Tips + Techniques

The Best Advice for Navigating the Nightmare of 21st-Century Air Travel

August 5, 2019

By Greg Scoblete

We pored over the FAA’s fine print, TSA’s regulations and we spoke to several destination wedding photographers to help make your travels with photo gear as stress-free as humanly possible.

Suitcase by ProSymbols for the Noun Project

Carry It On

The fundamental rule of thumb when it comes to traveling with your gear can be summed up as neatly as, if you can’t afford to lose it, carry it on with you.

The corollary to this advice, at least for destination wedding photographers, is that you need to approach your shoot with a certain degree of minimalism when it comes to the gear you’ll use. 

Garrett, one half of the Arizona-based destination-wedding, husband-and-wife duo Jonnie and Garrett, can attest to that. Their kit will typically include four camera bodies, seven lenses, two flashes and “plenty of SD cards” dispersed among two carry-on bags, he says. “Being natural light photographers helps a lot.” 

Samm Blake, a photographer based in New York, says she has pared down her kit since she first started. She’ll travel with two camera bodies (one DSLR, one mirrorless) and four prime lenses, plus a flash in her carry-on. Blake will also stow two additional flashes and an LED in her checked luggage.

Heidi Geldhauser of Our Labor of Love takes a roughly similar approach, but she does bring a bit more gear. The Atlanta photographer says she packs four bags in total for destination wedding work: “I carry my camera gear in a carry-on-sized roller bag while toting a laptop and miscellaneous computer equipment I’ll need on location as a personal item. She checks in one light-stand bag that includes both c-stands and tripods, plus extension cords and other power cables. Finally, she’ll pack a 30-inch checked bag with her lights and clothing. “I basically pad the lights I bring with my clothes,” Geldhauser says, “and this has worked very well for me over the years.”

Passport by ProSymbols for the Noun Project

TSA Travel Tips

Starting in 2017, the Transportation and Safety Administration expanded a more aggressive screening program for electronic devices stored in carry-on luggage to every airport in the U.S. The rules now stipulate that any electronic device larger than a mobile phone has to be removed from your carry-on and placed on a separate bin for X-ray screening. For photographers, that means unpacking laptops, camera bodies, some external hard drives and flashes—a big pain.

The easiest end-run around this hassle is to enroll in TSA PreCheck. PreCheck travelers don’t have to unpack their carry-on, even if it contains large electronic devices. They can keep their shoes on, too. “TSA PreCheck is a lifesaver,” Jonnie says. 

In this regard, Geldhauser notes that she doesn’t bother buying expensive hard-shell bags for her gear. “They will break no matter what,” she says. Instead, she opts for softer bags and also expects gear like light stands that endure the check-in process to need replacing every “year or two as needed.” 

The kind of bag you’re carrying will also affect the level of airport scrutiny you receive, Blake says. Her rolling bag would frequently be weighed in international airports, so she has switched to a backpack which, she says, draws far fewer requests for weigh-ins.  

While the TSA wants your electronics splayed out for the X-Ray machine, the Federal Aviation Administration wants you to keep tabs on your batteries. The FAA sets battery rules based on Watt/hour and permits any number of lithium-ion batteries in your carry-on, provided they’re under 100 W/h. Batteries that fall between 100 and 160 W/h are limited to three—one in the device and two spares (though this is contingent on specific airline policies, too). 

You cannot pack any lithium-ion batteries in your checked luggage, regardless of W/h rating, per FAA regulations. 

Fortunately, the vast majority of the batteries used by camera and lighting manufacturers fall well below the 100 W/h threshold. Even larger batteries that power monolights like the Godox Wistro 600 or the 800 W/s Broncolor Siros 800 L can be safely brought on board. That said, there are some products that will either be limited to two spares or barred outright without prior exemption:

• Large strobe power packs, like the Broncolor Scoro S or Profoto Pro-10.

• The original DJI Inspire 1 battery (before V 2.0).

• The HD version of the Elinchrom ELB 1200 battery pack.

• Interfit’s Nomad battery pack.

• Paul C. Buff’s Vagabond Mini battery pack.

Most manufacturers provide battery specifications in amps and volts, but not Watt/hours, so it’s not always easy to tell whether a particular battery drops below the 100 W/h threshold. Luckily, it’s easy to take the commonly used amp/hours and volt measurements and convert them into Watt/hours: Ah x volts = W/h

If your battery is listed by Milliamps, the equation gets a slight tweak: mA/1000 x volts = W/h 

When storing batteries, the FAA advises that they must be protected from damage and short circuit, or installed in a device. If they’re loose, they should be stored in a battery case or their original packages. Make sure the battery’s metal contacts aren’t touching anything else metallic in your luggage. Battery-powered devices must also be protected from accidental activation before they’re packed up. 

FAA’s full battery regulations:

Safe by Scott Dunlap for the Noun Project

Keep It Safe

Once you’re through the airport, you still can’t let your guard down. Blake is careful not to reveal too much when traveling abroad. “Whenever I go anywhere for work, I say I’m on holiday,” she says. This way, she (and her gear) don’t attract unwanted attention. She also avoids Airbnbs since hearing from another wedding photographer that gear was stolen after telling the owner that she was staying to shoot a wedding. 

When a fire once broke out near a hotel where they were staying, Jonnie and Garrett resolved to never leave their memory cards unattended again. “We have the cards on us at all times,” they say. 

To keep the wedding files secure, their shoot is backed up to an external drive, which is kept in the hotel safe. Meanwhile, Jonnie and Garrett each keep an SD card on them with the day’s RAW files in a waterproof SD card case. They never store the cards in the camera when they travel in the event that someone steals their camera. 

“A camera or lens is replaceable,” Jonnie says, “but what you have on those cards is irreplaceable.” 

Drone by Mike Rowe for the Noun Project

What About Drones?

Almost all drone batteries fall below 100 W/h, and TSA policy permits drones to pass through their check points like any other electronic device. But TSA does defer to individual airlines about whether you can bring a drone aboard the plane, so you’ll need to check with your carrier first before toting the drone to your next destination wedding.

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