I have had the privilege of flying all over, with shoots in far away places. And let me tell you - traveling with many thousands in camera gear is riddled with anxiety. When the typical travels stresses are compounded with gear, customs, language barriers, and crime rates, you can be reaching for a Tiger beer in no time.
Hopefully this post will help my fellow photographers out there.
1. It's all in the bag.
It should go without saying that having the perfect bag is critical to your traveling-with-gear experience. It needs to be big enough to store everything you need, be unassuming, and not so big that it needs to be checked.
I have tested out and used countless bags and styles - and the winner - BY FAR - is the Lowepro ProRoller X200. Some highlights:
- Fits underseat: This bag will even fit under the seat of a Q400 regional jet. It will spill slightly over into your row mates's foot space, but buying a beer and being super nice goes a long way.
- Is Discreet: Besides the small LowePro badge on the front, this looks like any other bag.
- Holds a ton of stuff: I can always find a place to keep everything I need - a 15" Macbook Pro, handful of lenses and flashes, 2 bodies, accessories, etc.
- Build quality: This bag is built like a tank. After trips to China, Europe, Caribbean, and all over the US it barely looks used.
- Versatility: On my recent photo shoot in Dublin, I realized I left a carry bag for cameras and lenses home. So I had no way to easily explore. I remembered this bag had a zip out backpack feature! It worked, and flawlessly. There are also a ton of other little gems in this bag - light mount on the handle, stand, built in cable lock, etc etc.
The only bad part? LowePro has DISCONTINUED the earlier versions of this bag. When I purchased a new one on Amazon not to long ago they designed an entirely new version and sadly it is COMPLETE garbage. So, Craigslist is your friend here people! Get the older version!
2. Customs and Declarations
A lot of people don't realize it, but you need to export your gear from the US before you take it internationally. This provides a record of the gear you are leaving with - so you do not find yourself strapped with taxes and duties when returning to the states. Leave yourself PLENTY of time at your departing airport (not the one you started with if you have a connection, the last US port before you leave the country). Find customs, and ask for a form CPB 4457. Complete it there (or even have it all ready before you leave) and be sure they STAMP it. Keep it with your passport. More info can be found here.
When I am entering a country to shoot, I always secure a work permit. This process ensures you are protected (not deported and gear confiscated) and also protects your clients. They will have a photographer for their event.
Always start this process months and months in advance. When I secured my permit with the Bahamas, I was also sure to track each and every communication with them. Phone calls, who I spoke with, dates and times. This saved my tail, as once I landed in country and went to get my permit, they apparently had "no record" of my application. With all my info in hand (including a faxed copy of my permit I requested) everything was sorted out.
Before you go, always inquire with your equipment and liability insurer. Be certain your gear is covered for "all perils" and in international territories as well. This will give you piece of mind, should your gear go missing. Keep all insurance company numbers handy, especially if traveling to a country where mobile and internet services may be limited.
During my last shoot in Ireland, I also created a list of local photo stores in the area, so that if I needed to buy replacement gear (or have mine repaired), I could easily have a list to consult.
My gear is always at the front of my mind when traveling. Without it, we are useless. So I tend to follow these basic guidelines:
- Be as discreet as the local communities require. I have not yet needed to apply gaffer tape to my logos on my gear, or to the "big white lenses" but do consider this if traveling to certain areas. Keep a small roll in your bag.
- When leaving gear in the room, remove ALL memory cards and keep them on your person at all times. This is even important when traveling with your gear - in the event you are robbed or you otherwise lose your gear, at least you have all cards.
- If leaving gear in your room, distribute important components. Keep a body and lens under clothes, another in the closet, and other gear in the bathroom (hidden). This may result in some gear being left behind when the thieves think they grabbed it all.
5. Good Practices
In closing, I have used some of these practices to help ensure my gear arrives home and my clients remain happy:
- Have some cash in your pocket. For the few times the crew forced me to check my bag, I handed the bag handler a $10 and asked he be careful with my bag. You'd be surprised how far that goes. It showed up without a thread out of place.
- When using taxis, always keep your gear bag on you. Have it on the back seat if necessary. Be prepared for the driver to grab it and place it in the trunk. But advise them you want to keep it with you.
- On buses and trains, if you cannot keep your bag in front of you on the floor, place it above and cover it with your jacket. The Lowepro bag I mentioned above has a cable lock - wrap it around anything you can. If not, latch a strap around another bag or anything you can, to make a quick grab more of a hassle. Do not fall asleep!
- Follow your senses. If you suspect something is up, it probably is. On a trip to China, an awesome older gentleman started chatting with me and insisted I "check out his shop." I trusted him as he was older and apparently a college professor. Against my better judgment I started to follow him to his store. The walk soon headed toward an alleyway, and my spidey senses kicked in. I walked away. Who knows what could have happened? Maybe nothing.
In the end, there is really nothing you can do to secure your gear 100% when traveling. But, these tips have served me very well. Knock on wood, I have never had a single issue or problem.