Equipment bags and cases, like luggage, are simply too personal a decision. How am I supposed to tell you what bag you want? I can't.
Equipment bags must be tailored towards your specific gear, suit your particular business, and fit your work style - your needs aren't the same as my needs, or Videomaker's managing editor's needs or the guy shooting weddings - I can't tell you what to buy. Everyone's needs differ. But what I can tell you is what to look for in storage, and what to expect in each price range. Because although choosing a suitable bag is an individual choice, there are some basic considerations when designing and constructing them that must be addressed if they are to be of any use to anyone. So let's first define what makes a good bag and work from there.
Room for Your Stuff
A proper camera or equipment bag must first and foremost be able to hold all your gear for transport. A camera bag for example, should hold all the basic elements (and then some) that you would need to get a shot at any given moment. You shouldn't need three bags with the essentials spread among them, neither should you put your camera gear with your audio or lighting. (An exception of course being all-in-one bags, if your business lends itself to such a thing.)
Your Environmental Consideration
Upon the second tier of importance lie 3 issues, all of equal significance. First, the bag must keep equipment adequately safe in the environment you typically work in. If you often ship your gear then you'll probably want a hard case with a lock. If you're outdoors all the time, than you'll want it to be water resistant or water proof. The bag must be adequately cushioned, protecting the contents from reasonable impacts and prodding. Gear should fit snugly and not bounce around. Nothing should be knocking against anything else. Most impact to any bag will come from underneath, so it's a good idea to have hard bottoms for sensitive equipment. TIP: Avoid any bag that places your lens vertically rather than horizontally. Ideally you want your camera to "float" in the exact middle of the case, resting in its natural position with padding all around to cradle the lens.
The gear must also be properly organized and easy to access. You don't want to constantly dig to the bottom of your adapters to get to filters that you use on almost every shoot. Often used items should be a reach away, and everything else should be easily locatable. The last thing you need is to waste time searching, un-packing and repacking.
In the Field
While just as important as the previous two considerations, the next factor only applies to field-active bags, like those used with portable audio gear. The bag must be functional. It must do all of the above, yet still allow access to all the ports, levels, and dials on the equipment it's holding. Keep in mind, though, that bags like this are usually for protecting the gear while working, and are not necessarily great for transporting.
The next level of consideration has a wide latitude of values, all equally significant yet often overlooked. Will the case stack well with the rest of the gear? Will it still be functional if you invest in new or different gear? Are the insides brightly colored, or lit up? Can additional padding be bought or must you fudge your own? Are there single or double zippers? Does it fit through a doorway or load in your car? How durable is the bag overall?
Let's think about that last one. How do you determine the durability of a bag? There are clues to look for, though they're not sure signs. Something that might be a plus on a cheap bag (like those tube-like reenforced bindings) mi ght mean nothing if absent on a higher priced bags. Nothing applies in every instance. Check for clean sewing with no hanging threads or massive clumps (a sign of quality control). Look for large-toothed zippers (they tend to last longer). Ensure any links are sealed shut, not simply pinched together. Stronger bags usually have thicker fabric and/or multiple layers sealed all around. When you poke around the bag, you should not be able to fish your finger through to the outside around its layers. If you put your face to the bag do you see light through the fabric? All of these things could be telltale signs that the bag might not last.
What you Pay for is What you Get
Now let's consider price ranges. You could, in theory buy a bag for $30 and be perfectly satisfied with it. It's also possible to spend close to $700 on a case and find it merely adequate. Again, it all comes down to personal need. So what do you get for your money?
Low priced bags are less likely to withstand the test of time, and you'll have to look much harder to find one that will be all you want. Carriers in this range are usually very general-purpose bags. Typically they'll have a few large general compartments, so your gear may not be snug. You'll find yourself shoving improv padding between your gear, piling items, or stuffing things where they shouldn't go. Padding and fabric tend to be lacking on these bags. However, you'll be able to go through five or so of these before you equal the cost of a high-end equivalent. Do your research. Consider adapting bags meant for other purposes like SLR, messenger or simple canvas duffle bags for your accessory gear - the cables, grip, electronics, etc.
Mid-range bags are a strange mix. Beware of bags that cost more simply because they look fancy, yet have the same functionality as their low-end cousins. Between $75 and $150, you'll find more ergonomic considerations (though some will just be gimmicks). Look for more padding, customizability, and strength via better materials. Bags and cases with breakout or expandable sections will permeate this range providing more versatility.
High cost bags and cases are priced as such for a reason. These bags have been researched and designed, thought-out and tested. Many are tailored to specific functions and will carry specific equipment. In this range things can be ordered pre-configured for a specific equipment make and model. These will sport perforated, shapeable padding, and you'll not only be able to customize the dividers inside, but purchase amenities as well. Many will have features you never knew you wanted, like neon interiors and pass-through slots. Shoulder straps will sport leather or molded pads, and almost everything will be water resistant or better. These bags are made for work, though, and as such they'll probably lack the style of the mid-range bags. Nevertheless they'll probably outlast your business.
A Hard Case or Soft Bag?
Assuming you have a choice (some equipment simply comes with one or the other), when should you choose a hard case over a bag, or vice-versa? Hard cases are essential for shipping equipment long-distances. You'll also want a hard case for anything that's pre-assembled and ready to use the moment it's unpacked, like a patch bay, or portable edit system. It's essential to use them for things that are easily broken if squashed or bumped, like LCD panels, light bulbs, etc. It's also best to stow sensitive electronics like wireless mics in such a case. Cases also stack better for storage.
Hard cases are typically much more expensive than a similarly sized soft bag. Bags are more versatile, and can be compressed slightly when trying to fit all your gear into your car. Bags can also be manipulated into holding that one extra piece of equipment where a case cannot. They also flex more and slip less, so they won't tip your entire cart over if you cut your turn short with a loaded dolly. A bag is more ergonomic by definition and thus better for constant carrying, but never never never leave a soft bag with your gear in it in the hands of anyone that ships, transports, carries or moves it other than you or your trusted staff. That's what hard cases are for.
Like the soft bags, hard cases come in many flavors and are designed to hold equipment in a rigid case for storage or to withstand the rough handling of baggage handlers and roadies. If you fly a lot, some hard cases by Pelican and Storm cases, among others, have an air-release valve for airplane pressure. These cases are water-proof and can withstand pretty much anything.
The next time you go out looking for a bag, make a list first of all the things that must go into it. Then consider all you've read here as you look at the possible candidates. Remember that your gear is your livelihood, and giving it a good home is the first step to keeping it happy.
Sidebar: Impressions and Examples
Petrol and Tenba have a wide range of bags in the $100 to $300 range, many tailored for very specific sensitive equipment. Companies like Kata and PortaBrace are all but industry standards, sporting virtual luxury models for your equipment. Hard cases from companies like Magna Case are great middle-range considerations, while companies like Pelican make high-end trunks that are virtual bank-vaults on wheels.
If you're a one-man run & gun production company, you're swimming in the good stuff right now. There's a big push to capture this market and there are some great bags that serve as both backpacks and pull carts, specifically made so one person can transport an entire small production package. SLR or messenger camera bags from companies like Canon, Caselogic and Keisel can easily be used for video lenses and filters.
One bone of contention I personally have though is that I've never met a portable mixer bag that I liked. They're all inconvenient to work with, illogical and lack real thought. I was really impressed though when during my research I came across Kata's Sundo line. The false bottom sounds like it would really keep those wireless receiver cables from harm, an issue I've had more than once. Repairing those cables is not cheap either. If a dual suspension system solves the problem I'd be happy to pay more for it. Sometimes it simply makes sense to go with a top of the line brand.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Bags & Cases Buyer's Guide
Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today's advanced manipulation and compositing tools.