For years, my primary photo pack has been my version 1 Kiboko Gura Gear backpack. It's awesome, and I will continue to use it until it falls apart (no sign at all of that happening soon). Nonetheless, while a backpack is great for hiking or shooting on site, it's not comfortable for air travel and doesn't offer protection from the elements or shock for ground or water-based travel. As a nature photographer, my gear goes from jets to small regional planes to boats to dugout canoes to buses to vans and the back of a jeep or pickup truck. Keeping gear safe while traveling is a primary concern for any photographer.
For the past year or so, I've found myself yearning for something more comfortable for air travel and also something more rugged for the rest of the time. A rolling bag such as a ThinkTank Airport International or Security fit the bill for the first consideration (and they are great bags) but isn't that rugged for field travel. That's when I found the new Pelican Air 1535, which is the updated version of the Pelican 1510.
The Pelican Air 1535 is a rolling case that is lightweight (about 30% lighter than the previous 1510) and sized to be carry-on legal for all normal air travel. The interior dimensions and exterior are similar to those of a soft rolling bag like the aforementioned Think Tank rollers. And what's best is that you can buy the Pelican Air 1535 for less than $200, about half the cost of most soft rolling bags.
The Pelican Air 1535 offers four buying options. One is to buy the case with a thick foam insert, but that is quite a bit more expensive and very limiting as you have to cut the foam to fit exact pieces of gear. Plus you lose a lot of space. The second and third options are to buy the case with some sort of divider system (padded or TrekPak) but these raise the price yet more.
The fourth option, the one I chose, is to buy just the case. I spent just $187.50 for that. I have plenty of padded dividers at home from previous camera bags and cases. I can configure these to fit the Pelican Air 1535 depending on the gear I take for a given trip. The way I've been packing, however is to use some other things I already had on hand — Neoprene lens pouches by Neweer or Optech, Neoprene body sleeves by Lenscoat, and padded accessory pouches from eBags. I simply load everything into the empty case, play a little Tetris to organize things most efficiently, and then close the lid of the Pelican Air. This way I can maximize the interior space and also have my gear doubly protected. (See the video below for this packing method in action.)
This latter method is also the way I packed for a photo project in Ecuador a few weeks ago with my NGO, the New World Conservation Photography Group. It worked out great, and I was able to fit the following gear in the Pelican Air 1535:
Canon 7DII with battery grip
Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 telephoto zoom (C version)
Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom
Canon 16-35 mm f/4 L IS zoom
Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 fisheye lens
Rokinon 24 mm f/1.4 lens
2 flashes plus various radio transmitters
Filter packs with holders and adapters
Misc. remote releases, batteries, and other accessories
You might notice that there is no super telephoto lens in the gear listed above or in the gear I pack in the video review below. In my own photography, I'm moving away from long lens work in favor of more creative and environmental photography. But, if I wanted to, I could easily fit my 300 mm f/2.8 L IS I in the Pelican Air 1535. A Canon 500 or 600 mm f/4 L IS II, a body or two (gripped or pro), and some TCs and other accessories would also fit. But, note that I don't consider the Pelican Air 1535 to be the best option for the bird photographer except perhaps for specialized trips where having to check gear is a fairly high probability. Rolling the dice with the larger and just barely legal (and maybe not once it's stuffed full of gear and expanded a bit) Think Tank Airport Security is probably your best bet. I've noticed that the Think Tank bags look larger at the gate and tend to attract more scrutiny from dubious airline agents. But again, for a dedicated bird photographer, this just may be the price to pay. Another option of course is to use a backpack such as a Kiboko. Having this on your back and acting nonchalant always worked for me in the past :-)
Given the current state of air travel, being forced to check camera gear is a concern that, while unlikely, is real. If I would absolutely have to check my Pelican Air case, I would feel reasonably safe doing so (though I would probably order a whiskey in flight!).
But, I have a backup plan. I stuff a small portable backpack in my laptop bag (my personal item that goes under the seat). If forced to check the Pelican, I would take the most expensive/delicate pieces of gear out and place them (still in their Neoprene sleeves) in my little backpack and then carefully place that backpack in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of me. The Pelican Air 1535 could then be checked, and I would feel just fine about having some accessories and the like inside.
Checking all of our camera gear is obviously the very last resort but it's good to have the peace of mind that my gear would most likely be safe even if faced with this worst-case scenario. And it sure is great to roll through the airport rather than shouldering a heavy backpack. Once I arrive to my destination, I love having the security of the Pelican case as I load my gear into buses and the beds of pickup trucks.
Once on site, I've been using small packs and a belt system for daily shooting. That works out pretty well, but on future trips, I am going to be incorporating Think Tank's Shapeshifter backpack. I can either use it as my second carry-on (it has a nice laptop sleeve and a slot in back that slips quite easily over the Pelican's rolling handle for walking through the airport). Or, since the Shapeshifter lays flat, I could simply pack it in my suitcase quite easily. The Shapeshifter would then serve as my gear pack for my daily shooting while in the field.
I find the Pelican Air 1535 to be a great option for the traveling photographer. I've taken it to Ecuador and Chile over the last few months, and it will be with me any time I travel outside of my home base in Costa Rica for my photography.