Ask James – Traveling with Camera Gear

Hi James,

What’s the best way to take your photo gear with on a plane you when going on travel (holiday) ?

Cabin luggage size is limited in size and weight, how to you manage to take with you a heavy DSLR + 4 lenses + a flash + memory cards etc. without exceeding the limits ? Or do you make a specific gear box that goes as registered luggage (and has more risk to be lost or stolen) ? Or is there a way to be allowed with more gear in the cabin ? And of course we’ll also need a PC and hard disks to store the daily photographs.

I’m asking because I will be flying to Iceland next summer, and would like to take at least the 24-120 and the 70-200 with me.

Paul P

I’m a minimalist when it comes to traveling. I take the least amount of gear as possible. Some photographers are the total opposite and take everything they own gear wise wherever they go. I don’t like being weighed down when I’m on the move, so I take that into account when packing.

I use an F-Stop Tilopa backpack to carry all my gear when traveling. Here’s what goes in it on just about every trip:

  • Macbook Pro 13-inch and charger
  • Bose headphones with case
  • Sony a7
  • Sony a7s
  • Sony 16-35 lens
  • Sony 70-200 lens
  • Sony 55 lens
  • Rokinon 14 lens
  • Filter pouch for all my Formatt-Hitech filters, along with adapter rings and foundation kit
  • Really Right Stuff tripod
  • Garmin Oregon GPS
  • External HD and memory cards
  • Batteries, chargers, remotes, misc gear

The backpack never leaves my site in most cases. While it’s a tight fit, I can almost always fit the backpack under the seat in front of me on a plane. This doesn’t work on certain airlines though, like Spirit who intentionally makes there under-seat compartments smaller. I always fly American when possible because I’m an Admirals Club member and have the most miles with them, and they fly the most places. When I’m with them or any other standard airline, I just take the tripod off and put it in the overhead bin. If it’s a short trip, I’ll usually just take a carry on suitcase for clothes and pack as light as possible (the backpack counts as my personal item, never had issues before). People tend to forget that there’s almost always a way to do laundry when traveling so you don’t have to pack a pair of clothes for every day. If it’s a longer trip, I’ll bring a larger suit case and just check it.

  • James, thank you for sharing your setup – well written. Paul, most serious/business photographers carry their beloved camera/s and lens with them on the plane. Basically, anything of moderate size that is critical to a shoot get carried on. To your question, yes, I carry on my DSLR and the holy trinity lens (16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 plus the 1.4x multiplier). Since I like working out of my bag when shooting landscapes, I typically carry these in my ThinkTank Urban Disguise 50 that I also carry on the plane. And while I have an even larger backpack than James (the f-stop Satori EXP) which I will carry on if I’m not taking my Phantom V2 drone and its backpack (okay to carry a few Lipo batteries but I put them in a Lipo-safe bag). Since I also shoot video, I also carry on 1 or 2 wireless transmitters/receivers, 2 portable audio recorders, GoPro w/handheld stabilizer, etc.

    Sometimes I also carry on a “wheelie cart” suitcase (the type used by flight attendants and pilots). So when I “max out” I carry on a fairly sizable bag with my DSLR/lens/etc (goes under the seat in front of me, a backpack, and a wheelie cart (both in overhead or cart goes in the bulkhead if I’m last on the plane). By the way, being well organized putting accessories in clear Ziplock freezer bags etc, helps you slip through TSA security without a hassle.

    When I’m traveling heavier and bringing a pro tripod etc, I check-in a bigger suitcase with my tripod and other non-essential gear.

    • Thanks so much for chiming in Michael. Great insight. Every photographer is different with a unique setup of gear they need to get from one place to the next.

  • Doug Klein

    James (and Michael), does your backpack also have room for an iPad, iPad mini, or a reader in addition to the gear you have mentioned above? Do you ever travel with a non-DSLR (in addition to or in lieu of the DSLR)?

    Oftentimes when I travel I am in need of including 2-3 days of clothing, my meds and personal items, etc. plus the camera gear. Certainly possible with one carry-on and backpack but difficult if gone for 7-12 days and trying NOT to check any bags, especially in this day of shrinking allowances on both size and weight of bags by the airlines. Any additional suggestions from your experience? Thanks!

    • Yes, I could easily fit an iPad in the backpack. I’ve done it before but decided I don’t really need my laptop AND an iPad for traveling. I watch movies on the plane with my laptop and use it to work/edit photos as well. The iPad felt a bit redundant with the exception of reading books on it.

  • Paul P

    Thanks for all comments guys, that really helps a lot. Now I have two months to find the backpack thats suits my needs.

  • Leslee Herling

    James, I am curious as to what is the brand of filter pouch you have and do you like it? I bought several pieces of Lee filters and want a safe way to carry them (currently, they are kept in the original boxes). Thanks!

  • Max Scott

    Good subject Jim – Your travel kit reflects Sony camera bodies which are considerably smaller then my older Canons if I recall correctly. I don’t anticipate buying new equipment any time soon but those Sonys look awfully tempting- what do you think?

    • I love my Sony gear Max. It has totally changed the way I shoot for the better. Lighter, better dynamic range, more features like the app market and just a better user experience all around. Weather sealing could be improved though.