Traveling
with Photographic
Equipment

Bob Harvey and Diane Kelsay
Nature Photography Adventures
Copyright 2012

The digital era has made travel with cameras easier and instantly rewarding. The ability to review your images in the field can make all the difference in what you bring home. It does present some issues - and it pays to think them through before setting out to see and photograph the world.

Digital media takes up little space in your pack, but has some risks.  That media can, if you move images onto other storage media, be used over and over again on a single trip, giving you incredible photographic capacity.

We prefer to head out into the field with small laptops and multiple portable hard drives.  That enables two important things to happen.  1) we get to review (or at least spot check images as we go) and 2) we are able to make multiple copies of every image, increasing the likelihood that we’ll get them all home.

Those review sessions tell us whether our thinking (and the instructions we’ve sent to our camera) are “on track” or whether we’re missing in some way that should be corrected for the rest of the trip.  They also spot problems, like a camera setting that accidentally got changed in the field.  It enables us to try various techniques and see results before proceeding further.

The multiple backups (we put each image on two separate portable hard drives) enable us to spread them out while we move around in our travels, especially going through security.  We sometimes copy each other’s images over to one of the other person’s hard drives before each travel segment so we each carry all of them.

We prefer to travel with 2 Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras each.  This allows us to be prepared for short and long distances without always changing lenses to match our photographic situation or intentions.  New zoom lens technology has improved options, so that one can handle a broader set of angles of view with fewer lenses, which often have vibration reduction technology built in.  The second body also serves as a backup, should the primary body malfunction.  If space allows, a waterproof pocket camera can come in handy for some activities.

These days our standard lens is one which zooms from a moderate wide angle to a medium telephoto – and is sharp for the whole range!  Beyond that we often carry a macro lens, a wide angle zoom, and a more telephoto zoom.  Those four lenses cover just about every situation that we face in the field. 

With advancements in noise reduction, ISO, and vibration reduction, one can now use a range of ISO ratings that, in many situations, allow you to work without a tripod. This is a huge savings in areas where baggage weight restrictions are tight and convenient when a tripod would make things awkward.

One critical issue for traveling with digital photographic equipment is power.  You’ll need the ability to charge batteries for your camera.  Fortunately, almost all the battery chargers we see these days take a broad range of currents (most take 110 – 240v) and can work (with adaptors) with almost any electrical source we encounter. 

Remember that it is strictly against airline and FAA rules to pack lithium batteries in checked luggage.  They must be in your carry-on bag inside a camera body or with the connections covered.

Laptops can have a short life unplugged – and it’s not a good idea to run out of power midway through transferring a card full of images.  Fortunately, they too typically handle 110-240 volts of power input and simply need to be “adapted” to fit local outlets.  That transformer (which often sits in the power cord, but sometimes is inside the laptop) also serves as a surge suppressor. 

If you carry a stand-alone surge suppressor with you, remember they have a narrow range of voltage input.  Sending 240 volts of power through a 110 volt surge suppressor will cook the device – and probably shut down power to your part of the hotel!  Convert first and then suppress!

There is a new generation of camera bags that facilitates travel.  We use camera backpacks with computer slots.  Research carefully so that you pick one that will carry your gear, is resistant to dust and moisture, fits under most airline seats, and “looks” smaller than it is.  Your full pack will probably weigh more than most airlines “allow”, but weight of carry-on bags is rarely checked unless they look huge.  Don’t flaunt the size of your bag during check-in – or make it look heavy.

When possible, we pack a smaller waist or shoulder bag in our luggage.  That way we can take a camera, lens, extra batteries and cards, and a polarizer out on shorter day trips when we don’t need all our toys.  It also helps us protect gear on longer, more difficult hikes and outings where conditions are not suitable for setting down a backpack.  You can also slip these into a drybag when necessary.  It’s easy to fill that small bag with chargers and other gear so that you really don’t lose much space in your luggage.

In the old days, you didn’t get to review your images in the field – you had to wait until long after you returned from a long trip for the lab to process those images and then it was too late to correct anything that didn’t work out. 

Now, you can review every image you make as you make it – and you should review enough to make sure you “leave the scene” with the images you hope to take with you.  If your image review screen is hard to see in bright conditions, you may want to bring along something to shade it.

Just as important, you should transfer your images to storage devices frequently – and spot check them for issues.  This is a great way to catch a dust problem and take care of it so that you don’t end up with thousands of images with an identical dust spot.  It’s also a way to find more major problems - like an autofocus issue on a specific lens – and develop a strategy to deal with them.

We prefer to capture images in “RAW” format.  All DSLRs can do this, and most fixed-lens cameras can, as well.  This format takes more memory than JPEG capture, but it gives you much more quality.  It’s much easier to bring along extra memory or storage to facilitate the larger files than it is to finance a repeat trip because your images were inferior.

If your camera can be set to automatically clean the sensor on startup and/or shutdown,  that is a good feature to activate.  Cleaning the sensor frequently, especially in dusty or static-filled zones, can save a lot of work in the digital darkroom – and may save the time and cost of having the sensor professionally cleaned between trips. 

Carrying your camera and making images can greatly enhance your travel experience. 

If you try to take along every piece of photo gear you own, it can become such a burden that it diminishes your experience and lowers the rewards for others traveling with you. 

Similarly, if photography is an important goal, choose a trip that has time built in for photography.  It’s frustrating for the photographer and irritating for everyone else when that time is not in the calendar.  You don’t get the shots you want – and the rest of the group grows impatient waiting for you.

Think it through in advance – and you’ll have great images and the stories that go with them to share when you return.

 
Homeland Security Customs Forms Homeland Security would like us all to fill out these forms for our equipment that we are taking out of the United States and then bringing back in - to show that we didn't buy it overseas and need to pay duties.