Selective Focus: Up in the Air

Selective Focus: Up in the Air

Flying with Photo Gear Might Get Even Trickier


With a ban in place for carry-on electronics that are any bigger than smartphones from a select group of airlines/countries coming into the U.S., and noises from the current crowd in charge that this may be put in place on EU to USA flights (and even domestically), the average Joe and Josephine might opt to leave their photo gear at home. Instead, they may choose to capture their travel and vacation snaps with their cameraphone.

This is not a favorable turn for the camera industry. Simply put, folks may opt out of bringing (and buying!) cameras and lenses when going on their first European trip. Or on a once-in-a-lifetime safari, or even when flying to photogenic spots in the U.S. Ironically, film photographers will have no such problems. At least when carrying aboard film with ISO speeds at or below 400. However, convincing the TSA that a Nikon FM2, for example, is not an electronic instrument may be another matter.

Why not just put all that electronic gear into checked luggage? Anyone who’s flown more than the very occasional trip can answer that. It’s fear of pilferage, damage from the rough handling of bags, misdirected luggage, the need to buy insurance (good luck getting full replacement coverage), and the further need to buy a hard case that fills the coffers of the airlines with additional baggage fees. All add up to a good argument to say “fuggetaboutit” and tote that phone alone.

Be Prepared

Being a former Boy Scout, I try to live by our old motto: “Be Prepared.”

So I thought I’d research the topic and find out just what photographers like myself, and probably millions of others, might have to do. I am subsequently passing along the information to dealers and readers of this magazine so they can properly advise their customers.

We’re all pretty good at qualifying our customers and pointing them toward options for cameras and lenses. Now we should add “traveling with cameras in this day and age” to our inventory of expertise.
SF-CallOut-7-2017This state of affairs might not affect those who make their living from making images. And those who may be more used to and have the equipment required to effectively check gear. Among the photographers I follow on Facebook is Nevada Wier ( One of her posts caught my eye. She had just returned from an excursion to Iran and flew back to the States via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.

So I messaged her to ask about her experience. She’s an award-winning, globe-trotting photographer who teaches, does amazing photo books, and has had her images published in numerous magazines. She is also a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club. She is also a member of the Women’s Geographic Society—in short, a consummate, experienced pro.

Hearing from a Pro

“The ban was in place before I left but not before I bought my ticket,” she wrote back. “I’m not the sort to panic. I kept my eye on the situation and realized it wasn’t going to be lifted, so I thought of how I would manage it.”

Her gear included a Canon 5D Mark IV and three lenses, two Olympus cameras—an OM-D EM-1 and another Olympus mirrorless camera converted to infrared—and four Olympus lenses. She bought a 1535 Pelican Air rolling case that fit all that plus batteries, a backup drive, a MacBook Pro and an iPad. Wier wedged the batteries in crevices within the case. In addition, she put two Think Tank Photo cases into her checked luggage, and two flashes, a fisheye lens, camera chargers, her primary backup drive, a power bank and various chargers in her carry-on.

With all that I wondered how it went and how early she had to arrive at the Istanbul airport prior to her flight.

“It was easy,” she wrote. “I allowed some extra time. They checked the case and gave me a slip. The only concern was that the case came in on the baggage claim carousel. Next time I would paste fragile stickers on it. But honestly, the gear was so tightly packed in the foam [of the Pelican case] that I was not worried.”

I wondered if it would be easier if folks simply removed the lithiums from their carry-on gear, but that apparently is not the problem. She replied, “The batteries are not the issue. The official line is that bombs can be put in electronics in the cabin and triggered, causing more damage than anything in the hold. This is what they say . . . one of the complaints is that now all the lithium batteries are in the hold!”

Mixed Signals

Indeed. So, travelers to and returning from the named countries and on certain airlines should take note. But the authorities here in the U.S. and overseas have been making noises about imposing the electronics ban on all inbound international flights, perhaps even all flights.

Right now this brings to mind the lyrics from the Ella Fitzgerald tune Undecided: “First you say you do, and then you don’t, and then you say you will, and then you won’t . . .”

As of this writing, according to a CBS News report: “Currently, the electronics ban applies to 10 airports in eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa. U.S. and European airlines, as well as major airports in Europe, are already planning for an expansion of the laptop [read anything larger than a cellphone] ban. . . . The final decision will be made by DHS Secretary John Kelly. DHS has not provided a timetable for implementation of such a ban, but says no additional meetings are scheduled, and it appears a decision will be made in the near future.” Note that as of this writing no such expanded ban exists.

Domestic Angst?

We may have a glimpse of what’s to come for flights within the U.S. with the security measures being tested right now on domestic airlines at certain airports. At Logan and LAX, for instance, travelers are told to place all electronic devices into separate bins, including cameras. I am advised that this will not affect memory cards, unlike what can happen with high-speed film.

Photographers are right to have some angst about all this. As I read on several online photo forums: “The major threat to your gear is thievery, not scanning.” But the main problem I see right now is the state of confusion. To say this would be disruptive is putting it mildly, given the snarled and rushed atmosphere around airline security as it is now. But to go back and forth on the possible policy implementation is what has many folks, and airlines I might add, singing that Ella Fitzgerald song. Pros like Nevada Wier take it in stride and adapt. The average flier/enthusiast photographer might be less sanguine about the matter.

So What’s a Photo/Flier to Do?

I next contacted camera companies who I surely thought would already have a checklist in the works. I assumed this is a key topic for their customers and dealers, and especially for their own self interest. In fact, I contacted two major camera manufacturers through their PR teams a few weeks before I started on this column. After some prodding, I finally got one response. The sum of the advice, in a brief three-sentence statement, was that photographers should “contact their airline before flying.” Gosh. As of this writing, the other “response” (after three requests) was mum, nada, silencio.

This surprised me. Although this state of affairs is perhaps somewhat below an existential threat to camera sales for those embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, it strikes me as something that the camera companies in particular ought to address. Or at least assuage anxiety or spell out the options.

As an industry, we want folks to travel with their cameras. We want them to buy that long lens for their safari trip. We want them to have a handy, high-end compact for their Parisian adventure. And yes, we want them to get the most appropriate case to keep their gear safe.

My next step was to head online and research the forums and online posts about the topic. From the end-user point of view, there was a good deal of confusion and mostly consternation about how the ban would affect them.

Finally, Comprehensive Advice

Then one day a small post on Facebook from Outdoor Photographer magazine caught my attention. Since 1985, Outdoor Photographer has been a leading journal for landscape and wildlife photographers. It features portfolios and instruction from distinguished artists in the field. The post linked to a PDF by Andy Williams of Muench Workshops. The organization offers excellent nature, landscape and wildlife experiences for avid photographers ( You can access the PDF by going to Outdoor’s website,, and scrolling down to their May 30, 2017 blog post.

This, finally, summed it all up. It even included insurance and how to itemize gear, laptops and backup drives and memory cards, cases, packing and more. In short, it is a comprehensive guide for the traveling photographer. To me, it is a must read for everyone who wants to have the right information for their customers and clients.

I won’t get into the details (and there are many details well covered). I’ll just quote from the final topic, This Is All Just Too Much. I’m Staying Home: “Certainly this is a choice you can make. But with a little extra planning and preparation, you can deal with this new way of traveling with your gear. With a bit of advance thought and planning, your gear properly insured and carefully packed in a hard case, you should be safe. If you’re reading this far, you are passionate about photography and travel, so don’t let the electronics ban get in the way.”

Well said. Kudos to Outdoor Photographer magazine, Andy Williams and Muench Workshops for putting in the effort on this important matter.

Being Grounded

Now don’t get me wrong. I am and have been what you might rightly call a “frequent flier.”

I want to fly in the knowledge that everything possible is being done to make flying safe.  Especially from the wackos and sick minds that would even consider such an act.

Let me know what I have to do and I will do it. But I will not travel without my gear. I refuse to give in to those cowards and devils. All I ask is that the powers that be make up their minds so we can get along in this crazy world. And should the rules shift, as they undoubtedly will, keep in mind that old Scout motto. Let your customers know how they can be prepared. They will thank you for it.