On the road again

Tips and Tricks for travelling with your gear By Chris Thombs 090210155352-2009-02-10_Hawaii_0265 Traveling with camera equipment (plus all the other things one could need) can make a load heavy and raise questions with border guards. Let’s take a look at how to pack these various items to make carrying easy and as light as possible. Then, before stepping out the door, a few pointers on avoiding problems at customs. Think of packing as a four-part strategy:

  1. Camera Gear
  2. Clothing
  3. Extras
  4. Border Crossing

1. Camera Gear The gear can either travel with you or separately. Some options:

  • ship most (or all) of the gear to the destination so it arrives just before you do
  • rent some (or, again, all) gear at destination
  • pare down the gear/accessories so that you carry only the bare essentials

  NIKON, D4, Nikkor Lens, Commercial, Photography, Gear, Think Tank, Pelican Case Generally, I find traveling with minimal kit to be the best. By carrying the important stuff, you’re all ready to take the shot if something interesting happens en route. Imagine getting waylaid in Paris for 24 hours… Gotta make the best of it, like adding to your portfolio, or becoming a media contributor if something newsworthy is going on   When deciding what to pare down, start by laying out everything you could ever want to take, no matter what it is or the size of it. Culling items that you don't need on the trip is generally pretty easy, and gets you into the right mind set. Then, compare similar items to see what can do double-duty (like hand flashlight, headlamp and loupe light for sensor cleaning – pick the headlamp!). Next step is to ask, “What can I pick up there?” which would be common items like as AA batteries, etc.





UK Box and Pelican Cases Photography Equipment   To carry it all, have a good idea of how you’ll be getting from point A to B and around town when you get there. Will it be on foot, donkey or vehicles of some sort? Hey, donkeys have their advantages too! Weigh the merits of backpacks vs. duffle bags or rolling suitcases. They all have their place and use in travel. But no matter what the outside luggage is, it’s a good idea to pack cameras and breakables like Russian nesting dolls, creating multiple layers of protection. I cover soft cases with a hard case for carry-on, and my checked baggage is either hard or soft cases for the luggage depending on the gear, with important stuff inside another soft case, further wrapped in clothing.   When packing the cameras, separate all lenses from the bodies because the point connecting the two pieces is the weakest point. If there is any flexing while they’re connected, say, from compressing when closing the gear bag, shifting inside, or an unhappy baggage handler, there is possibility of damaging the sensor pins or even the mount. And that could render the camera unserviceable. Another bonus to separating the lens from the bodies, it makes it easier to fit and pack (think Tetris with really expensive game pieces!). The padding I use a lot is Think Tank© pouches that can be configured into a camera bag/belt kit at the destination. Check them out at Think Tank 2. Clothing Clothing pretty much always takes up a lot of space. Organize your clothing in layers to help keep bulky items out of your baggage. For example, you can wear a light Gore-Tex© rain jacket as an outer layer, over a synthetic front zip hoody or button-down short-sleeve, then have an inner layer of t-shirt or Under Armour© top, and finish with cargo pants that convert to shorts. Each layer can be worn by itself or in combination during travel or at destination. Don't forget to bring a hat like a Tilly going to sunny climes or a good tuque for cold. I found a neat packing resource at the Tilly Endurables© website, 3. Extras Extras make life a whole lot easier on the road; here are some of my favourites:

  • One set of long bootlaces – great in case shoe laces break of course, but also useful for tying stuff to your pack, hanging stuff, or repairing camera/backpack strapsOther professional photographer gear in the bag
  • An empty, dry, wide-mouth Nalgene© bottle – used as a crush/weather resistant protective packing shell en route, and a water bottle at destination
  • A nylon duffle/flyer’s kit bag – lightweight bag to take out stuff not needed that day, and keep it all in one spot
  • A small set of folding scissors or knife
  • Strips of gaffer’s tape, either stuck on the outside of a hard case or wrapped around a pencil – for repairs, or to secure focus rings when locking in manual focus for hyper-focal distance
  • Sharpie© markers, silver and black – to mark items and hey, you never know, you might want to get someone's autograph!Other professional photographer personal kit gear
  • Toiletries – downsize toothpaste and other toiletries to the smallest size at the drugstore; it’s amazing how ounces add up to pounds!
  • A note pad and wooden pencil – pencils don’t run out of ink, and can still write in the rain
  • An external hard drive of the highest capacity in the smallest physical size – to download photos off the memory cards and secure back-ups, just in case
  • A sewing kit with plenty of safety pins – to do quick repairs of wardrobe, camera straps and anything that needs to be pinned

    4. Border Crossing So you’re good to go, the gear is light yet protected, and then you arrive at the border crossing. Just remember that border guards: (1) are not likely to understand photographic equipment, especially if you have a lot of unique pieces like remote triggers for flashes, and (2) they see thousands of people in a single work day. Plus, they have what it takes to take what you have. Basically, treat them with courtesy and respect.   Some tips for smooth border crossings:  

  • Make sure you know what you are doing as a photographer while visiting a foreign country – are you are on a personal adventure, building your portfolio, or acting as a visiting media representative? Know your shooting plan, where your photos are going, and how they will be used in the end (i.e., blog, article, etc.).


  • Some people play fast and loose with crossing the border and with the laws of the country they plan to visit. You can end up getting banned from ever travelling there, or worse, banned from passing through even if you don’t stop there. Do yourself a favour and visit the country’s border services website, or call ahead to talk to their help line. Discuss the details of your trip, get a list of documents you may require, and be sure to get the name and badge number of the agent that helped you in case you get questions at the actual crossing. Documents they may tell you to bring include a utility bill from home or a letter from your employer, basically to prove you are returning home.


  • Organize your bags so border inspectors or security agents can unpack, inspect, and repack them with ease. I find I get inspected almost every time, but by packing systematically, the only sign of anyone having been in my bag is the calling card they leave behind.

  On a recent trip to the US, a photographer friend and I were travelling by car and got called into the main building because of a guard's suspicions of our reasons for travelling. Plus, he couldn't review our paperwork because of the cars behind lined up behind us.   Once inside after a brief wait, they asked us the typical immigration and security questions. Since we knew why we were travelling, where we were going, how our photos would be used, and of course had our paper work in order, it was breeze to finish up and legally pass through into the US as photographers. During this visit, Allan, the border guard, was awesome. He was friendly and took the time to look up the weather at our destination, and gave us some valuable tricks to make our stay in Tennessee more pleasurable (like how talcum powder would become our best friend!). No matter what, be polite, stay calm, and don't take anything they ask personally. And yes, everybody gets nervous, so don’t worry about that either. As Taco Bell© used to say, “Make a run for the border”! There are neat people, places and things out there for your camera to experience and capture. A bit of prep and strategic packing will have you on the road travelling like Jack Kerouac, or the entire troupe of Cirque du Soleil – ready for anything and having the time of your life! Chris Thombs PPOC Member www.onestepbeyond.ca Chris Thombs is a travelling commercial photographer who is currently on tour with The SkyHawks parachute team. He is employed as an aerial skydive cameraman, event photographer and as well as a parachute demonstrator. 


This is a great article. I often travel abroad and worry about my equipment. Thanks for the great advice (especially regarding boarder control, not something i would have thought about). Also, you is a funny guy Mr Tombs.