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[Q of Week] – 5 tips for flying with gear

By July 26, 2012April 15th, 2015Business

Going to be traveling for my first out of state production. I’m gonna hire a local lighting/gaffer tech, but still still have a good amount of gear besides the camera (tripod, slider, small light kit, electric cords, etc). Any suggestions and tips for flying with gear?”

we travel a lot. collectively, individually, however you slice it we spend a lot of time on the road and in the air. that means we are constantly moving from location to location, often with loads of gear and with very little time to pack, unpack and repack for shoots. over the years we’ve learned a few things and developed a useful traveling plan to 1) get our gear to the location needed and 2) to make sure it arrives in full working condition.

here are what i like to call the five P’s to making sure your next trip with gear goes off smoothly.

// plan – this seems like a no brainer but it goes a long way and there may be things that aren’t obvious if you don’t travel frequently. take a look at what your shoot entails, what type of gear fits the needs of your project and make a gear list. start with the most important items first and work your way back from there. for instance, you may be maxed out with your camera, support and lighting with no room left for grip so consider renting at a local grip house. this often works well as things like c-stands, sandbags and modifiers are big and heavy, but generally don’t cost much to rent. if you are traveling outside of the continent, consider bringing battery powered lights that you can charge in your hotel room with an adapter or rent larger lights from a local grip house so you don’t have to deal with power issues when you’re lighting overseas. it might also be a good idea to bring invoices for any expensive pieces of gear to show proof of purchase in your country so as to avoid paying taxes upon your return. these are just a few things to keep in mind when you’re starting to plan.

// prioritize – they say less is more and that is absolutely true here. bring only what you need and nothing more. when you’re flying with gear, every little bit counts so while it’s tempting to bring extra gizmos and gadgets, don’t bring things ‘just because’. most airlines charge for each bag plus additional fees for overweight and oversize pieces so bringing a little extra here or there can add up quickly. aside from the financial argument, there’s no point in lugging around a bunch of extra weight unless it’s going to be useful on the shoot. also combining items so that you are traveling with fewer bags, each packed to the maximum weight limit allowed, means less bags to maneuver, less chances of a lost bag and less headache overall. case in point, P and I are in Ireland for the week and we are shooting a wedding, a commercial and some broadcast stuff – we have only 2 check-ins and 2 carry-ons worth of gear that includes cameras, lenses, accessories, camera support, lighting, lighting support and audio. could we have brought more? of course and there were plenty of times when i would travel alone with 300 lbs of gear spread over 5 bags but i only do it when i need to. the key is to figure out what you need to bring without sacrificing the shoot and pack specifically for it.

// place – make a dedicated place for everything. we didn’t always do this and it’s hurt us time and time again. we used to pack gear in with our clothes only to show up with broken gear, missing gear or unusable gear because one piece is at the hotel in our luggage or something didn’t make it on its way in. the lesson learned here is to make a space for each piece of gear (adapters, cables and accessories included), ideally packed with the corresponding items in that category. so don’t pack stingers and light bulbs with your camera and lenses, instead keep all the lights, cables, bulbs, gels and modifiers in one case and cameras, lenses, batteries, cards and filters in another. this makes things much easier to find and everything you’ll need will be together when you need them. in addition, we recommend making an itemized list that goes with each bag / case so that when it comes time to repack everything after the shoot, you’ll know right away if something is missing.

while laser cut foam is fantastic for cases that always transport with the same set of items (like Steadicam), we find that cases with removable velcro dividers are great because you can always reconfigure them based on the specific gear you’re bringing, all the while still keeping a dedicated space for each item.

// protect – the gear is useless if it doesn’t get there in working order so make sure it is properly protected during transit. there are a million solutions out there and we’ve tried countless products from many companies and here is what we find works best for us.

– for DSLRs we often use standard carry-on size Pelican cases with the lid divider kit, in which we can easily fit a full set of L-series primes 14mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 135mm f/2.0, 1.4x extender, 24-105 f/4.0, 2 camera bodies, chargers, batteries, card wallet, pack of filters, z-finder, rode video mic pro, sensor cleaner and extra tripod plate. the hard case is good when you get that occasional regional flight and have to check your carry-on and the roller wheels make it easier to move around at the airport.

– for larger pro cameras like the C300, Epic and Scarlet we use the Tenba Roadie II shoulder bag; this lets us keep the camera fully assembled (meaning with full rail setup, mattebox, monitor, follow focus etc) so it’s easy to transport through the terminals as well as being fully functional and ready while on set. it has a ton of small and medium sized compartment to hold cards, batteries, filters and such. the lenses, chargers and other larger items would be packed separately.

– for lights we’ve really fallen in love with the Tenba flight cases. they are hard-shelled roller cases that come with moveable dividers so you can reconfigure each case to fit your needs. believe it or not we fly with our Profoto HMIs quite often and we can fit 2 HMI fixtures, 2 ballasts, the power cables, a small pelican case with the bulbs packed separately, a Cinereflector with barndoors and a big softbox all in one case. it’s an incredibly simple, but powerful lighting system in a bag, ready to go on the road.

– for camera support and lightstands we often use a second Tenba flight case or a padded tripod bag depending on what we need to bring to the shoot. if we use the flight case we can easily pack in 2 tripods, 2 monopods, a slider, several light stands, grip heads, stingers, clips / clamps, gaff tape, black foil and such. if we are traveling solo we often pack a tripod, a monopod and slider (in this case the atlas30 with the rails/legs unassembled, and the slider block on top of the tripod head) in a padded tripod bag with all our camera support sans steadicam.

no matter what brand of bag or case you are using, make sure there is sufficient padding in between gear and bring any fragile or expensive items with you in your carry-on.

// premier – by that i’m referring to the airline frequent flier status. last year Ray, P. and I each flew over 100,000 miles on a single airline (plus its affiliates) and that made each of us a 1K / Super Elite member. it’s great that we get a priority line at the airport to bypass those long lines at check-in and security, upgrades to business and first class and access to the lounge to make those delays more tolerable, but the most valuable perk of being an premier member is the waived baggage fees. with Star Alliance Gold you get 3 bags up to 70 lbs each with no charge and not only that, anyone traveling with you on the same reservation (even if they are not premier) are entitled to the same perks too! when you’re on 2-4 flights a week with loads of gear this can mean tens of thousands of dollars in savings over the course of a year. so register with an airline of your choice and try to stick with them whenever possible, even if it means paying a little more here and there, because in the end the benefits far outweigh the nominal fare differences.

once we have SMAPP launched next month with the packing list tool it’ll be even simpler to get things organized and packed before a shoot. we’ll also have some of these cases with us at every KNOW stop so come join us there to see it in person and share the whole educational experience with us. well that’s one part of traveling related to gear, there’s also some intangible things we’ve learned during traveling like what not to eat just before a shoot or how to choose the fastest line at security but i’ll save that for another post if you guys are interested in more travel tips.

we’d love to hear from you if you have any travel tips and pointers related to traveling with gear so share your ONE best travel tip with us. who knows, maybe you can help the sm team be even better, more efficient travelers.

– lil’j


Joyce Tsang

About Joyce Tsang


  • great tip with the packing list and invoices for gear. almost had an issue with this a few years ago when returning from Ireland. thanks lil’j for all the other bits of advice, very clever and informative.

    • Lil'J says:

      glad you found some new bits that were helpful. i hope we don’t run into any issues when we come back from Ireland next week!

  • I’ve always tried to never check any of my glass (lenses, cameras, etc) for fear of breakage and use my ThinkTank Airport International v2 as a carry-on. The bag is supposed to be regulation size for a carry-on even for smaller planes. I fly out of Oklahoma City and more often than not the airlines ask that I check my camera bag at the gate. I can usually get by and carry it on saying that it’s camera equipment, but every now and then I have to argue to get it on the smaller planes. Recently I did the usual argue thing and it turned out ThinkTank bag was too big for the overhead and I broke the door trying to force it in. Point being – just because the manufacturer says its gear is within airline regulation doesn’t always mean it’ll fit in the smaller planes.

    • Lil'J says:

      hey tanner – yep airline regulation size often only refers to regular sized planes, regional planes almost always don’t fit. i might take out a few things and just put them in my backpack, other times i tell them i’m 1K and fly with them every week so let me though. sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. this is why i’m partial to a hard case in case i have to check it.

    • With some airlines you can ask them at check in if you can take smaller cases to the gate and have someone check them there, like they do with kids’ strollers. There’s less handling and conveyor belts involved

  • Excellent post. My two cents is that unless you’re travelling to desert or jungle, the heavy duty Pelicases are more weight than anything and can often weigh half your baggage allowance whilst empty. Must check out those Tenba bags. They sound good.

    • Lil'J says:

      hey David – they do weigh a bit more but we often travel with a ton of gear, which means things get thrown around, stacked on top and shoved underneath other big bags so having a hard case just means we don’t have to worry about it. if you’re traveling relatively light with carry-on then a soft case works just fine too.

      • Absolutely. But those timbre hardcases seem to be even lighter than the Pelicases we have. It’s not so much the weight I mind but it’usually just three of us travelling with up to 7 hard flightcases. Awkward at airports!

        • Lil'J says:

          ha i’ve given up on trying to not look awkward at airports. i’m tiny and generally travel with so many bags piled so high you can’t even see me behind the cart. true story.

  • arthurwoo says:

    Thanks for the great post. I have a couple of out of state gigs coming up myself and have rented grip before, but now need to bring my own. I’m most concerned about the tripods/lighting stands/monopod. The Tenba cases look nice, which hard case do you use for the tripods?

    • Lil'J says:

      the tripods often go into the same type of Tenba flight case as the lights do, along with other camera support, light stands and stingers. i believe it is the Transport Large Topload Air Case.

  • Cameron says:

    I have collected little pouches and bags (microphone pouches, pencil bags, lens cases) over the years and use those to organize little bits together. Keeps the pack simplified and doesn’t add any weight. I know if I need a battery it’s in THAT pouch not somewhere swimming at the bottom of the Pelican. 😀

    • Lil'J says:

      hey Cameron – most pelicans come with the option to buy a lid organizer and those have worked great for us in keep smaller bits together too

  • Tim Ryan says:

    Posts like this get my excitement going for KNOW. See you in San Diego!

  • Lil'J says:

    hey Andy – we’ve never been a group to do things one way just because it’s how things have always been done. to us this feels much more informal and ties into our overall approach in everything we do. i’m sorry you’re having a tough time reading it, but i would say that’s more the exception and not the norm.

  • Derek says:

    Make sure to take the time to register gear with a carnet for international production. Just having a receipt when returning is not enough from having US Border Patrol and Customs from confiscating your gear for inspection for weeks or longer. This can really ruin your subsequent productions you have scheduled after returning.

    • Lil'J says:

      Derek – it’s a great point to bring up and i’m glad you did.

      technically yes that is the way to do it and in the past we spent time and money to have a carnet properly done only to find out that for the most part it didn’t work. at the risk of offending any custom officers reading this, most of them have no idea what a carnet is – which means when we show up with the paperwork we are still delayed at customs and held back. on the contrary, i’ve had a handful of different customs officers tell me a receipt is enough (at least in their mind) so that’s what we’ve been doing. i’ve shown receipts for large Kino gaffer cases, a full Red Epic rig and there wasn’t even a second look or question and i’m allowed straight through.
      please take the time to research what is required – i’m sharing our specific experience with carnet vs. receipts and what actually gets us through the border with little to no hassle. i’d recommend looking this up and making your own decision on how you’d like to handle it.

      • I think it depends which country you are travelling to. We recently travelled with a lot of gear to Israel and there was no way we would have gotten in without a Carnet. Can take a little time but any official paperwork like this can make customs happy.

        Another thing to bear in mind is to make sure you’re travelling on the right kind of visa. Some countries are very suspicious of media and if you are travelling under a tourist visa but they discover you carrying filming equipment (Russia for example) things can get very delicate very quickly

  • Joyce, what model pelican are you guys using for the carry on?

  • I always have my 5D ready in my lap (and the blanket over it) with a 70-200 2.8 IS to get some epic ish out the window of Mt. Everest or whatever awesome things are in view (lightning storms, cityscapes during takeoff, etc)

  • Felix Wu says:

    with carry-on if you fully load whatever case or bag you have then wouldn’t it exceed the maximum weight allowance?

    • Lil'J says:

      yep but i’m tiny so all together combined i’m still way underweight 😉

      • DW Stone says:

        I can’t believe you guys manage to get that case on even bigger planes. The case itself is almost the maximum weight allowed. With gear in it it would be so far over I can imagine airline staff just laughing at an attempt to bring it on. Great work if you can pull it off, though.

  • OC Greg says:

    Thanks for the post. What about insurance? Do you buy luggage insurance, or do you insure with a 3rd party?

  • Drew Renner says:

    Great post guys! We just recently started to implement some of these things and it made traveling a billion times better.

  • Randy says:

    And wouldn’t it be capitAl letters? 😉 I’m sure that’s taught in elementary school 🙂

  • Being a wedding photographer for a while I always come to your site when it is about shooting films! You are awesome guys! Please keep sharing! One day I may even start shooting motion picture!!! 🙂