Nuts & Bolts:

Carry the Cameras, Ship the Suit
August 2008

by Bill Pierce

Once again, first things first before we get to the techy talk. Michael Kamber, who figured prominently in last month's column, has co-authored a piece in The New York Times with Tim Arango about "what some journalists say is a growing effort by the American military to control graphic images from the war."

If clicking on the title of the article doesn't get you there, we've listed the Web address:

4000 U.S. Deaths, and Just a Handful of Images

Now for the nuts and bolts........

When airline security became a problem for traveling photographers, they started driving on relatively short trips. Now, with the price of gas, they're back on the plane. And, since it often costs extra to check luggage, they are trying to get all that equipment into the cabin luggage racks.

Actually, that's not such a bad thing. I don't think I've put anything in the hold of a domestic airplane since a trip to the Northwest Territories quite a while back. My next job was in, I think, Texas. In any respect it was not a place where a fur-lined parka would be comfortable. I shipped all of my clothes home and had summer clothes shipped to the hotel I would be staying at. I carried my cameras onboard.

I got used to shipping, not schlepping, not hanging around baggage carousels and, every once in a while, learning my luggage had made a side trip to Nebraska or North Carolina. UPS and FedEx handle my clothes; I handle my cameras.

As I write this, American Airlines at Kennedy is recovering after computer problems separated thousands of their customers from their luggage. Once again, I carry my cameras and ship my clothes. On those rare occasions that I need big strobes, light stands, etc., I rent, and the camera store that I rent from ships to the location. Seamless and other expendables can be delivered to the job site by local stores. I know it seems silly, especially since you probably already own studio gear. But I have one friend who travels with a fairly large amount of his own lighting gear, and, when I ask him how the job went, he always tells me not about the shoot, but about his misadventures at the airport.

Fortunately, as news photographers, we usually have to remain mobile and don't carry any more gear than we can move with on the job. On the airplane, I carry the cameras in a backpack, not a gadget bag or a roller case. Backpacks hold more than bags and take up less space than cases. The one pack I use the most is not a giant. Just a hint over 17 inches tall, 14 inches wide and tapering towards the top, it can slide into most overhead compartments, take up its 14 inches and leave a little space for a jacket.

It's not a backpack that was designed for photo gear. Those packs have separate, small compartments that hold individual items in a way that allows you to access all of your gear quickly and efficiently. Consequently, they hold less.

I'm wrapping gear in Domke wraps to pad and protect it - and then stuffing it into the backpack as tightly as I can. As a rule, there are three bodies, too many lenses, batteries, battery charger, etc. The pack is dense and heavy.

Weight restrictions seem to vary with airline and the disposition of their personnel. As far as I can figure it's between 26 and 40 pounds. Smile and don't give the appearance you're carrying the weight of the world. The smile is the secret.

Michael Reichmann, the publisher and major contributor of the excellent Web site, Luminous Landscape,, says that he wears a photo vest so he can transfer one or two heavy items from the backpack to the vest if he has problems. I have yet to have problems, but I am a great believer in the vest. It carries all those things to which you need immediate access – tickets, passport, driver's license, sandwich, etc.

And, of course, airlines also allow you one other small item. For many, this is going to be a laptop computer. Pathfinder and Targus both plan the release of laptop carry-on bags that will allow laptops to be passed through security without being removed from the case. The Transportation Security Administration has given its OK to these bags, which should be available in late September or early October.

My favorite "non-computer" bag is the Domke F-803 Camera Satchel. I own several and, since they do not look like camera bags, just useful shoulder bags, I have given several away as bribes and gifts. They have a main compartment, two pouch pockets, two little pockets (good for cell phones, etc.) and a flat back pocket good for documents. But, for the most part, when one goes on the airplane, it is just filled with more camera gear. Any small bag will do, but it's nice to plug one designed by a news photographer.

One last time - carry the cameras; ship the suit.

I have no idea why I am fond of this month's "picture which has nothing to do with the column." I was walking down the street after shooting a job in San Francisco, rather anxious to get home, and just went 'click.'

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© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer