How to Travel with Photo Gear

January 20, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 31 Comments |
How to Travel with Photo Gear Image

For landscape work I need a camera bag that is big enough to carry a pro spec DSLR, 4-5 lenses plus all the other bits and pieces we need; filters, rings, cable release, extension ring etc. On top of that there are the layers of thermal and waterproof clothing that are as important as the lenses, water, phone, head torch etc. My main criticism of most camera bags is there simply isn’t enough cargo space devoted to all the extras we do need to carry. For landscape work a sizeable bag is required. There are some gargantuan bags available, in which everything but the kitchen sink can be portaged.  In the film era I used to routinely carry two camera systems in a Lowepro ProTrekker which weighed well in excess of 25kg fully laden; a weight that’s nothing to a soldier in Afghanistan but still a sizeable bulk to lug around all day for us mortals. It took me a spell in Spoleto Hospital with a dislocated elbow after a top heavy tumble in Umbria to realise that I couldn’t just keep adding to the amount I carry on location; taking too much is a mistake. It was slowing me down, restricting my mobility and making the whole process a feat of endurance rather than an enjoyable liberating experience. Maybe I'm just getting on, but I no longer load such a burden on my back; one camera system is quite enough. After all I can only use camera at a time, and when the light is perfect I need to be making the most of it, not messing around switching systems. My current bag of choice in the hills is the Pro Trekker 400 AW, which has enough space for my 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm f 2.8 or 100-400mm, 17mm & 24mm TS-E tilt & shifts, 24-70mm and 14mm super wide. That’s enough, isn’t it? The side and back pockets have enough room for the layers and flask and the backpacking harness makes it comfortable when pounding out the miles. All of which make it very well suited for landscape work. But there’s one problem; loaded up it’s just too big to fly with as carry on. Lowepro would dispute this, there’s a little symbol of a plane on their website page for this bag, but I’ve just had too many confrontations at departure gates to  feel with any confidence I and it could make it on-board together. The prospect of watching through the window as the steroid popping weight lifters practise their basketball with it is an experience I'll pass on. The trouble is airline regulations regarding carry on luggage are permanently changing; we poor passengers never know where we are. The budget carriers are particularly difficult. Flying RyanAir with photography kit is akin to enduring a bad hangover; soul searching remorse is followed by vows of never again. And to add to the uncertainty every airport is different. It’s a minefield.

How to Travel with Photographic EquipmentThe Wawel with the moon over the towers of the Royal Cathedral at dusk and the War Memorial to WWII Polish soldiers in the foreground, Krakow, Poland. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm lens. Taking advantage of no frills flights to places like Krakow is tempting, but the airline restrictions on what can be taken make these trips a headache.

In truth there is no camera bag that is right for every purpose. Designing a bag for the hills of Snowdonia and the vagaries of air travel involves contradictions and compromises. And for us photographers one bag is never going to be right for all situations. A bag loaded up for a landscape shoot is a cumbersome liability in a crowded marketplace. That’s why I currently have 6 different bags lined up in the office. I’ll admit that’s rather excessive, but they do all get used. Let’s consider what we need from a photography bag. Expensive gear needs to be protected from the knocks and bumps of life on the road, so adequate padding and flexible compartmentalisation is mandatory, as is all weather proofing. Bags also need to be portable and comfortable to carry, which is where photo backpacks score so highly. The equipment needs to be accessible, and the bag should be compact and easy to stow. It’s these last two   needs that cause problems. Photo backpacks require the user to take the bag off, lay it on the ground and grapple with clips and zips to access the hardware; difficult to do in a rush when a momentary shaft of light paints the landscape.

If we should ever bump into each other you’ll recognise me, I’m the guy with the muddy back. When the moment is right for soaring inspiration my backpack comes off and is plonked down unceremoniously onto the soggy ground, collecting grot and sheep poo in the process. Theses souvenirs are destined to be transferred onto my back when the shot is done and I’m on my way again, it’s inevitable and a unique photographer’s look. In terms of access  shoulder bags such as the Billingham are far more convenient. For the likes of wedding photographers who need to get in and out their bags quickly for the flash when doing the cutting the cake shot they're just the job. Indeed before backpacks were available this is what most photographers used, but they were always useless for carrying any distance. All pros of the 70s and early 80s without exception had chronic back problems as a result of lugging heavy Nikkors and Hassleblads on one shoulder; I’m glad those days have passed. On balance for those of us who have to carry our kit over the hills and far away the price of a muddy back is well worth paying. I just wish I could get into mine quicker sometimes. And whilst we're on the subject, does anyone actually use the system for attaching tripods to these bags? I've never seen anyone do so on any of our workshops, we all march purposefully with tripods on the shoulder. A tripod attached to the back of an already weighty camera bag makes the whole ensemble ridiculously unwieldy and pendulous whilst climbing over styles. It's one of those design ideas that look great on the drawing board but is totally impractical in the field.

How to Travel with Photographic EquipmentThe procession of monks at dawn through the town to collect gifts of food, Luang Prabang, Laos. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm lens. There's a lot to be said for keeping things simple and travelling light. With One body, a 24-70mm & 70-200mm a roving photographer is well equipped for most situations.

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photos, photo, travel, landscape, how to, photographer, packing, equipment, david noton, bag, pack, gear, customs, camera bag

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31 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Paul Parkinson

I think this article has been truncated somewhere along the line. It started well enough, setting the scene nicely then just stops ;-)

1:28 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#2 Mark Goldstein

Stops where, Paul?

You should see 3 pages…

1:44 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#3 Eric Hutton

I’m just switching out of my LowePro Computrekker Plus AW, which has served me well the past 4 years or so.  The problem is the weight when travelling; because it will be my one carry-on, I load it up with a ton of stuff - books, computer, camera gear.  A lot of this stuff will stay in the hotel while I am out shooting, but lugging it around for a few hours at the airport is killer on the back.

My new bag is an Ape Case ACPro4000.  Has the same capacity as my Computrekker PLus aW, but has a detachable roller!  This is a great solution, a roller bag for the airport that then converts to a rugged backpack for going on a shoot!

2:01 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#4 Stephane

So French attitude :o) J’adore!!!!!

2:26 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#5 Itai

Nice! This is the best editorial article on camera bags I’ve read so far. I like how it puts camera bags in perspective of photographic journeys and assignments.

2:54 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#6 Gilo

Good luck with the airport staff in the Philippines! They can easily compete to win number 1 as most pedantic, non-sensical and obtuse ground staff in the world! And you are lucky if at the end you manage to take off at all…But if you do, once you have overcome all the obstacles, don’t relax until you are out of the airport building: in fact the most idiotic staff of all are those standing in front of the exit door, tasked with stopping loaded, exhausted passengers demanding them to hand over their airline receipt of the checked-in luggage! And don’t hope to get away with it, if you happen to have misplaced it. Unless you have been living in this country for 15 years like me and you have already acquired the necessary skills to roar at them wildly enough to blow them off your way.

3:44 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#7 Paul Banbury

“Swarthy”?  That word alone made me read the whole thing.  Swarthy!

6:04 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#8 Paul Banbury

Then I read the rest of the article and was left wondering why it wasn’t titled “Camera bags are important” “Various camera bags have different merits” .  But thanks for the nice photos.

6:11 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#9 Yi Chen

I think the article is about packing for the outdoor trip, not for packing to get in and out of the airport and planes.

6:48 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#10 Nigel Craig

Well I travel with a mere LowePro Flipside 400AW, but I’ve had a conversion - I’m only going to take 5D2 and all the clutter when I know for sure I’ll need it. My general travel camera will be Panasonic GH2 with 14-140 and a 20mm pancake stuffed in a pocket. It’s not just the weight, there is a benefit in a camera that looks “amateur” it attracts less attention instead of waving a “white” lens around. I’d rather have 85% of the image quality than no image at all.

7:16 pm - Thursday, January 20, 2011

#11 ardin buenaventura

i’m from the philippines, i’m sure you will have a wonderful time here in PH as there are lot’s of wonderful places here. happy tripping…

1:38 am - Friday, January 21, 2011

#12 Iberostar Mexico

Some good information that you have shared in the bog and the tips would be useful one.
The picture that you have taken are really a well shot one.
Thanks and appreciate your work.

7:47 am - Friday, January 21, 2011

#13 mihalis

nice lowerpro lineup ad

8:51 am - Friday, January 21, 2011

#14 Jude Lab

nice packing :)

12:03 pm - Friday, January 21, 2011

#15 Eric Hutton

@yi chen

Yup, but to get the gear, and the bag you want to carry it in, to the outdoor shoot, you first have to get all that stuff on and off a plane - that’s the attraction of this Ape Case bag, it is designed to do both duties well.  I’ll see how it works in practice next week, as I am heading out to Armenia followed by a couple of days in Paris.  For the Paris portion of the trip I think I will be missing having something a little smaller to tote gear around in though, so I might throw one of my smaller crumplers in my checked bags.

3:02 pm - Friday, January 21, 2011

#16 GG

Looking at the pictures you could have taken all of them with a Canon s95 or a Panasonic LX5. Even the pictures with the Buddhist monks if you fiddle with Photoshop afterwards. If you not using them for print of course.

10:28 pm - Sunday, January 23, 2011

#17 Stefan Shillington

For me it’s one lens on my 5D Mk2, f/2 35mm, and a Canon S90 (on RAW) for backup. Oh the relief after years of back-ache. Now if the numbers come up make that a Leica M9!

12:27 pm - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

#18 Bruce

As soon as I read this article, I was reminded of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Koy Detmer who literally traveled to his team’s away football games with a only his toothbrush and the clothes he was wearing.  Of course, his game uniform/equipment was transported by the team.

I guess I am paranoid and averse to leaving my DSLR pro equipment at the hands of some careless airline and its personnel.

I carry a compact Canon g11 which fits in my pants pocket, one external flash and quantum battery, a miniature tripod and a few memory cards and camera batteries.  It can all fit in a small “belly-bag” around my waist. I’ve got a nice range of zooms on the camera, with a large sensor and the ability to shoot raw images.

It’s great for backpacking trips too!

Happy Shooting!

3:30 pm - Tuesday, February 8, 2011

#19 lesley

“Swarthy” corrupt baggage handlers??
Looks like travel has sadly failed to broaden the mind here…

4:24 pm - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#20 JohnE Nikon

Nice article.  I must be the only photographer that uses the tripod attachment on my Kata 467-i.  I find it invaluable as I need my hands free if the terrain is rough and I need to climb.

8:52 pm - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#21 mjinak

Why is it no one talks about a bag that will carry drinking water, rain gear, 1st aid kit, in addition to camera gear.  I live in Alaska and don’t even hike behind my house without these necessities, let alone travel without them but I have never found a bag that will do both.

7:56 pm - Thursday, February 10, 2011

#22 prat

I use a portare backpack. Its saved my gear from rain, bumps ,bruises, airports train stations and generally from the vagaries of travel.

I’ve traveled to Asia (thailand, China, Taiwan, India), Europe (Italy, England, Spain and Finland), South America (Brazil and Argentina) with my trusty $99 Portare’ camera backpack.

I just wanted something that will keep my great safe, without costing so much that I had to worry about keeping the bag safe.

4:32 pm - Sunday, February 13, 2011

#23 John Kim

Sounds like a nightmare, which is the reason why I bring my low end DSLR when I travel. It’s not a great camera, but it achieves a quality better than a point and shoot, and I get to manually control the exposure.

11:42 pm - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

#24 Stefani Patk

Finally someone has talked about Portare bags. I love mine because of its lightweight and how customizable it is. Have a safe trip.

10:01 pm - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#25 bycostello

I see where i am going wrong i don’t have the wine in my bag!

12:07 pm - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#26 Steve

Just buy a Canon G12 or similar

You can run up hills with one of those

2:40 am - Saturday, March 5, 2011

#27 David Moscovitch

For an article about camera bags, it would have been nice to see a few (or at least one) and their interiors, instead of the authors photos. Not a succinct article, nor really very tightly focused. His personal reflections bored me after a while. There are too many of these types of articles out there, more musings than real information

5:02 pm - Thursday, March 10, 2011

#28 Avinash Bhavnani

I am travelling at the end of the week.
Would like to know how to fit a DSLR cannon 550D with 1 lens and a laptop in the same back pack.

3:47 am - Sunday, June 12, 2011

#29 Marc G

So there is always the challenge of traveling with Underwater camera gear as well.  I have my slr and my housing at one stage. I just sized down to the canon g12 and using the kata 33in1 bag now.  Holds he slr, small cam, housing, chargers, hard drive, strobes, multiple lenses and the laptop still but didn’t break my back on the load I carry. It is a solid option to look at and there are others that make similar items.

4:00 pm - Sunday, July 17, 2011

#30 tammy

Ive got massive nips,what do you suggest I do?

9:08 pm - Thursday, March 8, 2012

#31 ambitions4

Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right,or doing it  better

8:35 am - Tuesday, April 10, 2012