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PACKING LIGHT FOR TAHITI: LIVING WITH THE NEW AIRLINE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
by Jim Doty, Jr.

With a 10 kilogram weight limit (22 pounds), it was hard to carry all of my photo gear onto the plane to Tahiti. I had to make some hard choices.

Travel by airplane has been difficult for photographers ever since 9-11-2001.  It has been an axiom for a long time to carry on all essential gear and film. The new x-ray machines that are used to scan checked luggage will definitely fry your film.  Theft of camera gear in checked luggage has been a problem for a long time and is even more problematic with the new regulations and procedures that are in effect. Most or all checked luggage is being scanned and luggage must be unlocked (or locked with one of the new style locks that security people can open).  I saw very little locked luggage on the baggage claim carousels after my recent flights. There are lots of stories of photographers that have had their gear stolen out of checked luggage. 

To make matters worse, many (most?) insurance policies will not cover your camera gear if it is stolen or damaged while you are on a trip outside the U.S. Don't expect the airline to reimburse you for the value of your equipment. You check your photo gear at your own risk.

In the good old days

My rule of thumb for a long time has been "What will I need if my checked luggage is delayed or lost?"  Before my most recent flights, my solution was simple when I was allowed two carry-ons, even for international flights. I would pack one backpack and one rolling carry-on bag - both within the airline size and weight limits.  Two camera bodies, lenses, essential meds, and as much film as I could stuff in would go in the camera backpack.  My tripod, the rest of my film, a few clothes, and other essential items would go in the rolling carry-on.  The film would be in a large, clear Zip-loc style bag.  The rest of my clothes and everything else would go in a large checked bag.  If for some reason I had to part with one of my two carry-ons, I would keep the backpack and take the film out of the rolling bag before turning it over to the airline. (If you haven't already heard, NEVER PUT FILM IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE.) I never had to surrender a bag when I was using this system, but I was ready just in case. If an airline still allows two carry-ons plus laptop case, this is still what I do.

Airline travel in the U.S.

Most airlines now allow only one carry-on plus a
laptop case.  My packing system has changed too.

I still use the rolling bag which is the maximum carry-on size allowed. I also use a Lowepro Micro Trekker 200 camera backpack that fits inside the rolling bag.  I pack my camera gear into the Lowepro backpack and put it inside the rolling bag.  I put my tripod into the rolling bag next to the backpack. I put in other essential items, and one change of clothes.  It is a tight fit.  It all weighed in at 36 pounds, 4 pounds under the 40 pound carry-on limit it for my flight to LAX. 

Since I have gone digital-only for trips by plane, I took a laptop, essential meds, and other accessories in the laptop case.  Everything else went into one large checked bag.

That got me to LAX and it would work for air travel anywhere else in the U.S.  If my checked bag was delayed or lost, I would have everything I needed except spare clothes and other items that are nice to have but I could live without or buy at my destination.

International Flights

The challenge was to get to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui with their 10 kilogram weight limit for the one carry-on bag.

I re-packed my bags in Los Angeles. My rolling carry-on would become checked luggage.  If my checked bags were delayed or lost, I would have my backpack with camera gear, laptop case with essentials, and the clothes I was wearing. I planned it all out at home and weighed everything.

Laptop Case

My laptop case held an Apple iBook G4 laptop in one pocket (small and light).  In the same pocket I put 24 CD-R discs in page sized sleeves that hold 8 CD-R discs per page. That would allow me to backup 16.8 gigabytes worth of photos.  My custom is to transfer all photos each night to the laptop via a card reader and burn all files immediately to CD-R dics.  YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE YOUR DIGITAL FILES IN AT LEAST TWO PLACES.  If your hard drive crashes (and it will eventually), you still have your CD-R discs.  I ended up shooting almost 14 GB worth of photos.

In other pockets in my laptop case I carried the G4 power cable, mouse, compact flash card reader, outlet adapters and voltage converters for Tahiti (I didn't need the  voltage converter but I used the outlet adapters all the time),  essential meds, single use underwater cameras, Visor PDA, mobile phone, AAA and AA batteries, and other essential items.

With my digital backup needs and other essential items taken care of in my laptop case, the bigger challenge was my camera backpack.

Camera Backpack

The Lowepro Micro Trekker 200 is small but it can hold a lot of equipment for its size. 

Camera Bodies

I packed two Canon 10D camera bodies and a Canon Powershot G3.  For ordinary running around I carry one camera. On a photo trip I always take 2 bodies. Tahiti is a once in a lifetime trip, so I not only had two Canon 10Ds, I also had the Canon G3 in the unlikely event both Canon 10D's developed problems. The G3 can take excellent photos and it also did double duty for recording low resolution digital movies that are suitable for web use. 

Lens Choices

I packed the following lenses:

Canon EF 15mm semi fisheye
Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L
Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6  DO IS 

These lenses gave me complete coverage from 17-300mm. I had Image Stabilization (IS) from 28-300mm, a real asset for low light handheld work when a tripod is not practical. Given the 1.6x field of view crop of the Canon 10D, the 15mm lens was handy when I needed to do wide angle work.

I also picked these lenses because they gave me a lot of overlap in focal lengths in case one lens quit. If the 15mm conked out, I would still be covered from 17-300mm. I would only be missing the 40-70mm focal lengths. If the 70-300 quit, I would miss the long range, but I would still be covered out to 135mm (the equivalent of 216mm in 35mm terms due to the field of view crop).

For long lenses I would usually take the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens and the Canon 100-400 L IS lens plus teleconverters, but taking both was out of the question. Even taking one was pushing my weight and space limits and would mean leaving something else at home.

Anticipating this problem, I acquired the new Canon EF 70-300mm DO  IS lens and tested it this summer at SPEC 2004 (see my SPEC 2004 albums at this site ).   The 70-300 DO  proved to be a fine lens. It is not as razor sharp as the 70-200 f/2.8 lens (one of the sharpest lenses I own), but it is still plenty sharp.  It is also much smaller and lighter than my usual long lenses due to the special DO formula. It is NOT compatible with Canon teleconverters. It has image stabilization, and it is faster and sharper than the 75-300mm IS lens that I also own. I really like this lens!

Other Gear

In the backpack I also carried five 1 GB compact flash memory cards (which I rotated),  a Canon 550EX flash, 25mm extension tube, Canon 250D closeup filter, Singh-Ray polarizing filters, battery charger, 2 extra camera batteries, Tahiti electrical outlet adapter, electronic cable release, 18% gray card, microfiber lens cleaning cloth, and a few other odds and ends. 

Why five 1 GB cards?  Without using the laptop and CD-R discs, five cards would hold over 2000 photos as jpeg-fine files.

All of this inside the backpack weighed 21.6 pounds, just a little under my 22 pound weight limit for my carry-on.

The only thing I couldn't get into my backpack or laptop cased was my Gitzo carbon-fiber Mountaineer tripod and Bogen 3-way tripod head. Fortunately, one of my travel partners had room for it in their carry-on bag.

Did I miss what I didn't take? Sure! It would have been nice to have my 24mm tilt-shift lens for shifted panoramas, a macro lens with ring flash for ultimate quality closeups, a high-res video camera, and there were a few times I wished I had my 100-400mm lens. Having my prime 24mm f/2.8 lens would have been nice for night photography.  Despite not having all these extras, I got by pretty well with what I had.  If had to to live with the same size and weight limits again, I would pack the same gear. It served me quite well.

When I travel by car on a major photo shoot, I carry everything I want, including film and film cameras, a second tripod, and a Kaidan panorama head.

Several weeks after returning from Tahiti, the December 2004 issue of PC Photo arrived. There is an interview with Bob Sacha who completed National Geographic's first "all-digital, around-the-world assignment" for the January 2005 issue. The camera's he used were two Canon 10Ds and a Canon G3. He took a 12 inch Apple Powerbook G4 computer to download his images. He has the expensive pro level Canon bodies so why did he take the 10Ds? Because the Canon 1Ds is "too heavy and too large and intimidating for intimate shooting situations". For all of us that can't afford a Canon 1Ds it is nice to know that the Canon 10D provided enough image quality for the National Geographic article.

Two travel tips. Wear your most comfortable shoes on the plane, preferably slip ons. It is a long flight and it is nice to be able to easily slip them off. If your checked luggage with spare shoes goes astray, you will be glad you wore them.  Buy the Lonely Planet travel guide for French Polynesia if that is your destination.  It is the best. Read it BEFORE your trip.  It will help a lot with your planning and your non-photo packing.

You can see some of my Tahiti photos by scrolling down
to the Tahiti albums
here.

Bob Sacha's website


December 14, 2004
Updated April 10, 2005

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