat in front of you, giving you no leg room. Also, running from the plane to your next gate with all the photography gear makes for a sore shoulder! I used a shoulder strap bag, so the weight is more concentrated, which isn’t great.
Okay! What was I traveling with that caused all these issues?
- Canon 5D with a battery grip attached
- 40mm Lens
- 85mm Lens
- 28-135mm Lens
- 50mm Lensbaby Spark
- Off Camera Flash (x2)
- Wireless Flash Transmitter & Reciever
- Back-Up Battery Pack (x3)
- iPad Pro (12″) in Leather Portfolio Case
- Wireless Keyboard
- 5 Lightning Cables
- Apple Watch Cable
- 3 USB Plugs
- 2 Off-Camera Flash Softbox-type diffusers
- Extra Body & Lens Cap
So that’s quite a lot for (vacation, not professional) travel, but since my whole family hasn’t been together for Christmas in over 10 years, we wanted a family portrait and I wanted it to be as good as possible with limited equipment. Also, having had some lightning cables stolen by SouthWest airlines before, I no longer put them in my checked bag.
I had some good aspects and some that needed improvement. So here’s what I recommend, and you won’t be able to escape certain things, like putting the bag under the seat.
- Use a bag specifically for camera equipment. These bags are designed to keep your equipment safe from bumps and thumps.
- Use a backpack-style bag for long travel with heavy equipment. This will spread the weight and cause less shoulder pain.
- Pack only what you will definitely need (if possible). The less you have with you, the better your travel will be and the less weight you’ll have. Plus security might not scan you as much.
- If you’re flying, make sure you know what is and is not allowed. *Note: Galaxy Note 7 is now banned from airlines.
- Make sure you have power for your devices if you plan on using them.
- Bring a book. They’re an ancient kind of reading device that’s sadly fallen out of common use. They don’t require batteries.
- Bring a notebook. It can be fun to write down ideas and these don’t require batteries either.
So let’s fast forward. I’m back in sunny, well, rainy at the moment, California. I actually made use of the advice I gave in the second part during my travels back. I received a very nice backpack-style camera bag from Portage from my family, which made the trip back much easier. I also pre-mailed cables I found I didn’t need back before I left to alleviate the constant wire tangle that inevitably happens in the bottom of my bag.
I did, however, pick up a 500mm lens while I was in Michigan too…which doesn’t fit well in any circumstance. But I made everything work. Spreading the weight on two straps really helped my back and made the mad dash between gates more bearable.
United Airlines is literally the worst at timing their connecting flights. My flights happened to go from Traverse City to Chicago to San Francisco to Ontario. Apparently their planes are more sensitive than any other airline, because every single one of them had a delay. Though that last flight to Ontario actually took off 4 minutes early! Which is a real shame, because the flight to San Francisco took off late and when it landed had been assigned a gate with a broken bridge, so I had to spend the night in SF. But I won’t get bitter now, I did that on Twitter.
That’s what makes traveling as light as possible a real benefit. Not having a bunch to worry about was great! I did wish I had some solution for my contacts packed and was disappointed that the airport shops had closed…but again, that’s not a topic for right now.
And as it turns out, the only lens I needed for my shoot was the smallest of all: 40mm Prime. For those of you that don’t know, it’s a lens that’s barely larger than a body cap. That couldn’t be helped though, no one knew exactly where or when we would be doing the shoot, so I needed to be prepared (old Boy Scout habit) for whatever occasion arose.
So that was my experience and advice. Take only what’s necessary for your entire trip, but don’t under-pack, especially if you’ll be gone for an extended period of a week or more. Extra power and battery packs are usually helpful (especially when airlines leave you stranded overnight). A good book never goes amiss (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is a free download on iBooks), and neither does a nice, portable sketch book!