Photographic Carry On – Flying back to the U.S.

A Bag full of Camera Equipment including the new Canon 1D MKIV had to make it as carry on items

The moment of truth had arrived. On our way home from my nieces wedding in Toronto we were eight hours away from five cats and a good night's sleep. I had a camera bag full of gear after shooting the happy event with my brother, Toronto Sun photographer Craig Robertson (6,000+ frames between us on the day) and given the recent security changes I didn't know what to expect. One thing was clear, there was no way I was checking that bag.

Here's what happened and what you're likely to encounter flying into the U.S. from Canada with camera gear.

Step One, The Ticket Agent. With printed boarding passes we lined up to show ID and drop off the 2 bags we were prepared to check. While we shuffled up and down between the ropes I completed the U.S. custom's form. The agent tagged the two bags and asked about the camera bag. Question: Was it all photographic gear, and did I have a laptop? Answer: Yes, camera equipment only and no laptop this time. I stressed the fact I was a "working" photographer. She consulted a piece of paper and said it was OK to proceed to customs.

Step Two, The Customs Officer. Round the corner we showed our boarding passes and passports to a TSA security officer and entered another maze to wait to speak to a U.S. Customs officer. This went smoothly and there were no questions about the camera bag. We handed our customs form to an officer and were admitted to the bag drop hall before security.

Step Three, a Pair of TSA Officers, asked about the camera bag (since it didn't have a baggage tag) as we headed towards the bag drop. I told them it was camera gear. One seemed confused but thankfully the other one confirmed it was OK. Juli and I dropped off our two bags and proceeded to security.

Step Four, X-Ray Security. I checked out the other people in line, and the only bags they were carrying were laptop bags, with not a roller in sight. A security officer asked me about the bag before sliding it into the x-ray machine. I passed through the metal detector put my shoes and jacket back on and prepared to get the bag back.

Step Five, Hand Check. A very polite and smiling TSA official who happened to be wearing a burkahijab, took my bag to a table. She swabbed the bag thoroughly for a chem check and then asked me to carefully remove each piece, explaining what it was, taking off lens caps etc. I did this for my three lenses, two camera bodies, flash unit, extra batteries, flash frames, Zacuto Z-finder and then she examined the bag. She thanked me for my cooperation and told me I could replace the items and proceed to my gate.

Step Six, RCMP Hand Check Two. All passengers had to pass through a second security screening just before the gate. We were lucky, the mens and womens lines were relatively short when we got there... apparently the wait was more than an hour earlier in the day. After putting my camera bag on a table for an armed RCMP officer, a TSA security officer gave me a thorough pat down, then I repeated the entire piece-by-piece explanation of the contents, including turning on each of the cameras and flash to show they worked. The RCMP officer was professional, polite and ultimately friendly. I couldn't imagine doing this myself day after day.

It's not clear how long this kind of screening will continue or when body scanners might automate this procedure; personally I don't mind the extra scrutiny and actually feel better about getting on a plane knowing all passengers have been thoroughly checked. My camera bag this time was a Lowepro Stealth Reporter 650 AW. If this was a cycling assignment I'd need something larger and prefer to have my ThinkTank photo Airport Security v2.0 roller. The Lowepro definitely wouldn't accommodate my 200 f2 but I'm doubtful that a roller would be allowed.

If anyone has successfully negotiated a ThinkTank roller onto an inbound U.S. flight since the carry-on restrictions went into effect I'd like to hear from you. Until airlines can provide a secure way to gate check camera bags containing thousands worth of gear, photographers have no choice but to get them on the plane. I'm glad to see that security officials recognize our tools represent a special case.

18 Responses to Photographic Carry On – Flying back to the U.S.

  1. Jon Moss says:

    Hey Michael,

    It’s encouraging to hear such a good experience with the TSA people.

    This is a world away from what I encountered on a trip to Boston (admittedly a good few years ago). How would you like a 5 day old MBP being bounced off a metal examination table? The people I had the misfortune of dealing with were power-hungry fools who did not take kindly to my polite but firm protests.

    I dread going through US customs.

    On a lighter note, hope all well! (Zero cycling here due to our worst winter in 30 years!).



    • Sorry to hear about your weather. I had dinner with Slate and Cary from Rapha the other night and Slate was just back from a week in London… he’d taken riding gear along, and of course, didn’t get to anywhere near a bike.

      I got to see the Spring/Summer line… all I can say is start saving your pennies.


  2. Todd says:

    Out of curiosity, what does your photography kit include? I’ve already been happy to see that you shoot Canon, and you have a lot of spectacular images, so I wonder what your go-to lenses are for producing such great shots.

    • Todd,

      Bodies: 1D MKIV, 1D IIN, 5D MKII, 5D
      Lenses: 20-35 f2.8, 50 f1.4, 85 f1.2, 100 f2.8 macro, 200 f2.0, 300 f4

      No surprise, my favorite lens is the 200 f2… fast, beautiful separation from the background shooting at anything below f4
      Focal length wise I think 85mm is about perfect, I just wish Canon would make a “white” prime in the range. I’ll probably end up with the new 70-200 IS II for that reason, even though I prefer primes.

      The 50 and 100 macro have decent AF. The 85 f1.2 is best for fairly static portraits, pre/post race stuff.

      I try to shoot everything with available light.


  3. Jon Moss says:

    Slate would have “enjoyed” London shutting down after a flurry of snow!

    Look forward to seeing the new gear when we get a sneak peek.



  4. Jordan says:

    So jealous of that camera… I want

    • Jordan,

      I was pretty happy when my dealer called to say it had come in… not many of them around yet.

      • Josh says:

        Don’t you wish the MKIV was full frame?

        • Definitely. I really don’t understand why Canon doesn’t merge the two cameras 1D and 1Ds and give us the best of both worlds. FF and high speed shooting. Perhaps we’ll have to wait a few generations until we get quad Digic X processors or the like. It will happen eventually or a Red will be on our shopping list.

  5. Josh says:

    I read somewhere that Canon was going to eventually release a FF version of the MKIV. Not sure if there is any truth to that rumor though.

    What have you spent more on? Camera gear or cycling gear?

  6. Leyo says:

    wow that’s crazy, I follow this blog quite a bit and travel a lot to SF from Canada, I had no clue your were a canuck !

  7. Rob says:

    An interesting TSA hack is to check your camera bag in a locked firearms case with a starter pistol.

    The case receives extra tracking (the TSA does not want to lose track of a “gun”) and is only handled by the TSA in the airport at the time you make your weapons declaration.

    Details here:

    Link II

    • Rob, Jon,

      While this might work on domestic flights within the U.S. I’m quite sure it would be a disaster flying internationally… and might result in a body cavity search or two ;-)

  8. Jon Moss says:

    I’ve just seen this from Lifehacker

    Apparently people, including photographers are packing starting pistols!


  9. Michael says:

    Hi, Great site, and interesting to hear before my next trip to the US.

    As a tip, I think it will be a hijab, not a burqa. A burqa fully covers the wearer from head to foot. A hijab is the small hard scarf that leaves the face fully visible.


  10. Kevin says:


    What digital point and shoot camera do you use? I am considering the Canon G11? Any thoughts or comments…?

    Love the blog and all of the Rapha reviews.



    • Hi Kevin,

      I was looking to see if I could find a previous reply to your question; I’ve answered something similar before. The short answer is I carry a Canon G9 with me on most rides, and always have it in my backpack when I commute. I never want to miss that once in a lifetime chance at the Pulitzer… you know a fireman catching a baby dropped from a window ;-)

      The G11 is a better camera than the G9. My only knock against both is the manual controls can be finicky to operate with gloves on.