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 one 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.

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 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 Sony stickers.

Below are two packing strategies I use depending on the dive trip. The first is my basic packing strategy while the second is for destinations with extremely tight baggage restrictions.

I’ve also included the actual bags I’m using, along with affiliate links to buy the bags yourself.

Curious what gear I shoot with? See all my Underwater Photo Gear.

packing underwater camera gear
My dive buddy shoots frames of the iconic school of jacks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.

Basic Packing Strategy

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.

Carry-On Roller Bag
stahlsac steel 22 carry-on bag

Roller bags are often targeted for weight when checking in to flights, so I use a Stahlsac Steel 22 Carry-On roller bag with a padded Dakine camera insert from a backpack inside of it (instead of a dedicated photo bag). I do this because it has a lower and less boxy profile than most dedicated camera rollers and is significantly lighter.

Another great padded insert is the Tenba BYOB 10 Padded Backpack Insert.

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 (yep, I wear lightweight hiking pants for long-flight dive travel) until I have the ticket.

The bag is fairly small, lightweight, and tough with no frills. It even has semi-rigid siding for more protection of the padded camera insert.

Left: About how I would pack for a regular trip with macro port and mini dome. Weight in roller is 9.4kg (20.7lbs). If the check-in agent is being strict, I can always put the camera in my pocket until after check-in to lower weight below 7kg.
Right: Packing for whale snorkeling. Long lens instead of macro dome. Weight in roller is 10.9kg (24lbs). Big dome is in checked bag.
Camera Backpack

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.

The only caveat here is that it is not a rigid-sided bag, so don’t throw it on the ground or let a driver pack it at the bottom of a pile of heavy bags! The bag never leaves my side except for the overhead compartment during flights.

The ThinkTANK Shapeshifter camera backpack.
Here’s a sample carry in this bag for a trip to the Philippines. On this particular trip I’ve got the Tamron 15-30mm G2 in addition to the Canon 16-35mm f/4 (top secret ;- P). This bag holds heaps of gear and even as I write this from the airport, the gate agent didn’t think to weigh it, only my roller above.

Fastpack BP 250: Great for compact camera and housing basics.

ProTactic BP 350: Nice compact travel backpack that still holds camera, lenses, strobes.

Trailscape 18L: Another nice low profile backpack. Note smaller laptop size.

My gear to be added to the backpack for a whale snorkeling trip. Normally I’ll also add two strobes and two video lights… and the bag still looks very discrete.
Checked Roller Bags

Generally two checked bags does the trick for a warm water dive destination. For scuba diving gear, I’m using the ScubaPro Porter, which 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. Any big dive bag works. I like cheaper bags for this gear because they get pretty thrashed and bashed after a few years.


The second checked bag, currently a Stahlsac STEEL 27, fits a 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 camera insert ever since our groups’ bags got drenched on top of a van during a downpour while driving through the desert (go figure). A topside camera bag, my trusty Lowepro Aventura 170 or bombproof Pelican 1300, is usually stuffed with chargers and then unpacked at the destination so that I have a topside camera bag/box for the boats. The rest of the main bag includes the few pieces of clothing needed, and which further pads the gear.


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 (pictured).

Pelican 1300 stuffed with chargers. At the destination, I unpack the chargers and then have a camera box for the day boats.

Do you travel with a lot of chargers and cables? The Lowepro GearUp Case is an easy way to organize and transport all your miscellaneous electronic pieces.

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?

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.

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

Packing 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).

Packing Note 2:  I’ve made a few international trips with freediving fins and have had success putting them in a black mesh freedive fins bag and sticking them in between my back and backpack during any agent interaction. It looks just like a single bag (if they even see them) and no one has made a fuss as of yet.

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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.