Next to shooting, the thing you most often do with your camcorder is lug it around. If you’re a serious videomaker, you also tote around a lot of other equipment–tripod, lights, headphones, batteries, cables, and connectors.
And whenever you’re in transit, you need to guard your camcorder against a number of potentially lethal hazards. Rain, dust, dirt, bangs, and scratches can all wreak havoc on your unit’s sensitive electronics and optics. Whether you’re on vacation or on your way to your next location, it’s vital that your prized possessions get there in good working order.
There’s only so much you can stuff into your pockets, at least before you start to look silly. And if you’re planning to dig out that old gym bag or backpack, forget it. It’s best left at the bottom of your closet under that pile of old shoes. For protection, convenience, and durability, there’s only one way to go when you’re on the go–video luggage.
Video luggage comes in two basic varieties: hard-shell plastic cases and soft padded fabric bags. There are also heavy-duty flight cases, of the type manufactured by Anvil and Viking, but these are for shipping, storage, and rack mounting equipment. For this article we’ll focus on cases for everyday videomaking in the field.
We’ll consider the pros and cons of hard and soft. We’ll also look at accessory bags and cases for carrying other equipment like tripods and light stands.
The Hard Shell
Hard shell camcorder cases typically consist of high-impact plastic with dense foam padding inside. The camcorder and other accessories such as the AC power adapter, batteries and video cassettes fit into cut-out spaces in the padding.
Manufacturers sometimes supply custom cases with their camcorders. However, for the most part, you have to purchase one separately and customize it yourself. Generally, you do this by plucking out cubes of pre-cut foam, creating a space to match the particular size and shape of your camcorder. You do the same for the accessories.
Hard shell cases may be 100 percent plastic or a combination of plastic and metal parts. Better cases have metal latches, hinges, and frames. They tend to stand up better to wear and tear than their plastic counterparts.
Southern Case, of Raleigh, North Carolina, has been a supplier of hard shell plastic cases to several camcorder manufacturers including Sharp, Canon, Panasonic and JVC.
According to Ron Stringari, consumer relations representative for the firm, Southern uses blow-molded double-walled high density polyethylene to construct their cases. “There’s an inside wall, an outside wall, and a cushion of air in between–as well as foam padding on the inside.”
Stringari says Southern designs their cases to withstand temperatures “down to 40 degrees below zero.” They come with a lifetime warranty against “cracking, peeling, and breaking.”
In addition to the cases it makes for the electronics industry, Southern sells directly to the consumer market under the Travelmaster label.
“Two cases serve the entire camcorder world,” says Stringari. “One is sized for the small 8mm and VHS-C camcorders, the other for full-format VHS models.” The cases, which retail for about $50 and $60 respectively, feature metal locking consoles with an “anti-inversion” mechanism to prevent the case from opening when it’s upside down.
The smaller Travelmaster case features die-cut foam padding. The larger one comes with “quick pluck” dice foam for custom configuring.
Another maker of hard shell plastic cases is Pelican, whose products are widely used by industrial equipment manufacturers of audio, video, computer, and electronics equipment. Pelican makes their cases out of Cycolac ABS plastic and dice foam padding.
Pelican’s Protector case sports aluminum framing, handles, locks, and hinges. An O-ring seal renders the case airtight, watertight, and dust-proof. There’s also a special valve to release pressure which will develop in an airtight case when exposed to extreme temperature changes or travel at high altitudes.
The Protector case comes in two sizes, both of which are available from Markertek Video Supply. The BPL-1600 King Pelican case is approximately 23- by-21 inches and retails for about $152. The BPL-1550 Pro Case measures roughly 17- by 20-inches and goes for about $135.
You can purchase extra dice foam from Markertek in 18- by 13- by 2-inch sheets for $9.99. For $12.99, you get one sheet of dice foam plus one sheet of solid foam for base padding.
Viking, best known for its extensive line of heavy duty flight cases, also offers a line of hard-shell plastic cases. The company makes its Vikilite cases with high-impact scuff resistant Uniroyal R-36 ABS plastic. They feature a raised-rib design for added strength, a piano-style hinge and metal locks, latches and frame.
Vikilite cases, available from Photomart Cine-Video, are 21- by 14-inches with optional depths of four, six, and eight inches. They cut the inner foam padding to your specifications at the time of ordering.
Hard shell plastic cases provide more than adequate protection for your camcorder. They’re great for travel and storage but tend to be bulky and cumbersome for shooting in the field.
The Soft Shell
In recent years, soft padded camcorder bags have become the preferred choice of videomakers on both the professional and hobbyist levels. And there’s good reason. The bags offer good protection and the added benefits of light weight and easy access.
To remove a camcorder from a hard plastic case takes a bit of time and effort–things you often can’t afford to waste when shooting. Because of their size and weight, hard shell units need to be on a flat steady surface before you open them. It takes both hands to release the latches.
A soft bag, on the other hand, can be easily opened while you carry it on a shoulder strap. It takes only a second–and just one hand–to undo a zipper, quick-release buckle, or Velcro-fastener.
Soft bags come in an almost limitless variety of shapes, styles, and colors. Sizes reflect the three basic types of camcorders on the market: ultra compact 8mm and VHS-C, mid-size 8mm and VHS-C, and full-size VHS.
Coast Manufacturing, of Yonkers, New York, bills itself as the “world’s largest manufacturer of photo, video, audio, and computer luggage.”
Coast makes Mohawk brand video bags out of a soft waterproof leather-like material called Charhyde. Mohawk bags are black with tan leather accents, trim, and handles. Inner walls are foam padded and lined with a non-scratch silk-like fabric. All units come with an adjustable shoulder strap.
The Mohawk VM-4100G, at $60, is an ultra-compact 8mm and VHS-C camera tote with a flat-top design and quick-release plastic buckles. A Velcro(tm)-adjustable divider holds the camcorder snugly in place while creating an extra space for the AC power adapter and batteries.
It has a full front pocket for tapes and batteries, as well as a zippered mesh pocket under the top cover for smaller accessories.
The VM-4300G, $70, holds standard-size 8mm and VHS-C camcorders. The unit, which is about one-and-a-half inches wider and a half-inch taller than the VM-4100G, has all the same features plus padded end pockets.
Mohawk’s VM-4700G Universal Camcorder Carryall, $90, is for full-size VHS camcorders. The flat-top bag sports a leather-wrapped carry handle and large zippered front accessory pocket. Quick-release plastic buckles provide a safety close for the zipper-entry main compartment. The unit also features a reinforced platform base and zippered mesh accessory pocket under the lid.
The “Team Dennis Conner” line of video bags from Coast features three bags, each with a Velcro(tm) interior divider, a variety of storage pockets, and weather protection flaps.
Made for ultra-compact 8mm and VHS-C camcorders, the TC-2400 is the smallest of the three bags at 10 1/2 by 5 1/4 by 4 inches. At $50, the camera bag offers zippered, mesh compartments, and a full front pocket with a Velcro(tm) closure. It’s side weather flaps can be reached through the bag’s top flap.
A slightly roomier bag, the TC-2500 is designed to accommodate most compact 8mm and VHS-C camcorders. Along with the interior divider, it features a dual, full-front compartment, two side pocket flaps and weather flaps on the top and end pockets. It has a list price of $60.
The TC-2600, at $80, provides extra storage space–four and one-half inches longer, three inches wider and one-inch taller than the TC-2500. Full-sized pockets sit at each end of the bag. It also includes weather flaps, and in the cover flap, it has two zippered accessory compartments.
Coast offers several other styles of camcorder bags including its Accent, Stars and Stripes, and Coastar series.
Stars and Stripes bags are made of a blue oxford nylon outer fabric and a polyfoam inner-wall, with a silk-like material inside. The three video bags include many of the features in the above-mentioned bags, including zippered accessory pockets, hand grips with detachable and padded shoulder straps, Velcro(tm) adjustable dividers and combination of storage compartments. They come in three sizes, and range in price from $25 to $35.
A wide range of video bags is also available from Z-Bag. Its affordably priced Escort line offers a choice of two exterior fabrics: vinyl-coated 70 denier nylon or vinyl-coated 600 DP nylon. All bags are water-resistant, foam padded, and lined on the inside with 200 denier Oxford nylon.
Z-Bag’s VC-60, $25, takes 8mm and VHS-C cameras. It has a zippered top, vinyl hand grip, and adjustable padded inner divider. The VC-63, $28, for slightly larger camcorders, features a padded false-bottom divider for extra storage space. The mid-size VC-65, $35, offers the same false bottom plus an adjustable side divider.
For full-sized VHS camcorders there’s Z-Bag’s VC-68 ($40). Features include a zippered top, wrap-around handles with vinyl grips, and full-length padded inner divider.
Z-Bag offers other camcorder bags in its Sovereign and Classic lines.
Tamrac makes its bags out of tough DuPont Cordura Plus nylon. Inner walls are fully padded with closed-cell foam and an additional padded ABS plastic platform lines the bottom for extra support. Larger models in the Tamrac line employ a torsion bar in the lid to assure weight distribution.
All Tamrac bags feature a foam-padded divider and zippered mesh pocket for accessories. A leather-wrapped handle and adjustable shoulder strap are also standard. Colors include black or gray. Certain models, such as the 970, 972, 973, and 974, can be worn around the waist for hands-free carrying. Tamrac backs all its products with a five-year written warranty.
Tamrac’s 980 Camcorder Briefcase is a top-opening bag designed to hold any 8mm or VHS-C camcorder plus a 35mm SLR camera with extra lens and flash unit. The 15- by 10.5-inch bag easily converts to accommodate most full-size VHS camcorders and accessories.
The 980 has a padded height-adjustable platform which creates a lower-level storage space. You can access this space from the top by lifting the hinged platform, or from the outside via a zippered accessory hatch. The bag retails for $144.
Other makers of soft padded camcorder bags include Sakar, Solidex, Ambico, Photoflex, and Lebo.
A camcorder bag can hold quite a bit, but it can’t hold everything. As your productions become more involved, your equipment arsenal expands proportionately.
One of the first things you need is a place to stash all those extra audio, video, and power cables you’re lugging around. Tenba’s Zip-Grip bags may be just the thing. These lightweight, unpadded bags have heavy-duty carrying straps and a full-length zipper across the top to keep things from falling out. They come in three sizes, ranging in price from $55 to $75.
For batteries, connectors, adapters, tools, and other small accessories, you might consider Telepak’s gaffer bags. Made of sturdy 400 denier nylon packcloth, these lightweight, padded bags include carry handles, shoulder straps, and zippered side pockets. All seams are double stitched and hot knifed for added strength.
The T-Gaf bag, and smaller T-Minigaf bag, are available from Comprehensive Video Supply Corp. for $120 and $90 respectively. There’s also Telepak’s T-Hip bag. At $90, the unit features several zippered pockets and you can wear it around your waist for hands-free convenience.
If you’re looking for a carryall for scripts, folders, pens, business cards and date books, there’s Telepak’s T-Brief director’s attach for $135. Constructed of the same material as Telepak’s other bags, the T-Brief sports a fold-down front panel for easy access to file slots, quick-release buckle, carry handle, and shoulder strap.
Porta-Brace offers an extensive line of production bags and accessories which are well known to professional videomakers.
Porta-Brace products are a bit more expensive than most, but they’re extremely well made. All are made of tough 1000 denier navy blue Cordura nylon. Bags and cases are typically padded with one-inch thick foam. They come loaded with Velcro-fastened pockets and heavy-duty steel or plastic buckles, hooks, and zippers.
Porta-Brace’s Run Bags are sturdy satchels designed for carrying cables, mics, batteries, and other bulky accessories. They come in lengths of 18, 21, and 25 inches with main compartments of about seven inches wide by nine inches high.
Inside there’s an adjustable divider and two large slip pockets. Outside lie two full-length zippered pockets with an additional slip pocket at each end. The bags come with suede-wrapped handles and a lightweight webbed nylon shoulder strap. Prices range from $132 to $142.
A step up in price and quality are Porta-Brace’s crush-proof production cases. Available in five sizes, the lightweight but rigid cases are made of bonded foam and sheet plastic between layers of Cordura nylon.
Top of the line is the PC-3 production case which is nearly 28 inches long, 13 inches high, and nine inches wide. Features include adjustable inner partitions, slip pockets inside and out, see-through mesh pocket system on the inside cover, numerous exterior pockets with color-coded tabs, and Velcro(tm) “Piggin Strings” for hanging cables on the outside.
The PC-3 goes for $354. Mid-size and smaller versions of the production case are also available at prices running from $330 to $189. All cases include a heavy-duty two-inch wide webbed nylon shoulder strap with foam covered leather pad.
Two other Porta-Brace products you might consider are the BP-2 Waist Belt Production Pack and the PV Production Vest.
The BP-2, $123, consists of two small zippered pouches attached to a waist belt with quick-release buckle. The pouches have a zippered main chamber plus exterior Velcro-sealing pockets and open slip pockets. The packs are large enough to hold videocassettes, batteries, lavalier mics, headphones, and cables.
Porta-Brace’s PV Production Vest, $195, comes in four sizes: small, medium, large, and extra-tall. Made of the same durable navy blue Cordura nylon as other Porta-Brace products, the vests sport numerous zippered and Velcro- fastened pockets. The vests are given a generous cut for wearing over heavy clothing.
If you’re using a small, lightweight camcorder tripod, there’s not much difficulty toting it around. Even if you’re packing a lot of equipment, this type of tripod easily fits into, or straps onto, many of the production cases in this article.
When you move up to larger professional-style tripods, it’s another story. Professional tripods are heavier and bulkier than typical consumer models. They’re also a lot more expensive. So, if you have one, you’ll want to protect it.
As with camcorder cases, tripod cases come in both hard- and soft-shell varieties. Cases sizes vary according to length and diameter. For a proper fit, you need to measure a tripod at its widest part. This is usually the head. For large professional tripods, it’s often necessary to remove the pan handles for packing.
Tenba offers several high-impact plastic tripod cases. The tube-shaped carriers have a protective inner layer of foam padding and plywood panels for reinforcement. A telescoping lid has a built-in five-inch height allowance and secures with a steel-buckled nylon strap.
Tenba’s tripod cases range in price from $108 for a 25- to 30-inch long, 6.5-inch diameter model to $194 for a 54- to 66-inch long, 12-inch diameter model.
Tuffpak also offers tubular tripod cases. These black polyethylene tubes are octagon shaped to prevent rolling. The base and lid are padded with two-inch polyurethane foam. An additional quarter-inch layer of high density polyethylene is bonded to the base to deter damage from tripod tips.
Large twin handles are molded right into the case and the lid has a telescoping allowance of five inches. A web strap is permanently mounted to the lid and fastens with a quick-release buckle to the case. Prices range from $285 for a 26- to 30-inch long, 9-inch diameter case to $335 for a 39- to 44-inch long, 11-inch diameter case.
Tenba’s TC series of low cost lightweight fabric cases can carry both tripods and light stands. A carrying strap loops around the bag and supports most of the weight. The strap includes suede shoulder pads which snap together to form a single carry handle.
A full-length nylon zipper provides easy access. A wood insert at the bottom of the bag guards against tears from the tripod’s pointed tips. There’s also a built-in flap pocket on the outside for accessories. Available colors are black and gray. Prices range from $47 for a 32-inch long by 5-inch diameter case to $98 for a 70-inch long by 10-inch diameter case.
Soft tripod and light cases are also available from Telepak and Porta-Brace. Foam padded and more sturdily constructed, they’re also quite a bit more expensive, ranging from $140 to $300.
For the ultimate in lightweight low-cost tripod carriers there’s Comprehensive’s Picupstix. Simple but effective, Picupstix straps around tripod legs and features a Velcro-fastened handle which adjusts for optimum balance. You can configure the strap for either shoulder or hand carrying. Best of all, it’s only $29.95.
Once you have all your equipment packed away and ready to go, it will probably dawn on you that you still only have two hands to carry all this stuff. Unless you’re lucky enough to be working with a crew of weight lifters, it pays to invest in at least one more piece of travel gear–a luggage cart.
You’ve probably seen luggage carts at use in airports. Pilots and stewardesses couldn’t scurry from one terminal to another without one.
A luggage cart is sort of a lighter, more compact version of a dolly or hand truck. Made of steel, they generally weigh around 20 or 30 pounds. The unit folds down to a compact size for hand carrying or stashing in your trunk.
Of course, carts aren’t much good for rugged terrain or going up and down stairs. But they can be invaluable in most other circumstances.
Travel carts are available from both Comprehensive and Photomart Cine-Video. Comprehensive’s CA-4, at $99.95, boasts a frame of chrome-plated steel tubing and has a carrying capacity of over 200 pounds. It features four-wheel suspension and 57-inch stretch cords with plastic hooks for holding equipment in place.
The Nalpak TK-300 Travel Kart, $160, from Photomart, is a two-wheeled cart with a carrying capacity of up to 300 pounds.
It sports a patented one-motion open/close feature and stretch cords for securing equipment. The TK-400, $190, is the same cart with the addition of rear swivel-type wheels for extra support and stability.
In the Bag
When it comes to shooting in the field, the golden rule is to travel light. All equipment seems to grow heavier during the course of a production, especially when there’s a lot of moving around. Wherever possible, it’s smart to cut out excess weight and bulk.
Padded bags offer a good deal of protection for your camcorder and other valuable equipment, but they’re not indestructible.
You have to exercise a little common sense anytime take your equipment in the field.
First of all, never cram more into a bag than it’s designed to carry. More items may fit, but it’s likely to compromise the pack’s protective abilities. Particularly important, if your camcorder is in a bag, never put other items in with it–even small ones. It only takes one little adapter or cable connector to scratch a lens or break off a switch.
A soft padded case can protect a camcorder against bumps and bangs, but it can’t withstand against crushing.
Never stack a camcorder bag under other equipment bags and cases. Extruding parts, particularly the viewfinder on many models, can easily break if you apply enough pressure.
Finally, when choosing a bag or case, look for quality workmanship. On hard cases, check the durability and strength of the hinges, locks, and latches. On bags, examine the quality of the stitching and seams. Test the zippers, hooks, handles, and straps. Evaluate the toughness of the fabric.
Don’t be taken in by good-sounding bargains. A sturdy, well-made case may cost more, but it will provide you with years of dependable service and be well worth the investment in the long run.
Robert Borgatti is a video producer and writer for a community college.