Traveling with Cameras

Don’t panic and always carry a big brush. 

You Hitchhiker fans will probably guess what I’m talking about, but I need to catch the rest of you up. There are actually quite a few things I need to talk to you about today regarding traveling with cameras, so let’s get right to it:

  • Don’t leave lenses mounted on bodies. This is especially true with large telephoto lenses. You don’t want constant torque on the lens mount when your bag is being pushed and shoved into overhead bins, bouncing around in your vehicle, and so on. I’ve seen a lot of lens mounts overstressed by this, to the point of the short screws on the mount breaking—as they’re intended to do—or worse, the lens release pin on the camera body getting jarred and popped loose, now making it impossible to remove the lens ;~). 
  • Don’t leave the camera powered on. Want random settings? Go ahead and challenge this point. At some point some day in the future, something’s going to push against a button and another thing rub against a dial and voila, you’ve got a random setting. This even includes walking with the camera with it hanging from a strap. The mirrorless cameras, particularly the Olympus models, can be truly frustrating in this respect, but how many of you have accidentally set something with your nose while shooting a Nikon consumer DSLR? Yeah, your bag can do it, as can your body, as can anything that pokes at your camera during travel. 
  • If the LCD swivels completely, have the display face the camera body. Nobody likes scratching their LCD. Sure, you can put protective plastic or glass over it, but that can be annoying when you’re trying to evaluate images on the camera. I prefer to go coverless. That means flipping the LCD to the camera body. If I’ve got a removable plastic cover for the LCD, as with some Nikons, I’ll use it during travel, but take it off for shooting. 
  • Consider slip covers. I’ve got a box full of small to large small cloth bags. I often stick camera bodies or lenses in such a bag before I put them into my camera bag for a long distance trip. It’s another layer of scratch protection (if something starts to bounce around in the bag), and I even use color coding to remind me what’s what (e.g. my Nikon’s are all green, my Olympii are all orange). 
  • Batteries travel with your carry-on. Since we all use lithium type batteries these days, your batteries must be carried in your carry on, and they should either be in a case such as the ThinkTank battery wallet, or with their protective end caps on. While the danger of a lithium battery explosion or fire is low these days, it’s not zero. Airplanes don’t have extinguishers that work on lithium-caused fires in the cargo hold. They do in the passenger area. Keeping caps on or batteries in wallets keeps anything from shorting across the terminals, too.
  • Bright Zipper Pulls. You might have thought that the “Roller Flare” kits that ThinkTank offers for its rolling bags were silly. Well, maybe a bit, though it is nice to have multiple bags that I can identify visually by color instantly. But there’s one bit of that kit that’s very useful: easily found zipper pulls. Really guys, black zipper pull on a black ring on a black bag? Doesn’t help me. White zipper pull on a black bag? I can find where my zipper is immediately and see how to open the bag. Quick tip: Amazon sells colored zipper pulls [affiliate link] in so many ways that it makes me wonder about what civilization has come to. They’re cheap and easy to add, with one thing you need to pay attention to: some of the zippers you want to put new pulls on have small openings and some of the pulls have large threading that won’t fit through those. So pay close attention to size when ordering. But you’ll find most of my bags all have custom pulls on them these days, and they all contrast the color of the bag so I can find them quickly. But here’s the big payoff: they also help you notice if your bag is closed or open (at least for those flaps and areas that use doubled up pulls! If I see two colored pulls together, the flap is zipped closed. If I see one colored pull by itself, the bag isn’t zipped up. How many of you have picked up your bag only to find that it wasn’t closed and your gear is now spilling on the concrete? Don’t laugh, it happens. Seriously, a <US$1 accessory might help you avoid that. Have you stopped laughing yet? 
  • Lists. I’m somewhat less into this than I used to be, mainly because my gear changes so often that I’d constantly be making new lists. But take the time to create a “camera travel pack list.” Bodies, lenses, caps, cards, flashes, cables, filters, hoods, plates, batteries, and so on. Type it up on your computer, add serial numbers, print a couple of copies. One goes in your travel bag so that you can verify that you’ve got everything you need. One goes with your travel documents so you can report what was lost or stolen, if necessary. If you’re truly paranoid (or a working professional with lots of gear) and anal, one goes on the right Customs form and you get a Customs office to verify it so that you’ll never be stopped and asked to pay duties. If you do different types of photography, create lists for each (e.g. for landscape and nature work I might list pano heads, reflectors, spray bottles, TriggerTrap cables, etc.; whereas for sports work my list is going to have wireless remotes, clamps, ground pod, knee pads, and so on). For overseas work I will have a list of all my credit card numbers (including telephone contacts), my loyalty club numbers, and a photocopy of my passport. 
  • Label everything. Anyone that’s shot with me will know that I’m a compulsive labeler. My batteries have a bythom label on them (and number), my lens hoods do, my lens caps do, and yes my camera bodies and lenses themselves are all labeled. Everything is labeled. Why? For me it’s simple: I often am traveling teaching students in a workshop with similar gear, but even when I’m doing something like shooting sports or events, there are usually plenty of other shooters around there, too, and all have similar gear. I don’t want to pick up someone else’s gear, and I always want my gear to find its way back to me. Voila, labels. But having numbers on your cards and batteries is useful, too. Ever look at a dozen SanDisk Extreme Pro cards and wonder which one was the one you just used? Or which one has your settings files on it? Label. Ever wondered which is your oldest battery? Label. Ever wondered which L-plate was for which body? Label (hey RRS, it would be nice if I could easily tell from a visible, painted, engraved number ;~). Ever wondered which lens is in your case sitting butt up? Label (the cap). Yeah, compulsive. Yeah, I can find things and answer those questions when you can’t. 

Generally speaking I have the dividers and positions of things in my bag different for travel than I do for shooting. When going from home to destination via the air, I pack my carry-on so that my long lens is very well supported by dividers and the weight is low and close to my back. All items are fully capped (and sleeved as noted above). My emphasis at this stage is protection, and that often includes putting in some extra padding, as well: I don’t want anything to roll or bounce or flex during travel; I want everything padded and protected from each other.

When I get to my destination, I’ll switch my pack from travel mode to shooting mode, which often means pulling the dividers and redistributing them. I’ll take out the extra padding and pull off (many if not all of) my slip covers. Often I’ll take my true backup equipment out of the bag and leave it in the hotel room or tent, both lightening the load and making it so I can configure my bag so that the remaining items are more easily grabbed in the heat of shooting.

This brings us to the maintenance cycle. Most days I’ll pull gear out of my bag at the end of the day and clean it, as needed. I’ll also recharge, reformat, and reset anything that needs it for tomorrow’s shooting. Why do I pull the gear all out of the bag? To clean the bag, obviously. The places I go this is almost a necessity most days, but believe me, if you let your bag collect dust, dirt, grime, whatever, it’s going to get on and affect your gear. Clean the gear, clean the bag, clean your cleaning materials. 

Finally:

  • Carry a big brush. You knew I’d get to this. What do I mean? Go to your local art store, or maybe even your local paint store, and get a 1 or 2 inch soft brush that isn’t coated with anything (some artist and paint brushes have coatings to keep the bristles from spreading easily). Why do you need a big brush? To quickly brush away sand, dirt, and other small materials that get onto your gear. A brush works better than a towelwhich should be microfiber and which you should also carry—to get into cracks, crevices, holes, and all the other oddly shaped spaces on your camera. 
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