How to Travel Safely with Your Camera Gear

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One of our favorite things about becoming photographers is the way the entire world seemed to open up once we picked up a camera. We currently live wherever we’re shooting. Over the past year, we’ve visited 10 countries on three continents, and countless cities in between. While we love the freedom of travel, our biggest concern is always how to travel safely with our gear. Whether you’re hopping on flights every other week or want to keep your camera with you to document your kiddos around town, there are some simple hacks to keep your gear in good shape and out of thieving hands.

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Make a list and check it twice

Before you leave the house, make a detailed list of every piece of equipment you’re taking with you, along with all the serial numbers. It’s helpful to be able to tally the list up whenever you’re in transit. There isn’t a worse feeling than hopping on a train and realizing you thought your 50mm lens was in your backpack when it is actually waiting for you on the kitchen table. Make a list, run through it, and save yourself the effort of keeping every piece of gear in your own head. Having the serial numbers recorded will help you report and track them should they ever go missing.

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Our travel gear checklist changes depending on how long and far we’re traveling. When we took a six-month honeymoon in Asia last autumn, our list looked very different from when we fly to say, New York to shoot a wedding. Our two checklists look something like this:

Personal Travel Checklist

  • 2 Canon Mark IIIs – one for each of us, though sometimes we get crazy and only bring one body.
  • 50mm f/1.2 lens – ALWAYS. We never leave home without this lens as it affords us the greatest flexibility to shoot any scene.
  • 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens – When we travel through cities, having a tilt-shift is ideal for us, and since we also love shooting portraits with it, it somehow became one of our most versatile lenses.

Professional Travel Checklist

  • 2 Canon Mark IIIs
  • 50mm f/1.2 – If pressed, we could probably shoot an entire wedding with it!
  • 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift – Again, awesome for setting scenes and for individual portraits.
  • 35mm f/1.4 – Shooting couple’s portraits with this one sets a slightly more interesting scene than the 50mm and allows you to get better environmental details. It’s also our go-to for dance floor shots.
  • 85mm f/1.2 – Though we wish this one had a faster focus, it is just nuts how gorgeous this lens is. It takes portraits to an entirely new level. But it also weighs roughly one million pounds, so we use it less often than we’d like because it’s just too heavy for casual personal travel.

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Depending on the size and scope of the project, we may also bring:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8 – This is a battle because we definitely prefer to not carry it. But it’s a great catch-all lens for shooting from the very back of large ceremonies or capturing wedding guests from a distance and staying out of a scene.
  • 17-40mm f/4 (we use this wide-angle lens less and less, but occasionally it provides a good way to grab an entire wedding ceremony or a building from closer up. We’re increasingly turning to our 35mm for the work we used to put on the wide angle.)

Our lighting setups are the most difficult part of travel, and inevitably earn us a long date with security. If we’re bringing our bare minimum, it includes the following:

  • Canon Speedlite 600EX-RTs – We have two matching Speedlites and the ST-E3-RT Transmitter. These serve us well for most weddings, but if we have to bring something a little heftier, we’ll also add . . .
  • Profoto B1 setup – This light is amazing. But it adds one more whole bag to carry on with us and we try to leave it for home studio work as much as possible to reduce our carry-ons. with the Profoto 36″ RFI Octa Softbox. The B1 also requires a . . .
  • C-stand –These are heavy as heck and a huge hassle to fly with, so we normally end up leaving it at home and just renting it wherever we land. For some equipment that is just too bulky, heavy, or awkward, consider the relative costs and benefits of renting it at your shoot location. For us, the $20 or so to rent a C-stand far outweighs the hassle of traveling with it.

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Before you leave for any trip, whether personal or professional, it’s imperative to know your ideal outcome for photos. We don’t bring a zoom lens or flashes on personal trips because we don’t shoot wildlife or anything that would require long lenses. We use only ambient light whenever possible and prefer our night photography to only incorporate the light that already sets the scene.

Even for professional projects, we pack very carefully and keep our projects in mind as we put our gear together. Some large weddings or events might require a wide angle lens or a longer zoom, but if we can avoid bringing a lens we will. This requires more work on the planning end, working closely with our clients, and knowing our equipment really well. But it’s worth it when we can pack all of our gear into a little bag and be very confident that we can produce great work with it!

Downsize

On that note, pre-travel is a great time to downsize your gear. Take only what is most important to you, and consider the images you’ll be aiming for while you travel. We never leave home without our 50mm f/1.2, but depending on the kind of trip we may also bring along our tilt-shift lens or our 1950s Yashica film camera as well. You want to have options, but bringing along your entire catalog of gear without a specific plan for it will only add stress to your life. Keep it light, and use what you’ve got.

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We got this case used for $20 at a camera shop and it has the best repackable/removeable foam pads in it.

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If you’re flying, this is especially true. Keep your gear minimal enough to fit in your carry-on luggage. We would rather crawl to a destination than check a bag containing our most precious gear and let it out of our sight. Yes, it’s a super hassle to run your gear through security (they always seem to be blown away by light sets, old film cameras, and unusual lenses), but it also leads to some good conversations, and the extra time is worth the peace of mind.

Going through customs

A thought on customs forms: If you enter a country that may have an iffy relationship with journalists, lay low and don’t mark “photographer” or “journalist” on their customs forms. Drawing attention to your camera gear and your ability to use it will often create more hassle at the airport when you land. While we don’t encourage anyone to lie on their entry forms, the more you can stay under the radar the better.

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Protect your data

We carry LaCie Rugged hard drives with us everywhere and back up whenever we can. We use online storage when we can find fast internet, but good luck finding wifi strong enough to upload a thousand raw files when you’re high up in the Burmese mountains. I keep track of this thing just as closely as I keep track of my passport. Why LaCie Rugged? The last thing we need is a hard drive failing because the dirt road was too bumpy when it was sitting in the back of some mud covered jeep.

Note: Price LaCie Rugged drives on Amazon.com and B&H Photo’s websites

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We also use large memory cards that we back up every night. We always have a backup card in our briefcase, but as long as our cameras are with us, the memory card is as well. 

Make your gear look cheap

Avoid fancy, overdone camera cases and accessories. Anything with brand logos or obviously expensive features will draw attention to you. While you move your gear into your new low-key camera bag (there are lots of solid options out there that look like a regular bag, or you can buy protective inserts to slip into the old backpack that’s already sitting in the back of your closet), make a couple of tweaks to your gear that will instantly make it look less conspicuous:

  • Remove your logo-covered camera strap (I mean, unless Canon is paying you to advertise for them, you don’t need their logo on your strap) and replace it with something more personal.Cover up your camera brand on the body with black gaffer’s tape (or even duck tape if you’re super committed). Not having that white print will make your camera look more average and take the attention away from how much you might have paid for it.

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  • Scuff it up, baby! We’ve been shooting on our Canon 5D Mark IIIs for over three years now, and they are certainly showing the wear and tear of being dragged all over the world—and I love it! It’s like that well-worn sweater that everyone else thinks is a bit too beat-up, but you love it more every time you wear it. Those scuffs and marks mean you’re using your gear and that it’s serving you. Don’t rush to polish it up or replace it when it looks old. That charm is hard-earned and will cause anybody eyeing your gear to think it’s worth less than it probably is. Double win.

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Safety at your location

Of course, getting to a place in one piece is only half the battle. Once you’ve landed, you have to keep your wits about you and work wisely. A few brief thoughts on shooting safely once you arrive:

  • Just like at home, don’t display your camera gear in a way that invites attention. Keep it close to your body, on a strap, or zipped into a bag that’s close to you. It’s amazing to me how many people will wander around with their cameras on full display, which doesn’t just make you look like a tourist, it’s inviting thieves to follow you.
  • Don’t talk to strangers about your stuff! We sat next to some drunk and friendly travelers in a bar once who wanted to show us their big zoom lenses they just bought. They made fun of our tiny 50mm, but we couldn’t help but feel like we’d get the last laugh as our camera setup was (though more expensive than theirs) tiny, inconspicuous, and less appealing to thieves who don’t know the difference.travel-safely-with-gear-8
  • A thought on tripods: we never, ever travel with them. They are awkward to set up in public areas, invite unwanted attention, and in 99% of cases aren’t actually necessary. We use makeshift tripods – things like banisters, tables, rocks, bar tops, etc., to get a steady shot when needed. We too often see other photographers making a big deal out of setting up a tripod Hi, thieves! We’re over here!) when they could have gotten just as excellent a shot with a slightly faster shutter speed. Strongly consider whether or not you need a tripod and make the best decision for yourself, and if you do bring one, keep your camera strap around your neck while you shoot
  • While you should always be careful in unsafe neighborhoods, we also recommend that you do not limit yourself to only visiting “safe” areas while you travel. Not only can theft happen anywhere, but you’ll miss some of the best parts of travel if you restrict yourself too much. When shooting in neighborhoods with a higher likelihood of crime, be alert. Walk confidently with your head up and avoid hunching around your gear as if you have something to hide. Keep your bags zipped and always be aware of pick-pockets, no matter where you are. Shoot confidently without inviting too much attention to yourself. 

Conclusion

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Capturing all the beauty and hidden corners of this world is one of the most satisfying things about becoming more proficient with our gear. Though there are risks anytime you leave the house with pricey items strapped to your shoulder, this gear is made to be used, to show some wear and tear, and not to be thought of as so precious that it’s left at home.

How do you protect your gear when you travel? Please share your comments and tips below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Tim Sullivan spends most of his summers in the Pacific Northwest. He shoots with his wife, Laura Huysman, and their company Lightworks360 Photography. Together, they shutterbug around the globe and run retreats for creatives in the most beautiful places they find. Keep up with their travels at lightworks360.com, on Instagram, or on Facebook.

  • mary.mollica

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  • njtrout2000

    I keep a spreadsheet of all my camera equipment and serial numbers on DropBox so if needed I can retrieve from anywhere I have Internet access.

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  • charlesjaggers

    I too carry LaCie Rugged but the USB entry port failed to deliver all my stored images, Too old says Seagate who now own them, I’ll never use a Seagate product again. This unit is my newest I have two older (genuine) Rugged units that still perform flawlessly.

  • Sphiro Tech

    This unit is my newest I have two older (genuine) Rugged units that still perform flawlessly.
    http://www.thefezz.com/

  • mary_clark_1994

    It’s been one year since I finally abandoned my office work and I am so happy now… I started freelancing from my house, over a website I discovered on-line, for a few hrs every day, and I profit now much more than i did on my last job… My pay-check for last month was for $9k… Awesome thing about it is that now i have more free time with my family…
    http://korta.nu/MDe

  • lynda.rhodes.93

    1 year ago I quit my previous work and that decision was a lifechanger for me… I started freelancing from home, for a company I stumbled upon online, few hrs each day, and I make much more than i did on my previous job… My last month check was for 9 thousand bucks… Superb thing about this job is that i have more time for my loved ones…
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  • On a recent trip to South Africa (first in 13 years) I was warned by a number of locals about the risks of carrying a DSLR (60D + 24mm pancake lens) visibly in some public places. I limited a lot of my photography to a mobile phone.
    For next years travels, I am looking carefully at the 1 inch sensor “premium compact” options.
    As tourists, we need to be aware of some areas where violence is part of the society, and the fact that some gear is always going to be bulky and visible.

  • Davey Bob

    Spam much?

  • pete guaron

    Sound advice, Tim – on my last trip to France, while sitting at a table outside a bistro in Montmartre, I found the couple at the next table were suffering from an overdose of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) and between them, they looked as if they were suffering from an outbreak of measles. They had 5 Leicas, and that meant 5 bright red instantly recognizable from the other side of the street highly expensive cameras.
    After we left the bistro, I resolved to avoid such contact in future – it attracts thieves like flies around a honey pot. My Nikon is no longer sporting a Nikon strap and I take your point, black tape on the name on the camera might be an idea too. Except while shooting, the gear stays in the bag, out of sight – not on display! – and the bag is relatively small, because I travel light (I limit myself to 2 lenses, while I’m traveling).
    Oh – and while chatting to the GAS junkies about their gear (which they couldn’t stop talking about), I spun a sad story about how down market mine was. I couldn’t care less if other people think theirs is better & mine is junk – especially when the “other people” are perfect strangers anyway.

  • ianairbus

    No matter how much I love my cameras, I have been taking SLR/DSLR photos for 45 years, your camera beining stolen is preferable to defending yourself against who knows how dangerous he is?
    Your gear cost you a lot of money, and your health is worth a lot more.

  • Irene McCullagh

    Well, I LIVE in South Africa and not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t post a list of stolen items to be on the look-out for. It certainly is a dangerous place and unwise to openly carry expensive looking equipment. People have lost their lives for a mobile phone. Never leave anything lying visibly in a car – pack it way in the boot at all times. That being said, exercise some common sense and you’ll be fine (for the most part).

  • Irene McCullagh

    this is an excellent idea, which I will do from now on. Thank you.

  • charlotte.schell

    After 5 years I decided to leave my last work and it changed my life… I started to work at home, for a company I discovered online, several hours /a day, and I profit now much more than i did on my previous job… My last month payment was for Nine thousand bucks… Awesome thing about this is that i have more time for my family… http://korta.nu/MDe

  • 1861man

    I have just returned from a trip to Tasmania where I took a boat trip to the southern most tip of Bruny Island (to the Great Southern Ocean). The seas were angry my friends (to steal a phrase from George Costanza) but I was lucky enough to have carried a plastic rain cover that was supposed to act as protection for my camera bag – lucky for me it was a perfect size to completely cover my Canon 5D MkIll and 200mm lens from spray and waves. Not so lucky was the Nikon owner sitting beside me who suffered significant stress and anxiety over his repeated drenching over a 3 hour trip.

    If I go anywhere I take my plastic cover with elastic (looks like an oversized shower cap), It takes up no space at all and weighs nothing to carry. That’s my tip.

  • great idea

  • Carol Skinner

    WOW! Super great idea. Wish I had thought of this about 15 years ago. I’m gonna do it now!

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