Flying With Your Camera Gear

School is out, summer is here and many of you are packing your photo gear for a well deserved vacation. How do you securely pack all of that gear when flying?

Traveling with expensive, delicate photography equipment has always been a challenge. When I was traveling on out of town assignments for the SF Chronicle, I would try to carry on board with me all my equipment – both camera and computer. I did that for 2 reasons. First to make sure it didn’t get lost, and secondly, to make sure it didn’t get damaged. Depending on the assignment, it sometimes was impossible to carry it all with me so I had to resort to checking in some of it as luggage. I emphasize “some” because I always carried with me what I considered was the bare minimum to shoot my assignment. If all my luggage got lost or delayed, I could at least still complete my assignment.

For example, during the football season, I often traveled out of town to cover a 49er or Raider game. My long lens of choice for football changed depending on how I wanted to shoot that particular game and whether it was a night or day game. Even the weather played a role in my lens choice. But for most games, it was a 400mm 2.8. That alone weighs a hefty 12 pounds but I always tried to carry it on board with me along with 2 motorized bodies, a 70-200mm zoom and a 16-35mm zoom. Also with me was my laptop computer and all of it’s accessories. I never really weighed all of this – probably because my back really didn’t want to know – but it was well beyond the 40 lb maximum carry-on weight limit. It all fit in an rolling case that did meet the size restrictions but certainly not the maximum weight restrictions. When it came time to board the aircraft, I always smiled and pretended like the bag was feather light – even when lifting it to the overhead bins. Did not want to tip off the flight attendants that I had with me an 60 lb carry on!

Another trick to consider is that you can carry a lot of your gear in your pockets when you board. That’s where those all those pockets in photo vests really come in handy. Just stuff them all up with gear…the flight attendants can’t stop you from doing that – you’ll look a little silly – but at least you’ll know the gear will arrive safely with you to your destination.

Anyway, all of this always worked for me in my travels. (Not the vest part…I didn’t care to look that silly!) Although I’ve had luggage delayed, I never had gear lost or not been able to shoot my assignment due to damaged gear. I didn’t want to have to explain to my editors why I could not shoot my assignment.

And speaking of damaged gear, If you must check in some of your equipment, I highly recommend a hard plastic case, lined with foam or well insulated with what I preferred to use, my clothing for the trip. Rather than take up valuable space with foam, just use your clothes. I always used Pelican cases. They are well made, and have multiple latches to keep the lid closed and the contents safe from spilling out. Keep in mind however that you cannot lock your cases. They must be unlocked at all times for TSA inspectors.

And that leads me to a final tip that I’ve never tried but it will insure that your bag can be visually checked, locked, never opened again by the TSA or anyone else while in transit, and be delivered via ’special handling’ to your destination.

There is a little known rule in place by the TSA that allows a passenger to check an unloaded firearm in a securely locked hard-sided case. This rule applies to something as simple as a ’starter pistol’ that requires no permit for you to own. If you slip a simple $30 starter pistol into your Pelican case along with your very expensive camera equipment, your camera case is now a ‘gun case.’

Here’s how it works.

At check in, declare that your bag contains a firearm to the airline counter representative. A TSA screener will then visually inspect the contents of your case in front of you, making sure that the firearm is unloaded. By law you must be present as your case is inspected by the TSA agent. Following the inspection you must lock your case with a non-TSA Sentry Lock. This means that the lock you use will in no way be accessible to any TSA agents, or ramp agents, who have access to TSA Sentry Lock keys. Both key and combination locks are acceptable. Once the TSA accepts your hard-sided locked case, it is identified in such a way that it will not be opened again until it delivered to your destination and is back in your hands.

This only works for domestic flights, and you cannot check the case containing the firearm at curbside check-in. Remember however since each airline has their own check-in procedures, you should always double-check what rules and regulations that they may have for checking in a firearm.

For the Official TSA information on traveling with a firearm check here :

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