We more or less have that rigged down but this might be different for you, so lets start at the logic behind the choices, and then work through the actual kit.

First off: You don’t want to be stuck with some critical piece of equipment, so my logic circuits always go in the direction of pack out everything onto a table, and sort and prioritize them, left to right, absolute must haves to absolute “nice-to-haves”. An example in my case is the Camera body is a “must Have” and the Sekonic Light Meter is a “nice-to-have” (I can still function very well without one). I’d like to take my 300mm f/4 but it’s heavy, and odds are I will hardly ever need it where we are going.

So on any given trip we carry:

1 x Canon 5DmkII + BG-E6 dual battery grip
1 x 50mm f/2.5 Makro
1 x 17-40mm f/4 L
1 x 24-70mm f/2.8 L
1 x 70-200mm f/2.8 L
1 x Kenko Extension Tube Set
2 x 580ex Flash units
SeanNel_ShootsImaging0153 x Lacie 500gb firewire HD
1 x 250gb Hyperdive HD (direct CF card download)
1 x Apple Macbook Pro 17″
1 x Cleaning Kit (Sensor Swabs)
1 x Xrite Colour Chart
1 x Pantone Calibration Spyder
1 x Velbon El Carmaigne 540 Carbon Fibre Travel Tripod
42gb of CF Cards
1 x P&S Canon A470
(Plus all the chargers and cables required)

We used to also carry a fairly decent video camera for stock footage and shooting training videos on the fly, but this has been replaced by the Canon 5DmkII so less kit to carry, and less space. We also used to carry about 4 extra batteries each for the old 5D, but the new batteries gives us about the same amount of shots on 2 batteries as we used to get with 6.

All this fits (except the tripod, which we check) into a Lowepro Computrekker Plus AW that flies with me as hand luggage. This is a tricky part, as the Lowepro bag is the exact measurements for the max size of hand luggage on almost any plane you can fly (if you DO NOT use the top zipper compartment!), but depending on the airline, that weight limit is between 6kg and 8kg, and a quick calculation will tell you that we are a slight bit over (the bag weighs in at about 22kg, ready to go) so it’s imperative that the bag is never seen by checkin staff, and that it absolutely never gets close to a scale on an airport. They WILL force you to check it into cargo. (In which case, be ready with a big jacket or Domke vest, and carry everything heavy on your body, camera around your neck – you can pack it back in your bag on the plane) The bag choice here is critical… I really wanted to switch to the ThinkTank version of the same size, but it weighs more than 5Kg empty! leaving me to carry about 26kg as hand-luggage… ain’t gonna happen!

We also fly two Crumpler “Ben’s Pizza Bags” in our luggage, usually filled with socks, or chargers and pocketwizards which we use when out and about, but more about that later.

Getting on the Plane…

The big thing here is to look absolutely nonplussed at the equipment you are carrying, like it’s light as a feather (Never groan when you pick-up or put down the bag!) and as if you fly with this every day of your life. This attitude seriously works in your favor.

The first stop is SA Customs Control on the airport before you leave. Make sure you have enough time to do this, as there are usually one customs agent working for the whole international departures section (we have never seen more than two) so there can be a queue. Make sure that you know where the serial numbers on all your kit is located, and that everything with a serial number is easily accessible. You will need to show every item to the customs agent that should fill in a form and let you be on your way. Anything not on that form might be taxed as import coming back in.

When checking in, carry your bag on you back, again, think happy thoughts, don’t look stressed or worried, tired is fine, but absolutely nonplussed, like you forgot there is a bag on your back (This is also where the Lowepro excels, it doesn’t look like it’s sagging under a ton of weight!) and as if you fly like this, with this bag every second week.

SeanNel_ShootsImaging128In 99% of the cases, the bag will be ignored, and you will be sent on your merry way. Now the trick is to get on the plane before anybody else! Why is that? because most people sneak too much hand luggage in any case, not so much the weight, but the amount of items (usually one piece of hand luggage is allowed per ticket) If the people sharing your row of seats are there before you, they will most probably use up the overhead space, and a big camera bag will not fit under the seat in front of you. If the stewards sees there is a space problem, they will offer to take your bag to another open space. You can see how this may become a problem…


I don’t think many of the stewardesses I have dealt with would be able to heft my camera-bag into overhead, and they may be nice, and just ask you to do it, but they may also simply take it to the front to be put in cargo… We have flown through Dubai once where at the boarding gate, we were informed that all hand luggage will be weighed and size-checked, and anything over specification will go to cargo. Luckily, they filled the quota or weightlimit regulations or just got bored by the time they got to us, and just let us onto the plane without any hassles, so remember, anything can happen!

Just to take one step back… when checking in, you will always be required to remove your laptop from it’s bag when going through x-rays. Do this in advance, before being told, and pop all of your belongings into one of the plastic trays before being told to do so, including keys, loose change, mobile phone, belt and shoes. Doing this before being asked/told to gives you the appearance of a frequent flyer, and tends to focus less attention on the weight issues that may be associated with your hand luggage!

Once on the plane, and settled in, you are home free until the return Journey!
Moving about on your trip…

SeanNel_ShootsImaging158Ok, my trips will be different than yours, but as a general guideline, we tend to plan our day to a fair extent as far as the photography is concerned. We decide what we are likely to see and do during the day, and make a lens/flash choice accordingly. If inside museums and general interior architecture, then the tripod will almost always stay at home, and we go for the fast 50mm or the 24-70 f/2.8 – If outside and likely to see more landscapes and skylines, then the 17-40mm f/4 is the one that goes along. If it’s an event, then the 70-200 is the bunny. This goes into the aforementioned crumplier bag with the 250gb Hyperdrive to dump CF cards to.

There are many bags like the Crumplers, but the idea is to have a good padded bag, that is pretty waterproof, but that doesn’t look like a camera bag. Any of these will do, just make sure it’s got a wide strap (even reduced equipment will work a few knots into your shoulder muscles after a day or two) We prefer zips to velcro (ever tried a nice wide velcro strip in a dead-quiet Cathedral?!)

The main bag and notebooks stays in the guesthouse or Hotel under lock and key and only comes out at night for a quick review of what we shot on the day, and to empty the Hyperdrive onto one of the Lacies.

I do not suggest a backpack camera bag for your “daypack” simply because of how easy it is to steal from it. Generally a thief will walk or queue behind you somewhere, and slip his/her hand into the pockets, removing some items, but more often than not, the will place a bag below yours, and cut a slit in the bottom of your bag, catching whatever falls out. Now, most times, this will not be your camera, but now, unaware to you, you have a great big gash in your bag, which might drop some other things as you walk around, causing loss and damage of a different kind. In a crowd, you always want full view of your bag.

Coming back home…

All the same steps apply as above, except when you arrive back in South Africa. Not to be negative or biased, but OR Tambo is the most unfriendly airport I have ever flown into… Even Sheremetova in the Former Soviet Union (where they wanted to arrest me) and the Sofia International Airport in Bulgaria where we had to pay a $500 per person “fine” (read: Bribe) to get our luggage back was more friendly than JanSmuts/JHB/OR Tambo has ever been. The 6 sub-machinegun wielding soldiers at customs entry on Charles de Gaul (ok… maybe the steel-capped shoes going through the metal detector might have been a bad idea) and the Extremely thorough full body searches on Heathrow (Who knew a snooker cue could be a weapon!?) is not a patch on the unwelcome attitude and “we don’t want you here”-attitude of ACSA staff in Johannesburg.

Anyhow, be ready for it. Have all your forms filled in, and the first customs declaration (from when you left) ready and in hand as you enter the “great hall”… Walk straight up to “Items to Declare” and start unpacking your bag, explaining that you are declaring all these items and that they need to check it against the list given to you by the customs official when you left. We have always been asked to leave the customs area without any further problems. So why go this route if you are not bringing in a lot of things you bought overseas, simply because we have stood in a queue watching them unpack every suitcase asking about everything. These arbitrary stops usually happen at “nothing to declare” so the queues are inadvertently shorter on the declaration side.

When at home…

Do yourself a favor and clean out the bag and kit completely, give everything a good rubdown (especially if you were traveling in humid or wet conditions or close to the coast) Vacuum the bag, and git rid of the last sweeties lying in the corner at the bottom. When all that is done, you can sit down and relax with a nice cup of tea and curse yourself for forgetting your camera on ISO 3200 when shooting the Colosseum …

Happy traveling!

By Sean Nel
All images © Shoots Imaging

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