Tips for the Traveling Photographer

These little tidbits will save a lot of headaches if you travel with your camera

In October 2010, I made the decision to pursue my photography career full-time. Since then, travel has become an important component of my business. As you might imagine, traveling with your camera gear adds a layer of complexity to any plans you may have. Whether its dealing with airport security or just figuring out how to pack everything so it is safe, there are lots of little things that can make your travel experience easier. Here are some of my favorite travel tips.

Always carry-on your camera gear

My ThinkTank camera bags are easy to travel with.

I always carry as much of my camera equipment (cameras/lenses/filters & accessories) with me on the plane. The only item I’ll ever consider putting in my luggage is my tripod, usually with its ball-head removed. Lithium batteries must never be placed in a checked bag. I typically travel with a primary camera bag (lately, I am loving the Mindshift Backlight series bags) that can easily fit in the overhead bin, or even under the seat in a pinch. Roller bags are great for transporting gear through airports, but are rarely the ideal working bag, especially if you’re wandering through a city. My camera bag is usually the larger of my two carry-on items, and a personal item must fit under the seat.

Other items to always pack in your carry-on bag
  • Hard copies of your travel documents
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • One change of clothing (in case you get stranded without your luggage
  • Essential medications

Speaking of checked bags, I almost always pack one. Yes, it costs a little extra, but it’s pretty much the only way to travel. Many airlines now offer bag-tracking through their smartphone apps, so you can see where your bag is during your travels. You can also get a luggage tracker if you want to track your bag in real-time. Make sure you lock your checked bag(s) with a TSA-compliant lock. I use one that has a pop-up indicator that lets me know if the lock has been opened during travel so I can check my bag contents before I leave the airport.

Choose your seat wisely

Your seat location can have a big impact on your boarding group, and airlines have different policies for boarding. You never want to be in the last boarding group when traveling with your camera gear. While many airlines board from the rear of the plane, others (United) board window seats first regardless of cabin location. Southwest uses open boarding without seat assignments. For me, securing overhead bin space is critical, as I don’t want to ever part with my camera bag. I use SeatGuru to check seating configurations when I’m choosing my seat. Some airlines offer priority boarding, and it’s usually worth the price if it means I get to put my camera bag in an overhead bin.

Breeze through airport security

Airport security is probably everyone’s least favorite activity when traveling. To get through security quickly:

  • Consider signing up for the TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry programs. Pre-Check lets you keep your shoes on and you can leave your laptop/tablets packed while going through the x-ray machine. Global Entry membership lets you skip the passport control lines when returning to the USA after international travel.
    • If you travel frequently from an airport that offers CLEAR, a membership will eliminate the lines and make getting through security much faster (not all airports offer CLEAR).
    • Clear now has an App called “Clear Pass” that lets you input your passport & customs control questionnaire information up to 4 hours before your arrival home, which speeds up the border control process.
  • Don’t wear metal when flying. I have a belt with a plastic buckle that I wear, and I try to wear shoes that I know won’t set off the metal detectors.

Essential items for a better travel experience

  • External battery for your smartphone/tablet (I use a Jackery)
  • Instant coffee packets such as Starbucks Via (because hotel coffee is unpredictable at best)
  • Ear plugs and an eye mask for the plane and hotels
  • Merino wool clothing can be worn frequently without washing (I’ve tested this)
  • A travel power strip with USB ports
    • Unless you’re planning to use a high-wattage device (hairdryer etc), most USB phone/camera/tablet chargers can handle 110-220V input. That means that you don’t always need a power strip that has a voltage converter in it. Simply get the appropriate adapter plug and plug your device chargers into the power strip as usual. If your power strip has USB ports built-in, they are capable of handling dual-voltage input, too.
  • Multi-port USB charging plugs for charging multiple devices
  • USB car adapter plug if you’re renting a vehicle
  • 2m long charging cables for your devices instead of the short ones they come with
  • Travel laundry soap and a drain plug for washing clothes in your hotel sink
  • I use the Trtl neck pillow and I can actually sleep on a plane wearing it. Other pillows are bulky and don’t really support the neck.
  • Allen wrenches and tripod adjustment tools in case you need to make an adjustment in the field
  • Extra micro-fiber cloths for cleaning lenses and screens

Best practices for traveling photographers

  • Photograph your passport and keep a copy of it on your phone. Put a printed copy of your passport in your luggage
  • Use the same pocket in your bag or coat/vest for your passport so you know that you have it
  • Use the hotel safe for your passport & valuables
  • Purchase travel insurance for your trip (contact me if you’d like a quote)
  • When traveling overseas, use a credit card for purchases whenever possible. You’ll get the best exchange rate that way.
  • If your hotel curtains don’t close all the way, clip the curtains shut with a hotel pants hanger
  • Keep PDF copies of your camera manual(s) on your phone or tablet
  • Check with your cellphone provider about international plans before you travel overseas. Put your phone into airplane mode if you want to make sure you’re not accidentally using data internationally and stick with WiFi when you can.
  • Use iMessage or WhatsApp to send texts over WiFi without using cellular data
  • Consider buying an international data plan using an eSIM to save money on cellular data
  • Use a shoulder or sling bag or a backpack that opens from the rear when walking around cities to keep your gear secure and easy to access

10 thoughts on “Tips for the Traveling Photographer”

  1. Great tips Jason. As one who flies to/from South Africa often I frequently run into weight issues with my carry-on camera bag – too heavy! Do you have this problem and, if so, how do you deal with it?

  2. Hi Peter-
    I haven’t personally had this issue, but I know it can be problematic for travelers in certain countries. One tip would be to pack a couple lenses in a vest so that they aren’t in your bag when it’s weighed… 😉

  3. I have always taken Jason’s advice on what to pack and how to pack and found he gives EXCELLENT tips. Thanks Jason.

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