Burly Bags - Extreme Protection for your Precious Gear
In the virtual motor pool of camera transport, there sits parked a wide range of bags that are marketed with overused terms like 'ruggedized,' 'all-weather,' or 'weather-resistant.' These phrases are used so often that they have almost ceased to have any horsepower under their top flaps—they certainly don't denote any lab-tested, respected international standards ratings such as JIS or IPX. For photographers who require that a camera carrying case or bag withstand a multi-day trek, harsh weather conditions, or military use, a large number of the 5,000-plus bags B&H carries don't make it too far down the road. Most bags are tough, but are not designed for extreme climate conditions. The list of cases that are built to be 'expedition-grade' (another shopworn term) is a fairly short one, and consists of two primary models: hard cases and sealed backpacks. What follows is an overview of each, outlining its respective boons and banes.
For the ultimate in equipment protection, you can't go wrong with a Pelican case. For those who thrust expensive or delicate gear into harsh and nasty environs, the Pelican case is ubiquitous. For starters, each case is sealed to prevent water and dust penetration, and is supercharged with construction that makes it resistant to the worst that airline baggage handlers can dish out. Because it is completely airtight, there is an equalization valve that balances the air pressure inside, so you can open the case following a seven-hour flight without using an intricate system of ropes and pulleys. If you haven't experienced the combination of a fully-sealed container in rapid transfer from high to low pressure, let me assure you it can stick more tightly than a rusty bolt on an old engine block.
There is a great variety of Pelican cases, assorted by dimensions and colors. The smallest can comfortably cradle an iPod or point-and-shoot camera; the largest can safely transport a full studio-lighting kit with accessories. There is a selection of three interiors: entirely empty, for papers or items that are not fragile; a set of removable padded dividers for camera-specific cases; or most interestingly, completely filled with customizable “Pick 'N' Pluck” foam. This pre-perforated foam can be removed so that each piece of equipment fits snugly into a niche that reflects its contours.
Also available are HPRC cases that should look somewhat familiar, as the company has the same sort of relationship to Pelican that Benro has to Gitzo. Say what you may about free-market economics, international copyright or intellectual property: ultimately, HPRC cases pose a somewhat less costly avenue to protection from water, weather, and impacts for your delicate equipment.
Generally, videographers and filmmakers comprise the client base for Porta Brace , but its cases, especially its hard cases, are pretty bad-to-the-bone and are equally suited for carrying still-imaging tools. Like Pelican, Porta Brace offers foam or padded dividers to organize and protect your gear, and their hard cases are water-tight, with pressure valves. What makes them unique is that some Porta Brace cases sport a secondary level of organization including an array of pockets, pouches, and pillows to further protect and separate equipment.
Soft-Shelled Dry Bags
As is obvious, a soft-shelled bag cannot withstand the same sorts of impacts and severe damage that a hard case can. Conversely, a backpack or shoulder bag is much more transportable. B&H carries a whole slew of durable nylon, cordura, and canvas bags, of which you may own one or two. They are excellent bags for everyday use, but they are not designed to absorb the fury of a South Asian monsoon, or the ice floes of Tierra del Fuego. For that level of climatic chaos, there is one obvious choice: the Lowepro Dryzone series of bags. Taking their cue from water-sport dry bags, the Dryzone packs are constructed of a plastic-coated nylon and sealed with waterproof zippers, in order to encapsulate not only your camera gear but other survival or comfort items as well. The bags are well-proven in the field, and you can confirm this with photographer Brooke McDonald. If her name is not familiar to you, then you have never encountered an employee of Lowepro at a trade show or cocktail party. Brooke's adventure, and her reliance upon her Lowepro bag, is a bit of photojournalistic legend, and the good people at Lowepro are fond of relating the account of her tale of survival. While Brooke was trekking on the ice sheets of Labrador, Canada, photographing the 2004 seal hunt, she fell through the ice. The Lowepro Dryzone 200 backpack she was carrying provided enough buoyancy to keep her and her gear from being sucked underwater and drowning. The telling of this tale is usually followed by the disclaimer: The Dryzone is simply a camera bag and is not intended to function as a flotation device, so it should not be used as such. On the other hand, it is certainly comforting to know that your bag not only can protect your equipment, but on occasion, your person as well.
I think the Dryzone is certainly a brag-worthy bag series. For day hikers, paddlers, divers, and the like, this bag offers superb protection for your equipment with all the features you would find in a typical camera case such as padded dividers, pocket organizers, and proper hiking-pack features like an adjustable harness and waist belt. The unique bonus is that the bag can shield your goods in a completely submersible exterior. The Dryzone Rover comes the closest to any camera bag I have ever seen to providing an outdoor photographer with compartments not only for imaging gear, but also equal space for camping/emergency supplies, as well as what must be a first for the photo industry—a internal hydration bladder pocket (although this is standard in the camping industry). But don't worry: The included hydration reservoir is housed in the upper section of the pack and is thoroughly separated from the lower, water-proofed camera compartment. As I am an avid hiker and paddler, you may read about my experiences with the Dryzone Rover in a follow-up article at a later date. In the meantime, I have hopefully fueled you with some helpful suggestions for safe gear transportation, next time you are up for an adventure. I'll leave you with this last tidbit that is inherently obvious: try to stay dry, but if you can't, use a waterproof case; you can at least keep your gear dry.
For a list of all products highlighted in this article, click here