More often than not, for us photography involves travel with a bunch of equipment. I'm sure the same is true for most photographers. I don't claim to have the best methods or any profound travel secrets, but I don't mind sharing what seems to work for us. Some may find a bit of useful knowledge in what follows. Others may just smile a little because, after all, misery loves company.
Our photography trips range between one and five weeks in duration, with the average being about about three weeks. Spending more time in a location provides more opportunity for images under different weather conditions and other circumstances. It also fosters a familiarity with the location and its wildlife. This not only makes for a more enjoyable and rewarding experience, but it can also lead to better images. When trips must be short we maintain the same philosophy by limiting what we do. I’d much rather see a single location in depth than
have a superficial visit to several. Back when my photography was restricted to a few weeks of vacation each year and holidays, I’d usually photograph in just one national park or other location on any given trip. I would often travel by air in order to maximize time at a location too, but
air travel was much easier
In the post 9/11 era, traveling by air with photographic equipment ranges from horrible to impossible. Checking expensive equipment in baggage is no longer an option since checked baggage must now be unlocked. The risk of losing what you check within the United States is bad enough. When traveling overseas unlocked bags checked through from the U.S. are not seen again until the final destination, which is sometimes many airports and many countries later. On a recent trip to Malaysia our checked bags went through five airports in four countries. That leaves carry-on baggage as the only viable option for transporting camera equipment, and it greatly limits
what can be taken on a trip.
When forced to travel by air the equipment I take depends on where I’ll be going and what I plan to photograph. If it’s a North American location to shoot landscapes the limitations are not so bad. Long and fast lenses are not essential and the travel time is relatively short, so I can manage a much heavier bag. In this case I usually carry on a LowePro commercial AW bag
or a Tamrac Expedition 7 backpack that is stuffed full. Either is incredibly heavy but I just put up with it on these trips. These bags have fit, barely in some cases, within the usual overhead or under-seat storage locations of every aircraft on which I have flown.
Of course I always try to book flights on larger planes that have more carry-on
space. It is important to note that the airlines are now starting to use tiny regional aircraft on routes as long as Cleveland to Denver. Avoid these at all cost, because you cannot carry your equipment onto the plane. Instead it will
have to travel in the luggage compartment with someone's 50 pound suitcase on top of it.
If the location is overseas and wildlife is the subject, things get a whole lot worse. In travel, the apparent weight of a bag is directly proportional to the time in transit and the number of airports gone through. At the destination it’s proportional to the heat, humidity, and difficulty of getting around. On trips to Borneo I take a bare minimum of equipment. Most of it is packed into a mid-sized photo backpack
like a Tamrac Expedition 5 that is easily carried around airports and at the final destination too. Most travel at destinations like these is on primitive foot trails or by very small boat, so weight is a major
concern. I always take a tripod packed diagonally inside a large hard sided suitcase along with clothing and other usual travel items. The tripod head is carried separately in the carry-on bags. This is because a tripod of some kind can be purchased almost anywhere in the world, but a decent ball head with an Arca style clamp cannot.
Airline Picks and Pans
I just calculated that I have spent about 360 hours in air transit over the past four years. Compared to some business travelers that is not very much, but it is enough to give me some opinions about the carriers I have used. It should be
noted that I have not flown anywhere since the U.S. airlines declared war on their customers by flying toy planes on long routes and charging extra for everything from luggage to peanuts. Airlines in the United States are the only
business I know that are openly hostile to their customers.
Without doubt, the worst U.S. airline I have used is Northwest Airlines. Nearly every time I fly with Northwest there is a significant screw-up on their part somewhere along the route. These include cancelled, delayed, and horribly overbooked flights. Add to this old aircraft, meager food, bad service, and sometimes incompetence, and you have a major
loser. To their benefit Northwest’s fares are slightly lower than most other carriers for some of the routes we use. In 2008 all of the U.S. based airlines Enough
Picking a favorite airline is a tough call, but I suppose it must be Singapore Airlines. Their level of in-flight service in economy class competes with the first class service offered by some carriers. The Singapore Airlines flight crews are the most helpful and courteous to be found anywhere. They make a big difference. Most Singapore Airlines planes appear to be brand new; with all the in-your-seat personal electronic gadgets that make long flights pass more quickly. “Simply excellent” says it
My second place pick goes to Cathay Pacific Airlines. The food on this Hong Kong based airline is
the best offered by any airline I have flown. It is often of the quality you would expect in a decent restaurant. The level of in-flight service is top notch, although not as good as the service offered by Singapore Airlines. Their aircraft are very modern and nearly on a par with those used by Singapore Airlines.
On the down side, the lines at their ticket counters in Los Angeles are like something out of a bad horror movie.
Malaysia Airlines gets third place. It is nearly the equal of Cathay Pacific, but the food is not as good and some of their equipment is older.
I give Continental Airlines reasonable marks, and they are my
preferred domestic carrier. Because I live near one of their hubs,
non-stop direct flights are almost always available from them. With
Continental I have not experienced the number of overbooked and
delayed flights I have seen on Northwest. Their in-flight service
has improved a little recently, but it's nothing to write home about. Of course that's a bit less important on
the shorter trips that we take with Continental.
I should also mention Air Asia. They offer the cheapest fares I have ever seen, but very little else. Air Asia is a no-frills airline, so don’t expect anything from them except
"mostly on-time" transportation. Even seating is not assigned, so boarding the plane is like fighting for the last item on a Blue Light Special table at K-Mart, with lots of pushing and shoving. If you travel on Air Asia keep this in mind. It is not an exaggeration. Since there is a seat for everyone somewhere on the plane, and no one gets to the destination sooner than anyone else, I am not sure why boarding is so rowdy and chaotic. It seems this is more the fault of the passengers than the airline, although assigned seating would fix the problem at little or no cost.