Steve Smith

"Bags and Boxes"

Bill Pierce's piece about camera bags (September TDJ) got me thinking about transport impedimenta for video. Most camera people I know have a shoulder bag to carry around all the important little stuff, like a PDA, a cell phone, a GPS, a Leatherman, a Walkman, and a passel of CDs or cassettes. Sometimes the bag gets filled with other, less useful items, like camera batteries, spare tapes and directions to the location.

These satchels are now generically known as "run bags." You can get ready-to-run bags from makers like Domke and PortaBrace (whose products come small, medium, large, extra-large, curvy and boxy). Or you can go to your local luggage store and see what they have in the way of a canvas shoulder bag. Eons ago, I bought such a generic bag, green in color, and rather capacious in a compact sort of way. We quickly dubbed it "The Green Bag." Over two decades this wonderful carryall served me well on five continents, through three presidential campaigns, two papal trips, three arrests in revolutionary Iran, and myriad other assignments. On occasion, it required some attention from our neighborhood shoe repair shop; a bit of canvas here, a patch of leather there, a shiny new zipper. But a couple of years ago, the old Green Bag was getting a bit too ragged at the edges, a bit too tatty to safely transport my stuff, and beyond economical repair. With great sadness I retired the venerable holdall, and it now reposes in a dark corner of my closet. It was replaced with a rather nondescript, purpose-built run bag. Whereas The Green Bag had gobs of character, this new thing has none. It does its job well, but, well, it's just not something you could come to love. I use it grudgingly.

While the run bag comes on board the plane (along with the camera) as cabin baggage, the rest of the gear rides in steerage beneath us in the cargo hold. This is why hard cases were invented. I once watched a baggage crew at JFK unloading a case carrying our spare VTR. It was not a pretty sight. The guy inside the fuselage passed the case to the guy on the conveyor. Only the second guy missed it. So I got to watch the case plummet (in slow-motion no less) eight feet to the tarmac. Fortunately, there was no damage, except to my nerves.

Like Bill Pierce and many other photographers, I used Halliburtons. However, in the mid-'70s I was introduced to Samcine Cases. These were custom-built hard cases made by former Rolls Royce "panel beaters" in England. They were constructed from unusually tough pebbled-aluminum sheets, welded together, with extra-strong hinges and latches. They were, and are virtually indestructible. Over the years, I put together a fine collection of these handmade hard cases (boxes, as the English like to call them). Some were standard sizes, others I had tailor-made for specific equipment. Whenever we passed through London we tried to stop by Samcine to see what they might have lying about. Once we bought a rifle case made for the London Metropolitan Police force's SWAT-team sharpshooters. It was perfect for my lighting kit. Every Samcine we ever bought is still in service.

Samcine-type cases are still made today by CP Cases in the UK ( ). As wonderful as they are, the problem with these cases is the cost. They are very expensive — $300-600 each.

In recent years, a very good and much cheaper alternative has come on the Market — the Pelican case. These heavy-duty molded plastic boxes come in a variety of stock sizes (and colors). The prices start around $100 and rise to only about $200 for the larger ones. They come standard with "pick and pluck" cubed foam pads so you can easily, quickly and neatly arrange the interior to fit your specific needs. Solid dividers are also available as an accessory. And, the Pelican cases are waterproof! I'm not sure you'd want to take one of these scuba diving with you, but isn't it reassuring to know you could? A Pelican has a black knob on the front. This, I discovered the hard way, is the "purge valve."

After returning to the States from an assignment in Manila, we went to pick the Pelican off the baggage carousel and noticed the top and bottom was dented in. This box contained all our shot tapes and we feared our ramp friends had gone on a rampage and squished the thing with their tug. Someone who knew about these things pointed out the purge valve. "Turn that," he said. I did, and suddenly the Pelican was hissing loudly. This action happened right in front of a ticket agent, who was none too happy about the peculiar sound. "Why is your case hissing?" she demanded to know. I wasn't sure. Then it occurred to me that with the case fully sealed, the change in air pressure when we landed caused the box to partially collapse, and now that the valve was opening, it was equalizing itself. I explained this to the agent. She remained skeptical and called security over just in case. They pursued the black box, opened it and went through all the tapes. Seemingly satisfied, they sent us on our way.

Videosmith uses a lot of Pelicans to house our rental gear and we've never had a failure. Once a latch got broken, but that was easily repaired. I don't think these things look as nice as my Samcine boxes, but they sure work well, and are well worth checking out when you need to safely transport your most precious photographic paraphernalia.