I have always been fascinated with how photographers and cinematographers pack their gear. I remember reading the equipment lists of National Geographic photographers when I was younger and wondering how they could crisscross the world with so much stuff.
Those times, as you might have noticed, are pretty much over. Nowadays, we need to deal with increasingly tighter airline safety, weight, and size regulations. So, when it comes to deciding what to pack as carry on, what to check, and what to leave behind, the puzzle becomes much more interesting.
I tend to start with the personal stuff. Toiletries, travel documents, medicine, etc. Some of these items are not easily replaceable (think: passport or credit cards in the Middle East). Some things are easy to replace, but it would be inconvenient to forget them (think: noise canceling headphones on a 14-hour flight).
When traveling, and depending on the requirements of the assignment, length of the trip, and budget, we need to think hard about what to take with us. This great website offers detailed carry-on allowance information for many airlines.
My system to decide what to bring as carry-on and what to check comes down to answering these questions:
1. What are the items that I absolutely need so that I can start shooting the second we land? These are the carry-on items.
2. What do I need to bring but can afford to lose due to delays or theft? All these items are checked.
Just in case, I always have my geeky photo vest handy. Airlines do weigh your luggage when traveling internationally and they’ll be extremely quick and happy to charge you handsomely for excess weight. If you are over by just a few pounds you can fill up your vest pockets as there’s no limit on the weight of the passenger.
Here are some handy travel tips I’ve learned over 20 years of traveling with photo and video equipment.
- Format all your memory cards on the specific system that you plan to use them with (Panasonic GH4 vs. Canon 7D Mark II vs. H4N).
- Charge all your batteries before you leave.
- Test all your devices, as well as the software you plan to use. The RAW file on a new DSLR most likely will NOT work with your trusted software. Trying to update you computer’s OS, any software application, your camera’s Firmware, or additional plugins from an airport lounge, an internet café in Spain, or your hotel’s Wi-Fi is an absolute nightmare.
- Match memory cards. In other words, I like to use the same capacity (64GB or 32GB cards) for each system at the same time. It will make your asset management on location much easier. So, when I change the card on Camera A I also change cards on Cameras B and C, even if they have memory remaining.
- Bring enough additional storage. Photographers tend to underestimate the size of video files. I can easily shoot more than 200GB in a day. Twelve minutes of HD video takes approximately 4GB of space. Shooting 4K with the Panasonic GH4 takes about 45GB per hour. With two cameras we then have 90GB per hour and with a backup we now have 180GB for one hour of 4K footage and about half of that for HD footage.
- I use and recommend G-Tech hard drives. TheG-Technology G-DRIVE Mini 1TBis an excellent product. If you are editing video make sure your external hard drive is 7200 RPM (as opposed to 5400 RPM).
- Buy only hard drives with multiple Interfaces (USB 3.0, FireWire 800, Thunderbolt). When (not if) your one and only USB port breaks, you won’t be able to retrieve your information. With regard to solid state drives, Thunderbolt makes a huge difference. On mechanical hard drives it does not, so save those extra dollars and get USB 3.0 devices.
- Bring a backup of all the essential items. My list includes: reading glasses, camera, lenses, memory cards, hard drives, chargers, card readers, all cables, and quick release plates.
- Use TSA-approved locks. I prefer padlocks and use the same combination on all of them.
- Simplify. I got an Android tablet (as opposed to an iPad) mostly because it shares the same cable with my phone, my portable battery, my card reader and even Canon cameras! One cable fits all.
- Simplify some more. Bring a FAST multi-card reader. After a 16-hour day on the road the last thing you want is to stay awake only because the transfer is too slow. By using the same reader I can simultaneously download two cards with footage and one with audio. ShotPutPro is my standard offloading app.
- Ideally, stick to the same brand and camera model. Not only will they share the same memory cards, batteries, chargers, and accessories, but your post-production will greatly benefit by having the same formats, resolution, and color.
- Before you leave, check the electrical plug/outlet and voltage information at your destination.
- Test your workflow. It goes without saying, but never bring new equipment to a shoot, especially overseas. I rent new gear at least two days before my shoot. This leaves ample time to familiarize myself with the system and identify potential issues or missing pieces.
- Don’t forget your business cards! The more you bring, the better. Every time I photograph strangers I offer them a card and ask them to email me so I can show them their image.
When shooting at home in New York I have what I like to call a “rolling studio” comprised of one rolling case with cameras and lenses, a second rolling case with audio gear, and a third rolling case with lights and a tripod case. It’s a lot, but two people can easily carry everything, even on public transportation, if needed.
Depending on where you’re going, you may not be comfortable hauling several heavy rolling cases. A couple days before you leave I advise taking a long hard look at the gear you want to bring. Then, pack it up and step outside. Walk around the block a few times. Hoof it up and down a couple flights of stairs. I guarantee you’ll make some adjustments and streamline your setup.
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.