My mom once said to me that she feels like I have spent the last six or eight years in a perpetual state of either packing or unpacking. Between trips to and from college, preparing for major photography trips like Australia, the Everglades, and Costa Rica, and moving several times, she probably is right. And when I pack for a trip, there is no mistaking it. Things get a little crazy.
Think about it for a minute. You are going to be spending three months on the other side of the world, maybe even in a very remote location, and you have to take everything you will need. That means all your camera equipment including maintenance and replacement gear, appropriate clothes (hopefully you will only deal with one climate/season), possibly camping equipment, computer, hard drives, and the list just goes on.
On my first trip to Costa Rica, our three team members required equipment for the following pursuits: photography, videography, tree climbing, and scientific research. If you have ever worked with a videographer, the amount of equipment can be insane. We arrived equipped to the teeth, grossly over-equipped actually. I think we had a total count of 15 or 16 bags between the three of us with a gross weight somewhere around a ton. It was ridiculous. I don’t recommend it. The baggage fees alone are enough to deter you.
There are a couple things to consider when packing to help avoid this. What do you truly need? How are you traveling? What can you obtain on site? How are you going to transport and protect your gear both during travel and in the field? Let’s look at each of these and see what we can learn.
What do you need? If you are doing landscape photography, you probably won’t need that 600mm lens. If you are going to Costa Rica, you probably won’t need that winter parka. Take what you need and only what you need. That being said, I always over pack. I always want the ability to grab any lens I own depending on what the situation requires. I am not a light traveler. I freely admit that and also hate it.
On any given trip, the most stressful part for me is checking in to my flight and getting through security and then picking up the luggage on the other end. My bags are nearly always borderline too heavy and sometimes there is an extra one. Camera gear and security inspections don’t always go together smoothly though my last few trips have been smooth. (On a sidenote, I’ve never had a major problem with traveling with camera gear except that you are not allowed to carry on AA batteries on domestic flights in Turkey. I don’t speak Turkish so I can’t tell you why, but I had to return to check in so I could check the 40+ rechargeable AA batteries that were in my camera bag.) Dealing with all these logistics are the most stressful for me. Once everything arrives then I’m fine and can settle in.
So how are you getting to your site? I have found that if I am traveling domestically, I try to drive. It might add a day or two to the trip but if you add up the freedom of being able to pack a car rather than one or two 50 pound suitcases, it is worth it. Also, if the trip is long those rental car fees add up quickly and the gas and hotels required for the drive don’t seem so bad! If you are flying and have a lot of gear, consider joining American Society for Media Photographers as they offer discounts with American Airlines on extra and heavy baggage for photographers and other media professionals. Don’t count on receiving the discount on international flights though!
One more note on extra baggage. When traveling to Australia, I was nearly all packed and had a small pile of camping equipment that I wanted to take but was going to require another bag and the associated fees. I knew I could buy everything I had in that pile once I arrived but consider this. In that pile I had a tent and some other camping gear worth somewhere around $250. If I packed that gear I’d fill a bag about half way but I’d have to pay about $300 round trip for the extra baggage. If I didn’t take the camping gear, I’d have to buy it on site and maybe pay more than the $250 I had already paid, plus I would have to spend the time required to go out and buy it. If I packed it, then I’d have it and I could add some other stuff to the bag making it an economical decision. Pay the baggage fee and take the valuable gear. It seems like a lot, but for a three or four month trip, a couple hundred bucks to get your gear there is nothing.
The last thing to consider is transport of the gear to and from your destination as well as in the field. I often find that I pack my equipment for travel and then when I arrive, I repack everything for use in the field. After all, traveling with a hard sided case like a Pelican case is great but they are rather difficult to lug around in remote field. Keep in mind you need to get your gear there safely as well as be able to use it in the field. It’s a tough compromise and I often will pack a separate backpack inside my clothes suitcase (fill the empty pack with clothes/shoes/etc) and then I use that pack in the field and leave the hard sided travel cases wherever I am staying.
Packing can be a nightmare and an exercise in seeming futility. As my aunt always says, “the time required to pack for a trip expands to the time allowed.” If you start two weeks ahead of time, it’s going to take two weeks. Keep things organized and be sure to make a list. On major trips, all of my camera gear gets put on a list so I can check it off as it goes in the case on my return so I know I don’t miss anything! Once again, plan ahead, but ultimately, flexibility is the name of the game!
Get past the packing and get in the car or on the plane and get in the field! All your preparation will pay off. Now go make some pictures!