Flying as a photographer, redux

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I spend a lot of time on airplanes. Probably too much; even more than when I was a Powerpoint monkey. And in that time, I think I’ve collected enough wisdom and experience that some of you in the audience might find it useful – especially if it isn’t your day job, travelling to shoot is a rare luxury. The last thing you want to have are either nasty surprises with airlines or the anxiety of missed opportunities…so here are a few useful tips.

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S-E London

Don’t check in anything mission-critical or irreplaceable.
For obvious reasons, check-in luggage does get lost and damaged, and pretty frequently. Though we seldom bring anything we don’t need, there are things you can do without (extra shoes) and things you can’t (chargers). For that reason I’ll only ever check in something if it’s a) cheap, b) redundant (second charger), c) easily replaceable at the destination, or d) I’m on the final leg home and I’m not worried if my baggage is delayed since I won’t need it immediately. Of course, all of those things are relative – if you have a billion dollars, by all means check in your Hassy if you don’t feel like carrying it. If you’re going to Tokyo, a charger is easily replaceable; less so if it’s Patagonia or Iceland. I generally check in my tripod but not the head – it’s much easier to get a ‘good enough’ set of legs than it is another Cube.

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Somewhere off the coast of Vietnam

Tripods can be carried on so long as they don’t have spiked feet.
The only instance in which I could think of this being useful is if your tripod is too long to fit into your suitcase, or if it’s very small and you might want to use it en-route. Then again, if I have multiple transits I’ll probably carry it on if I’m en-route to an assignment since not having it on arrival is a bit risky.

Avoid overpacking: carry-on baggage restrictions can be strict.
My recent experiences in Europe is that the airports and airlines are getting militant about carry on – both dimensions and weight. Not just the budget airlines, either; Air France demanded I buy another seat at full price and business class if I wanted to carry on two pieces. Another economy seat would not do. And they charged cancellation on top of that on the old ticket so they could sell it to somebody else. The total damage? EUR500, from Paris to Edinburgh. Still, sometimes you have no choice: there’s no way I was going to check in a full Think Tank roller. That said, it’s also worth noting that other airlines are very lax: the Asian carriers are typically fine, and British Airways proudly states that everybody gets two pieces – of up to 23kg each! In other ways they might lag, but to me that alone makes them the photographers’ airline. Bottom line: think very carefully if you’re going to use that bit of kit or not. If you can get redundancy in other ways, then by all means. Consider also the other end: you don’t want to be a pack horse, or have nowhere safe to store the stuff you don’t want to carry. Rethinking my travel kit, I’m fairly sure it’d be something around a Leica Q, D810/ 24-120VR, 5DSR/ 70-300L and one or two fast primes – perhaps the 40 STM and 85 Otus. With a tripod, is more than enough to a) provide redundancy in either a full Nikon or full Canon setup, achieve more than enough image quality, and still fit into one bag.

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Lantau Island, Hong Kong

There are ways around carry-on baggage restrictions.
Many of you will have seen me sport that ‘Magic Jacket’ (a.k.a. the Manfrotto Pro Field Jacket) during workshops and assignments: there’s a reason beyond waterproofing, warmth and ease of access to gear. The pockets will swallow a 645Z/55mm on one side and a D810/Otus 85 on the other, with room in the other pockets for various other bits and pieces. You can easily put 10kg of gear in this jacket. Think laterally for a moment: if you’re 3-4kg overweight, your pockets are your best friend. Not only do they not weigh your clothing, you can also get away with hanging a camera or two around your neck. The same logic goes for wearing cargo pants. Note that even if you are restricted to one piece, you an usually get away with a small extra bag; this is for ladies’ handbags and the more obvious camera pouches. Still, every little bit helps.

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Hong Kong

Skip the laptop if you can.
For the obvious reasons of weight above, if you can get away without needing a laptop for a few days, then by all means save yourself not just the weight of the laptop but also its ancillaries. That could well add up to 3kg if you’re using a 15″ MBP Retina. Beyond the obvious though, there’s also a much simpler one: if you’re going away for the purpose of shooting, having the temptation of triaging email or post processing can be too strong. And that prevents you from going out and…shooting. Things like that can be done at home; you can’t shoot Paris whenever you want if you normally live in Seattle. If I could travel without a laptop, I would – but being on assignment and running this site make it effectively impossible. I just try to be disciplined about keeping the computer time to the absolute bare minimum.

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On approach to Queenstown, New Zealand

Backup, backup, backup.
This might seem at odds with the previous statement on leaving your laptop behind, but we forget that there are so many other ways to backup now: cameras with dual card slots; iPads and iPhones with 128GB of storage, or other smartphones; your friend or partner’s computer. The list is endless. Of course, if you have a laptop then you want to be making nightly dumps to the machine and not wiping any cards til you get home and finish processing – this is so you have a redundant copy of every image just in case something goes wrong. Storage is cheap these days; images may not be replaceable. I have about 500GB in extra cards, an empty 1TB working SSD, 300GB or so on my laptop, then more space on the backup of critical files I carry with me on two 2TB external drives. I also use cameras with dual card slots for mission critical work (the D810, D800E and 5DSR).

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Find out your route beforehand and book your seat.
Sitting on the wrong side of the plane can make the difference between craning your neck in frustration to peer out of the far window, and getting images that might not otherwise have been possible. Though no airline is going to tell you the exact route (and it varies on weather anyway) you can get a fairly good idea from sites like flightradar24. The best seats are a) window (obviously); b) in front of the engines (aft of the engines tends to have a lot of convection turbulence caused by the hot engine exhaust; you won’t get a clean shot from there) and c) on a new aircraft. You can’t really control the latter, unfortunately. And sadly these days most economy seats start behind the second door which is located at the wing root, so your best bet is either all the way to the where some of the hot air might have dissipated, or springing for business/first. Note that on a really long or night flight you might not want to sit at the back of the plane because it’s very, very noisy and the compromise for maybe a few minutes of aerial photography at either end of the flight probably isn’t worth the sacrifice.

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London

Have your camera accessible and be prepared in-flight.
There’s obviously not much point in having the thing in the overhead locker at takeoff or before landing; but you should also think carefully about the focal lengths you’re going to use/need. Anything longer than about 50mm is not recommended in general because it tends to magnify the imperfections in the windows – these are perspex and visibly rippled if you move your head from side to side. Anything wider than 24-28mm (depending on window size and thickness) is likely to see the frame and/or the engines. I find that 28-40mm tends to work the best, unless you get exceptionally lucky with new widows. On top of that, you’re going to need much higher shutter speeds than you think: remember, you’re shooting from a moving platform. 50mm requires 1/250th or more on a camera with D810-density; scale from there. On top of that, windows are usually dirty because people tend to sleep on them; carry some alcohol swabs to clean them. There’s nothing more frustrating than a great view, new window…but grease smears you can’t remove. I also generally keep them open through the flight since you never know what you might overfly…

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Over Malaysia

 

Use whatever opportunities you have to top off power.
Because you honestly never know when the next one might be, or how much juice you’re going to use between now and then – especially if you happen to chance upon something that keeps you engrossed…

Bon voyage! MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Jorge Balarin says:

    Great tips ! thank you.

  2. Gerner Christensen says:

    Seeing your ‘airborn’ images Ming .. I was wondering if anybody had a more impressive drone? I made a few window shots lately and just discovered there’s a few things one have to notice .. the remaining reflections from the window into the cabin! I do rarely sit by the window since when I have my needs the two sidemen are sleeping. The table is full of catering .. and I’m becoming desperate 🙂

  3. Peter Boender says:

    Another thing to recommend: wear dark (black) clothing. The light stuff will get reflected in the window, making for strange light patches …

  4. Thanks for a very insightful article. I missed part 1 and wanted to read it; but the link provided by you at the beginning of the post does not work. Could you please look into this?
    Thanks.
    — Ravindra Kathale

  5. Chuck Albertson says:

    Ming, BA are indeed generous with the weight of carry-on bags, but they recently started cracking down on the size of the smaller of the two bags, and require that it go under the seat in front of you; in other words, both bags can’t go in the overhead bins. That can be a problem in their premium economy (World Traveler Plus) cabin, since the in-flight entertainment box doesn’t leave much room under the seat. Especially on short-haul flights, the check-in agent will put a yellow tag on the under-seat item, and if the cabin crew spot it in the overhead bin, they’ll gate-check it (no fun). In Club (business) and First, though, both bags go in the overhead as there is no under-seat storage.

    • That’s not so bad – at least they let you have two, and don’t mind the weight. Other airlines give you one and weigh you. Given those rollers are 2-3kg+ each, the remaining weight allowance is really a joke.

  6. Great tips. Being an experienced traveler this make sense.

  7. Stephan Hoffmann says:

    Thanks for all good tips! Whenever I can choose my seat, I try to sit on the shadow side of the plane in order to avoid flare from the window itself.

    • No problem. The only challenge is being on the shadow side often means the light isn’t that interesting since it’s coming from the same direction as where you’re aiming the camera from.

  8. For backup purposes on my last trip (14 days), I bought and used a Western Digital WD My Passport Wireless 1 TB Wi-Fi Mobile Storage. It has an SD card slot, establishes it’s own wifi network that you can interact with via an iPhone/iPad app, and comes in 1 & 2 TB sizes. Unfortunately, I don’t think they have a CF card version. The device worked flawlessly for me. I backup up at the end of each day to both it and to my iPad. I believe that have the WD app is also available for Android.

  9. Your “magic jacket” comment made me curious. I’ve been trying to find something like that for awhile now. The link took me to Amazon where they seem to have exactly one medium-size jacket available. The Manfrotto website has no mention of the Manfrotto Lino Pro Field Jacket, but I found some nice reviews of it elsewhere. Sounds really good, if somewhat expensive. But I guess they don’t make it any more. Bummer.

  10. “I also generally keep them open through the flight since you never know what you might overfly…” I would love to keep the windows open but I think that the airline might object….

    On a more serious note, though, in Lisbon at the airport two weeks ago we were instructed to unpack all cameras and put them loose in the plastic tray where they were flung out the other side with some force by some dumbo official. Imagine dealing with a shattered LCD screen…and Ming, you know how anal I am. I should have just refused. They can hand/body search me next time. I think one has some personal rights over one’s hard earned possessions. It’s the first and hopefully last time I have ever seen this done. Exiting the EU from Barcelona last week was normal…I’m amazed the EU doesn’t have standard rules for everyone…

    • Actually, unless it’s a night or big time change flight, they usually don’t care if the shades are open. Even then it’s the other passengers mostly…

      Ouch. Yes, that sounds horrible. Which airport?

      • Lisbon, Portugal…

        • Rats. I wanted to do a workshop there next year after seeing your images.

          • Hey, first time writer here, long time reader…I am Portuguese so I’ve used Lisbon Airport (and Oporto) dozens of times, I carry always two bodies and several lenses,I’ve only been asked to take out my laptop or my tablet to the plastic tray, never my photo equipment.

            The only time I had to open my backpack and my equipment was thoroughly inspected by officials in a separate room was in Frankfurt, coming from Addis Abeba.

            WBR,

            João

            Ps: Every other week I want to sell my canon FF kit and just keep the cameras I enjoy the most (Sony NEX and Fuji X) but that 70-300L just does not let me do it…

  11. Hi Ming,

    I too fly a lot for work and always choose the first flight of the day when usually the windows are still clean. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes the engine heat or window distortion is just too much. Overall it’s quite fun and really makes the flight go by quickly.

    Thanks for your tips and great shots!

  12. Gary Morris says:

    I don’t want to make more work for you, but could you label the cities in the pictures?

    I’ve returned from a recent trip in which I forced myself to travel “light”… Leica X113 (decent images and only 1 pound in weight) and my trusty S006 with 70mm lens. A decent “light” combo. I do like your travel “kit”.

  13. Recently I’ve had problems with limits on lithium-ion batteries per person (easily solved by giving half to a travelling companion to take through security) and being required to switch on every single electronic item I was carrying on before boarding the plane to demonstrate that it worked. Thankfully everything had charged, but if it hadn’t been I’d have been kissing it goodbye in Turkey. That’s probably worth bearing in mind on a return trip!

    • Ouch – thanks for the warning. Where was this – only in Turkey?

      It seems the Sony A7RII would be a bad choice then given I need six batteries a day…

      • Subsequent research suggests the testing of all electronic devices is particular to flights from Turkey to the UK. Luckily my beaten-up netbook decided to work without a power cable plugged in, although it often doesn’t. Imagine if you’d run down all your camera batteries and had to surrender it or not get on the flight!

        As for lithium-ion batteries I understand some airlines are bringing in limits of 4 per person (but batteries inside a working device don’t count). I think it’s to do with their potential to cause a serious fire if one of them decides to combust. I had 5 each for an EM5 and X100t.

        • I was forced to surrender all of my batteries in Dubai once – never again flying through there. Thankfully on the way back from a job otherwise I’d have been shafted. The security people had the cheek to tell me I could buy replacements at the electronic store immediately after security (!) Seems like a scam to me.

  14. Yeah, depending upon the airline, you can have a real problem with airline staff. I nearly got into a fistfight once with a flight attendant who, for some inexplicable reason, thought that my D800 was some sort of “scanner”, couldn’t understand that it was a camera, and wouldn’t let me get onto the plane because she considered it a second carry-on. I managed to squeeze it into my backpack, but that was a close call. I LOVE your idea of using your jacket, etc., for tucking things inside that you don’t want to check. Thank you for this post!

  15. Would a polariser be useful? Also, do you pick seats in front of the wings or behind the wings are ok?
    Also, would you pack a lenskirt too?

    • Obviously I haven’t read the article fully about the wings, apologies.

    • A polariser will show up stress rainbows in the window, especially the perspex ones.

    • Polarizers have strange interactions with the perspex; not recommended at all. Behind the wings doesn’t work because of wake turbulence from the engines changing refractive index of the air (I actually have another article with tips coming up soon). Lenskirt isn’t useful unless it covers the entire window, because remember there are at least two and sometimes up to four bits of glass that reflect everything else in the cabin…

  16. Great tips, thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] far too much time on an aeroplane in the last few months – think of it as the fruit of doing a little homework before departure. Of course, shooting from a chartered helicopter is nice, but also not something undertaken without […]

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