How to Pack Your Camera Gear for Travel

by Jon on July 8, 2011

Every trip (and every person) is different, and deciding what photo equipment to take with you on your worldly travels can be a complicated process.

If you’re off on an adventure specifically to take pictures, of course you’ll want to take more gear, and dealing with it day-to-day will be a built-in expectation. I, on the other hand, like to travel light and streamline things as much as possible, and I suspect most casual photographers feel the same – that way we have less stuff to schlepp around, and less things to go astray in a worst-case scenario.

Nine places to travel(Photo credit: Andrea_44.)

Apart from that, when I travel I do it more for experiencing things than for taking pictures of things. Taking photos is an artistic pursuit, but not one I want controlling my movements. So the question is always what can I get away with leaving behind? I can’t answer that for you, but as a lifelong light-packer I can tell you what I’d do, and hopefully that’ll help you make the right calls for your upcoming voyages.

To bring or not to bring…

  • Extra lenses – Always the burning question. It’s really a matter of personal taste, but most of our lenses share some focal distance overlap, so we can afford to be selective. As a rule of thumb I take one zoom and one prime, and that’s it. For the zoom, I’d choose my ‘walkaround’ lens – the one all-purpose lens I use when I’m out shooting casually. Skip the 70-200, and instead take something with a reasonably wide-angle bottom end. For the prime, I prefer something fast like a Canon 1.8 – the 1.4 would be more ideal but the 1.8 is dirt cheap so it’s perfect for traveling with.
  • Tripod – unless you’re going somewhere specifically to take pictures, don’t take it. I tend to think in terms of space:use ratio, and a tripod, even when checked in cargo, is a unitasker that takes up a ton of room in return for the occasional convenience. Alternative: GorillaPod.
  • Flash – Again, personal preference, but I’m not a fan of flash so I leave mine at home.
  • Extra battery pack – Unless you’re heading out on the savanna to be without electricity for days on end, leave that paperweight on the shelf!
  • Storage – This depends on your download strategy. I take a Macbook with me when I travel, so I can dump the photos I take to Lightroom daily. It means I can travel with only two memory cards – and I very seldom end up using the second one. If a laptop falls into your ‘too much gear’ category, though, you have some other options:
      iPad camera connection kit

    • Take an iPad with a camera connection kit. Nice and light, very thin, but the drawback is space – iPads come with 64GB of storage, max. If you’re shooting a lot, and in RAW, that might not do the trick.
      Epson P-6000 portable media device

    • Take a portable media device like this Epson P-6000. You’ll be able to view and cull your photo collection on the go with up to 80GB of storage.
    • Use the brute force approach. Some trips, especially backpacking trips, don’t play well with laptops and other such gear, meaning you just have to pack enough memory cards to see you through. You’ll have keep track of what’s used and what’s free, and be aware of the potential for loss.
      Eyefi wifi-enabled SD memory card

    • Upload. Certain memory cards have built-in wifi transmitters that will allow you to up your images to the cloud, sans computer, any time you’re in a wifi hotspot.

Things to remember

1. Keep your gear with you. Unless you’re doing a pro shoot with lots of heavy gear that has to travel in cargo, keep your camera in carry-on. Use a bag especially designed for the purpose. It can carry your Macbook too or iPad too.
2. Protect your download core with your life. I’ve known photographers who literally kept their SD cards in their moneybelts, on their person at all times. Unless you have a chance to upload to somewhere in the cloud, wherever your pictures are residing – your download core – must be jealously guarded, and wherever possible, defended with heavy weapons.
3. Be insured against theft and loss. If the worst should happen, it makes sense to be covered. As for the pictures themselves…
4. … back up whenever you can. It’s the only kind of insurance there is against the loss of all your efforts and achievements.

Dos and don’ts

  • Do empty all your memory cards before you go, and number them so you can tell them apart.
  • Do use a carry-on pack designed for camera gear. These bags have padded, configurable insides that will protect your dSLR and lenses, and your laptop too.
  • Do expect that you may get stopped at security and have to prove that your camera is in fact what you say it is. Pack accordingly.
  • Do make sure your gear is labeled with your details, just in case it goes astray and is discovered by an honest person (hey, it could happen). Tag your bag, and put a sticker on your camera body. Office labelmakers work great for this.
  • Don’t pack camera gear in your checked baggage. There’s a good chance it won’t survive undamaged. There’s a good chance it won’t arrive at the other end at all.
  • Don’t put your camera in the easy-access ‘top pocket’ of your backpack. Those pockets are the first victims of opportunistic theft, and they usually don’t have enough padding to keep your baby safe.
  • Don’t leave a lens on your dSLR when you travel. Use the bayonet cover that came with the body, and cover the lens at both ends. This will help keep the bayonet mount safe from damage when things move around in transit.
  • Don’t travel without having your gear insured.
  • Don’t walk around the airport with your camera out looking for shots, unless you’re in an observation lounge. Airport Security hates that.
  • Don’t let your camera bag out of your sight. They just love to run off when you aren’t looking.

Remember to think in terms of space:use ratio. You can’t possibly plan for every eventuality, and ultimately the more gear you have to manage, the less fun you’ll have, so take less wherever you can. As much as we enjoy it, photography must stay in its place: the stuff that happens to you first-hand is far more important than recording 2D photographic evidence which, no matter how sublime, will have none of the visceral impact of actually being there. So, don’t place too much stock in being armed to the teeth with photo gear. The experience is worth far more than the shot.

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