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Understanding how to travel with your camera and photography accessories can save you a lot of aggravation, pain and potentially money. This episode talks about some of the things you need to consider before you decide to hit the road or board an airplane with your photography gear.
Why You Should Always Keep Your Camera and Lenses as Carry-on Items
Before we get into anything else, there’s one clear point that I hope sticks with you.
Always keep your camera and lenses with you as carry-on items.
My concern isn’t as much about theft – while that is a small possibility – as it is about damaged or missing luggage. Airport baggage handlers have a tough job. They have thousands of heavy bags that are constantly sorted from one location to another. It’s a pretty thankless task, as most passengers never see or interact with these workers.
Considering that the maximum weight for a suitcase with many airlines is 50 pounds, that’s a lot of weight to keep picking up from one spot and putting it down in another. Bags are awkward and the workers are under time pressure to keep everything moving.
Sometimes that doesn’t leave time for delicacy.
They have no idea if something delicate or valuable is inside your luggage. Honestly, I doubt they care. Your bag is a 50-pound widget that goes from this place to that place. It will get tossed, dropped, stacked, lugged, and maybe even kicked into place.
Do you really want your precious DSLR or expensive lenses to be inside that bag? I don’t.
What Gear Do You Keep as Carry-on and What Can Go in Your Luggage?
Some pieces of your gear can safely go into your stowed luggage. I typically put my tripod or monopod inside of my suitcase. It’s never been stolen or damaged. The only thing that ever happened is that I found a card inside my suitcase telling me that the TSA opened it to inspect the content.
My guess is that tripod probably looked a bit out of place and they wanted to make sure it wasn’t a bad device.
The simple rule for deciding what can go in your suitcase is this:
Anything that you won’t be devastated if it gets damaged or your suitcase goes on the wrong plane and isn’t available when you land. It’s rare, but sometimes suitcases get lost.
The items you keep with you are precious items that may get damaged or are devastating if you lose them.
Lee mentioned that she’s fine putting her memory cards in the suitcase. That’s something I would never do. I can’t take photos when I arrive without a memory card, and I’d hate to lose all of my photos on the way home if the suitcase gets lost or damaged.
Exceptions to My Rules
Keep in mind that my rules are not binding, but the airlines and regulating bodies like the TSA have some clout. Check the TSA article about Safely Packing Batteries for Your Trip to understand the rules and recommendations.
While you can keep some batteries in checked luggage, the TSA recommends that you keep them as carry-on items. Also, spare lithium batteries (lithium metal and lithium-ion/polymer) are prohibited in checked baggage.
Another exception to keeping everything as carry-on is when it simply isn’t practical. Some commercial photographers travel with special cases and bags to carry a lot of gear for an assignment. They may use everything from hard-sided Pelican cases to ThinkTank Production Manager or Logistics Manager bags – large rolling cases designed to carry lighting gear, stands and more.
It’s hard to travel with some extreme telephoto lenses, like 500mm and up. If you’re planning on photographing wildlife, sports or some other genres that requires a lot of focal range, you may need to spend some money on a quality case and give the Skycap a nice tip when you check your gear.
How to Choose a Camera Bag
I admit it. I have excess baggage. It’s like lens lust. A new bag comes out and it tempts me with its ability to solve a problem I may not even have. My office closet has a large box filled with camera bags that I don’t even use anymore.
It’s a weakness.
Thinktank is one of my favorite brands for camera bags. I don’t think you can go wrong with this brand, but it’s also important to get the right type of bag. On my Resources page, you can check out three of my recommendations for Think Tank bags.
1: Rolling Bags
Rolling bags are great for gliding through an airport. I believe that Think Tank bags are the best on the market for this category, which is why I have several of them.
My primary bag is the Think Tank Airport Takeoff. It’s a two-wheel bag that just seems to fit all the gear I need to take on a serious outing. That includes a couple of camera bodies, several zoom and prime lenses, flashes, chargers, and other accessories. It even has a pocket so you can pull out some shoulder straps and use it like a backpack, but I load it up too much to operate that way.
The Think Tank Airport Takeoff V2.0 Rolling Backpack is the perfect travel companion for busy professionals. It features integrated backpack straps for easy conversion to a backpack and is sized to fit most domestic and international carry-on requirements. The large front pocket easily accommodates a 17" laptop and 10" tablet, while the main compartment holds up to a 400mm f/2.8 lens and two standard camera bodies. Padded shoulder straps and a padded back panel make it comfortable to carry, even when fully loaded.
ThinkTank bags have excellent organizational sections. Not only can you configure and re-configure the sections in the center of the bag, but there are transparent vinyl pockets for memory cards, passports or whatever else you need to store that’s relatively fat. They often have an exterior pocket for your laptop, so it’s easy to pull out for TSA screening.
The wheels aren’t an after-thought. They’re high-quality roller-blade wheels that flow smoothly over airport flooring yet are tough enough to handle some time on roads or sidewalks. The extendable handles are comfortable and easy to grip.
The Think Tank Airport Advantage Rolling Carry-On wants to be my favorite bag, and for good reason. It has four wheels instead of two. No more lugging my photo gear behind me. Baggage with four wheels is the best thing since sliced bread.
The Airport Advantage Rolling Carry-On Camera Bag is specially designed to meet the carry-on requirements of both U.S. and international airlines, so you can be confident that your gear will be safe and sound. With a dedicated laptop pocket that fits up to 15" laptops in a padded sleeve and plenty of room for 1 gripped DSLR with lens attached, 1 standard size DSLR with lens attached plus 3–4 additional lenses, this bag has everything you need to keep your camera gear organized and protected. The built-in roller system makes it easy to transport through even the busiest airports.
So why isn’t this my primary travel bag? Quite simply because it’s smaller than the Think Tank Airport Take Off. I can use it, but I’d have to leave some items behind.
There are cases when that’s OK. You don’t need to take everything with you when you travel. You may do better with a smaller bag, particularly if it rolls as easily as the Airport Advantage Rolling Carry-On.
If you’re flying on regional airplanes or other transportation with limited carry-on space, then this may be the right bag for you.
2: Messenger (or Shoulder) Bags
I’m lumping any bag with a single strap that fits over your shoulder in this category. There are nearly a dozen of these bags in my closet. That includes my very first camera bag, the Domke F-2 Camera Bag. I bought this camera bag when I started photography nearly 40 years ago. My old film gear is still inside.
It’s a classic and venerable bag that does what it does. Made out of heavy canvas, it’s the kind of bag that wears down nicely with age. There are 12 compartments inside, a padded bottom, and a strap. It’s as simple as you can get yet incredibly pragmatic.
The Domke F-2 Classic Waxwear Camera Case is a great way to keep your camera and lenses safe and sound. This rugged case is made from durable waxed canvas and features an adjustable shoulder strap, removable bottom stiffener, and hand-carrying strap. YKK zippers and steel snap hooks to ensure your gear stays secure, while the rubber feet protect against bumps and scrapes.
It’s not the only shoulder bag I have, though. Check out the Think Tank Photo Retrospective 20 V2.0 Shoulder Bag for a great walk-about bag. It doesn’t look like a traditional camera bag, so it’s not screaming “steal me” to any nearby thieves.
The Think Tank Photo Retrospective 20 V2.0 Shoulder Bag is a stylish and functional bag that's perfect for carrying your camera and gear. The bag is made from soft, form-fitting material with a minimalist outer appearance. It has a zippered opening to the main compartment that tucks away when not in use and dedicated pockets for a 10" tablet and a 12" laptop. The non-branded design means it doesn't look like a camera bag that would attract thieves.
There are plenty of other bags in the over-the-shoulder category. I tend to avoid the ones that market themselves are camera bags, except for my first Domke F-2. I prefer these other bags because people don’t associate them with photography gear.
If I use one of these styles of bags, it’s with a light load. After walking around with a lot of weight on one shoulder, it gets to be annoying. I end up shifting the weight from one shoulder to another. If I lean over, the strap ends up sliding off if I don’t have it on as a cross-body bag.
These bags have their uses, but I wouldn’t want to lug a lot of gear in them. Instead, I use these for day trips with a lighter load, while most of my equipment may be back in my room in the roller bag.
3: Sling Bags
Sling bags are similar to should bags, but there are some differences. They fit across your body, which you can do with a shoulder bag. However, the sling bags have a design that opens up from the side. Getting your gear out of a sling bag is much more convenient because you don’t have to take it off. You also have an easy view inside the bag, which isn’t as common with shoulder bags.
The sling bags often carry your gear on your back, and sometimes toward the small of your back, for a comfortable packing experience.
I have and love a Think Tank Sling-O-Matic. They don’t sell these anymore, but they came in 10, 20, and 30-liter sizes.
Now there’s a Think Tank Photo Turnstyle 10-liter bag that is quite popular for busy photographers on the go. You still get quick access to your gear, but it also has something my old Sling-O-Matic lacked – a stabilizer strap. That extra strap keeps the bag from bouncing around while you’re moving, which is a nice touch.
The new and improved Think Tank Photo TurnStyle 10 V2.0 is a beautiful bag for the active photographer. With its rapid access design, you can easily rotate the bag from back to front for quick gear access. The built-in stabilizer strap holds the bag steady while active and tucks away when not in use. The organizer pocket is easily accessible for batteries, memory cards, or other small accessories. The TurnStyle 10 V2.0 is sleek, lightweight, and stylish - perfect for the busy photographer on the go!
Peak Design has a 3L, 6L, and 10 liters Every Day Sling. I haven’t tried it, but I mention this because I own other Peak Design products and find them to be high quality.
The Everyday Sling by Peak Design is great when you want to travel light. The bag comes in three sizes, 3L, 6L, and 10L, so you can choose the one that fits your needs. The smallest and lightest bag in the Everyday Line, the Sling’s padded cross-body strap features a quick adjuster you can loosen when accessing gear and tighten when active.
A weatherproof UltraZip provides quick, expansive access and FlexFold dividers allow instantly customizable organization and protection. Internal stretchy pockets for small items and a dedicated tablet sleeve (6L and 10L only). A weatherproof 100% recycled 400D shell keeps your gear safe.
I have only three camera backpacks. One from Think Tank, one from Crumpler, and one from Peak Design.
I really dislike the Crumpler backpack, yet I was excited to get it. The idea that sold me on it was that you could only access the gear from the zippered opening that goes against your back. Great for security.
Pain in the neck to use, though. It isn’t a comfortable bag. Also, having to take it off to access my gear became quite a pain.
The Think Tank Airport Accelerator has all the quality you expect from a Think Tank bag. It has plenty of compartments. It’s durable and configurable. Think Tank put grab handles on multiple sides, so you can just pick it up and go when needed.
The Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator Backpack is a carry-on bag for the discerning traveler. With its sleek design and durable construction, this backpack meets most international and US carry-on requirements, keeping your precious gear safe and secure. The contoured adjustable harness with lumbar support, height adjustable sternum strap, and padded shoulder straps provide all-day comfort, while the included cable lock and locking YKK zippers keep your belongings safe. The built-in tripod straps also make it easy to attach a tripod securely.
My most recent bag is the Peak Design Everyday Backpack. It comes in 20-liter and 30-liter sizes. We bought both sizes for different loads.
I generally opt for 20 liters. It’s a way to limit how much I put on my back. The thing I didn’t consider is just how much stuff I can actually fit inside of the Everyday Backpack. While I do love and recommend my Think Tank bags, this is one of the best designs I’ve found in a while.
It’s essentially a hollow bag with access from either size (zippers) and a magnetic latch on the top. The dividers are quite flexible. Like Think Tank dividers, they are easy to move and stick where you put them. However, they have a nice ability to fold parts of each divider. You can optimize them to fold out of the way so items can pass through (like my 70-200mm lens) or flip down to hold something smaller, like a prime lens.
The Every Day Backpack includes a section for a laptop and tablet. I can fit my 15″ MacBook Pro and 12″ iPad Pro in this area, and it doesn’t take away from the main gear compartment.
The side panels also have plenty of pockets to store accessories, pens and documents.
The part I like is that this backpack can also function like a sling bag. Drop off one shoulder strap, let it come around, and you can access the content in front of you from the top (side panel). You can do this on either side, so no more rummaging around a deep, dark pack to find what you need.
The magnetic latch had different sections to close it, so you can fit a few t-shirts from your trip, or maybe some snacks while you’re out.
It’s also fairly well water-resistant, but that changes you you expand the bag all the way using the magnetic latch. If I have it on the 3rd or 4th latch, I don’t worry about getting wet.
The Peak Design Everyday Backpack V2 is the perfect bag for everyday carry. Its versatile design and customizable internal dividers make it ideal for carrying your everyday essentials, camera gear, and laptop. Its side and top access make it easy to grab what you need without digging through your bag. And its protected laptop sleeve keeps your computer safe while allowing you to access it quickly and easily. This backpack is built to last with a lifetime guarantee.
Get Travel Insurance
No matter what you take or where you pack it, we recommend getting travel insurance. You can generally find a policy for about $100, and perhaps another $20 for your photography gear.
That covers damage, theft and more. For such a low cost, it’s great peace of mind.
We know that some photographers are targets while traveling in Europe, but it also happens in the USA. Camera gear is tempting for thieves and easily sold. A few months ago, I read a story about photographers who were shooting the Golden Gate Bridge were increasingly becoming targets of theft.
The criminals know they’ll be up there at night with expensive gear, and likely won’t pay attention when approached.
Even if you aren’t a target of a criminal, you still may benefit from damage protection. Insurance is cheap compared to the alternative prospect.
How to Travel with Your Camera Gear
Camera bags aren’t the only way to protect your gear when you travel. A little preparation, the right gear and some insurance can be your best friends when you travel with your camera gear.
Remember, don’t take more than you need. It’s a risk anytime you travel with expensive and sensitive equipment. Also, that gear gets heavy when you have to lug it around for hours.
Consider your environment at your destination. Can you easily roll a bag from one place to another, or do you need to carry it on your body. Sometimes, you may want to use the rolling bag for the main travel and have a smaller bag to carry a few items with you at your destination.
Just be wary of becoming a bag junkie – like me.