Our underwater photo gear is very fragile, very expensive, and to most of us, very precious. We haul it to the far corners of the globe to join dive masters showing us their favorite local sites so that we can capture that perfect photo.
But dive travel is tricky; airlines have a wide range of luggage policies and oftentimes the check-in agents aren’t quite sure of what those policies are. The whole process keeps us on our toes.
The only sure thing about traveling with underwater photo gear is that we want it all to arrive safely and undamaged. This is where a sound packing strategy comes into play.
We All Pack Camera Gear Differently
Ask 10 photographers about how they pack underwater photo gear and you’ll likely receive 10 different responses. My own strategies shift depending on the photo gear I’m packing for the dive trip.
I always try to keep everything fragile with me at all times, as well as enough gear to complete my photo objectives even if checked bags get lost. I also a believe in keeping a low profile when traveling, so I tend to choose bags that are somewhat discrete and don’t advertise expensive camera gear.
Curious what gear I’m using for 2020?
Check out My Underwater Camera Gear.
Strategies for Packing Underwater Camera Gear
We discussed the fact that you should pack all your mission-critical camera gear in your carry-on bag so that you can enjoy shooting photos even if your checked baggage makes an extra trip around the world.
With that in mind, let’s break our packing down into two main categories:
- Packing Carry-On Bags
- Packing Checked Bags
Packing Carry-On Bags
Underwater photographers generally use one roller bag and one backpack as their carry-on bags when flying with gear on dive trips.
Bulky camera bags have the highest potential as a conversation starter with a frisky airline agent at the check-in counter, and anyone packing one of these should be ready to start explaining why their bag is so overweight as soon as they walk up to the counter. If you smile, you can usually open it up to display the gear and move along without too much hassle.
Some destinations are more forgiving than others. In the U.S. you’ll rarely get asked the weight of your carry-on roller bag. Same with most international flights to Mexico or into Southeast Asia. But domestic flights within Asia and many South Pacific destinations have reputations for being very strict on carry-on baggage weight (usually 7kg / 15lbs). The Caribbean is also hit and miss.
What Camera Gear is Packed Carry-On?
Everything you need to shoot and anything very fragile needs to join you as carry-on. This includes camera bodies, lenses, your housing, one port, strobes, video lights and necessary cables.
You also want to ensure you keep essential electronics in your carry-on bags, including laptop, dive computer, primary external hard drive, and camera battery charger.
How do I Pack my Carry-On Bags?
In my experience, airline check-in agents are more likely to take an interest in your roller bag than in your backpack (your ‘personal item’). Because of this, I tend to wear the majority of my gear in a soft backpack, which keeps my roller bag to about 9kg (just over the 7kg limit).
This is just me though. The majority underwater photographers will opt to put most of their gear into a roller bag for ease of use, then explain why their bag is overweight.
Inside my small roller bag I have a padded Dakine camera insert from one of my landscape photo backpacks. This pads the my housing with one camera body and usually my small ports. It’s lightweight and fits inside any small roller bag – a setup that’s far lighter than any formal camera roller bag.
All the fragile camera gear goes in my backpack. I use the ThinkTANK Shapeshifter 17 because it is comfortable and holds tons of gear without looking like a big boxy camera bag. Most attendants don’t even look twice at it as a personal item. In it, I have my main camera body, 2-3 lenses, 2 strobes, video lights, laptop, hard drives, memory cards, filters, some food bars, toothbrush, headphones and inflatable neck pillow.
Packing Checked Bags
Your checked bags will include all the rest of your camera gear. One checked bag will likely reach just under the checked baggage weight limit of 23kg / 50lbs with just dive gear. The second bag contains the camera gear and some clothing for the trip used as extra padding.
The secret here is to pad the camera gear in soft but firm camera gear bags within the large dive bag. This will protect the gear while also providing space for those clothes and other random things you want on the dive trip.
The alternative here is to purchase a large pelican case. I’ve flown with a checked Pelican case (or other brand) several times, however only when I’ve got several camera systems and backup gear. Even with a full DSLR kit, mirrorless kit, and loaner gear, I’ve found it’s just not enough gear to justify a dedicated checked Pelican case.
Note on Batteries: Lithium metal and lithium ion batteries are often technically prohibited in checked baggage. Before flying, check with your travel agent or the dive operator about how they recommend transporting large batteries (e.g. for video lights).
How do I Pack my Checked Bags?
My dive gear is very straight forward. The only unique trick is that I usually will wrap my large dome port in a bubble wrap sleeve and then in a wetsuit or two and clip it against my BCD. This way it’s padded and in the center of the bag, cushioned from impact and pressure.
Inside my second checked roller bag I use my padded bags.
I’ve been using a water resistant camera insert (Explorer Cases Bag G) ever since our groups’ bags got drenched on top of a van during a downpour while driving through the Baja desert (go figure). A topside camera box, my bombproof Pelican 1300, is stuffed with chargers and then unpacked at the destination so that I have a topside camera box for the dive boats. The rest of the main bag includes the few pieces of clothing needed, and which further pads the gear.
I used to use a soft bag similar to the Lowepro Nova 170 AW for this purpose, however the zippers rusted shut after a few trips. Zippers and salt water just don’t work.
Lightweight Packing for Dive Trips
Some destinations are much more strict on camera gear. The first step is to pair down what you’re bringing. Do you really need extra lenses and ports? Do you need backup lights? All the tools?
Carry-on luggage weight restrictions can also be sporadically enforced, so always walk up to the check-in attendant with a smile, ask how their day is going, etc. A friendly demeanor will help tremendously if you’re asking the attendant to bend the rules with a slightly overweight bag.
You’ll need to ensure that you only have one checked bag if that’s the airline’s policy. To help make this work, I will wear a photographer’s vest (or safari vest) with many large pockets. It’s not the best fashion statement, but by putting camera bodies, lenses and hard drives in your pockets, you’re saving tons of weight in the bags. It’s one of the long-time underwater photo gear packing secrets of the pros.
Best Camera Bags for Underwater Photographers
Below are a few camera bags that I either own or would really like to own. Note that I might like a feature of a bag that you don’t like, or vice versa. Camera bags are very custom.
Some of the things to consider here are:
Size: How much space do you actually need?
Laptop Compartment: If this is a carry-on bag, you likely want your laptop. And if you have a large 15″ laptop, you want to make sure the bag accommodates that size.
Comfort: These bags will get heavy. Some bags out there (F-Stop’s Kashmir series) have models designed specifically for women.
Camera Roller Bags
Here are some of my favorite rollers. Use these as a starting point to find the perfect bag for you. You’ll have it for a long time!
Other Gear Bags
Keeping your gear organized and protected is essential. Here are some bags that will revolutionize your underwater camera gear packing.
Customs Duties and Taxes
Is underwater camera gear subject to Duties and Taxes?
That depends. The easiest way to avoid any of these discussions with customs officers is to ensure none of your gear is still in the original packaging, doesn’t have stickers over screens/lenses and has no other indicators that it’s brand new.
Some countries are more strict that others. In mid-2019, Mexico, which has always tried to solicit customs duties (or bribes as a means to avoid the duties) stepped up their enforcement of taxes on all camera equipment entering the country. Even your personal (used) gear.
The latest Mexico report I heard is a 16% tax on underwater housing and dome port, with a warning that if the items’ value exceeded $3,000 USD they could be confiscated. Customs also asked for an FAA license for a diver’s drone. This has occurred to multiple divers at multiple airports in Mexico, however many divers have also walked through customs unscathed.
Now, we could argue this is simply a stronger attempt at soliciting a bribe, but regardless, be prepared for a customs agent to start researching the value of your gear on their mobile phone, and the possibility of paying several hundred dollars in “taxes.”