More and more often, I'm traveling for the music photography jobs that I do, whether it's for a one-off job or a run of tour photography gigs. Needless to say, I have a few opinions on the best camera bags and ways to pack for traveling with camera equipment. With airline restrictions only growing more and more strict, hit the full post for my advice on the best ways to carry-on your photography gear and make sure you never have to check your precious kit!
Carry-On or Checked Luggage?
I try to carry-on my camera gear when at all possible. At this point, it goes without saying that checked luggage is not treated kindly. There's just too much opportunity for bad drops, bumps and shock to want to ever check a camera bag.
If you're packing for a trip, I recommend carrying-on all photo equipment, distributing it through your carry-on baggage and allowed personal item if necessary. Clothing should always be the first thing to check if needed, as clothing will be the most easily replaced and cheapest items compared to photo equipment.
Allowed Bag Size
All major carriers allow the carry-on of one piece of baggage and one personal item. The baggage must easily fit into the carry-on baggage check, which measures approximately 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (56 x 35 x 23 cm) for domestic flights in the United States. International flights are generally similar, but can be slightly smaller — in the case of Air France, it's 21″ x 13″ 9″, for example.
In addition, for carry-on baggage, the size may not exceed a total of 45 linear inches (114 cm) in combined length, width and height (including any handles and wheels). This is true for both domestic and international flights.
Finally, it's important to note that while all camera bags designed for carry-on will will fit these restrictions with ease when they are empty, but overpacking can cause soft-sided luggage to bulge to be out of regulation. As a rule I try not to use outside pockets for any bulky items for this reason.
Choosing the Right Bags
I personally use a pair of two Think Tank Photo bags when I travel: the Airport International V 2.0 roller bag and the Shapeshifter backpack.
Think Tank Airport International v2.0:
The Airport International V 2.0 is a carry-on bag that is the slightly smaller version of the Think Tank Airport Security, which is designed to fit in the overhead bin space of smaller aircraft that are used internationally. Personally, the smaller size and extra assurance that this bag will fit even on many smaller commuter jets is worth giving up a little space. I've used the Airport International V 2.0 on dozens and dozens of flights, and it's fit in every single overhead except for one. Even though it's smaller than the Airport Security, it's still large enough to fit my full kit — two bodies, three to five lenses, speedlights, chargers, and other accessories.
Even when one isn't traveling with an entire kit of camera kit, bags like the Airport International are a great option for the casual photographer. Just take out the dividers you don't need and pack the rest with your normal travel items.
The Shape Shifter backpack is what I use as a companion “personal item” carry-on to the Airport Int'l. This backpack features no hard padding — instead, there are neoprene pockets on the interior that are designed to fit two bodies and three lenses — perfect for my kit — with room to spare. The fact that there is no hard padding makes this bag extremely flexible in the travel kit and allows it to pull double duty when needed.
I will generally use the Think Tank Shape Shifter for packing clothes, toiletries, and my laptop. But here's the real beauty of this bag: In the very rare instance of needing to check my rolling bag, I can basically pack my entire essential kit into the Shape Shifter, thus guaranteeing that I can carry-on my gear and not have to worry about having gear lost, stolen, or damaged when checked. The Shape Shifter is a regular backpack when you want it to be and a lifesaver camera bag when needed. Brilliant.
Both the Airport International and the Shape Shifter can fit all of this core kit with ease and room to spare, plus room for accessory items:
Nikon D800 + Grip (Or Nikon D4)
Nikon D800 + Grip
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye
Sigma 50mm f/1.4
When You Need to Check Photo Gear
When you absolutely must check photography gear, either because cary-on isn't an option or you're simply bringing a ton of gear, I recommend the Pelican 1514 Carry-On Case. It's a hard-sided case with foam padding on the interior and a modular divider system that allows for very secure customization, so your camera gear is very well protected.
I've found that domestic US airlines basically never never weigh carry-on bags. With the explosion of self-check-in kiosks, this fact is more true than ever. International flights, however, are often much more strict about weight restrictions. Weight limits vary a large degree, from as little as 15lb for Airlines like Qantas to as much as 50lb (7kg to 22.6kg).
Photo gear isn't cheap, and, as your back will tell you, it certainly isn't light, either. Packing multiple bodies and lenses add up, and when you consider that a bag like the Airport International already weighs 10lbs, it's very easy to go over the limit.
Weight Restriction Cheats/Tips
If you definitely know your carry-on is going to be weighed, you could try and be a little devious, by taking out heavy lenses from your bags and putting them in the pockets of your jacket. Similarly, you can shift heavy items to travel companions if they're traveling lighter than you, and repack after going through security. Shifting all non-essential items to checked luggage will help reduce weight for your carry-on as well.
Never Be Forced to Check Baggage
If your carry-on is weighed, you must to appeal to the airline agent. My friend and fellow music photographer Brian Stowell, who travels year round on tour, has this advice:
If an airline ever gives you grief about your camera bag, ask the gate agent if the airline is going to assume full responsibility for insuring the total cost of the contents of the bag. I've never had any further issues on ~25-50 planes/year with my ThinkTank Airport Navigator.
There you have it. A time-tested way to never be forced to check your camera gear.
Only the Essentials:
Only pack absolutely what is needed. The less cluttered your gear bag, the better — it will weigh less and you'll be able to find what you need faster when kit is kept to a minimum.
Organization For the Win:
When packing my gear, I make sure that all of my gear is as well organized as possible. Everything piece of kit should have a space in your bags that you can reliably put it and count on to be there. This makes checking your gear inventory quick and easy, insuring that you don't forget an essential bit of gear or accessory item.
After packing all photo equipment, I'll often fill in empty space with clothes. Socks and underwear make great padding for camera gear. If you run out of room for clo
Skip the Extra/Exterior Pockets:
With the Airport International, I try not to pack much if anything in the exterior front pocket or front pouch. The reason for not using these areas is that they can increase the size of the bag just enough that they will make stowing them in overhead bins difficult. Remember: the dimensions of the bags listed are when they are empty, so even if a bag should fit overhead, it might not if too full. This is especially true of the Think Tank Airport International and similar bags, which feature a soft top and pockets that expand to fit more gear.
TIP: This advice includes the zippered pockets on the inside flap of the Airport International. A few extra cables or other small accessories might not seem like they add much depth, but every millimeter can count if you end up flying on smaller regional/commuter jets. Skipping the interior pockets on the main flap will keep the bag as slim as possible and within all airline regulations.
End Notes on Traveling and Flying with Camera Gear
When traveling for a photography job or even just on vacation with a nice kit, a little planning will make your life so much more simple. Avoid checking photo gear at all costs, and use bags like the Think Tank Airport International and Think Tank Shapeshifter to keep your gear safe and well padded in transit. And remember: if you run out of room for clothes, you can always buy what you need when you land.