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 one perfect photo. But traveling 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. Ask 10 photographers about how they pack and you’ll likely receive 10 different responses. My own strategies shift depending on the photo gear I’m packing for the trip.
I always try to keep everything fragile with me at all times, as well as enough gear to complete the assignment even if checked bags get lost. I also a believe in keeping a low travel profile, so you’ll never see me with bright yellow pelican cases covered in Canon, RED Digital Cinema and Nikon stickers.
Below are two packing strategies as well as the bags I use to protect the gear. The first is standard packing, while the second is for destinations with extremely tight baggage restrictions.
General Strategy: Packing Underwater Photo Gear
Most international airlines allow you to bring one carry on (15lbs, 7kg) and one personal item on the plane, with one free checked bag. I use a roller bag as the carry on and a camera backpack as the personal item – but with a specific strategy.
Roller bags are often targeted for weight when flying, so I use a lightweight ScubaPro Cabin bag with a padded Dakine camera insert from a backpack inside of it, instead of a dedicated photo bag, as these are almost always far heavier with similar padding. Inside this padded camera insert I have my housing with backup camera body, fiber optic cables / sync cords, macro port, diopter, and (when I had one) a mini dome. This is all just over the weight limit, so even strict attendants often let is slide. When they don’t, I just take the diopter or camera body out and stuff it in my pants cargo pocket until I have the ticket.
The bag is very small, lightweight, and tough with no frills – my favorite carry on roller for camera gear. It fits in the overhead of even many smaller propeller planes, which avoids the need for most gate checks. It even has semi-rigid siding for more protection of the Dakine padded camera insert.
Learn more: ScubaPro Cabin Bag
All the fragile 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. Learn more about my underwater photo gear.
Learn more: ThinkTANK Shapeshifter 17
Generally two checked bags does the trick for a warm water dive destination. One bag, I’m using the ScubaPro Porter, holds all the dive gear, housing arms/clamps, and large dome port wrapped in bubble wrap and wetsuit, nestled inside the BCD. It’s a massive bag, so you need to make sure everything is packed nice and snug.
Learn more: ScubaPro Porter Dive Bag
The second checked bag, currently a Stahlsac bag, fits another padded camera insert that contains backup strobe, tool kit, chargers, and other miscellaneous photo gear – even compact cameras & housing. I’ve been using a waterproof one (the Explorer Cases Bag-G) ever since our groups’ bags got drenched on top of a van during a downpour while driving through the desert. A topside camera bag, my trusty Lowepro Aventura 170, is stuffed with other goods so that I have a topside camera bag once at the destination. The rest includes the few pieces of clothing that further pads the gear.
Learn more: Stahlsac STEEL 27
Explorer Cases Bag-G
This might be a bit big if you’re not carrying tons of extra gear for workshops, so check out Bag-A (pictured).
LowePro Aventura 170
This is discontinued, so check out the Lowepro Nova 170 AW II (pictured).
Super Lightweight Packing
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? 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 don 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 secrets of packing underwater photo gear.
Style cat in the photo vest!
Note 1: 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).
Note 2: I’ve made a few trips to Mexico with freediving fins and have had success putting them in a black mesh bag and sticking them in between my back and backpack during any agent interaction. One one has paid them any attention as of yet.