How To Travel With Camera Gear Safely

One of the best things ever about becoming a photographer is how the whole world seemed to completely open up to us as soon as we started using our cameras. Currently we live wherever we happen to be shooting. We have visited 10 countries this past year on three different continents and in between have experienced numerous cities. Although we love all of freedom that travel provides us with, the biggest thing that we worry about is how to travel with our camera gear safely. So whether you want to carry your camera with you around town to document your kids or are hopping on an airplane every week, the following are some simple tips to help keep your gear away from thieves and in good condition.

Make Your List And Then Check It Twice

Prior to leaving the house, be sure to make a comprehensive list of each piece of equipment you will be taking with you, in addition to their serial numbers. It useful to have the ability to tally up your list while you are in transit. It is such a bad feeling to hop on a train and then realize you thought you had put your 50mm lens inside your backpack when it’s actually still back at home sitting on your kitchen table. So make a list, go over it, and save yourself a lot of trouble trying to remember each piece of camera gear inside your head. If you record the serial number it will help you track and report them in case they go missing ever.

Our travel camera gear checklist varies depending on far we are traveling and how long we are going to be gone. Last fall when we went to Asia on our six-month honeymoon, our list was very different from the one we might have when shooting a wedding in New York. The two checklists that we have look something like the following:

Checklist For Personal Travel

  • 2 Canon Mark III’s – one camera for each of us, although sometime we take just one body along.
  • 50mm f/1.2 lens – We always take this with us and never leave home without it. It is this lens that provides us with the greatest flexibility for shooting any scene we choose.
  • 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens – whenever we are traveling through cities, it is ideal for us to have a tilt-shift with us. We really love to shoot portraits with it, and it has turned out to be among the most versatile lenses for us.

Professional Travel Checklist

  • 2 Canon Mark III’s
  • 50mm f/1.2 – If we had to, we probably could shoot a whole wedding with this!
  • 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift – Great for individual portraits and setting scenes.
  • 35mm f/1.4 – You can set a scene that is slightly more interesting for couple’s portraits than a 50mm allows for and you also achieve better environmental details. For dance floor shots this is also our go-to lens.
  • 85mm f/1.2 – Although we wish there was a faster focus on this lens, it truly is gorgeous. It takes portraits to a whole new level. However, it is also very heavy, so we don’t use it as much as we would like too, since for casual personal travel it is too heavy.

Depending on the scope and size of the project, we might also take along:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8 – We definitely prefer not having to carry it, so it’s always a struggle, since it’s an excellent catch-all lens for staying out of the scene while shooting wedding guests at a distance or shooting from behind large ceremonies.
  • 17-40mm f/4 (this wide-angle lens we are using less frequently, but once it while it offers a good way of capturing a building from close up or a whole wedding ceremony. Increasingly we are using our 35mm for shots that we used to use our wide angle for.)

The hardest part of travel is our lighting setups, and we invariably end up having a long meeting with security. When we take along the bare minimum, here is what it includes:

  • Canon Speedlite 600EX-RTs – We have a ST-E3-RT Transmitter along with two matching Speedlites. For most weddings, they serve us quite well. If we need something a bit heftier, we will add in:
  • Profoto B1 setup – This is an amazing light. With the Profoto 35-inch RFI Octa Softbox. However, it adds an extra bag for us to carry with us and since we try to reduce the number of carry-ons we try leaving it in our home studio whenever we can. Also required with the B1:
  • C-stand: They are very heavy and a big hassle trying to fly with. That is why we usually leave it t home and rent on instead wherever we are going to be working. For some equipment that is really awkward, heavy or bulky, weigh the benefits and costs of renting it instead at your shooting location. Renting a C-stand only costs $20 or so, which for us definitely outweighs the hassles of trying to travel with it.

Prior to leaving on any trip, whether it’s professional or personal, it is critical for you know what the ideal outcome for your photos is. On personal trips we don’t take flashes or zoom lens because we don’t shoot any wildlife or anything else where we would need long lenses. Whenever possible we only use ambient light and with our night photography prefer to just incorporate whatever light is setting the scene already.

Even on professional projects, we still are very careful about what we pack and as we are putting our gear together we consider our project. Some large events or weddings may require a longer zoom or wide angle lens, but if we can do without a lens then we will. That requires more planning, working with our clients closely, and having a thorough knowledge of our equipment. However it is definitely worth it when we are able to pack all our gear inside a small bag and be quite sure we can produce excellent work with it!

Downsize

Pre-travel is an excellent time for downsizing your gear. Only take what is the most important for you, and think about the images you will be wanting to take while you are traveling. We always take our 50mm f/1.2 with us, but we might bring along our 1950’s Yashica film camera or tilt-shift lens also depending on what type of trip it is. It’s nice having options, but taking along all of your gear without having a specific plan will just add unneeded stress to your trip. Travel light, and use whatever you have.

This is especially true, if you are flying. Minimize your gear so that it fits inside your carry-on luggage. Personally, we’d rather have to crawl to where we are going then have to check a bag that contains our most valuable gear and have it out of our sight. It’s true that it’s a huge hassle getting your camera through security (it seems like they are blown away by unusual lenses, old film cameras and light sets), but it can lead to some interesting conversation. It is worth the extra time for your peace of mind.

Getting Through Customs

Here is a thought about custom forms: If you’re entering a country that might have shaky relationships with journalist, you should lay low and don’t write journalist or photographer on the custom forms. If too much attention is drawn to your camera gear and you being able to use it that will frequently generate more hassles for you when you land at the next airport. Although we don’t encourage anybody to lie on the custom forms, it is much better to stay under the radar as much as possible.

Protect Your Data

Everywhere we go we take LaCie Rugged hard drives and backup whenever possible. Whenever we can access fast internet, we utilize online storage, however good luck finding wifi that is strong enough for uploading thousands of raw files while up high in the Burmese mountains. This is something that I keep track of as closely as I do my passport. So why do I use the LaCie Rugged? Well that last thing I heed is having a hard drive fail due to a bumpy dirt road while sitting in back of a jeep covered with mud.

We use large memory cards as well and every night we back them up. We always carry backup cards inside our briefcases, and also with our cameras.

Make Your Gear Appear Cheap

Avoid overdone, fancy accessories and camera cases. Anything with clearly expensive features or brand logos will draw lots of attention. While carrying our gear around in a low-key camera bag (there are many solid options available that look like regular bags, or else you can purchase protective inserts to put into your backpack), you can make a few adjustments to your gear to make them less conspicuous instantly:

Make Your Gear Appear Cheap

  • Take your logo-covered camera strap off (unless you are getting paid by Canon to advertise for them. Otherwise it isn’t necessary for you having their log on your camera strap) and using something more personal instead. Use black gaffer’s tape to cover up the brand on your camera body. Without the white print, your camera will appear more average and less attention will be drawn to how much you may have paid.
  • Scuff it up! For more than three years now, we have been shooting with our Canon 5D Mark III’s. They are definitely starting to show some wear and tear from being dragged all around the world. I absolutely love it! Those marks and scuffs mean that you are making good use of your gear and it is serving you quite well. So when it starts looking old, don’t rush to replace it or polish it up. Its charm is hard-won and will probably cause most people looking for your gear to believe it is worth less money than it probably actually is.

Safety On Location

Getting somewhere is just half the battle of course. After you have landed, you’ll need to works smart and keep your wits. Here are a couple of thoughts regarding shooting safety after you have arrived:

Just like when you are home, make sure your camera gear isn’t displayed in such a way that it draws a lot of attention. Keep it zipped inside a bag, on a strap or close to your body. It amazes me how many people wander around and their cameras are on full display. Not only do you look just like a tourist, it also draws the attention of thieves.

Don’t discuss your gear with strangers. One time in a bar we sat next to a few friendly and drunk strangers who showed off their large zoom lenses they had just purchased. They made fun of the small 50mm we had with. However we felt we had the last laugh since our camera setup was (although more expensive), inconspicuous, small and less appealing for thieves not knowing the difference.

Here is our thoughts on tripods: we don’t ever travel with them. They usually aren’t necessary, invite unwanted attention and it is awkward setting them up in public areas. We make use of makeshift tripods – such as bar tops,rocks, tables and banisters when it is necessary to have a steady shot. We have frequently seen other photographers who make a big deal out of getting their tripods set up. That just let’s thieves know where you are and what you have. They probably could get just as good a shot just using a shutter speed that is slightly faster. Carefully consider whether you really need to have a tripod or not and then make the best decision. If you do decide to take one with you, while you are shooting, your camera strap should be kept around your neck.

Although you always need to careful when you are in an unsafe neighborhood, another thing that we recommend is not to limit yourself to just visiting areas that are considered “safe” when traveling. A theft can take place anywhere. You may also end up missing out of some of the finest parts of traveling if you put too many restrictions on yourself. Whenever you are shooting in higher crime neighborhoods, be alert. Walk with confidence and your head up. Also avoid hunching over your gear like you are trying to hide something. Your bags should stay zipped up and no matter where you happen to be stay alert for pick-pockets. Shoot with confidence without drawing a lot of attention to yourself.

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