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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Watch Out For Blowout

Exposures In All The Bright Places • Traveling With Photo Gear •  Fine-Art Prints, Or Not

Labels: How-ToColumnTech Tips
Traveling With Photo Gear
In light of all the new rules about carry-on baggage and airport security screening, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts as to how you manage your gear when flying. I’m extremely protective of my camera equipment and very reluctant to part with it at the gate or in checked baggage.
E. Clarke
Via the Internet

A The biggest challenge in traveling with photographic equipment is the inconsistent application of ever-changing rules. No matter how thoroughly you research ahead of time, the odds are that you’ll encounter at least one overworked, overzealous or just plain cranky airline employee who will thwart all your careful planning and packing. Note that I said “airline” employee; usually, I find TSA employees to be knowledgeable and consistent. Note that I said “usually.”

As of this writing (two weeks following the Christmas Day “underpants bomber”), nothing has really changed in terms of preparation for those flying within or from the United States. But in that time, I’ve noticed additional screening measures. TSA personnel seem more apt to look through camera bags than before and to run swabs to detect potentially dangerous residues. The biggest problem this poses to most of us is delay, so give yourself more time.

I have two metal knee replacements, so I’m treated to a personal massage at every security checkpoint. Once they pull you off to the screening enclosure, you can’t protect the equipment you’ve left strung out on the belt; if you’ve followed the instructions, you have your computer in one bin, your shoes and belt in another, a jacket, your camera bag, your computer bag and perhaps another bin holding a video camera or projector. Your bins are piling up at the end of the belt while other passengers are grabbing stuff and dashing for their planes. If you’re pulled aside for additional screening, you can ask the TSA personnel—and should ask them—to bring your belongings into the screening area with you so you can keep your eyes on them. If you’re not in a hurry, it can all be managed.

The TSA rules say you can bring one carry-on bag, one personal item (a purse, computer, etc.) and one bag of photographic equipment. Most folks don’t know that last part; you can find the rule at www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/assistant/editorial_1248.shtm, “Transporting Film and Photographic Equipment.” I always carry a copy of that rule in my camera bag. But don’t get too excited; I haven’t traveled recently on any airline that acknowledges the exception, and in the end, it’s the flight attendant supervising boarding who’s going to tell you, “You have to check that bag.” Also, the rules are subject to change, so check the TSA site when you’re making your plans.

So here’s what I do on a photo expedition. I pack my tripods and relatively expendable accessories in my checked baggage. Then I carry onto the plane a Lowepro Vertex 200 AW backpack packed with my cameras, chargers and main lenses. I call this, in carry-on terms, a “camera bag”—the one allowed personal item. My “one allowed carry-on bag” is a small roller that contains my computer, a 500mm lens and various accessories needed on the plane, along with essentials like snacks and medications. Carefully follow the rules about liquids and gels in your carry-on luggage; you don’t want them rolling around with your equipment anyway. And the place for your handy pocketknife with all of your screwdrivers, wrenches and other photo tools is in your checked baggage.

The ideal situation is when my wife travels with me; she generously takes one of my bags (usually the 500mm lens in its traveling case or a digital projector) as her own. Since she seldom gets tagged for extra screening (and she’s scrupulous about not wearing heavy jewelry, belts, shoes that tie or anything else that might delay her trip through the screening apparatus), she can supervise the gathering and stowing of all my gear while the TSA screeners have their way with me. In the end, it all boils down to choosing the right traveling (and life) companion: a non-photographer willing to tote one of your bags is the best answer I can give you.

One more little problem. If you’re traveling abroad, what you carry on the plane to your destination may not be allowed on the plane coming back. The new rules posted on January 3, 2010 not only impose intensified security screening, but also appear to further limit the carry-on baggage you can bring onto international flights to the United States from some countries. I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with different carry-on limitations depending upon the direction you’re traveling, but I know this much: On the way back, one of the most important things you have is the images you spent so much money and time to capture. Be sure to keep them safe.


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