Plane travel can be a source of anxiety for photographers. Checking bags isn’t safe for most gear and being able to skip the baggage claim carousels is always a bonus anyway – especially around the holidays. There are a lot of small items to shoot with, including high-quality mirrorless cameras, tiny lenses, and small flash gear. However, it is sometimes hard to skimp on support systems, lighting, and storage in order to save space. Rolling bags, tripods, and light stands all tend to be a pain to try and take on a plane.
Here are 10 items that you should be able to take on board with you without having to sacrifice your shooting needs. I say “should” because the TSA is a fickle fish – what flies at one airport may not fly at another and, as always, different carriers will be more strict than others. These are my personal favorite items that I have air traveled with for trade shows, overseas vacations, and for smaller gigs without incident (so far!) on both large airliners and regional jets.
This little light stand fits into almost any bag – collapsed it is under a foot and a half and extends up to 3 feet. Don’t pack this for lighting portraits of basketball players but for family get-togethers (especially if everyone is sitting around the couch) it is perfect.
This bag is specifically designed to adhere to TSA standards. It combines the soft give of a fabric body (good for inevitable overstuffing) with the protection of a hard case thanks to its super-rigid dividers. It locks, has a place for your laptop, rolls, and will fit in the overhead. As you can see, it also has great accessory pockets.
Don’t trust soft cases? This rock-solid case can withstand a catastrophe: it is water tight up to 30′, can quickly equalize after changes in pressure, tolerate temperatures from -10° to +210°, and will fit in the overhead. At 15lbs empty, the Pelican Carry On 1510 Rolling Camera Case isn’t the lightest carry on but it does fit in most overheads and is virtually unbreakable.
This is a great tool for photographers and videographers alike and completely breaks down without needing any tools. It’s not the stabilizing beast of other Zacuto rigs but it is far and away better than hand-panning. I like having it around for little travel videos.
Great for cars, smooth walls, and even appliances, this heavy-duty suction cup lets you put your camera just about anywhere – great for time lapses, sports shooting, or family portraits where you are the photographer and need to be in the photo. To use, press the knob with the red stripe on it over and over again until you can no longer see the red stripe. To release, pull up on the suction cup where the raised rubber knob is. Super strong. Many of us at BL have used these for rallies and car portraits.
The great thing about this kit is that you get so many things in one. It can act as a short light stand or camera tripod and can mount just about anywhere. The bad thing is that these are quite heavy, even though they break down to be small enough to put in the average carry on bag. The Magic Arm kit comes with removable feet, a clamp, and camera mount. It is probably the most useful support item out there that is still travel-friendly (save the heaviness). It is easy to use: just position it and then tighten it down with the joint handle.
These won’t hold up anything heavier than the average Speedlight but I have found them to be handy for holding up reflectors and are an easy thing to toss into your bag – a few of these might just save your shoot. The best bit about the Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp is the multiple mounting options: 1 for flash, 2 for light stands, and the clamp itself.
This tabletop tripod is under a foot tall when fully extended but is very strong and will accommodate up to 200lbs! If you have access to higher surfaces and need a very stable tripod that you can still carry on the plane with you, this one is pretty much perfect. Note: works best when also rented with a fluid head.
There are plenty of travel softboxes out there but a small modifier isn’t always optimal. Umbrellas famously travel well because people already bring regular umbrellas with them on planes quite often but not every photographer likes shoot-throughs or reflective umbrellas as their light source. This softbox is just under 3.5′, which is big enough for most situations – even groups. It is umbrella-style, so it’s very easy to set up, tear down, store, and adapt to a variety of flash brackets and strobes. A fellow BL’er once backpacked Vietnam with this modifier and loved it.
They fold, they come in many different diameters, they’re super lightweight, and they’re just plain useful. I travel with reflectors as a kind of lighting security blanket – if you have nothing at all, you can at least reflect the light available to you. I packed a travel-sized one on a trip to Zurich for a small fashion shoot, as you can see above, to use as fill instead of having to bring another light. I have used large ones for car shoots in a pinch and they also substitute as backdrops for tight headshots.
Tell us your tales of TSA compliance (or non-compliance) when it comes to trying to get your gear on board. We welcome questions, suggestions, stories, and even limericks in the comments section below!
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