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Some Thoughts on Flying with Camera Gear

Wing and a Prayer

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for some time, and it seems to be one of the things I get the most emails about – besides the catch-all question “how do I get to be a photographer?” These days I fly with my gear on average once every 6 weeks, and even though I’ve got quite practiced at it, it can still be a complicated and stressful operation. Generally I’m flying within Europe and the UK, so some of my advice might be irrelevant to the US or other places, and as with any other advice I give out, don’t take it as gospel – check before you go – your mileage may vary.  More than almost any other “Evergreen” post on this blog, the circumstances around flight restrictions/baggage allowances and the like change every few months, so take this post as a starting point, and then do some research of your own.

Before the Flight:

1. Do some basic research on the place you’re going to.

Will you need to get a carnet? (defined below) What voltage electricity supply do they have, and what sort of plug sockets? Will there be mobile phone coverage/internet access? Do you need to get any jabs? Is it even safe to visit? Are there going to be situations where camera gear will need special attention/preparation (such as; tropical forests, deserts, polar conditions, particularly dangerous cities)? Useful Links: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, US State Dept, The Association of Photographers, Lonely Planet.

2. Research your airline.

How much luggage (weight) do they allow, both in the hold and in the cabin? If traveling with others, is it possible to spread your gear amongst your companions (if you do choose to do this, don’t do it in front of the check in desk or security personnel)? Check any restrictions regarding certain equipment (batteries in particular). Find out what size luggage they allow in the cabin – check this again just before you fly, just because you flew with something last week doesn’t mean you can now, the rules can change very quickly. Watch out for small print, some airlines will allow you to pay for extra baggage, but not the extra weight, so when you turn up with 3 cases thinking everything will be fine, you get stung for quite a lot of excess baggage. In some cases it can be very worthwhile offering a credit in the magazine (if applicable) in return for a waiver of excess baggage charges – try and get hold of the press office and arrange this. Buy a set of bathroom scales and weigh your cases before you go – it won’t be any use in an argument with the check-in staff, but at least you’ll be forewarned if you’re going to be several kilos overweight. For some other advice on this subject (though it was written in 2003) click here

EasyJet Over Europe

3. Make sure all your documents are up to date.

Most obviously your passport, but also, do you require a specific visa? Do you need any other permits for the shoot such as carnets or letters from a representative in the country? A carnet is basically a document that customs use to ensure you’re not importing a load of gear with the intention of selling it and not coughing up the tax, basically a very official equipment list. You can check the list of countries which require a carnet here (link goes to main page – in the top menue pick “going global”, then “Export Documents – ATA Carnet”). Generally speaking (1 camera bag – not looking terribly conspicuous) you could get away without using a carnet, but as soon as you start to add any more gear it would be very wise indeed to get one sorted. If your stuff gets impounded at customs it’s going to be very difficult to shoot. Even in a country that doesn’t require a carnet it’s still quite sensible to fly with a printed list of all your gear, firstly in case you do get stopped by customs it can help to reassure them that you didn’t just pick the gear up, and also should anything catastrophic happen you’ve got a list to hand when you call your insurers. Of course, you’ve checked that your gear is still insured when it travels out of the country, and if required you’ve notified your insurance company.

Much the same goes for Visas as for carnets – some countries require them (the US for example), and if you look insignificant enough you may be able to pass unnoticed, but is it worth the risk?

Packing the Gear

4. Make sure you could shoot the job in a “worst case” scenario.

If your luggage in the hold goes missing, could you still shoot the job (at least on a basic level) with the gear in your hand-baggage? I always travel with my main body, standard zoom, laptop, flash, memory cards, power cables, spare batteries, adapters and so forth in my hand baggage, for obvious reasons. Out of the 2, your hold-luggage it far more likely to go wandering/get damaged, and whilst you’d rather shoot the job with everything you could want, you have a responsibility to your client to get the job done, and part of this means planning for contingencies.

5. Nothing breakable goes in a soft case in the hold.

The only thing to go in a soft case in the hold of the aircraft should be your clothes. If you watch baggage handlers work you’ll see that they don’t handle luggage gingerly, or with tender loving care. Anything sensitive/fragile/important should be correctly (i.e. well cushioned) packed in a hard case – one that’s solid enough for you to stand on. I can highly recommend Peli and LowePro. Don’t waste your time putting “Fragile” on the side of your cases – it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference – just pack the stuff well enough that you could kick it about the place and everything will still be intact afterwards. It can be a trifle annoying having to pack things for flight, versus the convenience of packing them for easy access when you get to the shoot, but better that they arrive intact and take a little longer to prep when on location, than they don’t arrive at all.

6. Certain items need special attention.

Starting with the obvious – take your leatherman/penknife/machete out of your pocket/camera bag and place it in your hold luggage. Now take care to either remove the batteries from or tape over the switches of, anything that can transmit a radio signal (walkie talkies, radio triggers etc). If you feel the need, remove the batteries from other things as well – particularly on long-haul flights where they may be able to drain right down if left on. Pack all the chargers you think you’ll need, then some others as well, plus at least a couple of plug adapters – the new “multi” ones are genius, as you can pretty much guarantee they’ll work anywhere.

As a rough guide to packing for gear, have a look at this:
English Coastline - Flying with camera gear

At the Airport.

7. Check all necessary travel documents just before you leave, then check them again.

Passports, booking confirmation emails, parking details/directions or train timetables/tickets – all should be ready, and never very far from your person. Make sure you arrive at the airport early – for obvious reasons, besides, they’re such lovely places to hang around in!

8. Be prepared for slightly more hassle from Airport personnel than when you fly off on holiday.

As you approach the check-in desk, do your very best to look as if the shoulder bag you’re carrying on to the plane with all your cameras on doesn’t actually weigh 15KG, unless you want them to ask you to put it all in the hold. The restrictions on size/weight of hand-luggage are not only different for every airline, and subject to frequent changes, but they seem to be open to individual interpretation. A couple of years ago I flew with exactly the same rucsac 2 weeks apart – the first time no-one batted an eyelid, but the second time I was forced to put the rucsac in the hold and carry my cameras round my neck and in my hands. I can recommend using the automated check-in desks wherever they area available to help avoid this. And remember to answer the stupid anodyne questions of “did you pack this yourself, and did you put any bombs in it?” with patience, and don’t bother cracking any jokes.

Next you’ll come to the joys of getting through security. It’s impossible for me to offer concrete guidelines here, as the restrictions change almost daily – just remember to check right before you leave. I get my hand luggage properly searched (as in, emptied out, checked for explosives and so forth) about a third of the time I fly, and almost always at the UK end, rather than on the way back.

Once through security, don’t be completely stunned if you hear your name called over the PA – I’ve had to go down to the baggage area more than once to reassure people that the batteries/lighting stands etc were harmless. This is where your AoP press pass, and your printed list of gear/carnet may be handy.

Above the Clouds

On the Return trip.

(obviously all the packing/before the airport/at the airport stuff applies again, but I won’t bother repeating it)

9. Play the percentages.

It sounds utterly paranoid, but in the days when I used to fly off to foreign countries as an assistant and shoot catalogues, we would split the film on the return journey. Say we’d shot roughly 2 rolls of each “image” we’d split them up so that I was carrying all the “A” rolls and the photographer was holding all the “B” rolls. This way if one of us got abducted by aliens/arrested for being drunk and disorderly then the job would still get home OK. In the digital age this is very easy to do – for example you could give all your memory cards/burnt disks to a colleague/assistant whilst you carry the laptop (which still has all the images on), or any combination that suits you.

10. Avoid flying with Ryanair.

Needs no explaining, and it’s only my opinion, but just take my word for it.

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