If you think all gear bags and cases are alike, think again! Bags and cases offer more choices of style, color, type, material, build, support and price than all your other gear combined. From hard cases to backpacks, there's a gear protection support case for every camera.
Before you shop for a gear bag, ask yourself, "Where do I do most of my shooting?" Next question might be, "How much gear will I have to move at any one time?" Then, "Where do I store it when it's not in use?" Most video cameras come in nicely boxed... boxes. They have corrugated cardboard dividers and funny cardboard trays to hold the cables, manual and operation CDs. And they're usually well-packed. But, as soon as you pull that camera and accessory packet out, you've messed with the cardboard-box juju that won't allow you to repack that gear in any way near the original packing. The next time you put the camera away, it will sit in the box with the top open, because you can't for the life of you figure out how to close it. (We know - just look in the Videomaker camcorder closet, and you'll see many a box-top waving in the cool dark abyss.)
Transport and Type
There are two types of equipment bags or cases, soft or hard, and you transport them by handles, straps or wheels, depending on the size and weight of case and contents. This may seem obvious, but think about it: how will you transport your gear? We know some hard-working producers have daily trips on location and keep their gear in their cars. Because they rarely take this case out of the car, they might not care if it's big, boxy and bulky and the handles are too small for comfortable carrying. But the once-a-week shooters or those working in the wilds would be cussing up a storm if they were stuck handling that same case.
Hard casesThese are best for travel when someone else is transporting the gear. We've all heard the jokes about baggage handlers, delivery companies and gorillas beating your case to death. Hard cases typically come in two types: big boxy containers and hard plastic or metal portable cases. Again, consider the load and transport distance. Most, but not all, hard cases come equipped with wheels, and you should check the material and structure of those wheeled bags. For a small roller bag that doesn't carry much weight, you might get by with plastic wheels. But a good hard-sided case, often called an anvil case, should have heavy-duty industrial-strength wheels that you can replace or repair if damaged. (Trust me on this: I dragged a lop-sided, one-wheeled bag all over NAB in Las Vegas last year when the baggage handlers broke one of the plastic wheels. Not a happy traveler, was I!)
Hard cases also have locking devices to protect your gear from prying hands. The more expensive cases have locks on all four sides; others might lock only on the top or handle side. Some have an air-release valve for airplane pressure, and others are so watertight you could use them as a small raft if you end up lost at sea.
Most hard cases have hard dividers that you can't change to suit your needs, so, before you buy, measure first, then plan what you'll pack and measure again.
Hybrid hard/soft casesThese cases are just as they sound: they have soft vinyl sides and padded interiors, but there are hard panels around the edges and casing for reinforcement. They don't fold or collapse, so they protect your gear, but they're usually smaller and carry a lesser load than a hard case. Depending on its size, you might be able to take a hybrid hard/soft case aboard as an airline carry-on.
Soft casesLess expensive, this type of case is the most popular and offers the most sizes, styles and carrying varieties. Some better brands might give you a choice of both shoulder straps and hand straps. Check out the makeup of the strap: will it tear easily if you overload the bag? Hard cases might list maximum weight recommendations; soft cases usually don't. You know it's too heavy when you can't lift the bag! Some smaller soft cases have permanent pockets - a large one for your camera and a few smaller side pockets for the batteries, tapes and cables. If you choose one of these, think about the size of your camera first. Once you place the camera inside, can you close the bag without putting pressure on the eyepiece, attached boom mic or viewfinder? Every time you have to push a bit to close, the bag works at lessening the life of that camera part.
Usually the bigger soft cases have Velcro dividers that you can resize to fit your bag. The bag might not be as strong as those with the preset pockets and might react badly to someone sitting on it, but you hope that won't be an issue. These soft cases are the most versatile, offering shoulder and hand straps, and they can easily accommodate more than just your camera. When you're considering a soft case, make sure meets airline carry-on requirements, as your gear can't handle being in the luggage compartment in a soft case.
Some soft cases or backpacks have hooks, loops and mesh bags on the exterior of the bag for accessories, but it may not be a good idea to load stuff outside the bag if you're flying. I took a trip to L.A. to cover the Oscars last year, and the security at my departure air terminal allowed me to keep my monopod attached to outside straps on the bag. But the return flight security insisted I put the monopod inside the bag; it was just a teeny-weeny bit too big to fit, so I had to check the monopod in, sans protection of any kind.
Backpacks for Video GearBackpacks designed specifically for video gear are nice, but they pack tight, so consider all the other gear you're toting along. Compare a backpack specially made for camera gear to the type kids carry to school, and you'll see how robust and protective the video bag is. It usually has detachable dividers that can give you more space for a larger camera or tuck in to tighten the load.
Remember, backpacks often carry the camera vertically, so pack with the lens pointing up to best protect it. You can wrap a soft T-shirt around the lens for added support. (This is a good tip any way you carry your camera, and the T-shirt can help wipe dust from the camera, too.)
Some backpacks are for day-tripping or short hikes; others carry a heavier load. Some bigger backpacks stand alone and have rugged rubber backing for protection when placed on the ground. If you're hiking only occasionally or short distances, a smaller backpack that holds just the camera might be best for you, along with a shoulder bag for your other gear.
Specialty and Accessory Bags
Many videographers have small separate accessory bags for mics, batteries, cables and other things we tote about, then they pack them inside a larger gear bag or hard case. If each smaller accessory bag is padded nicely, you could use a lighter-weight larger bag to carry all the other gear to your car or location. We like the idea of separating similar gear to grab-and-run quickly.
Bags that are made especially for your support gear answer needs you might not consider. Any old large-enough bag might hold your tripod, but one made for it usually has a narrower reinforced base, to snugly fit the tripod feet and prevent the sharp points from tearing the bag. The zippered area is longer to let you slip the pod out quickly, and the shoulder straps are reinforced for strength. Hard tripod cases have wheels and are often big enough to carry not only your tripod, but light stands too. These are often strong enough to pass the baggage handlers' test.
Bags specially made for your portable audio mixer have clear plastic windows so you can see the meters, and they often have Velcro openings you can pull your cables through.
Consider also a special bag for your lights. Videomaker ships gear all over the country for conferences, and one of our biggest concerns is the light bulbs for our light kits. Most lights we ship live in hard cases made especially for the kit, but the bulbs still get an extra support in their own divided padded box. You can find these small boxes in sewing, craft or fishing stores. The plastic boxes are lunch-box size, have many slotted pockets of various sizes and are also good for the myriad small accessories like RCA-to-stereo mic adapters, multi-purpose ties, extra AAA batteries, etc.
Final Case Point
Remember, one size does not fit all. This buyer's guide should help you select some bullet points to think about. As always, weight, type and materials vary, and it's up to you to decide which bag, box or case best suits your needs. Remember, the most important thing about a gear bag: use it or lose it. Don't let your hard-earned video camera investment be lost due to negligence, because you didn't think a bag was as sexy as that super-duper electronic accessory you've been eyeballing. I recently sent my expensive $3000 camcorder in for repairs due to a rather stupid case of negligence, and the invoice was a whopping $500... but they did clean the lens nicely.
BTW, that cardboard box your camera came in? Close it tightly, with all the materials you don't need and store it neatly in the attic for that just-in-case time that you might have to return it to the manufacturer for repairs (hopefully for some reason other than because you didn't carry the camera in a proper case). Keep it there at least until the warranty runs out. Many of your manufacturers' authorized repair shops won't take one without its original shipping crate.
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's Managing Editor and has been a part-time pack mule for many years.
Side Bar: More than Just the Camera
You have your camera bag and gear accessory bags, but there's also that bag of other stuff you need to carry around.
- Extra batteries
- Cleaning solution made for cameras (in a well-sealed baggie)
- Lint-free swabs
- Lens-cleaning paper
- Extra UV filters
- Business cards
- Small flashlight
- Small multi-tool kit for repairs
- Large plastic garbage bag (in case it rains)
- Small lint-free towel or T-shirt
- Notepad and pen
- Clothes pins (about 5)
Find out more from this Videomaker story: Alakazam! The Magic Gear Bag of Tricks.