Traveling with Your Digital Camera

The most important thing to bring on a vacation is your camera (in reality, it's probably money).  The most important accessory when traveling with your camera is the gear it is packed in.  The gear that it is packed in should be suitable to transport small bombs (for Mother Earth's sake, please do NOT pack bombs on an airplane).  Your camera is no good if it does not arrive safely.  On top of ensuring your camera arrives intact, you have to consider all the stuff that is necessary to keep your camera up and running.  Luckily, some really clever and considerate companies have produced quality solutions to your travel problems. 

After spending a decade of summers in summer camps, my mother has taught me one thing about packing: make a list.  While there is no logical reason a 7-year-old needs five washcloths for a one-week sleep away adventure, those five washcloths should at least return home together, preferably used.  Compiling a list of what you pack will ensure that you won't forget anything come time to pack again.  Unfortunately, a departure list will not prevent theft therefore rendering your return list incomplete.  When making that list, go ahead and match everything up with its serial number.  Worst case scenario something is stolen, having those numbers will help out a great deal if the police do in fact recover the stolen items.  They cannot go on item description alone; serial numbers prove that the item belongs to you.  

While you are at it, leave a business card or a slip of paper with your contact information in each individual bag/case.  Believe it or not, there are good Samaritans out there who will ship you back stolen goods anonymously once they find it if there is contact information attached (happened with my wallet back in 2007, true story).  There are also stories of a camera owner receiving back a lost or stolen camera after taking a picture of their contact information and leaving it on the memory card for the finder to reference.

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Think about where you are going when making a list.  Take into consideration how much room you have to pack, how much you are willing to spend on baggage fees and how much one person can carry.  There are regulations set forth by the FAA that are ugly to get around.  It is extremely uncomfortable to have a group of strangers riffle through your bags in the middle of the security checkpoint.  So keep the following in mind when preparing for your next vacation or adventure:

  • Back in 2008, the FAA changed regulations on what is allowed in checked baggage regarding batteries.  Lithium batteries are no longer allowed to be loose in your luggage.  The problem with lithium batteries, especially primary lithium batteries, is the risk you run if/when they catch on fire.  Airplanes do not carry the kind of fire retardant required to put out a lithium battery fire.  (Check out the chart they released to make it easier to understand what kind and how many of each battery type is allowed.)
  • Carry-on luggage has to be kept less than 45 linear inches.  Luckily, most equipment these days is close to pocket sized affording you space to bring more.  The FAA recommends you stow more than you carry on, but frankly, have you seen the way checked baggage is handled?  Can you imagine your multi-thousand dollar camera/child-in-the-form-of-a-camera/way-to-make-a-living fly through the air only to get dropped on the tarmac?  I think I will be carrying my equipment, thank you.
  • If you are traveling with film (disposable, one-time-use cameras use film), make sure you carry it on whether or not the film is still in the camera or in a canister.  The scan machines for carry-on baggage are not nearly as strong as the machines used for checked baggage.  The checked-baggage x-ray machine can fog undeveloped film ruining an entire roll.  Avoid that by packing it on your person.

Having the right cases or bags to carry your equipment in can make or break (literally) your photographic journey.  Even when you carry your camera and lenses with you, you still need to be careful.  When storing your gear, always separate the lens from the camera.  There is no way to break the mount if they aren't even connected.  Always use lens caps during storage as well.  When choosing a bag for your equipment, keep it a tight fit.  The less room your equipment has to move around, the better.  

That being said, placing your camera or lenses in a backpack will not get the job done.  My money is on Pelican Cases.  They are virtually indestructible; the only thing they don't insure against is bear attack, shark bite and children under 5 (not joking).  These bad boys are the choice of deploying soldiers to keep everything from cell phones to weapons dust free, waterproof and safe in battle zones.  They have multiple designs, all of which come with a bajillion compartments for all your lenses, gadgets and things.  The StudioCruzer is so amazing that is has a chamber that houses your laptop and charger on top of all your camera equipment, all of which is specifically designed with FAA regulations in mind.   

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Camouflage your equipment.  Walking around with the original camera strap emblazoned with the company logo and camera model will make you an instant target to thieves.  Keep it in a bag until you are ready to use it.  If you walk around with it, keep it around your neck at all times and buy a neutral strap to go in place of the brand strap.  OP/Tech makes a great line of brand-free camera straps.  They even have cute little finger cuffs for your sub-compact.  Their wrist cuffs work really well for purses or other bags too.  

Be mindful of your stuff.  Do not leave it with someone thinking they will keep it safe.  If the hotel you are staying in offers to hold your baggage before or after check-out, leave with them what you don't care about and bring along the rest.  People who aren't even staying in the hotel can gain access to that room and pilfer to their heart's content.   

If you are or are not traveling with a laptop in tow, bring a card reader to transfer pictures daily from memory card to hard drive.  In the event your camera is lost, stolen or broken, you will still have those precious memories already on file.  Multiple memory cards are also a helpful way to keep your camera firing.  Running out of room to take pictures makes your camera just as useless had you thrown it in the Nile River.  If you choose not to bring a laptop, the card reader will still be handy when you come across an internet café.  A portable card reader can plug right into the USB port of any public computer; upload your pictures onto your photo hosting website of choice ensuring those images make it home safely.  

If internet cafés are not an option, a one-hour photo shop or kiosk might offer to make a CD from the files on your memory card.  If none of those are options, you will be happy you took my advice in bringing multiple memory cards.  On the subject of bringing extra things, bring extra batteries.  Obviously, bring your charger but bring extra batteries too.  You may not always be in a place that has an outlet.  If you are going international, bring along an international plug adapter, like the Conair Franzus Voltage Converter Kit.  It is not hard to blow out a fuse box in the entire hotel by plugging in the wrong voltage device, believe me.  Don't be that guy.

Once you get to your destination, use your camera.  It works great for a number of things aside from creating lasting memories.  Take pictures of the street sign that hotel is on so you don't forget.  Take pictures of your rental car so you don't get scammed.  Take pictures of all the members in your party daily in case someone gets separated from the group (morbid, I know but useful if the time comes).  Take pictures of your luggage to remind you what it looks like.  If you don't want to bring along your entire manual, take pictures of the pages you care to reference.  And most importantly, take pictures of where you are.  There are some easy to remember tips that will make sure you get a great shot.  Your camera is the best way to remember what you might forget.


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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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