I love my 600mm lens, but how do I get it there? Traveling with a super telephoto lens.

Most wildlife photographers start out using smaller lenses and work their way up to large super telephoto lenses as time goes by. In the beginning, I had a 300mm f4 and like most, lusted after larger lenses but wasn’t sure that wildlife photography was something I would stick with long enough to justify the expense of a larger lens. Once I saved enough and pulled the trigger on a 600mm lens I couldn’t wait to travel and test it out. My first trip with this monster was to Jackson Wyoming and Grand Tetons National Park. I knew it would be the perfect lens for the trip but getting it there on the plane was concerning and would take some thought.

Young Pronghorn Antelope Grand Tetons National Park

Anybody who has purchased a large super telephoto lens can tell you they aren’t cheap. Anybody who has flown on a plane can also tell you that baggage handlers and airport personnel really don’t care what happens to your bag or what’s inside it. Put two and two together and things can often get lost or stolen or at the very least be severely damaged. When any of these things happen what you end up with is a very expensive and useless wildlife photography trip. Therefore, thoughtful wildlife photographers rarely check their precious cargo and try to keep as much of their gear with them in the cabin as is possible. The number of packs that exist to help us complete this task is almost overwhelming. I, like most others, have multiple packs to achieve this goal including a Lowe pro 300 nature trekker and Lowe pro 600 aw trekker, a Tamrac 5793 evolution super telephoto lens pack, and an f-stop Tilopa.


The choice of what pack to take on a trip is not always easy. Many factors enter into the choice and it can be an agonizing one to make. How much and what type of gear do we plan to carry in addition to our supertele? What body will we use with our supertele? What type of plane will we be traveling on? All these come into play. Considering them all, the most important of these factors might be what size plane you are traveling on. The size of the plane may limit the size of the carryon that will fit in the overhead bin or under the seat. Remember the scene at the beginning of the movie Midnight Express when Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is smuggling hash out of Istambul and he gets caught on the airport tarmac about to board the plane.

The anxiety he is feeling just before he gets caught is what most of us wildlife photographers feel waiting to board a plane with thousands of dollars worth of gear knowing that at any moment we could be forced to gate check our bag simply because the airline personnel doesn’t think it meets the carryon requirements. Into the hold it goes, subject to the brutality of the baggage handler we’ve all seen through the window. Our bag being thrown around in a fashion similar to that gorilla in the old Samsonite commercial or being left behind or worse yet, stolen.


Pacific Creek Road, Grand Tetons

I live in west Texas and the quickest way of traveling from there to Wyoming requires flying to Denver and then on to Jackson using regional jets flown by United Express. United Express at the time utilized CRJ-700 by Bombardier. Other regional carriers utilize similar small jets or prop planes. These regional jets have smaller cabins and smaller overhead bins. This demands a bag that will carry all our gear but be small enough to fit in the overhead or under the seat. Of all the bags I have, the Tamrac 5793 evolution super telephoto lens pack (currently the Tamrac Anvil Super 25 Backpack) accomplishes this task the best and with the least amount of worry that the gate person will ruin your adventure.


Tamrac 5793 evolution super telephoto lens pack

The pack is long and thin and designed to carry a 600mm lens with a body attached. If however, you remove the central padded inserts, the pack is capable of holding a surprising amount of stuff. In order to maximize space, I remove the lens hood which is large and bulky and utilize a soft travel hood made by Lenscoat. In addition, I wrap each lens and body in protective neoprene covers also obtained from Lenscoat.

Travel Hood by Lenscoat
Lenscoat protective neoprene lens cover

By utilizing this combination of padding with this Tamrac pack I have been able to carry My Nikon 600mm f4, 70-200mm f2.8, 35mm f1.8, 14-24mm f2.8, 2 Nikon D500 bodies, and a 1.4 teleconverter, as well as batteries and memory cards. The pack is heavy but remains thin enough to be placed in the overhead bin of small commuter jets as well as be placed under the seat. On larger planes like 737s, it fits easily in the overhead bin. The smaller thinner size is less conspicuous than larger packs and is, therefore, less likely to be noticed by the gate agent as you board. On numerous occasions, I have gleefully passed right by without being stopped as others have had their packs and carryons gate checked and banished to baggage hell.

Traveling with large expensive photographic equipment can be nerve-racking and difficult particularly on smaller regional carriers where space may be limited. The next time you take your supertele on vacation, consider using a long lens pack in a little different way than it was intended. These packs will safely hold a surprising amount of gear when packed correctly. In the end, you may find it’s a lot easier to get there and you’ll sweat a lot less in the boarding area.

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