As photographers, we’re always looking for the best way to carry our gear when traveling. Airplanes, especially smaller ones, are the most challenging for transporting photo equipment. Checking your cameras and lenses, even in a hard case, increases the risk of damage or theft. Most photographers prefer packing their delicate optics into carry-on bags, and leaving tripods, lighting equipment, and other more robust equipment in checked baggage. This article shows what the author considers to be the best photo carry-on currently available.
Camera Carry-On Strategy
Countless photo website discussion threads talk about various backpacks and bags that will hold the most gear and fit into airplane overheads and underseats. After reading said threads most photographers have adopted a strategy for carrying their gear on flights, with fall back positions. One strategy is to bring a hard case as a carry-on, and a small photo backpack (or photo/laptop case) as a personal item. The carry-on goes in the overhead bin, the backpack/laptop case under the seat. A photo vest would take any lenses in case you need to gate check the carry-on.
The Ideal Photo Carry-On
When traveling by air, remember there is no guarantee that one of your flights will not be switched to a smaller plane. Rather than size your carry-on to meet the maximum domestic size requirements of 22 x 14 x 9 inches, a bag sized to fit into the smallest plane you are likely to fly will work anywhere. Therefore an ideal photo carry-on would meet the following criteria.
- Fit into any airline overhead (say as small as a CRJ 200)
- Not have wheels (wheeled luggage is routinely gate checked on smaller planes)
- Protect your gear if forced to gate check (i.e., a hard case)
- Be lockable (Pelican cases have stainless steel hasps for locks)
- Low weight (to avoid weight penalties)
- Carry enough equipment
- Be easily identified (bright colors)
The new Pelican Air 1525 meets all of these criteria (see Figure 1). It measures just under 22 x 14 x 7.5″, so it will fit into a CRJ 200 overhead (although it is longer than the recommended 18″, some pleading about expensive delicate equipment may help). It doesn’t have wheels but a beefy rubberized carrying handle. It weighs 5.99 pounds empty (see Table 1 below for actual weights), which is less than the other hard cases of similar size. With the optional padded dividers it will protect your gear, and lots of it.
|Pelican Air 1525 Configuration||Weight|
|Listed Weight||5.99 lbs|
|Actual Weight||6.306 lbs|
|Case + Padded Dividers||7.525 lbs|
|Case + Airport Ultralight 2.5||9.375 lbs|
|Think Tank Airport Ultralight 2.5||3.069 lbs|
In fact, the Pelican Air 1525 holds a complete medium-format setup with tripod (see The Best Travel Tripod), ball head, medium format body, 2 lenses and filters (see Figure 2). Even with this full kit, the case weighs 21.5 lbs, which will pass most airline weight requirements (see Table 1). If you remove the egg crate foam in the lid, there is room left over for thinner gear like a laptop on top of the padded dividers.
The base depth is 4.75″ empty, and 4″ deep with the foam dividers installed so there is plenty of room for lenses and camera bodies. The lid is 2″ deep, which allows a laptop or other equipment to rest on top of the padded dividers. The interior is surprisingly roomy. In fact it has more interior length and width than the larger Pelican Air 1535. The 1525 Air is 6.75″ deep, which is slighly less deep than the Pelican Air 1535 at 7.49″. The 1535, however, isn’t that deep throughout the entire base as the wheels and trolley intrude into the space.
|Pelican Air 1525||Dimensions|
|Interior||20.50 x 11.31 x 6.75″ (52.1 x 28.7 x 17.1 cm)|
|Exterior||21.96 x 13.97 x 7.49″ (55.8 x 35.5 x 19 cm)|
|Lid Depth||2.00″ (5.1 cm)|
|Bottom Depth||4.75″ (12.1 cm)|
|Internal Volume||0.91 ft³ (0.026 m³)|
Photo Backpack and Hard Case
One alternative to the padded dividers is a photo backpack. The only photo backpack I’ve found that will fit inside the Pelican Air 1525 is the Think Tank Airport Ultralight v. 2.5 (see Figure 3). It is designed to fit into a Pelican 1510 full-sized carry-on, weighs only 3.07 lbs, and measures 17.5 x 11 x 7″. The last height dimension of 7 inches is the key. If you flip the top lid down, the backpack will just fit within the 6.75″ space of the Pelican Air 1525. The other versions (v 1.0 and 2.0) of the Airport Ultralight are slightly larger and will not fit easily into the Pelican Air 1525, but all will fit within the Pelican Air 1535 and Nanuk 935 cases.
Bag Colors and Theft
Studies have shown that thieves prefer black bags. From a distance, dark-colored bags all look alike. One strategy is to buy the most outrageously colored bag you can find. Pelican Airs come in 4 colors, bright yellow, neon orange, silver, and of course black (see Figure 4). Nanuk cases come in 10 different colors. The yellow model will also not heat up in the sun as much as darker colors. Pelican and SKB made pink cases that would be hard to miss. Some say bright-colored bags say “steal me”, but we prefer hiding in plain sight.
Hard Case and Backpack Alternatives
There are now purpose-built hard and armored cases some with fitted backpacks from Think Tank and Lowepro. The Think Tanks with backpacks are primarily full-sized carry-ons with wheels which will work fine on larger airplanes but when you run into a smaller regional jet you run the risk of gate checking or (horrors) checking your precious equipment. The Lowepro Photostream 150 is an armored rolling case similar in size to the Pelican Air 1525 (21.85 x 14.76 x 7.28″) and weighs only 8 lbs.
Finding a photo carry-on that fits in most airplane overheads while protecting your gear is a challenge. The Pelican Air 1525 handily meets these criteria and is relatively light weight for a hard case. We showed how even a medium format kit can fit into a padded Pelican Air 1525 hard case.
- The Best Travel Tripod: Optimizing a Gitzo GT4552TS
- You can tailor your tripod to your own needs with third party parts. We modified a sturdy Gitzo GT4552TS Systematic traveler tripod from a 4.7 lb model to a lighter 4.24 lb packable that easily fits into a carry-on bag.
- Makers of camera bags, backpacks, and rolling bags including the Lowepro Photostream 150 mentioned in this article.
- Makers of hard protective cases for protecting delicate gear. The Nanuk 935 is a wheeled maximum carry-on sized hard case with similar dimensions to the Pelican Air 1535 (and Pelican 1510). Comes in 5 different colors.
- Makers of hard cases for various transportation tasks. The new Pelican Air series of cases are lighter than their original hard cases and come in various airline-friendly sizes. Includes the Pelican Air 1525 profiled here, and the Pelican Air 1535 wheeled, maximum carry-on sized case.
- Think Tank Photo
- Makers of photographic carrying cases including backpacks, shoulder bags, and now partnering with SKB, hard cases with padding or backpacks. The discontinued Think Tank Airport Ultralight 2.5 backpack is mentioned in this article. The Think Tank Urban Disguise series are also good personal items for travel photographers.
- Why Thieves Prefer Black Bags When Stealing Luggage at Airports
- Bambi Vincent found that thieves prefer to steal black luggage at airports. The baggage areas are lightly guarded, and if caught the thief can say “It looks just like mine.”