Packing Underwater Photo Gear

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 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 11 different responses. My own strategies shift depending on the type of dive trip and what gear I need for the project.

I always pack so that I have everything needed to complete the photo objectives in my carry-on luggage in case checked bags get lost. Like many photographers, the gear I select for this has varied through the years. I also a believe in keeping a low profile when traveling most of the time, but as you’ll read below, I’ve shifted from photo workshops and discrete bags to photo shoots and hard cases.


Packing Carry-On Camera Bags

Packing Checked Bags with Camera Gear

Lightweight Packing Tips

Best Camera Bags for Underwater Photographers

Customs Duties, Taxes and Camera Gear

Dive Travel Tips for Photographers (Video!)

Underwater Camera Gear Layouts Ready to Pack
Various camera systems I packed while hosting underwater photo workshops.

Curious what gear I’m using for 2022?

my professional underwater camera gear

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:

  1. Packing Carry-On Bags
  2. Packing Checked Bags

Packing Carry-On Bags

Underwater photographers generally use one roller bag and one backpack (personal item) 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 overweight as soon as they walk up to the counter. If you smile, you can usually open it up to display the fragile gear and move along without too much hassle.

Some destinations are more lenient than others. In the U.S. you’ll rarely get asked the weight of your carry-on roller bag or rolling hard case (e.g. Pelican case). Same with most international flights to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and into Southeast Asia. Domestic flights within Asia and many South Pacific destinations have reputations for being very strict on carry-on baggage weight (usually 7kg / 15lbs).

What Camera Gear is Packed Carry-On?

You should pack everything you need to shoot photos in your carry-on bag(s), assuming the worst: a delayed checked bag. This is especially important when embarking on a liveaboard where it could be very difficult (and expensive) to have your checked bag delivered while at sea.

You will want to include your camera, primary lens, port, lights (strobes or video lights), essential batteries, camera battery charger, and accessories like your laptop and external hard drive.

How do I Pack my Carry-On Bags?

My Current Packing Method

These days I’m highly focused on local diving and only (dive) travel by plane for photo shoots. As a result, my carry-on packing has changed in two ways that better serve the way I’m diving and using my equipment. First, I’m not worried about carry-on baggage weight with the destinations I visit these days. Second, instead of unpacking all my gear in a dive resort camera room and using that to stage between dives, I’m on the boat all day switching between two and even three cameras. I need everything with me on the boat and need it protected from the elements.

When transporting your gear to a camera room you have a lot of flexibility in bag choice. I used to put a padded camera insert inside a small roller bag and then carry a soft-sided camera backpack, making my gear very inconspicuous. Many underwater photographers opt for a hard-sided soft roller case like those made by ThinkTANK. I’ve made a few recommendations below.

My new carry-on packing technique uses a large backpack with a camera insert as well as a Pelican Air 1535 roller. There are two reasons for this.

The first is the versatility of the pelican case. Once at my destination I will build my camera and then repack the pelican case with topside camera, lenses, underwater backup gear, batteries, topside filters, and other accessories. The case joins me on the dive boats and can get sprayed with salt water, dripped on and kicked by other divers and bake in the sun if it has to. All my gear inside is safe.

The second reason for this technique is that since my upgrade to Canon mirrorless, I don’t carry a 100mm dome port as my backup. So instead of packing a little 4″ dome in my carry-on, I need to pack my 230mm dome. The THULE Covert backpack is perfect for this. I use the padded camera insert for some camera gear and then pack the dome, headphones, laptop and phone chargers, etc. in the upper portion.

While bulky I’m loving the THULE bag. The features are perfect for me, with a great laptop compartment, side access for my camera, nice reusable water bottle holder, and even a magnet flip pouch for quickly stashing phone and wallet when passing through airport security (I mean, who wants to zip them into a pocket and then back out again!).

Pro Tip: Always carry a few bars (and your refillable water bottle of course). Bars are essential when you have delays in weird places and the fact that I seem to always miss lunch on day one while working. The headlamp is for working on equipment in dark rooms – also essential.

View of the padded camera case on my laptop backpack for traveling.
Packed for a shoot in April 2022: Canon R6 with accessories with lens and accessories at the time. I’ll update this photo with one of the THULE Covert bag soon!

Here’s a photo of my Pelican Air 1535 packed for the flight prior to my mirrorless upgrade (note the 100mm dome port case). I’ll update the photo to my new packing method very soon! Once at my destination this will be unpacked as I build my camera system and then repacked with the gear I need for the shoot each day.

View inside my Pelican 1535 Air case full of underwater photo equipment.
This case holds a surprising amount of gear – everything I need to shoot photos should my checked baggage not arrive.
Here are a couple packing examples of a padded camera case I used to carry in a small unmarked roller. While this setup nearly met carry-on weight requirements on small planes, I was left carrying a lot of gear (and weight) in my backpack… which ads up. Most underwater photographers will prefer all the weight in a larger roller bag.
Following up on the older photo above, here’s all the gear I could carry in my soft-sided camera backpack using my old packing method. It’s heavy, so you have to hope the check in lines are short!

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.

Pelican 1300 stuffed with chargers. At the destination, I unpack the chargers and then have a camera box for the day boats. It looks like a little brief case, and as a bonus, opens up jokes and friendships with Indo-Pacific dive guides who carry similar ‘work briefcases’ onto the boats.
Padded camera insert with my gear inside
Inside my water-resistant, padded camera insert. My tool kit is in the center under the paper towels, plus extra strobe and various extra accessories depending on the trip: ports, lenses, lights, spare o-rings, wet and dry sensor cleaning kits, and other little goodies.
packing underwater camera gear
My dive buddy shoots frames of the iconic school of jacks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.

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.

Rockin’ the photographer’s vest in Manado, Indonesia. 2014.

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.

Camera Backpacks

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.”

My best advice is to check out the Scubaboard forums for the latest stories and information before your trip. You can also read a thread about this on Wetpixel.

Dive Travel Tips for Photographers

This video shares a number of tips to help smooth out long international dive trips so that you can focus on creating great photos.

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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world.