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Dive Photo Guide


Underwater Photography DSLR Packing Checklist
 December 6, 2009 @ 06:41 PM (EST)

 by John Ares

Let's face it, if you're shooting underwater photography with a DSLR, you've got a lot to think about when packing for a dive trip. (If you're looking for a point & shoot packing list, we've got you covered too).

Underwater DSLR HousingMissing one small piece of equipment on a trip can stop an underwater photographer cold.  Like a battery charger…or a sync cord…or a USB cable.

Add to that the unfamiliarity of the TSA with out equipment, the clueless and unsympathetic personnel of the airlines, the biology of our aching backs, and the laws of physics that says what we do (taking a camera into salt water) is an unnatural act.  We are privileged and obsessed to record what others cannot do.  Here is a guide to help make it less a burden.  In reality, Underwater Photographers do not go on vacations.  We go on Expeditions, and need to adopt that mentality.  It takes a lot to get ready for a trip that brings home the bacon.

There's a fantastic checklist at the bottom of this page - download the travel version for your next trip.

Backup equipment is recommended for everything.  You first learn something doesn’t work when you are USING it.  It depends on your budget, insistence on perfection, and personal neuroses for how you handle this.  Respectfully, you may be going to places where electricity is novel.  Digital underwater photography is electricity intensive.

Hard DriveDigital Backup Capacity
Important considerations for not running short on memory or losing your images

Think about how much you will shoot, and plan to have enough memory cards and hard drive capacity to last the entire trip...then multiply that by two…then add 20%.  It is not hard now to shoot 8 – 16 GB per day even with point and shoot cameras and movie files.  Do the math and plan accordingly. Plan on saving files on two devices or two types of media. This redundant backup of your files provides a margin of safety to ensure that the images come back home with you one way or another. 


  • Two copies on separate hard drives or image viewers (which are basically hard drives)

  • One copy on your laptop and one copy on DVD’s

  • One copy on an image viewer and one copy on DVD’s
Relying on just one copy of your images is risky. All media, hard drives, CD’s, DVD’s will fail at some point. It is not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when”.

One month prior to the trip, all equipment has been dive tested and serviced and is ready to go.  No new equipment should be added at the last minute.  This is a prescription for failure.  The one-month timeframe allows for panic fixes if there are problems.

Mountainsmith FlightpathPacking Strategy:  

  1. Be aware of the baggage limits for all of the airlines in each itinerary, and pack accordingly. Determine what you can carry on board, in two bags per person - one as a "personal item" (ie: backpack) and the second as a “rolling carry-on item.”  You may want to consider keeping cameras, lenses, housing, a port, strobes and sync cords in the plane cabin. But remember, if you can't carry on your entire rig, it's the same as carrying on none at all. Don't stress yourself out carrying a bulky housing and strobes if your ports are checked in. If the bag with your ports gets delayed, you're still not shooting until it arrives. Certain airlines, like Quantas for example, are photographer unfriendly and notorious for weight limits in the overhead.

  2. Storm CasesThe rest of your gear gets packed in your luggage, dive or photo cases.  The rest may include smaller bags for cords, trays, ports, and backup systems or media like blank DVD's. Investing in a hard carrying case is a good idea, if you are going to check in housings, strobes and ports. Photographer favorites include Pelican, Storm Cases, Tenba, and Zarges. Note that in no instance, with any airline, can you check-in a bag that weighs more than 100 lbs. Prepare to pay excess baggage fees for any bag over the allowance of 1 or 2 pieces, and 50 or 70 lbs each - depending on airline. (stay tuned for our baggage restriction guide coming soon!)

  3. Note FAA regulations change all the time.  Any specific restrictions or recommendations can be out of date at any time.  Use your common sense and also allow for airline personnel to deny you taking any specific item on board arbitrarily. They really don't care that you're carrying expensive and fragile equipment.

  4. Prior to packing, assemble your equipment on your desk, dining room table or other dust free surface, test all items assembled and be assured you get the strobes(s) to fire.  This is the basic setup to pack. Many serious amateurs and pros carry extra camera bodies and even extra housings and/or hotshoe circuitry.  When packaing, consider the impact of  baggage separation and delivery delays.
Personalize The Checklist
ADD / DELETE / MODIFY items as they apply to your current set up.

(You can download the travel version of the checklist here)

  • Primary SLR body
  • Identical backup body, also good for land use
  • Dinner/land/boat point & shoot camera for carrying casually
  • Wide angle lens (zoom)
  • Fisheye lens (prime or zoom)
  • Midrange & versatile zoom for land (e.g. 18-200)
  • Macro lenses (e.g. 50 - 60 mm and/or 100 - 105 mm)
  • Long wildlife lens 100-500mm
  • Low light lens (e.g. 50mm 1.4)
  • Memory cards (enough)
  • Memory card case(s)
  • Camera batteries (ideally three - one in camera, one in boat bag, one in charger)
  • Camera battery charger(s)
  • Sea&Sea o-ringCamera manual
  • See ELECTRONIC SUPPORT for remaining accessories
  • Housing and o-ring
  • Spare O-ring for housing & ports
  • Wide angle port for specific lenses
  • Macro port for specific lenses
  • Extension rings required for specific lenses
  • Strobe(s)
  • Strobe batteries and spares
  • Sync cords (always have backup sync cords)
  • Sea&Sea strobeSpare O-rings for strobes
  • Strobe chargers
  • Diffusers
  • Strobe manual
  • Strobe arms
  • Clamps for arms
  • Ball adapters for handles and strobe heads
  • Bag for arms & clamps
  • Focusing light for macro and night shooting
  • Batteries for focus light
  • Mounts for focus light
  • O-ring grease recommended by the Housing / Strobe Manufacturer
  • Lens paper
  • Screwdriver with multiple tips
  • Jeweler’s screwdrivers (look inside your housing at the controls to see when might need to be tightened after vibrating loose during the flight.)
  • Small Allen wrenches (look at your external housing controls to see when might need to be tightened after vibrating loose during the flight.)
  • O-ring tool, or a smooth pick / toothpick for removing o-rings (NO SHARP EDGES!)
  • Diver Tool KitDuct tape (just standard procedure- improvisation)
  • Cable ties (just standard procedure - improvisation)
  • Multi-tool like a leatherman or small vice grip
  • SCUBA Tool or similar
  • Carry on "personal item" for laptop, camera and lenses e.g. laptop carrying backpack such as a Lowepro Computrekker. (TSA has in the past regarded this as my purse or personal item)
  • Rolling carry-on camera bag for strobes and housing e.g. Tamrac CyberPro Flyer Rolling Photo/Computer Briefcase, Mountainsmith Flightpath, Think Tank Airport rollers
Ancillary items that complement the checklist:
  • Logbook & C-card
  • Current DAN insurance card
  • Travel insurance (this is optional of course)
  • Equipment serial number list for customs and insurance.  One for passport wallet, one in each major piece of luggage
  • Handheld camping scale to balance out luggage (ensure over a 50 pound capacity)

Ideal Option:  Laptop + Hard Drive
  • Laptop
  • Card reader + USB cable
  • Laptop charger
  • Voltage adapters
  • Portable hard drive(s) + USB cables
  • Power strip / surge protector  (or two)
  • Three prong grounding adapter
Alternate options: Viewer + DVD Burner
  • Portable viewer with sufficient disc space (example: Epson p6000)
  • Portable DVD burner (not reliable)
  • USB cables
  • Blank disks & container for burned discs
  • Viewer charger
  • Burner charger
  • Voltage adapters
  • Power strip / surge protector (or two)
  • Three prong grounding adapter

Phase 2: Distribute Into Bags

Here are some ideas on how to distribute your gear between your carry-on and checked baggage. These are just suggestions of how I pack myself.


  1. Camera / Laptop Backpack ("personal item") - Primary camera body, lenses, flash, laptop, hard drive.

  2. Roller Bag –Strobes, housing with backup camera body installed, no lens, with body cap, sync cord, strobe batteries, portable camping scale.  Space and container / pages for DVDs burned during the trip.  THESE DO NOT GO IN BAGGAGE!

  1. Sync cord bag (a small, soft but protective pouch is ideal)

  2. Arms & clamps bag

  3. Port boxes  - Large UK boxes for small ports, or try a plastic cake box for larger dome ports, works like a charm

  4. Bag for remainder of electronic backup / batteries, power strips, chargers etc.

  5. Tool kit can fit in one large Otter box, old mask case, or other appropriately sized case
  6. Folded boat bag (dry bag) -  For tool kit, extra batteries, sun tan lotion, sunglasses, money, etc

I hope you found the checklist useful - you can print out the downloadable checklist before your next trip to make sure that no items get left behind while packing.Enjoy your travels!

Feel free to add any items that you think we left out in the comments below!


Jason Heller
Jun 18, 2009 1:25 PM
Jason Heller wrote:
Very curious to hear comments about what cases and backpacks everyone is using. This is such a topic of debate among all of us.


Carry-on: I LOVE my Mountainsmith Flightpath AT rolling backpack - it's my only carry-on. I pack two camera bodies, lenses, laptop, topside flashes, and accessories like memory cards etc. Also anything really important like c-cards, wallet etc.

Check-in: I travel with 2 Zarges cases and a large Stahlsac dive bag. The Zarges cases are for my housings, strobes and other parts, also pack clothes around my gear (what else are clothes used for?). The cases are lightweight and durable. Need to get thick foam to line the inside of them, but otherwise they are great.

PS: Yes I slightly edited John's piece to through int he Flightpath and Zarges references, I had to :)

David C. Haas
Jun 19, 2009 11:39 AM
David C. Haas wrote:
Good job summing up planning and through to getting it all there to make images!

Thanks John!
Rand Mcmeins
Jun 19, 2009 12:52 PM
Rand Mcmeins wrote:
Hi John, great bit of info. Here's a few things I've learned a long the way...

Great Topic.
I won't repeat some of the things I do that have already been covered. But here's a few other ideas:

1. I pack my Pelican case in a large Duffel. These Things weigh nothing and then I stuff all the non-breakables in there with it. Wet suit, fins etc.
2. I put a basic U/W kit in my carryon. I figure I'll live with 1 strobe, a macro port, 1 scync cord and camera w/ housing.
3. My carryon is hardsided. Sometimes the last plane is a small one and it gets stored with the rest of the luggage.
4. I've had my carryon weighed at check in in Australia. So now if I'm travelling with some one, I'll let them watch it for me until I'm checked in.
5. My computer case is my other carryon. I stuff about 5 lenses in the pocket along with all my cords.
6. And finally, I ordered a hat from National Geographic with their logo on the front. Not saying it helps but, it might...
Erin Quigley
Jun 19, 2009 1:35 PM
Erin Quigley wrote:
Packing for a dive trip has become a real balancing act. In addition to the backpack/rollerbag combination, I wear a Tamrac photographer's vest. It's amazing how much weight one of these can carry, and I've never had it counted as carry-on luggage or been asked to gate check it. Strobe/focus light batteries and cables, spare hard drives and dive computers are carried in the pockets - basically all the small, heavy stuff finds a place in the vest. Even a Nikon D300 body is accomodated and relatively safe in one of the pockets. On a recent trip to Raja Ampat, the vest weighed 34 lbs. OK, so it's a pretty goofy look - sort of haute terrorist, all packed up with batteries and wires - and my lower back doesn't think it's such a good plan, but in the long run I've found the injury to my vanity and spine less damaging than lost luggage stress syndrome...
Jason Heller
Jun 19, 2009 4:16 PM
Jason Heller wrote:
Erin you must be a treat for the TSA folks :)

Recently on the way back from Curacao, I had 4 YS-250 batteries together in a pouch and was called by security to help them inspect it before they allowed it onto the plane. Lesson learned - pack batteries in a less bomb-looking fashion :)
Jeffrey De Guzman
Jun 20, 2009 5:26 AM
Jeffrey De Guzman wrote:
Hi John,

Great article, very useful information you've accumulated.
edward snijders
Jun 20, 2009 11:46 AM
edward snijders wrote:
Hot topic indeed, I have been struggling with -unfair- airline luggage regulations ever when I started diving.. Refuse to start playing golf though...
Now, adding uw video to my diving, does not really ease the problem. For a start I don't think any airline will allow any bag heavier than 32 kilos/70 pounds on board. Any heavier they'll direct you to Fedex.. In Europe airlines officially state you are only allowed 1 carry-on, though you get away with a second one quite often. Travelling from Europe is different anyway: if you fly eastbound you are only allowed one 20 (if you are lucky ) 23 kilo bag, whilst if you travel westbound the 2 piece concept (2 23kilo bags) applies. Going to Polynesia from Europe it is something to remember.. Continental seems to be the exception: they only allow you 1 bag (correct me if I am wrong). The so called budget airlines (Ryanair) are an absolute pain to divers, so they are no real option to travel with equipment.
What did I do to ease the problems? I decided I had to travel as light as possible, my back loves it too.. First I got rid of my massive FX1 Sony HD camera, I figured that as long I am not on NG's or Discovery's payroll, I'm not going to travel with similar equipment. (Though my footage makes it to national television at times and my films are not doing bead at the festivals - check submarines.nl) I changed to some long lasting - single unit video- lights and don't take spare batteries anymore) , went to a small Sony HD camera wjich I put in a light plastic uw box and a selection of wet lenses. My equipment is not taken serious any more, but that's the price you pay :-) Then I found Mac laptops save weight too..
I don't invest in sturdy, heavy duty dive bags any more, but go for 25 dollar, wheeled bags. Weight is 2 kilos, just over 4 pounds. They last 2 or 3 trips. Same for the carry on: a wheeled cheap 15 dollar bag - bought a new one today - just meeting the maximum size (115 cm), weight 1.5 kilo and will last a year. It takes my video camera's, housing, monitor, laptop and lenses and some small stuff like chargers and batteries. Packed close together so it won't rattle.. On some trips I wear a photo vest for the odd case and I confirm they take a biiig load. Went through my dive gear too: use force fins, they are a dream and weigh next to nothing. Cut all the crap from my rig and left 1 regulator, air 2, pressure gauge and compass as I tend to loose direction when I am filming. Lightweight bc, no hard backpack. Don't use heavy cases any more, my diving and video equipment (carry on included) weighs some 45 kilos. I carefully select airlines (Condor Germany is a fair one, but even KLM is not too bad) and get away with my gear.
Long story, planned to share it for a long time already, hope it triggers some useful comments.

Jason G. Kilgore
Jun 20, 2009 11:51 AM
Jason G. Kilgore wrote:
Great aritcle with perfect timing. My wife and I are leaving for Belize in two days. This is our first international trip with DSLR setups. We have done a lot of research on packing guidelines, but this is by far the best.
Angus Walsh
Jun 21, 2009 7:50 AM
Angus Walsh wrote:
As I add equipment so I take less and less clothing with me, heading for Sipadan soon and think the clothes I take will be a pair of Boardies and a T-Shirt :-)
Dee Wescott
Jun 21, 2009 11:39 PM
Dee Wescott wrote:
I also take a housing & tray for my P&S camera. Since I shoot with fiber optic strobes, I can always use my 'back up' strobe with that combination. I just got back from Fiji and it proved to be a life saver! Also, I purchased a backpack which is as light in weight and strong as I can find. (Laptop, 2 dSLRs, lenses, meds and contacts), then I have a kind of 'old lady' looking rolling carry on into which I put my reg and the backs for my strobes. The thing is - if it LOOKS light, they tend to not hassle you. I have devised a system where I use a locking computer cable setup to 'lock' my housing onto the handle rails in my firm sided duffle and then I pack my strobes, minus the backs (I use Inons) in a rubbermaid container. I have a very lightweight strong duffle, which holds all my dive gear and some clothes...anything which doesn't have to be protected and everything else goes in the firm sided duffle. That worked very well on this last trip.
Karen Doody
Jun 27, 2009 5:30 PM
Karen Doody wrote:
I am packing for a trip to dive and shoot sharks and wrecks in North Carolina. I picked up some good tips from this article. Thanks!
Katryna Anderson
Jul 14, 2009 6:54 PM
Katryna Anderson wrote:
I currently pack my DSLR in a Pelican 1650 case but I'm ready to dump that for a carry on option. My concern; carry on weight. Recently I was restricted to 15 lbs for carry on. Since my Pelican barely slides by the 50 lb mark - I'm concerned packing the housing, ports, camera body and lens with my laptop will be around 30 lbs. I like the idea of the photographers vest for walking on the plane and then dumping in all back in the bag if the airline gives me trouble.
I like ed's idea too - reduce dive gear and make weight friendly choices when purchasing gear. I may be able to trim a few lbs there.
Now if I could just find some room for my sarong.

If anyone is using the photo vests - pls chime in on mfg, pros/cons, etc.

Oh, and John - great article. I cross referenced it against my recently created list and I was able to add a few things you had thought of. Thanks!
Jane A. Morgan
Jul 17, 2009 2:41 PM
Jane A. Morgan wrote:
I travelled to Komodo recently and had only 20kg baggage allowance with Cathay. I ended up wearing two photographers jackets with multiple pockets and managed to carry all my lenses and batteries on my person. Although your carry on bag can only weigh a certain amount there is currently no limit on how much weight you can carry in your jackets :-)
Jason G. Kilgore
Jul 20, 2009 7:43 AM
Jason G. Kilgore wrote:
I commented earlier on our trip to Belize. Thanks so much for the packing tips. Our first trip with slr setups was a breeze because of it. My wife and I stuck to it pretty close. We had plenty of backup parts and didn't loose a photo. We did have one advantage that most of you don't. We could split our gear between two people. Our carry-ons were all equipment. Who needs clothes. Customs was very nice to us coming and going. Thanks for the help.
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