Nature Photography Blog

John Slonina is a professional nature photographers. His company Slonina Nature Photography leads instructional photo tours and workshops throughout the United States. His photo tours visits several national parks which include Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Mt Rainier, Olympic, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Mt Rainier, Olympic, Arches, Canyonlands, Everglades, Big Cypress, Katmai and Lake Clark.


The Photographer's Guide to Flying and Navigating Airports.

Alaska Northern Lights Photo Tour

Alaska Northern Lights Photo Tour

The Photographer's Guide to Flying

As a professional nature photographer and tour leader, I constantly fly in and out of many airports. I am constantly flying to lead photo tours and workshops in Alaska, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Washington, Florida, Arizona, and Utah. Flying can be extremely stressful for the photographer. We carry lots of heavy expensive gear and worry about damaged or stolen gear.  Long waits and long flights are normal.

I wanted to write this article with tips on how to make things easier and less stressful.  

How to find the right airplane?

Each airplane has a limited amount of carry-on space. Larger airplanes allow bigger bags than smaller ones. When I book a flight, I only chose the larger size airplanes for example an Airbus A319, A320, A321 or a Boeing 737, 747, 757.  Some websites, for example, lists multiple airlines at once and you can select flights by size of the airplane.

Connection Time and On Time Performance Ratings.

I prefer a plan that has a connection time no less than one hour. Airplanes are often late and it is stressful running from gate to gate. Another consideration is the on time performance ratings. You should view the on time performance ratings to choose a flight especially if you are not flying direct. Each carrier and airport is different. If you can, minimize your airport down time by flying on carriers and airports with a history of punctuality. Many sources are available online for determining past performance. I personally like to fly to destination a minimum of 24 hours in advance in case of any delays.

Where do you sit?

If your airplane is sold out, you will run out of carry-on space if you board the airplane at the end.  I do not want to chance checking my gear. There are several ways to board early. The first way is to pay for first class, business class, more space, or have a credit card with that airline.  Check with you carrier for their rules. I use a different method. I check to see if the airline boards first from the front or back.  I want to make sure I board as early as possible so I pick a group that boards early. For example, JetBlue boards from the back so I pick a seat in the back.

How to Pack

It is important to have a packing strategy. With all the other worries associated with air travel, the last thing you want to think about is theft, damage, or lost luggage.

Gear may be stolen or damaged during handling. Theft from sleeping and unknowing passengers has been going on for years. Gear can be stolen from you checked luggage or carry-on. Most people are honest but even the TSA has had problem employees. Per CNN, since 2002, the agency has fired 513 officers for theft. 

Lost and damaged luggage is another issue. Lost luggage is rare but still happens. Make sure you bag clearly identifies you and has distinctive marking so no one grabs your bag by mistake. Have you ever watched bag handlers load you checked luggage on the airplane? They are not always gentle with the bags. They throw bags onto and off the airplane. Some bags are stored on top of each other.

Airlines allow one carry-on and one personal items.   Almost all my photo gear goes into a photo backpack.  I use this as my carry-on. I put in my photo backpack my camera body, lenses, filters, teleconverters, extension tubes, cable release etc. I put in everything I can fit into it with the exception of my tripod. Make sure you photo bag fits the airline carry one requirement. The measurements are available on the manufactures website. 

The airlines also allow one personal item. I use Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise bag. The bag fits my laptop, tablets, books, magazines, plugs and cords, passport, keys, boarding passes, external hard drives, business cards etc. This bag also has room if you need to add an extra camera body or lenses.

I place my tripod(s), ballheads, gimbal style heads in the checked luggage. This is mixed in with my personal clothing and items. I wrap my coats and sweatshirts around the tripod for protection.

An important consideration for the checked luggage is weight. Most airlines do not allow over 50 lbs without paying a fine. I often had problems with excessive charges. Tripods weigh a lot. I recently purchased an ultra-lightweight luggage, which helped with the problem. Like many other things in life, there is a tradeoff with the lighter bags providing less protection for your gear.

Curbside Check In

I use curbside check in whenever it is available. It is more convenient and has a huge plus. Overall, I find they are less strict on overweight bags since they usually do not work for the airlines and rely mostly on tips. A good tip can go a long way and possibly save you from a fine.

At the Gate

Once at the airport, I arrive early making sure I have plenty of time to clear security and get comfortable for my upcoming flight.  I line up early at the gate. I board as soon as my group is called. I try not to call attention to myself by looking weighed down with heavy photo gear.

On the airplane

I get bored on airplanes so I like to bring things that help pass the time. I download educational videos, movies, and music to my tablet. There are several videos available on learning photography or post processing. It is also a great time to review you images or read.

Being a nature photographer can be demanding. Some locations are remote and require a lot of proper planning but it always worth the effort. I love the opportunity to see incredible places and share it with my participants. I hope these tips help you on your next adventure. 

Take Care

John Slonina

Slonina Nature Photography