No matter where we travel
during the summer, a camera is a constant companion, for recording the
sights, scenery, wildlife, and people we encounter. Traveling by air
however, does pose problems, especially for those who take a lot of
equipment. The risks of damage, theft, and unnecessary expense should
not be underestimated. As airport security and other regulations become
more stringent, photographers need to plan ahead, taking suitable steps
to ensure peace of mind. If you're planning a trip on a commercial
airline, consider the following information and tips for your film and
1. Avoid the airplane's cargo hold. We have all seen that
TV commercial a few years ago where gorillas tossed a suitcase around
to see how much abuse it would tolerate. While baggage handlers at most
airports are far more respectful, loss and damage to luggage and its
contents is all too common. To reduce the risks, I always try to carry
my cameras and lenses aboard so they cannot be subjected to any rough
handling and other risks.
2. Make inquiries as to carryon allowances. At one time, all airlines
adhered to a single international standard as to the maximum size of
carryon bags: 9x14x22" was the norm. In the past year however,
some carriers have become more restrictive in terms of size while others
have imposed a weight limit as well. (A maximum of one carryon item
per person is also becoming a common rule.) At this time, there is no
consistency among the various airlines, so you will need to do some
advance research. Their web sites usually offer information as to the
current rules and these can change from time to time. Check our section
for the specific URL regarding the baggage policies of some of the major
3. Protect equipment in checked luggage. If your photo equipment
is too large or too heavy, some of it is destined for the cargo hold.
In that case, take some advance precautions. Use a hard shell camera
case from Lowepro, Tundra Sea King, ZERO Haliburton, or Pelican for
additional security. Consider buying a heavily padded case for your
tripod, or travel with a large duffel bag as I do; those intended for
hockey equipment are often long enough for a full-size tripod. If you
place photo equipment inside regular luggage, wrap every item in several
layers of clothing and stash it in a high quality hard-sided suitcase.
4. Disguise valuable equipment. During a seminar with Frans Lanting,
this professional nature photographer explained how he ships cases of
gear (as checked baggage) while on assignment for National Geographic.
In order to avoid advertising the expensive contents of the shiny silver
cases, Lanting acquired several large duffel bags. By intentionally
abusing the bags, he made them appear to be old and worn. Then, he simply
placed each hard shell case inside one of the duffel bags. While loss
by the airlines is always a possibility, this tactic should at least
minimize the risk of theft.
5. Place film in a carryon bag. Tests conducted by the British
Aviation Authority and by the Photographic & Imaging Manufacturers
Association, Inc. (PIMA) confirmed that the familiar x-ray systems used
for carryon bags at modern airports, in well-developed countries, employ
a very low level of radiation. As a result of their tests, PIMA maintains
that "the vast majority of conventional x-ray equipment used to
inspect carryon luggage will not cause noticeable changes to your film."
(PIMA represents US photo products distributors.) However, their formal
recommendation is more conservative: "With film above ISO 400,
avoid more than five low-dose scans. Do not subject any film over ISO
1000 even to conventional x-rays." Keep this in mind particularly
in underdeveloped countries, where antiquated equipment may still be
Note: In Canada and the US, you are entitled to a visual inspection
of your film instead of x-ray exposure. However, this right does not
apply in other countries. If you are concerned about exposure to even
the low-dose x-ray systems try this. Pack your film inside a lead-lined
container, in a carryon bag and let it run through the machine. At the
other end of the line an attendant will open the lead bag; on satisfying
himself that it contains nothing but photographic film, he'll
probably wave you on.
6. Never place film in checked luggage. Over the past few years,
some 60 airports worldwide have installed the new "tomographic"
CT-scan type high-dose x-ray systems. According to PIMA tests, and confirmed
by the manufacturer (InVision Technologies), "such radiation causes
damaging streaks and unacceptable fogging of all speeds of unprocessed
film; higher speeds of film show more damage." Note that "processed
film, computers, cameras, and electronic/magnetic media such as disks
and tapes are not affected by x-rays."
Tests confirm that the conventional lead-lined bags are not effective
against the new high-dose x-ray systems used on checked bags. Some manufacturers
now offer bags with much thicker lead such as the Sima FilmShield XPF
8 (0.2mm of lead) intended for film up to ISO 200, and XPF 20 (0.5mm
of lead composite) recommended for ISO 400 and faster film. "Think
of these products as you think of sunscreen for protection against a
burn during a day at the beach," says Sima. "The bags may
not completely block all radiation, but they reduce it so you won't
see visible damage on the film." (For additional information visit
the PIMA web site at: www.pima.net
or the Sima web site at: www.simacorp.com)
7. Avoid loss by theft. Having taken the necessary precautions,
you can enjoy your trip with peace of mind--unless your equipment
is stolen while you're waiting for a flight. Even if it's
fully insured, the experience of being without your photo equipment
can be frustrating. An inexpensive single-use camera will provide a
few snapshots, but that's hardly a consolation on a once-in-a-lifetime
trip with spectacular photo opportunities. Suitable replacement equipment
may not be available, or will be exorbitantly priced, in many vacation
In some countries your gear will be an appealing target for thieves,
especially if it's worth more than a month's pay to a local
resident. Carry it all in a fancy camera case and you'll be advertising
the apparent value of its contents. Leave it for a minute while in an
airport bar or restroom, and you may never see it again. To avoid such
invitations to theft, consider some bag which does not resemble one
intended for photo equipment--the older and shabbier the better.
If you do not flaunt your affluence, you're less likely to be
viewed as a target. In any event, keep the zipper or flap tightly closed
and keep a firm grasp on the case to prevent someone from walking off
with your valuables.
8. Read your insurance policy closely. Homeowners and renters
insurance policies generally cover photo equipment for theft, although
there may be an exclusion for equipment used for professional or commercial
purposes. As well, limits apply to any off-premises theft. Read the
fine print closely and consult your insurance agent or broker to be
sure that your gear is covered and adequately so, while traveling.
Note too that insurance companies may not consider lost luggage as having
been "stolen." If your policy covers only specified perils
(e.g., fire, theft, etc.) ask your agent or broker to arrange for an
All Risk endorsement for your camera equipment and other valuables.
Be sure to confirm that it provides worldwide coverage, or that it does
not exclude losses that occur in the countries that you intend to visit.
9. Minimize hassles with Customs officials. When you return home
from abroad, Customs officials may well demand proof that your equipment
is not a new purchase being imported. For suitable evidence, travel
with receipts showing the serial number of each item to confirm the
origin of purchase. In the alternative, complete a Customs registration
form a few weeks before departing on a trip. Ask your travel agent for
assistance, or call the Customs office in any major center for the required
document allowing you to pre-register each item.
This provides a permanent record to avoid disputes with border officials
on re-entry into the US or Canada. It will also preclude your being
asked to pay import duties, since it's documentary evidence of
prior ownership. Should your equipment be stolen, this record will also
help the authorities identify your property if it's ever recovered.
Naturally, it's wise to keep the documents separate from your
camera bag in case the latter is stolen or lost.
10. "Buyer Beware" in foreign countries. If you're
tempted to buy a camera at ridiculously low prices in some duty free
port or back-alley discount shop, think twice before making a quick
purchase. The one you pick may already have been discontinued, or of
an earlier technology not competitive with the best currently available.
At least check price tags before leaving home, or you may experience
sticker-shock when returning with that presumed bargain. I have relatives
whose experiences will vouch for the validity of both pieces of advice.
Note two other factors as well. Customs Duties may apply on equipment
purchased abroad if the total value exceeds the amount of your allowance.
More importantly, be aware that many equipment distributors in the US
will not honor International Warranties; some will not provide any repair
service on products purchased overseas. If that bargain turns out to
be faulty, the cost of repairs may exceed what you originally saved.
And avoid apparent "deals" in used equipment on the street,
unless you're adventuresome enough to spend time in a foreign
Police cell. It can be a long wait for a judge who will finally hear
your explanation about the stolen equipment in your possession.
Conclusion. Some of our hints will apply equally whether your
voyage involves a short hop to another state or a long flight across
the international date line to some exotic destination. Vacation travel
is never the same without your camera along to help re-live the good
times later, during the cold winter months. A few precautions will protect
your investment in time, dollars, and memories. These safeguards should
ensure enjoyable trips--without frustration, disappointment, or
a lot of unexpected expense.
Airline Baggage/Carryon Policies
Because rules regarding carryon allowances, weight of baggage, etc.,
are changing (and also vary from one carrier to another), we cannot
provide specifics as to the current standard. In order to determine
the most recent policies of the various airlines, visit their web sites
in advance. The following web pages--provided by Dr. Ellen Rudolph,
host of the Nature Photography board on AOL--include the pertinent
information. Each URL was accurate at the time of this writing but may
change. In that case, start with the homepage of the relevant airline
and look for links to pages detailing baggage allowances.
Air Canada: www.aircanada.ca/contact/baggage.html
British Airways: www.british-airways.com/travelqa/fyi/baggage/baggage.shtml
US Airways: www.usair.com/travel/passinfo/dyknow.htm