A comfortable way to transport gear is essential for a photographer, whether you shoot for a living or you're just a well-equipped enthusiast. Backpacks work—until they're back-breaking—so there's a big need for a less stressful solution. That means wheels.
After the LowePro x200 made a solid showing, we got curious to check out the rest of the wheeled bag world. Here's how the competition rolled.
We upload DSLR photography from a lot of live events here at Gizmodo, so our use of the bags was as real-world as it gets. Each product was fully loaded with DSLR bodies, lenses, a 15-inch laptop, and accessories suitable for various documentary-style video shoots. Over weeks of assignments, we dragged each bag through the streets of Manhattan.
While factors such as protection and ruggedness should all be taken into account, we really wanted to focus on the user experience—the subtleties of the bag that make it heaven or hell to use. Because, really, any of these bags could last a long time and do the job as advertised. But the user experience is a sum of the minor characteristics—how the handles extend, the feel of the pockets, or the resistance in the zippers.
Quality camera bags and cases can get quite expensive—the ones we tested run between $200 to $400—but it's a worthwhile investment for something used daily to protect such expensive gear.
Tamrac's SpeedRoller stands out among the rest because it features two distinct main compartments. One is accessible on the front like the other bags, and the other is situated at the top, for quicker access to a DSLR. This configuration is actually pretty useful to grab your camera without having to set the bag on its side, but it does make the storage space seem smaller overall. Compared to the others, the Tamrac is on the small side, while being the most expensive at $370. But being only slightly smaller than the ThinkTank, it is significantly lighter.
There are no major frustrations regarding usability. The handle extends to a nice length, the wheels are robust, and a tripod fits nicely. It does convert into a backpack, and I found the straps to be comfortable and simple enough to pack away. The biggest issue with the Tamrac 5797 SpeedRoller is its price and insufficient storage space. It's hard to justify a purchase when other bags simply offer more for less cash.
Evolution 5797 SpeedRoller Specs
• Exterior Dimensions: 14" W x 9" D x 21" H
• Interior Dimensions (top): 12" W x 5½" D x 9½" H
• Interior Dimensions (bottom): 12" W x 6" D x 9"H
• Price: $350
• Gizrank: 2.5
The first thing we noticed about the Airport International 2.0 was that it is about as heavy as the Lowepro, despite being much smaller. Not a good start. Aside from that, the interior is solid and deep, with a satisfactory amount of storage. The spacers inside are nice and rigid, but that no doubt contributes to the heft. While the other bags have a nice protected compartment for a laptop, the ThinkTank only provides a stretchy flap over the front of the case. It's good for quick access, but bad for protection and security. You can tightly secure a large tripod on the side, although you have to assemble a series of straps yourself, which is kind of a pain.
One of the Airport International 2.0's marquee features is THREE lock mechanisms. While these might come in handy on occasion, I would rather nix the locks, cut down the price, and just be smart about where I stow my gear.
One of the biggest flaws with this bag is the telescopic handle—when you push it all the way down, it recedes into a cavity and is annoyingly, frustratingly difficult to dig back out. You grit your teeth every time. Overall, this is a quality bag, but it has no significant advantage over the others—and that's when the small frustrations and the $350 price really add up.
Ape is the new kid on the block, with rolling bags that look a bit more youthful than the black and gray classics. The ACPRO4000 has a bright yellow interior, which seems like a gimmick, but it's actually helpful when digging through your stuff in the dark. A set of good-sized urethane wheels have a wide axle for excellent stability. The extending handle was the longest and by far the most rigid in the test. Picking the whole thing up by the handle and toting it up a set of stairs is no problem, and the handle and wheel assembly is also easily removable. That's great—it leaves you with a nice light backpack that you won't look ridiculous carrying around.
The storage options on the Ape are perfectly good, though it would have been nice to see some smaller divisions on the interior pouches. The biggest downside is the lack of a decent tripod attachment option. You can stow a small photo tripod on the side, but it is just not robust enough for larger sticks with a bulky fluid head. The bag does have a soft exterior, which lightens up the Ape and distinguishes it from the rest of the pack, even if it compromises its padding and toughness. The best feature of all, though, might be the price—a steal at $167.
The X200 nails its primary function—storing gear securely in a solid, roomy, well-organized compartment. An intuitive, simple layout fits two DSLR bodies with lenses attached, 2 extra lenses, microphones, accessories, and 15-inch Macbook Pro. Small pouches on the underside of the flap are great for card storage and the like. Securing a tripod is tight and reassuring. It also has a lock on the side, which could come in handy if you need to leave your bag unattended next to a pole of some sort, but I wouldn't even consider it a real advantage.
The biggest flaw of the X200 is the blasted telescopic handle. It doesn't extend far enough! But I'm 6-foot-4, and it might not affect a smaller person as much. The only other less-than-stellar aspect to the X200 are the plastic wheels (the other bags use tough urethane).
Despite those hangups, it is generally a joy, allowing for quick access to gear that always stays securely in place. The Lowepro X200 offers simplicity, durability, and plenty of space. It's not the cheapest, but it's definitely the best.