The hard-shell case is the double-edged sword of the photographer’s arsenal—while it’s protective enough to take the abuse of travel, it’s not as flexible as a standard camera bag. Most of the big names in protective hard-shell solutions use one of a variety of foam solutions to protect delicate equipment, which requires permanently modifying the interior of the case. This solution is great for gear that travels but doesn’t ever vary the way that a camera bag’s contents can vary. It’s great to be able to cut foam panels or pluck foam cubes to make a perfect insert for something like a 400mm lens, but if you’re a typical photographer you’re often bringing different gear with you on different types of shoots.
There’s a lot of competition in the case market, and not all hard-shell cases are created equal. Brands like Pelican, Portrabrace and SKB dominate and are among the best known, and for good reason. Decades of durability and scores of stories of gear protected from drops, falls and from the rigors of the airline industry speak for themselves.
With concerns about the increasing scrutiny over the restrictions on international and domestic air travel, it’s likely that more photographers will need to check their gear before boarding a flight. (Our sister publication Outdoor Photographer has some tips for those traveling on restricted flights.) Even those who are prepared to carry on their camera gear often run into issues when traveling on regional jets or propeller planes. These smaller planes often have smaller or nonexistent overhead compartments and very little under-seat space.
On a recent trip to Utah for a press event, I knew I would be traveling on a smaller regional jet for my leg from Houston to Salt Lake City, requiring me to gate-check my bag. Since I was traveling to test camera gear for the magazine, I had three camera bodies, eight lenses and a variety of accessories with me.
While I have several hard-shell cases, they’re all too large for me to have carried them aboard the first leg of my trip, which would have required me to check the photographic gear for both flights, and they also would have been too cumbersome to move with me during my shoots.
SKB, fortunately, had just released their new iSeries cases with photo dividers designed by Think Tank Photo. I’ve been using Think Tank bags for years, and recently reviewed their Shape Shifter V2.0 backpack in a video review, which I love, so I quickly purchased the new SKB case. The iSeries comes in a variety of sizes, and I picked the 2011-7, which, at 21.89” x 13.98” x 9”, is small enough to fit in the overhead on most standard jets and small enough for some of the regional jets as well.
One thing that the newly designed Think Tank inserts added to this hard case is the organizational pouches at the top of the bag. Most of the cases that feature padded dividers still have a foam padding section at the lid. This, naturally, provides a great amount of protection, but it doesn’t provide for additional storage. (A separate model called the “Removable Zippered Divider” offers instead a removable insert, creating a sort of sling-mounted camera bag, if you don’t like the idea of the top pouches.)
The “left” side of the dividers (facing the open lid) includes a laptop compartment that’s big enough to accommodate my 15” MacBook Pro, and the zippered pouches easily held batteries, lens caps, notebooks, card wallets and more. Over-pack the pouches, and the bag won’t close easily, if any gear in the main compartment is sticking up too prominently, but otherwise the container closes easily.
While I had enough gear with me to need to put some in my carry on bag, the case was still large enough to hold a Fujifilm GFX 50S and three lenses, a Sony body, a Sigma 100-400mm lens and a Sony zoom lens. My camera backpack carried a second Sony body, a lens and my cables—enough to let me start shooting even if my bag were lost or damaged. I had planned to remove the laptop prior to gate-checking it, but my connection was too tight to do so. Still, all components arrived without any incident.
I coupled the case with an SKB TSA-approved lock, a padlock that can be opened by TSA (and most hardcore criminals), but keeps out curious ne’er do wells.
The integrated wheels roll well, and a built-in handle lever, found conveniently on the top of the handle, made it easy to go from plane to jetway. A secondary side handle allows the bag to be lifted either horizontally or vertically.
At the end of the shoot, I had to wait for my ride to the airport and a beautiful sunset erupted over the mountains. Instead of standing, I pulled up the SKB case and sat on the top of it, sure my weight wouldn’t hurt the impromptu seat or the contents inside.
There’s no such thing as checked luggage that’s as carefully attended as a piece of carry-on luggage, but the hard-shell SKB case provides some peace of mind and more than enough protection to survive the rigors of photographic travel.
The iSeries is part of SKB’s Flyer Series of cases, which is comprised of 15 case sizes and 29 configurations. Five of the Flyer Series include the new Think Tank padded divider system. The company refers to these bags with the prefix “31” while many of the resellers call them iSeries. The case that I purchased was called the 3i-2011-7DZ on the SKB website, but called the iSeries 2011-7 With Padded Divider at the retailer, for example.
For more information, visit the SKB Cases website at skbcases.com