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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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.