In The Bag – Traveling With Photo Equipment

I’ve seen these posts on a few forums and blogs, so it’s nothing unique, but thought I’d join the fun anyway, spurred on by some of the forum discussions about camera bags and cases. Maybe I can offer some options that would have otherwise gone unconsidered.

Many photographers are gear-heads to some extent… and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that one particular segment of photo related equipment gets a lot of attention: camera bags. Considering that photography is still a fairly male dominated occupation/hobby, the irony isn’t lost that the quest for the perfect camera bag is much like the lure of handbags for many women.

Camera bags and cases essentially boil down to utility – how to best transport equipment from point A to point B (and C, D, E…). It’s about traveling with equipment, whether in town or around the world. For this reason there isn’t a one-bag-fits-all solution and each photographer will have unique requirements. Therefore the following is simply my opinion about what works best for me.

10-15 years ago, when I took public transit everywhere, I had to be able to fit everything in one bag. I chose a Lowe Pro Trekker (B&H) backpack. It was big enough to haul a 400 2.8, two bodies, 70-200 2.8, wide zoom, a few primes, batteries and what was that stuff we used back then…? Film! Other than film, this equipment collection is today still quite common among sports photographers because the 400 2.8 is still the field sport lens of choice. One problem with so much equipment, other than the expense – it’s heavy! 10-15 years ago that didn’t bother me much, but it does now. Therefore I try to carry as little as possible in heavy bags and instead prefer anything that rolls. My current favourite is:

Pelican 1510 hard case with inserts (Pelican 1514 @ B&H)

While not perfect (what bag is?), this case is solid. Literally. And it rolls! And it’s carry-on approved! For the traveling photographer, this is the greatest “peace of mind” roller one can own. Needless to say, anyone who flies hates to check equipment due to potential bag delay, loss or theft. Sometimes it’s necessary and can’t be avoided. But the 1510 (B&H) is a case that can pack enough gear to get you through a job as either the sole equipment case or in addition to checked gear, yet is small enough to bring aboard as a carry-on for any 3+3 configuration aircraft (737, A319, A320) and larger, as well as many 2+2 such as the ERJ-175 and even the newer Dash 8 Q400 turboprop (though for some, like the CRJ 700 it’s a very exact and tight fit).

This is the ideal roller for unexpected air travel surprises, such as a smaller than promised plane that won’t accommodate large carry-ons. Because it’s hard-sided, there’s less need to worry about equipment damage when it’s gate-checked. Everyone else’s bags are usually soft sided, meaning it’s the Pelican that will be inflicting rather than receiving damage. Other advantages: you can sit on it if all the seats in the lounge/waiting area are taken, you can stand on it to get a slightly higher vantage point over a crowd, it’s weather proof, it holds a lot, it rolls! Pelican offers a lifetime warranty, meaning if anything breaks or the case is somehow destroyed, they’ll repair or replace it free.

As I mentioned it’s not perfect. The wheels don’t have much ground clearance, don’t like rough pavement and have a tendency to wear out after a few years (and will be covered under warranty). Forget about gravel, sand, etc. It’s definitely not an ‘off road’ roller, but it’s a great case to have in the truck when off roading. It’s kind of heavy, which is a ‘problem’ with all Pelican cases. Mind you, if you’re flying with this fully loaded in the US, it probably won’t be over 40-45 pounds, which is the carry-on limit for most US carriers. If you’re traveling outside the US, then it could be an issue. Check your airline’s carry-on policy for clarification. Pelican cases are also a fairly accurate hint that the owner is hauling something expensive, which could attract the wrong kind of attention. It has been advised, at least when checking in a Pelican case, to disguise it in a duffel.

Anyway, there are a couple options when buying a Pelican: foam or inserts. I always go for inserts because they are a lot more flexible when I need to repurpose one case for various equipment sets. Also note that I’m using the foam lid padding rather than the optional lid organizer shown in the product photo above (from the Pelican web site). Here the foam will provide better protection than the lid organizer.

What can I fit in a 1510? Here are a few examples:

In the first image above, it’s a two camera (1D series) kit with a number of lenses. I haven’t included small accessories such as batteries, memory card wallets, etc. to reduce the clutter (and am using the flash for these photos). As you can see, there’s room for a lot of lenses. While the 1510 isn’t a very deep case, it is possible to transport longer lenses. They just have to be positioned lying down. But as shown, it’s possible to layer equipment to maximize capacity (in this example with a 300 f/4 (B&H) and 70-200 f/4 (B&H)). One other space saving trick I learned a while ago, which will be evident throughout the samples shown here, is to leave the rigid plastic Canon lens hoods at home. They add too much to the girth of lenses and waste space. A superior alternative is the well made Mamiya collapsible rubber lens hood (B&H). It has a 77mm thread and through the use of step rings can be adapted to any other common filter size.

The second image above is my typical “flying to a football game” kit. Two 1D cameras (B&H), 400 2.8 (B&H), 16-35 (B&H), 70-200 (B&H) (shown here with the 2.8, but I typically leave it at home in favour of the f/4 IS version, even for some night/dome games) and a 1.4x TC (B&H). Sometimes I also bring a flash. The monopod is a Giottos 9150 (B&H). It’s not great. Fully extended it’s a bit short for me (I’m 6’3″) and flexes a lot, but because I almost always shoot from a kneeling position, it’s acceptable. The wide pivot foot is also nice because it doesn’t raise concerns from TSA screeners who might otherwise consider it too much like a weapon (though apparently photo equipment such as monopods are considered OK by TSA). I chose this monopod primarily because it fits inside the case, which makes traveling easier and less likely for me to accidentally leave it behind. There are other small monopods on the market, but not many that can adequately support a 400 2.8, and this one is also reasonably priced.

The third photo shows that the Canon 600 mm f/4 IS (B&H) will also fit the 1510. In fact, all Canon super-telephoto lenses will fit the 1510 (the 800mm f/5.6 (B&H) is only 5mm longer than the 600).

BTW, the lid does close, even with the big lenses with hoods reversed. It initially takes some force to close, but once the lid foam gets used to being squeezed that much, it becomes less of an issue. However, it’s necessary to leave the Canon front lens cover at home (who uses those anyway?) because it adds too much to the overall diameter. Does the tight fit in the 1510 offer enough protection? So far so good.

While not practical when transporting such large lenses, there is a lid insert with a few mesh pockets (in the photo from the Pelican site above) that can be used in place of the stock egg-crate foam to add storage options. I haven’t tried it with the 1510, but use one with the 1560 case. I think I prefer the foam lid padding for the 1510 because it will better cushion and hold equipment in place.

There is also a version of the 1510 on the market called the Laptop Overnight Case (B&H) with a laptop sleeve fitted inside the lid. Unfortunately the laptop lid insert isn’t available separately, otherwise it would make a nice addition to an equipment set such as the one in the first photo above. As it stands now, when I travel I generally bring a 1510 and a daypack backpack (see below). Most of the equipment is in the 1510 while my laptop and related accessories along with a change of clothes, toiletries, etc. are in the backpack.

Update Porta Brace makes a laptop insert (B&H) for the 1510!


But sometimes it’s just not practical to use a roller. For such times I prefer a backpack because it will evenly distribute the weight from the typical kit with which I like to work, unlike a shoulder bag. The kit can weigh as much as 13kg (about 29 pounds), which is too much for me to hang off one shoulder for any extended period of time.

As I mentioned earlier, years ago I used a large Lowe Pro Trekker backpack. Not any more. I find most photo dedicated bags too rigidly padded, which adds excessive bulk. Sure, it’s nice to protect equipment, but my preference is towards minimal padding such as that found in the Domke (B&H) line. But Domke doesn’t offer a backpack that I like. A few years ago I decided to look at options outside the camera bag manufacturers and settled on the Arc’teryx Blade 21 daypack, which has since been discontinued and replaced by the Blade 24. The Blade series seems to be aimed at urban use for carrying a laptop and related paperwork. It’s somewhat unique among backpacks by having the zips only along one side, making it more like a briefcase than a typical backpack. The design allows it to sit upright on its side, making it easy to access equipment. The zipper design limits access, improves equipment security and doesn’t require the whole bag to be opened to reveal its expensive contents to others nearby. Two large compartments run the length of the bag, divided by a layer of nylon fabric, make it possible to separate equipment into two groups. The backing is double layered with a soft but dense molded foam backed by a rigid sheet of plastic. This design ensures comfort by preventing objects inside the bag from pressing uncomfortably against your back.

So then, what fits in the backpack?

Surprisingly, pretty much the same that fits in the Pelican 1510 (minus the 300 f/4).

Lenses in Domke inserts (B&H) sit in the main large compartment. Shorter lenses are stacked to maximize storage.

Two cameras fit in the smaller of the two main compartments.

To maximize storage, spare batteries and memory card wallets are placed on top of the cameras. A 580EX size flash will also fit in here.

Two Mamiya collapsible rubber lens hoods (B&H) and the Canon 16-35 lens hood sit on top of the lenses.

And it all zips closed nicely. The backpack isn’t tiny, but it’s much smaller than a large Lowe Pro Trekker.

Size is a consideration when traveling by air. Not just because there are specific restrictions, but also because bags that look big, even if carry-on OK, have the tendency to catch unwanted attention from check-in and gate agents. A smaller backpack such as the Blade doesn’t stand out in the same way. Another tip when carry-on weight might be a concern is to never allow your body language to reveal that the bag is heavier than it looks.

Because of the side zip design, it means equipment can only be accessed from one side, which allows the use of Domke inserts (B&H) for organization:

As mentioned, shorter lenses are stacked. In the image above, the leftmost compartment contains the 85L and 50L stacked. The next compartment contains the 70-200 f/4L IS. The middle slot holds the 1.4x TC and 16-35 MkII. Second from right is the 135L and the rightmost the EF12 extension tube and TS-E 17mm f/4L. (All links to B&H)

The modular nature of the Domke inserts (B&H) means that a single compartment insert could be used to hold a camera in place of one that holds a couple lenses. This is useful for a smaller, lighter core kit, which as shown here is my preferred combination of 85L, 50L, 70-200 f/4 IS, 1.4x TC, 16-35 and a body. The second compartment in the backpack is freed up for a change of clothes, rain gear, some food and water, etc. or a moderately sized laptop such as the Apple MacBook with 13″ screen. A 15″ laptop would probably be too large (though the current Blade 24 may accommodate a 15″ in the outer compartment).

How about something even smaller…

This is a Mountain Equipment Co-op Flux sling bag. At only $34 CAD it’s pretty inexpensive, but nicely made and large enough for a basic kit of one body, 16-35 and 70-200. There’s still enough room for a 1.4x TC, maybe a 50mm prime and/or a flash.

So that’s pretty much my main preference for equipment transport. I also use a few larger Pelican cases, but primarily for lighting equipment. I used to transport the 400mm and 600mm together in a Pelican 1610 (B&H), but the combined weight was well over 50 pounds, which now triggers airline overage fees, and is difficult to manage. My preference now when I travel with the 400 and 600 is to put each in its own 1510 roller. Separate smaller cases mean the equipment is much easier to manage and easier to pack creatively in a nearly full trunk. Because the 1510 is so practical, I use it in place of the Canon supplied long lens cases for storing the lenses.

Another bag/case brand worthy of mention is Think Tank Photo. They make a line of roller bags that are very popular, aren’t too large and can carry a lot of gear. The only reason I don’t own one is the added peace of mind the Pelican offers when traveling by air. As I mentioned before, the Pelican minimizes travel stress related to unexpected surprises such as having to check or gate check equipment. But Think Tank offers more than just rollers. A bag that caught my attention recently was the Urban Disguise 35 from the Urban Disguise line. It can carry a 13″ laptop, two 1D series cameras and a fair number of lenses, yet does not look very large. It will hold close to what I pack in the Blade 21 shown above. In the meantime, it’s something I’ll leave for future addition to this review…

If you’ve found the information on this page helpful and are considering purchasing Pelican or any other photographic equipment, clicking through with the following links to purchase at B&H Photo Video would be greatly appreciated!

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