We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to carrying camera equipment, but most methods demand you literally shoulder the burden. So if you travel frequently, long distances, or simply need to carry some serious gear, try putting it on wheels with a roller bag - you won’t look back.
A roller camera bag is basically a rolling suitcase that contains customisable dividers tailored to support cameras and lenses. Not only are they more comfortable than a backpack, roller bags also tend to be tougher. You can expect a rigid back, base and sides, and most designs include exterior scuff protection in vulnerable areas.
With wheels taking the strain, it’d be tempting to buy the biggest bag you can afford. However, for maximum travel versatility, a bag that fits airline carry-on limits is a smarter buy. The exterior thickness of a bag tends to be the toughest dimension to satisfy when choosing a flight-friendly bag, with most carriers rejecting cabin bags over 23cm thick. To ensure you can keep your gear by your side on even a budget airline, a 20cm-thick bag is a better bet.
Providing unmatched gear support and protection, with plenty of easy access pouches and even a backpack-conversion option, the Manfrotto Pro Light Reloader Switch-55 is the pick of the bunch. However all the roller bags here are very good and still deserve your consideration.
Read on to find out more...
Five things to look for...
- Flight friendly? A bag measuring 55 x 35 x 23cm will see you through most airline check-ins – but many airlines won’t allow more than 10kg in weight.
- Divide and conquer: Interior width is critical when packing larger lenses. Well-designed dividers can adapt to super-telephotos.
- Built to last? Roller bags can take a lot of abuse. Wheels should be replaceable, while reinforced outer corners and undersides add longevity.
- The complete package: Look for bags that boast a laptop slot and a tripod attachment system. Easy-access outer pockets are a bonus.
- Little extras: A roller bag with a pair of backpack straps helps with stairs or rough ground. Expandable compartments are also useful to have.
1. Manfrotto Pro Light Reloader Switch-55
A superbly versatile roller bag that’s suitable for all terrains
Exterior dimensions: 55 x 35.5 x 23cm | Weight: 4kg
At first glance this looks like a typical roller bag. Its external 55 x 35.5 x 23cm dimensions meet most airline cabin baggage requirements, and this translates to an equally practical 47 x 32 x 18cm interior - enough for a decent selection of full-frame cameras and lenses in a variety of configurations. A large, top-loading slot on the front panel can accommodate a 17” laptop, and there’s a tripod attachment on one side.
The Reloader Switch-55 is also beautifully made and feels reassuringly rugged. Its internal skeleton resists hard knocks and abuse, while generously thick internal padding cossets your gear.
But the standout feature of this bag is that it can also be worn as a backpack. Discreetly stowed in a concealed front pocket are two wide shoulder straps that pack impressively flat. The conversion isn’t the quickest, but the end result is surprisingly comfortable. Despite the straps and quality build, the bag still weighs a reasonable 4kg.
2. Think Tank Airport International V3
Uncompromising quality and thoughtfully designed - it nails the basics
Exterior dimensions: 53.3 x 35.6 x 20.3cm | Weight: 5.2kg
This may be one of the priciest camera roller bags you can buy, but you get what you pay for. It's built for pro photographers, and the interior is cleverly shaped to fit a pair of gripped DSLR bodies and lenses as large as a 500mm f/4. There’s also space for a 15” laptop and 10” tablet, plus a tripod on the side. It’s carry-on suitable at 53.3 x 35.6 x 20.3 cm, though we measured the external thickness at 23cm.
Though many of the bags in this guide are built to last, the Airport International V3 exudes quality at every point, from the handle to the zippers. It lacks the sheer rigidity of a hard case, but zipped shut it still manages to retain its shape when stood on, partly thanks to the excellent, well-padded rigid dividers.
Smart touches include a four-stage extending handle that only intrudes half-way down the bag when stowed, generously-sized underside scuff panels, a stout zipper lock, and even a coated cable and combination lock to tie the bag to an immovable object.
3. Manfrotto Pro Light Reloader-55
Easy-access storage in a tough exterior
Exterior dimensions: 35 x 23 x 55cm | Weight: 4.2Kg
The Reloader-55’s boxy design and 55 x 35 x 23cm dimensions fully use the carry-on size limits of most airlines. That gives it a very practical interior size and layout for camera gear. You can also fit a 17in laptop and 10in tablet in slots on the outside of the front flap for easy access, and the underside of the flap contains plenty of pouches for filters and memory cards. There are also subtle extra features - a nice touch being an integrated zipper locking point on the side of the bag, which secures the main zippers more elegantly than a padlock. This bag also gets the essentials right. Manfrotto’s extra-thick dividers are sized to fit perfectly around full-frame kit while giving unmatched gear support and protection. Outside, the tough exterior is well-reinforced on key wear points, and includes user-replaceable wheels of a common size.
4. Tenba Roadie Air Case Roller 21
Ultimate gear protection in a surprisingly portable package
Exterior dimensions: 53 x 35.5 x 23cm | Weight: 4.7Kg
It’s a shuddering experience: you’re about to board your plane, only to be told there’s no more room for cabin baggage and your precious camera gear will have to go in the hold, at the mercy of baggage handlers.
This needn’t be a worry if you’ve got a Tenba Air Case. Designed as a cross between a conventional roller bag and a tough hard case, the Air Case is exceptionally crush-resistant. We were able to stand on the bag and it easily retained its shape - only the Think Tank Airport International V3 bag comes close, unless you step up to a hard case. The secret is a solid internal construction that encases the whole bag - not just the top, bottom and rear panels. It’s basically a hard case dressed as a roller bag.
The Air Case range comes in many sizes: the Roadie Air Case Roller 21 is cabin-compliant at 53 x 35.5 x 23cm, and though it’s substantial construction restricts interior space to 45.5 x 30.5 x 15cm, it’s still a practical space for gear. There’s also an easily removable camera insert, but sadly no laptop slot.
5. Calumet RC1188 Rolling Camera Case
Practical and spacious at a reasonable price
Exterior dimensions: 36 x 25 x 53cm | Weight: 6.5Kg
As roller bags go, the RC1188 is at the cheaper end of the scale, yet it feels every bit as rugged as pricier rivals. You get reinforced outer corners, rigid sides, and plenty of scuff protection underneath – although all this toughness adds up to a 6.5kg unladen weight, making this the heaviest case on test. Its 25cm thickness could also be problematic at some check-in desks.Inside, the padding and dividers are adequate, if not as impressive as the exterior quality. A 30cm internal width is about 3cm narrower than average in this segment, yet that’s enough to make it a tight squeeze to fit fast full-frame lenses alongside each other. But Calumet claws back ground with extra features. The entire padded interior can be lifted out and has its own lid and carry handles. The practicality doesn’t stop there: the front flap will expand by a whopping 19cm, effectively doubling the capacity of the bag.
6. Tenba Roadie Universal
Weatherproof and ready for the elements
Exterior dimensions: 36 x 25 x 53cm | Weight: 4.8Kg
Tenba is keen to promote the construction and material quality of the Roadie, and it does indeed feel extremely rigid and robust. There are features like a weatherproof ballistic nylon exterior – reinforced in vulnerable areas – plus superb handles all round and user-replaceable wheels. Size-wise, a 51cm height makes the Roadie a shade shorter than the Manfrotto and Think Tank bags, but helps ensure it can stay with you as cabin luggage. You’ll still be able to carry a couple of bodies and up to eight lenses, with enough width to fit typical full-frame lenses three abreast. Ample interior padding offers good kit protection, if not quite up there with the Reloader-55. Out on the front panel there’s an easy-access slot for a 17in laptop, along with a well-designed tripod attachment system. Round the back, a rear pouch containing a steel security cable can tether the bag with an optional padlock.
7. Vanguard Alta Fly 55T
For smaller APS-C kits, this bag is a decent value-packed option
Exterior dimensions: 54.9 x 34.6 x 21.9cm | Weight: 3.9Kg
Unusual among camera roller bags, the Alta Fly 55T boasts a four-wheel design for ultimate manoeuvrability. And the features don’t stop there. You also get backpack straps so the bag can be carried over rough terrain, and Vanguard includes generous lower back padding and a simple waist strap to further lighten the load. There are even covers for the two rear wheels to protect your back from dirt. Despite all this, weight is still a reasonable 3.9kg, and while the overall rigidity is nothing special, gear padding is sumptuous.
However, the 4-wheel setup inevitably eats into interior capacity, as the 54.9 x 34.6 x 21.9cm external dimensions shrink to a bijou 40.9 x 31.1 x 11.4cm inside. You can fix this by stepping up to the larger Alta Fly 58T, but that’s not carry-on compatible like the 55T. Alternatively, there are the 49T and slightly larger 48T that use a conventional two-wheel design and sacrifice backpack straps to maximise internal space.
8. Peli 1535 Air Case
Light in weight, yet still a hard case to crack
Exterior dimensions: 36 x 23 x 56cm | Weight: 4.5Kg
Peli’s entry is sized to fit within most carry-on limits, but should it need to go in the hold, this ultra-tough hard case will shrug off any abuse. Hard cases are usually far from light, but Peli’s Air range uses a clever honeycomb construction and light plastic to reduce weight without compromising toughness. The result is the 1535 Air weighs less than some conventional roller bags, and that's including a full foam interior. This is easily customised to suit your gear and offers great padding, though it’s tricky to adapt to differing kit loads. Peli does offer a customisable divider set instead, albeit at extra cost. Other drawbacks with the Air case compared with the other bags on test include a handle that extends around 10cm less, meaning the case is more prone to clipping your heel as you walk. The hard utilitarian design won’t suit all occasions, and you can forget extras like laptop or tripod pockets.
9. Think Tank Airport TakeOff V2.0
Backpack or roller bag, choose your mode of transport
Exterior dimensions: 36 x 22 x 53cm | Weight: 4.0Kg
Recognising that wheels aren’t always the best mode of transport, Think Tank has come up with a roller bag and backpack in one. Simply open the rear pouch to reveal two backpack straps, and the pouch’s padded flap folds down to offer lower back cushioning. This set-up is fairly comfy, although without a hip belt, you’ll only want to wear the bag as a backpack when wheels won’t do. As one of the largest bags here, there’s plenty of space inside for various kit configurations, while still staying within most airlines’ carry-on limits. A decent set of dividers includes three with U-shaped cutouts to cradle cameras with attached lenses. Premium fabrics and fittings help justify the price, but some corners have literally been cut. A lack of exterior corner reinforcement is surprising, and the overall toughness doesn’t feel inspiring, though the TakeOff is fairly light at 3.9kg.
10. Lowepro PhotoStream RL 150
A cabin bag that can satisfy even the harshest airline cabin rules
Exterior dimensions: 55.5 x 37.5 x 18.5cm | Weight: 3.63Kg
Lowepro’s entry has been designed purely with cabin baggage in mind. It’s exterior 55.5 x 37.5 x 18.5cm dimensions should fit comfortably within even the strictest carry-on limits, and at featherweight 3.63kg, you’ve got plenty of gear headroom before you hit airline weight limits.
And yet the RL 150 isn’t just a fragile, paper-thin shell of a bag. The back, front and sides are all pleasingly solid, it rolls smoothly, and the handle feels perfectly adequate. Interior padding isn’t the thickest though, and the internal lining of the back panel is just a piece of plastic covered in soft fabric, giving precious little cushioning. It’s likely designed this way to increase the shallow internal depth by a few millimetres, but we’d prefer better gear protection.
Aside from the restrictive 15.5cm internal depth, the interior is a practical size, and there’s a slot inside the front flap for a 15” laptop. A tripod can also be strapped to one side.
Best camera bags in 2019