Pack & Fly: Travel tips

Freesports photographers travel a lot. Try to get in contact with one and he or she is more often than not on the move to some new city or remote location. For a photographer then, deciding on what equipment to pack for a shoot and get it all safely through the airport and onto the plane is stressful. Stricter security and tighter baggage controls as well as local customs regulations make packing a shooter’s bag a complicated decision.

To find out some practical advice, Red Bull Illume asked Red Bull Photofiles photographer and motocross expert Garth Milan for his travel tips.

What preparations should a photographer make before flying?
Make sure you have your correct itinerary with you, and that everything lines up on it. Don’t forget the five essentials: camera bag, ID, wallet, cell phone, and keys. You might need your passport and visa too, depending on where you’re traveling.

Also, make a list of all the camera equipment you need for that job. Include every little detail, all the way down to batteries and gaffer tape, and make sure anything rechargeable leaves the house with a full charge, including your cell phone.

Try to get a feel for the job and trip before you leave so that you can make your best educated guess on what you’ll need, versus what is just wasted space and won’t get used. There is no point in dragging 50 pounds worth of lighting equipment around an airport, then carry it on the side of a mountain all day, and never use it.

But at the same time, if you think you’ll need that light and it’s part of the shoot you envision, then by all means it’s worth lugging around. Just be realistic; if you’re going to shoot portraits and lifestyle along with a couple of skateboard action shots, you probably don’t need to bring the 600 along.

How strict are the airlines on bringing camera equipment?
The airlines, within reason, are pretty good about allowing us to bring camera equipment on board. As long as you follow the rules about how big your carry on is etc., it’s really not too bad.

How do you economize with baggage weight?
I don’t! I try my best to keep the weight down, but my pack is always ridiculously heavy. I think that is just part of being an action sports photographer. Though I can always make the most out of just a single lens or camera if I have to. At the same time, I’m the type that feels if I don’t bring it, I’ll most likely need it so I normally just go ahead and bring anything I can think of for that particular shoot – just in case I need it.

What essential camera equipment would you bring?
For most jobs, I try to bring two camera bodies: one to shoot with; and another one that just sits as a backup in case something happens to the primary body. As for lenses, I try to just bring what will fit in one large, barely carry-on-able backpack.

In most cases, my typical setup that I travel with is: 15mm fisheye, 16-35mm, 28-70mm, 70-200mm, and 300mm. This way, I pretty much have my focal lengths covered. Although I love shooting with prime lenses, considering how much crap I always have to bring, I am forced to stick with zooms for practicality’s sake. I also bring a speedlight, or two, an accessory battery pack for the flash, a couple of flash diffusers, some pocketwizards, a polarizer filter, and plenty of memory cards.

Would you ever rent equipment on location?
Yes, I rent on location here and there, and it usually works out great. I mostly rent lighting. And considering the costs of checking extra bags on most airlines nowadays, you nearly break even, and your precious equipment never has to leave home! Once you are happy with a certain place’s service, file their contact away so you can remember them for next time you’re in that particular city. Also, never assume you’ll find a good, pro-quality rental house. Do your research online ahead of time, and make reservations to make sure you don’t get burned and pay too much.

Any other practical tips for traveling?
Be careful with light stands, monopods and tripods. Some security controllers consider it as a separate carry-on, and some don’t. I once made it all the way through an extremely long security line, only to find out right at the end that I had to go check in my light stand, which was barely worth the extra baggage fee the airline then slapped me with. Now, I just pack them in my checked luggage to be safe if I have the room to spare.

What’s the worst travel-disaster story you’ve heard or experienced?
A friend of mine carried his photo backpack with him as usual onto the airplane. Since the overhead spaces on the flight were all full, the flight attendant made him check his bag right there at the gate. When he arrived at his destination and claimed his pack, it was there, minus his camera bodies and lenses! Naturally, he complained immediately, but the airline never reimbursed him for the stolen gear. It was basically their word against his. And who do you think is going to win? After hearing that story, I would rather wait for the next flight then check carry-on bags at the gate.

Story courtesy of Red Bull Illume.