For wedding photographers who travel for their work, flying is unavoidable. As a photographer who flies with or without my gear many times over the course of a year I have a few tips I Thought I’d share for those who may not have flown with their gear before, or maybe you have, but not in awhile.
1. Roller bags don’t fit on regional planes. I’m sure you’ve been on a plane where they tell you all roller bags need to be gate checked. Now just imagine if you had your gear in a fabulous Lowepro Photo Stream RL (like me) and the plane is just too small to fit these overhead. Now, my Lowepro bag is made to fit some of these regional plans, but not all of them accept it. I fly some pretty tiny planes since I live in a pretty remote area. The thing is, you’ve probably carefully packed all your gear into your roller bag, and now you’re panicking about gate checking it. I’ve heard of gate checked roller bags tossed around and lenses breaking, or even luggage lost while gate checked (imagine that). Some people are willing to risk it, but when I’m on my way to photograph a wedding, I’m just not willing. I’ve made that mistake before and had to stuff as much of the valuable gear into my purse as possible. NEVER AGAIN. If you’re doing a lot of flying and you know a roller bag may have to be gate checked, consider looking into a backpack. You can get awesome camera backpacks that separate your gear and hold just as much as your roller, and you’ll be able to fit it under the seat or above you a little better if it doesn’t have wheels and all the extra doodads that your roller does. A backpack is a way to go if you want to skip the worry of gate checking anything. Or, you can do what I do which is sometimes bring my roller bag packed and then carry an empty backpack ready to put all my gear in there, and gate check my empty roller bag if I need to.
2. Your batteries go in your carryon. New rules about batteries! They don’t go in your checked bag, keep them with you in your carryon.
3. Never put anything valuable in your checked bag. Really. Just don’t. Too many bags get lost and never found. Or you get it back, but with one less valuable item than when you had checked it in. Checked bags are for clothes and things that are easily replaceable. Valuables like your camera gear, or anything special, need to come on the plane with you if possible.
4. Pack Your Gear Neatly to Get Through Security Faster. If you take the time to wrap up cords nicely or organize your gear, it’s easier for them to see what it all is when it goes through the scanner, saving you time by preventing you from having to unload everything. That said, camera gear can look a little weird and sometimes it will have to be checked by hand in security. Make sure you have some extra time built in just in case that happens. Don’t be surprised if they insist on taking a closer look either. Some people are deeply offended when they get to have a random search, or when the scanner can’t read something, and TSA has to dig in deeper. TSA, most of the time, is just doing their job and following instructions. However, preparing and organizing your gear as well as possible in advance can help you a lot with avoiding too much time in security.
5. Use TSA Pre-Check. Hate going through security and want to make your life easier? Sign up for TSA Pre-check (if you’re in the US). It costs about $85 and lasts for five years if you’re approved. You can write it off as a business expense! There is an application process, and if you have a dodgy background you may not get accepted, so make sure you read the instructions before paying to apply. Once you have TSA Pre-check, you can get through lines quicker most of the time. You also can leave your shoes and belts on, laptops in your bags, liquids in your bags and more. Ever since I did TSA Pre-Check, I never have to worry about unpacking all my gear in the middle of security. It could still happen, but the chances are less because they’ve done a pretty thorough look into my background and probably know all about my photography (they’re always watching) ;).
6. Keep your memory cards with valuable images with you and back them up as soon as you can (preferably before you fly home). After you’ve photographed someone, put those memory cards in a safe spot. Keep them away from your gear, just in case. Make sure you back them up somewhere as soon as possible too!
7. Be careful who you tell about your business, and who is watching you open your camera gear luggage. Do the same with your car and your gear. Don’t organize it out in the open in your trunk and then leave it in your car unattended. You never know who is watching and may want to grab your stuff and run. It’s best to be a little discreet.
8. If you put your gear in an overhead bin keep a close eye on it. Photographers have been in the situation where someone grabbed their bag (by mistake or on purpose), and they never got their stuff back. I’d suggest sitting in an aisle seat and paying or setting up some early boarding so you ensure you can put your bag right above you and not at the front or back of the plane.
9. Cover your gear bag in brightly colored stickers, or tape, and make sure it has your name on it. Anything that helps your camera bag stand out and not look like any others will help you keep track of it. When I used to travel with a Pelican case roller, I covered the entire outside with stickers. I think people just thought I was a musician and it was a flute inside or something similar.
10. Need to bring your flashes with you, but don’t want to deal with hauling the light stands? Check out my friends, Tether Tools, and their awesome gear to help photographers out with mounting their flashes on the go in a variety of situations. These things are why I never worry about packing light stands anymore. They’re very portable and give you a lot of options without having to worry too much about space. I also love MagMods for the same thing. They’re very portable and lightweight and make the perfect companion to a photographer who has to fly to a wedding and has limited packing space.
Good luck with the next time you fly with your gear. Some basic precautions can help you out in a scenario that can be a little risky and stressful as you’re going to and from a wedding. Airlines may vary on their policies and rules, but if you show up as prepared as possible for the worst case scenario, you’ll likely skip all the crazy extra stress that comes with traveling for work. One last tip? Stay in a hotel with a good solid bed if you’re traveling while shooting. Sleep is critical for optimal creativity.
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