Solutions: Hard Cases

When you need it, nothing beats the protection of a rugged, latching, environmentally sealed hard case

SKB iSeries 20117SLR2 Case

As nature photographers, we keep working to lighten our loads. We seek out small and lighter lenses, more compact bodies and tighter accessory packages. To carry the gear, we select bags made of lightweight, yet durable materials with sufficient padding for our particular photographic needs. If you’re habitually gentle with your gear, you can get away with a little less protection than a photographer who tends to toss things around.

For Pros
The major airlines frequently have programs for professional photographers to allow them to check all of their photo gear. This allows a professional to bypass the baggage maximums, but there’s still a cost for the excess bags. What constitutes a pro? Check with your airline well in advance of your trip to see if you qualify and confirm the documentation that you’ll need at the airport. If the employee checking you in at the airport says he or she has never heard of such a program, remember that patience, a smile and a printout of the policy from the airline’s website usually works a lot better than indignant shouting.

As good as camera bags are today, there are still times when the protection of a hard case, despite the considerable weight and bulk, is simply indispensable. For example, choosing a camera bag that meets airline carry-on rules usually allows you to keep your camera gear with you throughout your air travel itinerary. However, if your destination is somewhat remote, and you’ll be flying on commercial turboprop planes or regional jets, you may find that instead of the generous two-bag limit on a 767, you’re facing a gate agent pointing to a sign that indicates a 5 kg weight limit that restricts you to a moderately sized purse. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to have your photo backpack taken away by a random airline employee with little more than a 1980s-era carbon-paper receipt. That’s just one example where the hard case is useful, even if it means you’ll incur some extra baggage costs. For a once-in-a-lifetime photo trip, a couple hundred dollars is well worth it.

To get the most out of your hard case, you need to configure it properly. Manufacturers like SKB and Pelican Products offer divider systems, as well as “pick-&-pluck” foam. The pick-&-pluck lets you customize the layout of the case, but it’s not always the most efficient way to set up. The dividers still give you a lot of flexibility, but your gear usually won’t fit as tightly as if you had used pick-&-pluck foam. These are the trade-offs you’ll have to resolve for yourself.

One configuration that we especially like is a sort of hybrid interior layout. Because the case is really just a shell, you can choose one that’s large enough to carry your photo bag or backpack. Use pick-&-pluck foam to keep the backpack from moving around inside the case, and configure that pick-&-pluck for any special items that you don’t habitually carry in your backpack, but that you want to have with you on your trip. This is a particularly nice solution for the traveling photographer when you know you’ll want to have that photo backpack at your final destination, but you aren’t sure about being able to carry it on during one or more legs of your air travel.