Inter-continental travel or just road trippin’ with your astrophotography gear? Here are some of the things we’ve learned.
I suppose it makes sense that I’m writing this article while seated in an airline seat with a bag full of camera gear above my head. Tanja and I have traveled a lot to shoot. We’ve photographed on three continents, first and third world, requiring international air travel. And much more often, within driving distance of our home in South Africa, but still far away from anything and everything civilized (like power and running water). Our international traveling has been with our tripods, mounts, telescopes, DSLRs, CCD, lenses, cables, motion control systems, large power supplies (batteries!), laptops, …deep breath… ; a lot of stuff. I’d like to share some of the tips, tricks, and must-haves for traveling with your astrophotography gear. Maybe it will save you some heartbreak and headaches later!
Things to remember for any astrophotography trip
It seems more simple, but road tripping can often be as stressful as flying. You often end up trying to do a lot more on your road trips than you would when flying somewhere, just because you have more cargo room. So, Tanja and I have tried not to overdo it anymore. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you for any AP trip is to plan, plan, and plan some more! Also — make sure you make a plan.
The following is a list of bullet points (literally…and figuratively)
- Make a list of the DSO targets you want to shoot, and any of the types of wide-field shots you want.
- Use Google Maps and Google Earth to get an idea of the landscape you’ll be presented with and to mark possible shoot locations.
- Check the weather all the time. That may be obvious, but, yeah…we’ve made that mistake far too many times.
- Time your trips so you have a little bit of moonlight. Shooting during new moon is great for deep space objects (DSOs), but if you’re shooting landscape AP, having just a little bit of moonlight a few days before and after new moon can make a world of difference.
- Don’t forget that you’re most likely a normal human being and you have some basic needs! So try and stop thinking about those beautiful dark skies for a moment and take care of yourself before you go. You’ll need to do a lot of thinking while you’re out, so fuel up!
- Before any astrophotography trip, be sure to fully test the setup(s) and software you plan on using, down to the individual cables you’ll be using. There’s not much room for error here, as problems may mean a wasted trip if you can’t sort them out in the field.
- Last but not least — click here to download the 1-page checklist I made so you won’t forget anything!
Flying with astrophotography gear
Flying with your gear is more stressful than a simple road trip, for me that’s mostly because there is so much beyond your control. You’re the mercy of the airline employees who can sometimes be tough to deal with, but it’s easily mitigated depending on how you pack.
I’m probably stating the obvious for flying with your gear, but telescopes, tripods, and any of the large equipment you have to check as baggage should be packed properly! Pelican cases are amazing, but not always necessary, but some sort of hard-shell cases are a requirement. Lots of foam and no movement of the stuff inside is a must, so fill up any gaps with your clothes as packing material.
Shipping, renting, or purchasing in advance
There are some things you just can’t fly with. A couple of options we haven’t yet tried are shipping our gear prior to a trip and renting a telescope and mount. It’s somewhat rare, but some specific astronomy destinations will have equipment ready for you to rent. Other than the rental or shipping options, something worth trying is purchasing gear beforehand and having it delivered to your destination, then selling it as secondhand at the end of your trip. However, this may require a trusted person near the final location of your trip for help. Just a thought!
The main thing to think about when flying internationally is dealing with customs. Hopefully nothing will ever happen, but you need to be prepared to disclose all the equipment you have and at the minimum, what it’s used for. Be sure to do a little research on your destination beforehand, because some countries are a little stricter than others.
Some countries may require you to fill out customs declarations of all the equipment you own when you leave (with serial numbers), so that they can collect duties on new items you purchase outside the country. Be sure to investigate your customs laws so you don’t get stuck with extra fees!
When going through customs and passport control, usually you’ll be fine. Remember not to over explain and just state yourself as a photographer, and don’t get any more fancy unless you need to! Everything you have with you at it’s most basic level is just photography gear, and you’re there for a holiday, not work…unless you’re there for work, but that’s up to you to explain.
Don’t forget to think about the various power plug adapters you’ll need for your destination! Is it 110V or 220V? Most good gear will work with both, but make sure all your power supplies are rated to handle it.
Batteries and power
When you’re out in the field, depending on your goal, you’ll need to think about all that power-hogging equipment that fuels this obsession. Are you staying at a farm, guest house, or campground with available power points? Or are you going to need to supply all the power via batteries and/or car chargers?
When road tripping, you aren’t really limited to the large and heavy supplies and battery-based power you’re going to need, but flying is another story. You CAN fly with sealed batteries, you just have to check them in as baggage (not carry on!) and prepare for the possibility of them being confiscated if an airport security agent is having a bad day. Always make sure to disconnect and cover the leads on the batteries, and pack cables and wires separately to the batteries.
Another option when flying is to remember that 12V automotive batteries are relatively cheap, so you may want to invest in a good charger to take with you, leave your big batteries at home, and purchase a new inexpensive car battery after your flight lands. It can be figured into the cost of the trip, and you can charge it during the day. If you’re adventurous enough, you might even be able to borrow or get one secondhand from a local garage if they have any lying around.
For camera tripods, remove the heads and pack them separately to prevent damage and make them smaller. When flying we’ve always just placed all of our tripods in checked baggage. Wrap the sensitive areas with clothing to prevent bumps and scratches.
If you’re traveling with large telescope tripods, a lot of camera tripods, or both, consider investing in a solid, long, hard case. Flight cases for golf clubs are usually just the right size. This goes for flying as well as road trips, it pays to keep your luggage tidy and organized.
When flying, always use hard cases! This is where I would definitely recommend something like a pelican case. Use a lot of form-fitting foam inside and ensure there isn’t any movement inside. I’m not sure if fragile stickers work to make airline baggage employees take special care, but do it anyway. Be prepared to pay oversize and possibly overweight baggage fees!
Don’t forget to bring your collimation tools, because any kind of travel is going to require you to collimate your optics after you arrive.
Some consumer mounts like our Celestron Advanced VX and Celestron CG-5 mounts fit perfectly in a standard carry-on roller bag, inside their fitted foam inserts that they were originally packaged in. My guess is that most other small-medium sized mounts can be similarly packed.
One thing we’ve recently done is to leave the telescopes at home and save them for road trips, in favor of using a small travel mount that accommodates a 200mm telephoto lens that can work with either a CCD or a DSLR. The travel mounts we’ve chosen is the Sky Watcher Star Adventurer, with a few added modifications for a guide scope. It fits in a small metal equipment case, or when pieced out, can even be placed into a backpack, ideal for travel. See my article on deep-space astrophotography without a telescope for more options and ideas!
Ok class, pay attention! What costs the most money during air travel, besides the airfare? Weight. Overweight bags are sometimes a must, but you can possibly save yourself some cash by leaving the counterweights at home and going all MacGyver on your rig.
A bag of rocks or sand collected from nearby work great to keep your tripod stable, but here’s the trick that saves the day: water bottles. A small array of three or four water bottles wrapped with zip ties or duct tape around your counterweight bar can be easily repositioned, and the weight can be adjusted by simply adding or removing water.
Bam: portable and feather-light counterweights!
Cameras and lenses
Never, ever, put cameras, lenses, or laptops into checked baggage! Invest in a nice large padded carry-on size camera bag with interchangeable internal compartments. Every lens and camera we use is always on my back and within my reach. I’ve got a large enough backpack (an awesome Ape Case model) that fits in every overhead compartment I’ve found, in which I can fit three or four DSLR bodies, several extra lenses, my Macbook (or two), and extra batteries and accessories. It’s heavy, but it’s the equipment that is the lifeblood of the hobby so not enough care can be taken in my opinion.
In addition to collimation and adjustment tools required for telescopes, you’ll need to be prepared for more. Just because you’ve tested your setup before you left (correct?) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for something to break in transit or fail in the field. Be sure to pack enough tools to be able to fix small problems should they arise, and all the right size allen keys to tighten everything. Murphy’s law applies, here. And don’t forget your multi-tool, zip ties, and a roll of duct tape!
Personal items and other miscellaneous stuff
Remember, human: you’re human. You need snacks, plastic bags, tissues, wet wipes, beer, snacks (did I say beer?), warm clothing, and snacks.
Other stuff you should know about but I’ll mention anyway include: headlamps, flashlights, and extra batteries (buy them AFTER you’ve landed if you’re flying). Also, those red glow sticks work great to hang from the middle of a tripod or place on the ground nearby so you can find your camera in the dark.
Don’t ask about that time I was “lost” in the Kalahari Basin for about 45 minutes at 3am looking unsuccessfully for my camera that was only 500 meters away from our guest house. It was THAT dark and I was tired. I could have used a glow stick to mark my way…oh well, lesson learned.
And maybe bring a significant other or a friend or two, it’s way more fun that way! I’m lucky in that area.
Now get packing!
Start planning and testing and get out there and see the world. Using your camera to share the night sky with everyone is one of the most rewarding things about this hobby. That’s assuming you don’t get lost in the dark with the scorpions, snakes, and leopards of the Kalahari basin…
Have your own AP travel tips to share? Leave me a comment below!…and don’t forget to grab a copy of the checklist I made for you – click here and I’ll send it to you.