My gear : bags and cases for storage, air travel, protection and transportation of camera equipment (part 1)

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Camera bags for every situation .....

Some years ago I couldn't understand why my wife never had enough handbags! "Surely you only need one, at most two", I would say. "A girl can never have enough ….." would be the response, “..... you need different styles and sizes for different occasions”.

She probably had a point, because nowadays, apart from being reminded of those conversations every time I mention my ‘need’ for a new camera bag, I would agree, as indeed you can never have enough bags. Fortunately she’s in the same situation as me now, so at least there’s some understanding when that ‘need’ arises. The biggest ‘need’ is having the right bag for travelling, as different locations have their own requirements in respect of the equipment you want, or can, take. Decisions have to be made, which sometimes is simply down to practicality regarding lens choices and what is sensible to take, but more often there’s a restriction due to either international airline cabin baggage allowances and/or local internal light aircraft flight restrictions. Between us we’ve purchased quite a few bags over the past few years for travelling to deal with these different situations, so we now have plenty of options. The biggest problem we have now is where to store them!

Excluding a couple of small rucksacks that I use for daypacks, my belt bag system and my hard case, I have no less than nine different bags to choose from - three are specifically designed as aircraft cabin bags, one is a designated lens bag, two are used for storage, another is a camera and lens holster and the last two are smaller general use bags.


Storage :

The Pelican or Peli range of hard-shell protective cases come in two designs; the original ‘Protector’ case manufactured from polypropylene, and the lighter resin-moulded ‘Storm’ version, both of which are available in a number of different styles, sizes and colours. These tough, crushproof cases are a good choice for storing lenses. I initially decided to acquire one to store my two long lenses at home, but then thought that it would make more sense if I could also use it for safe transportation in the back of my Landrover. So, rather than just storing the lenses, I wanted a case that would ideally accommodate my 500mm f/4 lens with the TC-14E III teleconverter alongside the shorter 300mm f/2.8 fitted with the TC-20E III attached to one of my D810’s. When I first Iaid the two side by side it looked as though the case would have to be bigger than I wanted, but I then realised that if I 'topped and tailed' them so to speak, the required width was greatly reduced. After carefully working out the sizes and looking at the different options I decided that, if I compromised a bit on the amount of internal foam protection, I could just about get away with iM2600 Peli Storm hard case. This model is reasonably compact with external dimensions of 540 x 410 x 210, which is a comfortable size to carry around. And, whilst it wasn’t purchased for air travel, the overall size is just permissible as cabin baggage on certain airlines such as BA, which is a bonus. I purchased this case in 'drab green’ fitted with pick-n-pluck foam inserts rather than the very expensive removable divider set option.

Manufacturer’s link : https://peliproducts.co.uk/products/cases/im2600-storm-case-1411.html

PHOTO (packed)

This case has definitely been a good purchase, and although there’s not that much foam protection between the lenses or to the sides of the case in places, it’s perfectly adequate for my intended usage if handled properly. However, whilst I would be happy to recommend the case I wouldn’t recommend the pick-n-pluck foam as it’s just not suitable. You get three layers of foam, which makes sense as you can form each layer slightly differently to achieve the best fit for your equipment. I spend a good couple of hours getting my foam exactly the right size, carefully plucking little squares out so that each layer married up with the template I’d drawn out. I was really pleased with it as it held the lenses in place beautifully. But, when you start using it, you find that every time you take a lens out it drags the foam with it, which then starts to separate. It would probably come out easier if the lens wasn't protected as it's the lenscoat that ‘sticks' to the foam.

PHOTO (lenses out and foam pulled out)

I still think internal foam protection is a better option than dividers, but in my view there are three issues that I want to overcome. Firstly, the layers need to be stuck together so that they don’t separate - I tried using double-sided tape, but it didn’t work, and I’ve tried ‘pegging' them together with cocktail sticks, which nearly works, but the best answer is to use proper spray adhesive. The second thing is that there’s no point in sticking the current pick-n-pluck foam layers together because they’re still going to start pulling apart. And, thirdly, on the basis that the existing foam would need to be replaced, I want to find better quality foam. I’ve researched this and think I’ve found the right type of foam, which I intend to try one day. I shall update this write-up when I do, but for the record and for anybody that may be reading this and is considering buying a hard case or changing their existing foam, it’s marketed under the name of Plastazote LD33 and is available on line from eFoam.co.uk. It’s a non-absorbant, waterproof, nitrogen expanded cross-linked closed cell foam that’s used for such things as tool storage as the nitrogen filled cells act like a balloon which enables the foam to bounce back to its original shape. It comes in various thicknesses and two different sheet sizes, and costs about three times the cost of the pick-n-pluck foam. For the iM2600 Peli Storm case you’ll need three 515 x 365 sheets that can be cut from a 50mm thick, 1m x 1m square. I’m pretty sure that this foam will work well if carefully cut and stuck together, but it will be a fiddly and time-consuming job to get it right.

With my two main lenses and one camera body stored in the hard case I then use either a Domke F7 or Lowepro ‘Nova’ 200AW bag to both store and take out my spare D810, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, binoculars, belt system (details below), spare battery, cards and various other bits and pieces that are separately stored in two zip-up pouches. Both bags are about the same size overall, but with different advantages. The Domke F7 is a good size bag, being deeper than the original F2 design. It has four decent size pockets, two on the front and a further one at each end, which helps me keep items separated and are just the right size for my zip-up pouches. However, by design and like all Domke first generation ‘heritage' bags it’s floppy and offers little projection, requires separate padded container inserts, and is secured with awkward spring clips. It does look good though! The Lowepro 'Nova' 200AW is well made like all Lowepro bags and comfortably holds all the items I want it to, so I tend to keep those items stored in it at home so I can just grab it when we go out locally knowing that my spare camera and binoculars are in there together with other items as previously noted plus cleaning cloths, insect repellant, suncream etc etc. As the two bags are similar in size I use two of the Domke container inserts rather than the velcro dividers. This allows me to switch from one bag to the other quickly and easily, as my need or whim takes me.

PHOTO (Domke - loaded and open) PHOTO (Lowepro -loaded and open)
Caption such as Domke (left hand photo) and Lowepro (right hand photo)


Air travel :

Oh, the joys and inconsistencies of international air travel. I don’t mind the actual flying, but it’s the hassle of the airports, security and getting on a plane with the concern about where and how your camera bag will be stored is what I hate. Like all photographers I want to carry as much as I can on board myself and have it safe in the overhead cabin locker, certainly not in the hold. I’ve arrived at my destination twice now to find that my main baggage has been left behind - once in Egypt and the other time in Ecuador. Admittedly I’ve been reunited with it quite quickly, but that’s not the point. I’ve also had my bags opened whilst in transit with the TSA padlocks being removed - I presume by airport security, but who’s to say. So with these experiences and the stories you read about lost, stolen or damaged bags, my camera equipment will be taken on board as cabin baggage. If I take a tripod or monopod it will be packed in my hold bag, where I may also pack my binoculars, other non-essential bits of kit and sometimes even a small lens, but all the main expensive fragile equipment must be personally taken on board.

The problem is that different Airlines have greatly varying rules regarding size and maximum weight of carry on bags. The two extremes we regularly encounter are BA who allow two generous size bags with a combined weight of 23kgs, down to the middle east airlines of Emirates, Ethiad and Qatar who we have to use for travelling to the Seychelles that, at the time of writing (April 2016), all have a strict maximum weight limit of only 7kgs. Emirates and Ethiad don’t even allow a separate computer bag or travel pouch. The problem is that there is no consistency - fly to Africa with Kenya Airways and the weight limit is 12kgs, but fly with South African Airways and the weight limit is reduced to 8kgs even though the maximum bag sizes are essentially the same. Generally speaking it’s the weight restriction and not the maximum bag size limitations that’s the problem. Another observation is that, for whatever reason, flying west from the UK seems to be a bit easier in respect of carry on allowances than flying east, as apart from BA, American Airlines also allow two bags with an unlimited weight restriction as long as you can lift them into the overhead locker. However, Virgin Atlantic’s limit is only 10kgs, and with no extra allowances for a personal item like a computer. Another annoyance is that Airlines have a habit of changing their policy from time to time so you really do have to be on the ball when making your travel plans. (NB. all of the weights I’ve quoted here are for example only and are based on standard economy travel; correct at mid 2016).

There’s not much you can do about these restrictions other than try to find another more generous airline which more often than not isn’t possible, or pay to upgrade just so you have a bit more capacity. Personally I don’t take chances as I don’t want to risk having a problem at check-in. I’ll ensure my chosen bag meets the maximum size restrictions, which again differs quite significantly depending on airline and sometimes the destination, and pack to fractionally over the allowed weight. As previously noted, bag size and space isn’t normally the issue - it’s just the damn weight limit. So, if necessary I’ll remove any extra bits and pieces and put them into my safari-style waistcoat pockets that I would use for these types of trip, to get clear of check-in and then stick them back in the bag. Carry on bags are sometimes checked for weight especially if they look heavy. I try to make mine appear light when they ask what I’m taking on board - I just lift it up quickly and refer to it as a camera bag. To date I’ve never had a bag rechecked at the gate, but it could happen, so I would end up keeping my waistcoat on just in case the extra items need to go back in the pockets.

It’s a pain in the proverbial, but you have to deal with it, which is made easier if you start with a suitable bag. I like the general design and build quality of Think Tank bags so have tended to stick with that manufacturer - although I have recently been looking at the highly rated Gura Gear Bataflae 32L ‘butterfly-opening’ rusksack, which is well worth considering.

Think Tank have a well-earned reputation for producing a good quality range of bags including a whole series specifically designed for air travel. This ‘Airport Series’ includes seven types of roller bag and three back packs in various sizes. The only issue being that this is an American company so their idea of carry on limitations is largely based on the more generous allowances that are applied in their area. Nevertheless, the range is extensive so there is bound to be a model to suit a specific requirement. I purchased the ‘Airport Commuter’ travel rucksack when I had my 200-400mm lens. It certainly did the job, but could be very heavy when fully loaded up which meant that, even if that weight was okay as carry-on, you’d risk doing yourself some personal injury lugging it around the airport. So, I then went the next step and acquired the similar sized 'Airport Airstream’ rolling case. This bag solved the problem of physically transporting gear, but due to the retracted handle the internal useable area is far more limited, plus it weighs more than double the weight of the rucksack. And then I also have the smaller ‘Airport Essentials’ back pack that I ‘borrow’ from Tris as she doesn’t use it anymore instead favouring her similar size Lowepro roller case. This is the lightest of the three at around 1.5 kgs and is surprisingly roomy, such that it’s my first choice for many destinations.

I won’t list what each can can carry, but here’s a photo of each one packed with similar gear to give an idea of the capacity.

PHOTO PHOTO PHOTO

Caption Think Tank 'Airport Series' bags (left to right) 'Airport Airstream', 'Airport Commuter' and 'Airport Essentials'

'Airport Airstream’ rolling case - external size : 44.5 cm x 36 cm x 20.5 cm (excl. front laptop pocket), weighs around 4.5kgs
Manufacturer’s link : https://www.thinktankphoto.com/collections/airport-series

'Airport Commuter’ travel rucksack - external size 45.7 cm x 31.6 cm x 21.6 cm (excl. front laptop pocket), weighs around 1.75kgs
‘Airport Essentials’ small back pack - external size 45.7 cm x 29.2 cm x 17.8 cm (excl. front laptop pocket), weighs around 1.5kgs
Manufacturer’s links : https://www.thinktankphoto.com/collections/airport-series-backpacks

(click here for part 2 if you wish to continue reading about additional lens protection, other bags and the waist belt option)