ThinkTank Airport International
A Rolling Camera Bag for International Flights
When it comes to camera bags my attitude is a bit like that of Imelda Marcos with shoes – one can never have too many of them. In my case though it isn't an esthetic desire or a neurotic compulsion. It's just that I shoot with a variety of gear in a wide range of situations. When rafting the Colorado River or on a Zodiac in the Antarctic, something like a Lowepro Dryzone is most appropriate. When working out of my car on a long road trip, a large case or two is handy because weight and bulk are not an issue. When hiking, a backpack style bag is the one to have.
Flying, especially since 9/11, has changed the travel equation. Airline regulations have become tighter and more strictly enforced. Bag restrictions are in place, and some countries, like the UK, restrict everyone to a single carry-on, even in Business Class. Also, while domestic US and Canadian flights allow fairly large carry-on bags, international flights have strict limits on carry-on size and weight.
Not wanting to check any more of ones camera gear than one has to means both careful equipment selection and packing. It also means having a bag that is within legal limits for international carry-on size, and weight. (We'll discuss the issue of weight a bit further along).
The new ThinkTank Airport International is the latest bag to try and meet the needs of the photographer traveling on international flights. A sample arrived for testing just a few days before I was to leave for my February, 2007 Antarctic Workshop Expedition. So, I unpacked the bag that I'd prepared, and loaded my gear into the International. My comments in this report are based on experience with the bag on this particular trip.
On The Road to Antarctica
This particular trip presented several packing challenges. I would be away for a total of 23 days, 20 of them aboard ship. Our destinations were the Falklands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. I was on a total of four flights, Toronto to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires to Usuauia, and then the same again on the return leg.
This trip meant a range of shooting opportunities including both landscape and wildlife. Consequently I wanted to bring my medium format system, which consists of a Hasselblad H2 with three lenses and a P45 back, as well as the Canon 1Ds MKII and several lenses.
Remarkably I was able to pack almost everything I needed in terms of bodies and lenses in the International. I put extra batteries, cables, chargers and the like in my checked luggage, inside my Dryzone 200, which is the bag that I used when we did our shore excursions. The Dryzone went into my duffle bag, and contained all of my shooting accessories, as well as binoculars, GPS, satellite phone, and the like. A Crumpler shoulder bag was used for my laptop, tickets, passport, magazines, and such.
I'm quite happy humping a camera backpack when I'm shooting, but I find that doing so through airports is a total drag. For this reason a bag with wheels is a must, and in this regard the International does the trick.
Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 400
The Issue of Weight
Airlines are very arbitrary when it comes to enforcing carry-on weight. On Air Canada no individual piece may weigh more than 22 lbs (10Kg). The International bag empty weighs about 10 lbs, depending on the combination of dividers used. That's the bad news. The good news though is that it's usually easy to work around this problem.
Here’s what I do. I travel wearing a shooting vest with big pockets (or at least have the vest on top of my clothing in my suitcase, where it can be easily found, if needed). If I am hassled at check-in over the weight of my camera bag, I simply remove the largest camera body and heaviest lens and put them over my shoulder. (You are allowed to carry a camera as well as your bag. They don’t say what the camera can weigh). If this still doesn't get you under the weight limit, put another lens or two in a vest pocket.
This strategy has worked for me a number of times. If you wish you can then put everything back in the bag once you leave the counter area. I know that it’s bending the rules, but the rules are rather arbitrary, and arbitrarily enforced, so this doesn't bother me.
Try and put as much heavy and non-critical items as possible in your checked bag. This includes batteries, battery chargers, cables, tripods, etc. Just carry in the camera bag the things that you absolutely need to have, and which are delicate and / or expensive.
When the bag arrived I was very impressed with its overall fit and finish. Materials are first rate, as is construction quality. The bag is also covered by a no-nonsense lifetime warranty. Any failure due to materials or construction and the bag will be fixed at no charge.
The interior is comparable to most current bags, with a surfeit of removable solid though padded dividers which velcro into position. The interior can therefore be configured a number of different ways, and large lenses up to and including a 400mm f/2.8 of 500mm f/4 can be managed. There is also an optional set of low dividers available that allows a laptop to be carried inside the bag. This arrived too late for testing, but I likely wouldn't have used it this trip as it reduces the thickness of lenses that can be carried. UK-based photographers may find this to be just the thing due to the 'one bag" restriction, though a laptop can also be carried in the bag's external stretch pocket – though not as securely.
On my trip to Antarctica I filled the bag up with a Hasselblad H2 body with Phase One P45 attached, three Hasselblad lenses, a 35mm, 55-110 zoom, 210mm, and a 1.7X. I also included a Canon 1Ds MKII and Canon 24-105mm, There was still room, so I placed on board two portable hard drives and various small items such as extra batteries and cards.
There are carry handles located top, side and rear, and also a hidden pull-out telescoping pull handle for wheeling the bag through airports.
I was also impressed with security features. The zippers can be locked with a very cleaver combination lock mechanism, which also has a TSA key. This means that if you have to check the bag for any reason, it can be locked, yet still is accessible by the TSA. There is also a small hidden compartment at the rear of the bag which contains a securely attached steel cable. This allows you to lock the bag to a stationary object – handy when you want to leave your locked bag in a hotel room, for example.
An elasticized pouch on the front panel can be used to hold a 15" or smaller laptop. This is very handy since its necessary to remove laptops most places for security inspections, and when they're buried inside a bag this can cause awkward delays.
Canon 1Ds MKII with 24-105mmL IS lens @ ISO 100
The strong construction, quality materials, and extensive features are all welcome, except for the fact that they all add weight. Depending on accessories used, the International weight about 10lbs empty. This is fully half of what a single carry-on bag can weigh on most airlines.
Short of filling the bag with helium, here's my strategy when flying. Except when flying in and out of the UK (as of Feb. 2007 at least), all airlines allow you a second carry on bag, which they describe as a "personal item". This is something like a purse or briefcase. I choose to use a soft shoulder bag that I use for miscellaneous items such as wallet, iPod, passport, books, etc. It's larger than I need, but then if I am hassled at check in I can always transfer some of the contents of the International into it. I also always fly with a shooting vest on. One with large pockets. Again, if challenged over the weight of my carryon bag I simply take out a few heavy lenses and put them in my vest pockets. Since each of the two bags can weigh 22 lbs (10KG) on most airlines, this means that as much as 44 lbs in total can be carried on board. If a size legal bag like the Thinktank International is used, then coping with the hassles of flying can be minimized.
In The Field
One trip and four flights (even though half way round the world) are not an adequate test of a new bag, but are certainly enough to confirm that the ThinkTank International does what it claims it will. It fits perfectly in the overhead compartment of several different types of aircraft, and because of its small and unobtrusive nature elicited no attention from ground staff, even though it weighed well over the allowed amount.
In Buenos Aires the bag fell off an overloaded luggage trolley onto concrete, and otherwise received the abuse that bags in transit normally receive. It performed its task of transporting my delicate equipment safely, and looked every bit as good at the end as it did at the beginning.
Like all Thinktank products with which i have experience, the International is of first-rate construction and materials. If international air travel is where your photography leads you, the Thinktank International may be just the bag for you.