When I first started photographing destination weddings and engagement sessions abroad, I had so many questions and didn’t know who to ask. Most of what I know now I figured out on my own or by picking up little tidbits here and there from other photographers. I’ve had a few friends lately asking for tips for traveling to destination photo shoots (weddings, engagements, etc.) so I decided to put it all down in writing for anyone who’s currently struggling with those same questions.
1. What camera gear should I take when flying to a destination wedding?
Choosing what gear to bring to a destination wedding is tricky because packing everything into carry-on bags (I only ever travel with carry-on, further down I explain why) limits what you can bring. It forces you to cut down to the essentials and get crafty with how you shoot a wedding day (goodbye 70-200mm, and macro lens). Not everyone will approve, but I am not above buying camera gear from reputable sellers on Amazon. Below I’ve included Amazon associate links to my gear and some of the sellers I bought it from. I shoot both film and digital, so I always bring both. When traveling internationally for weddings, this is the gear I always have with me:
I pack all of this into my ThinkTank carry-on (goes into the overhead bin) and Longchamp Le Pliage Expandable (although I never expand it because when expanded it doesn’t count as a “personal item”). This bag is, however, the only bag I’ve found that both fits under the seat in front of me AND has room for my Simply Rooted styling surfaces.
Now that I’ve mentioned by two bags, I should note that I prefer to split my gear between these two bags instead of packing it all into my ThinkTank. I’ll pack my Contax 645 and D810, 35mm and 50mm in my ThinkTank, but I’ll carry my D850 and 85mm, film and light meter in my “personal item” bag. Not only does this help evenly distribute the weight but it also splits my gear so that should one of my two bags get inspected upon landing in my destination country at immigration, having less gear in each makes me look more like a photography hobbyist than a professional photographer traveling to a foreign country for work without a work visa. Some countries care more about this than others but I tend to air on the safe side. Also, I simply cannot lift my full ThinkTank with all of my gear in it into the overhead bin by myself. I then split my clothing between these two bags, and that’s it. I pack exceptionally light. The fewer items of clothing I bring the more room for gear I have.
2. Is it ok to check camera gear?
NEVER check your gear or anything that you’ll need on the wedding day. Your gear is extremely fragile and when it’s checked, you have absolutely no control over how it’s treated. You also run the risk of your bag getting lost. I once carried all of my essentials on board (camera bodies, film, lenses, etc.) but checked my extra batteries, chargers, and styling pieces. My bag didn’t make the connection, got lost, and ended up in London instead of France. Fortunately, since I flew in a several days before the wedding, I was able to pick my bag up at the airport the day after I arrived and still had two days to spare before I needed it. Because I flew in so early, I also would have had time to find the closest camera store if I’d had to.
3. Can film go through TSA x-ray scan machines?
If you shoot hybrid and you can avoid it, don’t travel with film stocks over 400. Some airports are really wonderful about hand checking your film at TSA (CDG in Paris) but others will absolutely refuse no matter what (OPO in Portugal), and at other airports it just depends on who you get at TSA (SFO is hit or miss). When you travel with a 400 stock film (Portra 400 for me), you can usually feel pretty safe if they make you scan your film. That being said, I do always ask if my film can be hand-checked versus scanned. When asking your TSA officer, kill them with kindness. Being nice goes a long way.
From what I’ve read, the damage that x-ray scanners cause builds up over the number of times it’s scanned and accumulates. I try to never scan Portra 400 more than 2-4 times, but my film has come out the other side of 4 scans unscathed. Scan at your own risk.
That being said, I have had Portra 800 survive scanners but the level of stress from the moment it goes through that scanner until when I get my scans back (sometimes up to a week), isn’t worth it.
4. When should I plan on arriving?
When flying internationally to a destination wedding, plan on arriving in that country at least 1-3 days early. You want to make sure that, should your flight get delayed and you miss your connection (or should your flight get cancelled!) there are several other flights that will still get you to your wedding on time.
I always make sure I’m in an early boarding group so I never run the risk of my bag being gate-checked. For Alaska Airlines, this means booking a seat towards the back of the plane (they board from back to front). For United, this either means booking a window seat (they board windows before aisles) or upgrading to Priority Boarding (this can cost as little at $15 and is well worth it). On a trip to France for a wedding I was photographing last year, for my connection in Frankfurt, I had a later boarding group and the airline made me gate-check my bag. I was able to take all my gear out of my camera bag, divide it between myself and my second shooter, and carry it onboard. I was lucky I had a second flying with me though. That’s not always the case.
Another small tip: I learned this tip at WPPI a few years back but completely forget who I learned it from. If it was you and you’re reading this, please tell me so I can credit you for it! If you’re able to arrange this ahead of time, ask your couple to “invite” you to the wedding. Having a formal invitation with your name on it, from what I’ve heard, can be helpful should you get questioned upon arriving (at customs or immigration). Technically, at this point, your clients are your friends, so you can say you’re traveling to photograph a friend’s wedding and you have your invitation to prove it. I’ve never had to show an invitation before, but when I have one I feel a little bit better going into it.
This one here is my last and possibly BIGGEST tip! If you don’t already have it and you plan on flying to weddings, get Global Entry and TSA Pre (they come as a package deal). I cannot recommend it enough. Having to take out all of your camera gear at TSA is a total drag. Here’s the link to apply. Note, Global Entry only works upon entry to the US and TSA Pre is only valid in (most) American airports. It’s still well worth it.
If you have any questions that I didn’t answer, please reach out through my Contact page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Excited to hear from you!