Why not? When choosing a camera case, as opposed to a shoulder bag or backpack, the first option is to hand-carry the luggage. A second is to attach a shoulder strap, if that is indeed an option or a practical solution, and carry the case off the shoulder.
Either proves very impractical for a heavy load, which brings us to the third option: a roller. Granted, you’ll still have to bear the brunt of the case up and down stairs and over rough terrain and grass – you don’t want to subject the wheels to undue stress. But for the most part, you’ll be traversing fairly smooth terrain, largely hotel rooms, airport terminals, and city streets (sans cracked sidewalks and not counting curb crossings). And that’s where a roller shines!
Why a Hard Case?
If you’re traveling by Jeep or Land Rover and pretty much working out of the vehicle, well, then, a hard case is the perfect portable studio, giving you immediate access to all your gear and keeping everything nicely organized.
But even before that, as you transition from point A to point B to point C, you may find yourself forced to stow your gear in baggage on one flight or another. And nothing beats a hard case for the assurance that the gear will make it safely. Although there are never any guarantees.
Granted, some soft-sided cases can tackle the job with equal aplomb – several of Think Tank Photo’s cases come to mind (reviewed previously in this blog).
But what a soft-sided case lacks are several things that point us in the direction of a rigid case, as we’ll soon see…
At the outset, we should point out that this case does meet airline carry-on regulations. But since those regulations are always subject to change, make sure you check with the airline first before leaving on that once-in-a-lifetime trip. (Puddle-jumpers are another matter entirely – but SKB has a solution for that as well.)
Model 3i-2011-7DL (tested: w/Think Tank customizable insert w/lid organizer)
Model 3i-2011-7BP (w/Think Tank backpack)
How much is it?
Model 7DL (tested version w/insert): $229.99
Model 7BP (backpack): $329.99
Where can I order this product (model 7DL)?
Molded vs Fabric Case
We each have our own preferences. And even if we choose to stow our cameras in one type of case, we may opt for a different style altogether when it comes to lighting gear.
Flatness. Molded cases are easily stackable, as they remain flat. Soft cases bulge outward, especially when the outer pockets are filled. This SKB case lies perfectly flat, making it easily stackable. What’s more it stands up straight – no slouch here.
Tripod carrying. This is where the softer case comes to the fore, as it allows you to attach a tripod to the outside. The soft case usually also lets you carry a water bottle in a convenient side pouch. With this SKB case, you’ll have to carry your tripod separately. (The backpack version will, however, let you carry water bottles. That’s also the version you want if you’re flying in a puddle jumper.)
Security. The molded case is tougher to break into than soft-sided luggage. This SKB case can use TSA-approved latches (they’re a purchase option), but built in is a pair of reinforced eyelets for a TSA-compliant lock on each side (locks optional). The reason for the locks is threefold: In case your camera luggage lands in baggage, you take your eye off the case for a few minutes while you grab coffee at the airport (but seriously – how difficult is it to keep a roller at your side?) or in the event you leave the case behind in your hotel room (keep in mind you can tether it to prevent someone stealing the case itself).
Protection for the long haul. Under the most adverse conditions, possibly even to the point of being submerged or in a sandstorm, a top-quality hardshell case will keep your gear safe. The tongue-in-groove (or tongue-and-groove) closure creates a virtually impervious seal, especially when a gasket or specifically an O-ring is added to ensure a tight seal. (I should point out that SKB uses a D cord gasket in this case, noting that it offers better protection in terms of a tighter seal than a conventional O-ring.)
Pressure valve. The best hardshell cases feature an automatic purge valve to equalize pressure changes that result from dramatic changes in altitude. Less expensive hard cases use a manual valve, meaning you have to manually release the pressure prior to opening the case after the case experiences a change in atmospheric pressure. This feature is important to a molded case to prevent damaging the case due to changes in pressure. A soft-sided case doesn’t employ this feature, obviously because it’s not a sealed system. This SKB case employs an automatic purge valve.
Who Should Use This Case?
Travel photographers, wildlife photographers traveling by Jeep or Land Rover, street photographers, photojournalists and documentary/news photographers.
It may not be the quietest ride, but this is a solid carrier for your camera gear and practical to work out of.
SKB’s 2011-7 – Cart Handle & Wheels
Before we get to the innards, let’s look at the exterior. The case comes with a retractable handle for wheeling. The handle consists of a single, wide plastic shaft with a plastic grip, so you avoid that twisting sensation you may encounter with twin-rail systems. But whether one type is more durable in the long run, well, we have yet to see. While I may have preferred the handle to be telescoping, it’s essentially one-size-fits-all, extending and retracting in one smooth motion. The release catch is comfortably and conveniently off to the side, on the handle.
There is one advantage to this retractable handle design: It allows the padded interior to lie flat, sans channels (depressions – one per side – extending top to bottom) that are needed to accommodate rails. And that’s a plus when fitting gear in the case.
However, the handle itself has an extruded groove that is not the most comfortable. I would have preferred that the handle be rubberized and solid all around.
And as for the wheels, I found them to be a bit on the noisy side, especially when rolling over a tiled floor. Although even asphalt proved noisy enough to catch the attention of someone at a worksite about 20 or 30 feet away. SKB could learn a thing or two from Think Tank when it comes to using quiet wheels, as well as rubberized handles.
And speaking of Think Tank…
Check Out That Interior!
I don’t like dealing with foam cubes and especially solid foam: Once customized, that’s it. You’re locked in, unless you buy another foam insert. It may be necessary for scientific and medical instruments, but cameras are not as delicate and don’t require the same tender, loving care. Besides, who has room to store all those multiple inserts for each change of gear?
I much prefer a modular interior, and that’s what this fully padded, fully customizable insert from Think Tank Photo gives you. And before you say anything, I’ve never felt my precious gear was getting anything less than the very best protection inside a Think Tank bag and never felt the need for foam.
You can adjust the interior on the fly. And you get the same protection you’d get in a heavy-duty Think Tank camera bag, with the added benefit of the injection molded case surrounding it. There’s also the option to order this case from SKB (or an authorized reseller) with a Think Tank backpack (model 3i-2011-7BP) – an option you might consider if part of your trip involves puddle jumpers or hikes with your gear. I already have enough backpacks, so I opted for the modular interior, although I realized, with case in hand, that none of my packs would fit inside. The beauty of the insert is that it’s an insert – it’s removable – and replaceable with any bag that will fit, not just the custom Think Tank backpack. So, while none of my larger MindShift Gear backpacks would fit, I did have two shoulder bags – one Think Tank, the other MindShift – that do fit nicely.
The padded insert does make room for the wheel wells. The loss of real estate is minimal, and barely noticeable. In fact, the small “pockets” (or modules formed by the padded dividers) covering the wheels are a perfect spot to hold batteries, cables, flash mini-stands, and other small accessories.
One other advantage to this Think Tank insert: It comes with a lid organizer. Apparently with a layer of foam behind it, the organizer has several pockets – and room for a laptop. I measured it to hold a 13” notebook, which means it won’t hold a pro-size laptop. But it will hold a pro-size tablet – and that’s something to consider.
There are many things to like about this case, not least of which is its solid, weatherproof construction. The case features a pair of the best latches I’d ever worked with on a hard case. In fact, every aspect of this case shouts “use me.” Unfortunately, the wheels are doing some shouting of their own, announcing their presence wherever they go. Sill, the combination of SKB injection-molded shell and Think Tank interior makes for a very practical solution on the road. The interior space is maximized and thoughtfully designed. It may not accommodate a large outfit, but at the same time it forces you to thoroughly map out your gear, so that you take what you need, not what will sit idle.
Addendum: Realizing I needed not another camera case but a lighting case to hold a small Photogenic StudioMax III monolight and Ion Lithium-ion pure sine-wave inverter to power the light on the road, I retrofitted the interior to accommodate this outfit – and it’s a perfect fit, including reflector. Of course, accessories will have to travel separately, which is normally the case, no pun intended – well, maybe just a little.