Long Distance Traveling with the Large Format Camera

By Nathan Congdon for the Large Format Page, part of Travels


I travel pretty extensively for my job, and shooting an 8 X 10 camera is one of my great pleasures in life, so it was only a matter of time before I would try to combine the two. A lot of what I heard on this forum and elsewhere either implied or came right out and said that hauling a camera this large around airports was just plain crazy. It was going to be too heavy, expensive equipment would get broken or stolen, and the whole experience would just be a nightmare. As I type this, I’m looking at a 30X40 color print of an 8 X 10 shot I made of a medieval mosaic of the Virgin and Christ from a little church on Torcello, an island in the same lagoon as Venice. It’s regarded as one of the most beautiful mosaics of that period, there are no decent reproductions available, and in this print, you can see every single tile. I’ve got pictures hanging at home and in my friends’ houses made with an 8 X 10 in Thailand, South Africa, Italy, China, France, Puerto Rico, Santa Fe, and India. What’s more, my wife and I now have an 10-month bundle of joy called Amelia, which means that all-day expeditions with the camera, previously resented, are now expressly forbidden. My trips probably make up about 2/3 of the shots I ever get to take these days. So LF travel photography is here to stay as a hobby for me. This article will talk a bit about the practicalities of managing a large camera on long trips to somewhat difficult places. A few points (film and airport x-rays) are the same as would be made in any Shutterbug article about traveling with 35mm, but I’ll touch on them anyway for completeness sake. Others are pretty specific to hauling around a camera as large as your torso!

The point should also be made that there are people out there toting cameras that make my 8 x 10 look like a point and shoot. Dick Arentz for one has hundreds of shots in his portfolio from as far afield as Europe and New Zealand taken with a 12X20, Louis Connor has carried her 7 X 17 throughout Asia, and Michael Smith has done photos in Europe and elsewhere in his preferred 8 X 20 format.

I’ll divide the article up by subjects to make for easier reference.


I put this here first for a reason. One of the biggest reasons LF photographers give for not traveling with their precious equipment is that it could be stolen. This is true: it happened to me in Italy (after traveling for twenty years without so much as getting my pocket picked). It was a pain, but at the end of the day, mostly an inconvenience. Why? Because I had the entire outfit insured lock, stock and barrel, and wound up with a much fancier camera when the dust had settled. Now, if you have a custom-made Deardorff which contains a relic of the thumb-bone of St. Ansel Adams or something of the like, then maybe best to keep it near home. Otherwise, everything is replaceable, and camera equipment is made to be used and not hoarded! I have a rider on my home insurance which covers $20,000 worth of equipment and costs me maybe $300/year. You will need to itemize everything you’ve got, though my company (State Farm) did not require receipts for everything. Check to make sure overseas theft is covered, which it was on mine without special arrangement. I got a check for every penny on my policy within 4-6 weeks of the theft. You will need a local police report. In my opinion, having a good policy with a company you trust is the sine qua non of traveling with LF gear: it allows you to step out the door without being constantly worried that you’ll have to go save up another 4 years for that Wisner…And remember what Jonathon Livingston Seagull says: "If you love something, check it in. If it returns to you on the luggage carousel, it is yours forever, and if it does not, then it never was!"

Along these lines, prudent steps to avoid theft should be fairly clear: avoid fancy-looking bags if possible, keep a strap of the bag around your foot when you’re sitting down to eat, keep the bag within view, NEVER, NEVER put it under a bus when traveling that way (you are crowded on board and can’t see what’s going on underneath: that’s how the one theft I experienced occurred). You could always consider a proximity alarm if you want to get really fancy (bag gets more than 30 feet away from you, alarm goes off), but I think this is overkill. I bought one, and never use it. If you’re bothering to read this, presumably you travel enough that you know how to minimize the chance of theft. Also, the size of your bag is your best protection: a thief is not going to make very good speed bent double under the weight of your Wisner Tech Field as he struggles down the street.

Bags and Baggage Issues

So how do you carry the camera? Assuming that you’re going to be traveling by plane at some point, basically, you have two options: check-in or carry-on. Despite my above cavalier comments, I am a confirmed carry-on guy. Now how, you may ask is this possible? Let me begin by saying that on dozens, probably by now hundreds, of flights, I’ve never once been refused permission to carry my 8 X 10 on the plane. There have been a few energetic discussions, but generally, it suffices to show them that the bag will fit under a seat, and to tell them that it contains expensive camera equipment. Virtually the only problems I ever have are on those prop-driven "commuter flights" in the US, and I really try to avoid these now whenever possible. Even on these flights, and on over-crowded conventional flights, tripods and other bulky items can often be taken and stowed in little luggage closets by the flight crew.

How does this work? First, the bag that I use. The f64 BPX backpack is emphatically not the best-made on the planet (anything made by Lowe, not to mention real hiking backpacks, would eat it for dinner), but it does have the striking feature of being rationally designed for an 8 X 10 (central compartment in which, by experience, a Wisner or Ebony 8 X 10 will fit: check dimensions of your camera; pocket for holders, room for lenses, etc.). It’s also highly modular (two side bags are velcroed and strapped on; I took one off and had a shoe repair guy turn that side into a tripod holder), and, most importantly, will fit into a standard luggage compartment or under a seat when all the side doohickies have been pulled off and stowed elsewhere. It’s the only bag capable of fitting an 8X10 that will do this, I think, though of course you could try to make or modify a standard hiking pack. I have had practically every important seam reinforced on this backpack ($0.50 by a tailor in India, a bit more but still doable in the US), as its sturdiness is otherwise not its greatest feature. In its present form, though, it appears to be indestructible.

Next, it’s important to realize that Airline "regulations" concerning carry-ons are in fact "guidelines," often ignored by all. Experienced travelers know this. Just as I’m about to be overwhelmed by an access of guilt as I stride purposefully past the sign with a wallet-sized outline showing the size of carry-on bag I’m "allowed" to have, I notice the guy next to me struggling with what appears to be a double-bass (or a bale of cotton and 5 chickens tied together by their feet, depending on where I’m traveling). No matter how outrageously oversized your luggage is, there’s always someone even more imaginative and bald-faced on the flight. The worst that usually happens is that you’re stopped at the gate and told that you have to check a bag (my other carry-on has film, see below). I smilingly offer up the smaller bag and walk right ahead with the camera. Even if you are required to gate-check the camera (I think this may have happened to me once), you’re talking about a 50-foot journey under your direct visual supervision into the hold of the plane. With a reasonably-well protected pack (even the f64), you should be fine, and the chances of theft are minimized.

As comes up in all discussions of backpacking cameras, the question will be: "How much does all this weigh?" My full 8 X 10 rig weighs in at about 50 lb (22 kg), absolutely without concession on number and weight of lenses, extra gear (I carry a bag bellows), or the camera itself. If you can’t do better than this, you are as pathetically obsessive as I am! Still, I find this not particularly difficult to manage, and with the recent addition of wheels on my other luggage, the whole kit and caboodle (that is, including my clothes, books, computers, etc.) can certainly be schlepped a few blocks as needed. The camera itself I can carry for miles without a big problem (say a day of sight-seeing in Rome with a stop every couple of hours for a gelato and a rest), and I am nobody’s idea of an athlete. If I ever start to feel a bit put-upon, I’ll see a woman in Africa sail past me carrying 10 gallons (read 80 lb!) of water on her head…

Other baggage tips: They now have those frames at the front of the luggage-scanners that are meant to discourage over-large carry-ons. The f64 BPX will generally fit thru them, as would any similar-sized pack presumably. You will be asked to open the pack quite frequently, as nobody has any idea what that enormous weapon-sized thing is, so have a bag you can open and access all compartments of easily (another advantage of the f64).

Your other option besides carry-on, if you’re just not the brazen sort, is check-in. Here, you will obviously want a metal or other hard-case. I’ve recently been looking into these in a desultory sort of way, and notice that Tamrac, I think, makes one specifically for 8 X 10. Tenba, Pelican and others sell large shipping cases, where the foam can be cut to suit your equipment. Custom orders for even larger cameras are available (there was a Phillips 14 X 17 selling recently on Ebay with its own custom hard case). A well-made case should protect your equipment without risk, but here the worry is obviously loss or theft. I recently had a laptop computer cut out of a checked-in backpack (I was carrying the camera, of course), on a Swissair flight to Geneva of all places! Is nothing sacred?! If you’re insured, it’s not the end of the world, but personally, I find the carry-on option to work with a tolerable degree of hassle, and don’t particularly like that forlorn feeling as I watch the empty carousel circling around for the tenth time as I move rapidly through the stages of loss (Grief, disbelief, anger, acceptance…)

Don’t even think of checking in anything without a proper travel case: I made the mistake once of checking in a large Bogen tripod with enormous 3057 head. When I contemplated the sheer force that it took to twist that head into a pretzel as I stood in the luggage claim area, I felt like Mulder on X-Files: "Scully, what could possibly have done this? Imagine the sheer power of these creatures…"

Other Equipment

Not a lot to add here. As mentioned above, I make few concessions to weight, preferring great, manly chunks of glass as large as my daughter’s head and a comforting assortment of rarely-used equipment (but it’s nice to have that little reflector to lighten up faces of people and statues…) I do insist that it all fit into the one pack (well, all right, plus one fanny pack: you think I’m going to the Taj Mahal without my Super Symmar 210XL?) I think volume matters more than weight when traveling. If you’re going to think small and light for one piece of equipment, have it be the tripod: mine folds up to 28 inches. Many LF tripods (Ries, etc.) will only fold up to three feet plus: you’re going to have a tough time getting that on a plane without killing someone, not very easy to stow, and the pilot will definitely not want it in his lap! (Think about Gitzo’s CF tripods, if it doesn’t make your wallet bleed…)

Film Issues

I carry all film (usually four boxes or so of 8 X 10) in a separate, smaller carry-on. There are probably not many traveling photogs who have not heard about the new CAT scan technology being used in some airports to screen checked in baggage, which will screw up your film. So I always carry it on, or, if needs be, do a gate-check (which has already been x-rayed as carry-on, so should get no further scanning). As for carry-on x-ray: I’ve traveled with sheet film in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and have just never had a problem. The fastest stuff you’re going to get is ASA 400, and everyone I have talked to says it’s just too slow to be harmed by the regular carry-on x-ray machines. There’s enough minor hassles involved in traveling with LF, so do yourself a favor and skip the headaches of asking for unnecessary handchecks, when you know that they’ve never seen film in flat boxes before and are going to insist on opening them up: "Not film! Film not flat! Film in rolls! Dog must smell! Talk to supervisor now!" I cheerfully send $300 worth of film through an average of 7 x-rays on every trip, a lot of it in pretty dodgy places, and at this point I do it absolutely without a worry. I’ll update this, with specifics, if my experience changes!

The other film issue has to do with changing film. I no longer shoot 4 X 5, so Ready Loads and Quickloads are not an option. I used to do the old "shove a towel under the bathroom door and load your holders in the sink" routine, but not every place you stay has a room dark enough, even at night. After uncoiling myself from a 4 X 3 X 3 foot wardrobe in South Africa (internal temperature slightly cooler than the core of the sun) for the 5th time, I decided things had to change. I am now the proud owner of a Harrison Pup tent. This is the smallest of their film-changing tents, supposedly designed for 4 X 5, but I’m here to tell you that it works beautifully for 8X10, and that it’s the smartest investment I ever made. Rolls up to about the size of a small folding umbrella in my check-in luggage, and has been absolutely light-tight even when used in mid-day sun in South India. Some people complain about excess dust with these, but I have not had this problem, despite taking only moderate precautions, probably because most of the places I travel are (unbearably) humid. If you’re going to do a lot of travel with LF, my advice is "Buy one now!" unless you’ve got Quickloads or whatever working well for you.

I do refrigerate transparency film when I can, but find that it really doesn’t make a huge difference to keep it out for a week or so, especially if I’ll be shooting it fairly promptly. All exposed sheets go into the box they came from, but under the foil, to keep them separate from unexposed film. I keep a count of the number of exposed sheets on the outside of the box.


If you like to travel, and if your favorite camera is a LF monster, you owe it to yourself to at least think about bringing it along. Some of my favorite shots were taken overseas with my 8x10, shots I couldn’t have gotten any other way. As for the future? Well, I have a meeting in Hanoi coming up, and I’m planning a sidetrip to Angkor Wat. I’m in the process of buying a 12 X 20 right now, and maybe, just maybe…….

View or add comments