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The best hard cases for cameras: tough flight cases for photographers

hard cases for cameras
(Image credit: Future)

If you’ve splashed out big bucks on your camera kit, it makes sense to keep it safe when you’re on the go - and this is where hard cases for cameras come into their own. A regular camera shoulder bag or camera backpack will offer good protection against light knocks and bumps, but to survive more serious rough and tumble - or the assault course endured by checked-in airport baggage - something stronger is in order.

Hard cases for cameras offer the best possible protection for your gear, short of locking it in a safe, and they’re still fairly portable. Most hard cases are waterproof to at least one-metre, so will easily withstand a downpour or an accidental dunking in a stream, and many are marketed as crushproof. This can mean they’ve been tested to various military standards, but in layman's terms, a crushproof case should comfortably stand strong under your own weight, while also shrugging off drops and harsh treatment without damage.

Five things to look for...

  1. On a roll: Most practically-sized hard cases weigh upwards of 4kg, even without gear. If you’ll be travelling far from your car, go for a rolling hard case and your back will thank you.
  2. Under pressure: Water-tight cases are also air-tight. To avoid pressurisation issues like deformation when changing altitude, an airtight case should always incorporate a pressure equalisation valve.
  3. Customisable cushioning: The padding of choice for most hard cases is a simple block of foam, perforated into small cubes. Gradually extract these to form holes that’ll perfectly fit each item of your kit.
  4. Forward planning: Hollowed-out foam is almost impossible to reconfigure. Before you buy, lay out the exact kit you’ll be carrying to ensure you get right case size and correctly customise its interior.
  5. Little extras: Hard cases are all about keeping your kit safe and secure. Padlock points are a must, while lid latches that release in two stages will help guard against accidental opening.
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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

1. Peli Air Case 1535

It's 40% lighter than a regular Peli case, but very nearly as tough

Wheels: yes: | Exterior dimensions: 55.8 x 35.5 x 22.8cm | Interior dimensions: 52.2 x 28.6 x 18.8cm | Weight: 3.95kg (empty)

Very light for its size and toughness
Optional TrekPak insert works well
Wheeled and cabin-friendly
Optional divider inserts can be costly
Not quite as tough-feeling as some rivals

Peli’s Air range has been designed to be 40% lighter than a regular Peli hard case of the same size. Consequently the Air 1535 weighs just 3.95kg, though that’s just for the plastic shell. Load it with foam or a divider insert and the weight difference between this and the equivalently-sized Peli Protector 1510 hard case is more marginal. As for toughness, we did our best to burst the Air, but while it does flex slightly more under pressure than the Protector 1510, the difference is reassuringly small.

The default interior option is cubed foam. You can also spec a Velcro divider insert, however we went for Peli’s innovative TrekPak system. This uses sheets of corrugated plastic sandwiched between layers of dense, closed-cell foam. There’s a bespoke cutter included so you can slice each sheet into strips to fit around the gear you want to carry, and the joins are secured by special hooped pins. It’s a very nicely engineered padding system that’s more elegant than basic Velcro dividers, but it's a bit less soft and cossetting than the default foam setup.

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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

2. HPRC 2550W with Second Skin

A hard case and divider system that are almost impossible to fault

Wheels: yes: | Exterior dimensions: 54.9 x 34.6 x 23.6cm | Interior dimensions: 51.3 x 28.8 x 20cm | Weight: 4.35kg (empty), 5kg (with Second Skin)

Well designed
Great interior
Top-notch toughness
Foam interior would be softer, but you can spec this instead

Italian manufacturer HPRC proves hard cases can be stylish, as the 2550W’s colored accents (available in red or blue) lift the otherwise utilitarian look. There’s even an all-red version - called Ferrari Red, no less - if you want to show off. Other nice touches include ergonomic two-stage lid latches, a neat handle extension release clip, and the smoothest rolling wheels we've encountered on a hard case.

The 2550W also nails the basics. It feels every bit as tough and unburstable as any other camera hard case, yet it weighs a reasonable 5kg. This is partly due to the Second Skin interior - a thermoformed one-piece padded moulding shaped to hug the interior contours of the case. This is then divided using conventional Velcro dividers which are slim yet strong. It’s a very neat way to carry more gear than you could with a conventional cubed foam interior, and makes the most of the 51 x 29 x 20cm internal size. This translates to 55 x 35 x 23.6cm outer dimensions, meaning you should stay within most cabin luggage limits.

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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

3. Vanguard Supreme 40F

If you can travel light and don't need wheels, this is a bargain super-tough case

Wheels: no | Exterior dimensions: 46.5 x 36.5 x 19.5cm | Interior dimensions: 43 x 29.5 x 17.5cm | Weight: 4.4kg (with full foam interior)

Supremely tough
Practical size for smaller camera kits
Very well priced
Not designed for carrying large lenses
No roller wheels

The Supreme 40F hard case will keep your kit dry down to 5 metres underwater. Although, with its cubed foam interior, you have to wonder how the case could possibly sink so deep in the first place.

Its 43 x 29.5 x 17.5cm interior dimensions give enough space for a full frame DSLR and three or four lenses, but don’t expect to carry glass larger than a 70-200mm f/2.8. This translates to a very convenient 46.5 x 36.5 x 19.5cm outer size and modest 4.4kg weight - and that's with a full, untouched foam interior. This hexagonally-diced foam is included in the price, but Vanguard also sells a self-contained removable divider bag for added versatility, but also at an added cost.

Despite its very competitive price tag, the Supreme 40F sports nice extras like a comfy handle and non-slip rubber feet on the base. Robustness is top notch, too, with the Supreme being every bit as tough as cases from companies like Peli. Not only is it crush-proof to 120kg of force, the Supreme 40F will also withstand temperatures from -40℃ up to a toasty 95℃.

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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

4. Calumet WT1905 Water Tight Rolling Hard Case

A super-rugged, flight-friendly case with wheels, and it's very well priced

Wheels: yes | Exterior dimensions: 54.6 x 34.7 x 24.7cm | Interior dimensions: 51.7 x 27.7 x 21.7cm | Weight: 4.4kg (with full foam interior)

Toughness to match any big-brand rival
Keenly priced
Wheeled and stackable
Foam is the only interior option

Calumet’s hard case range comprises numerous size options, but the WT1905’s 54.6 x 34.7 x 24.7cm exterior dimensions are ideal for sticking within most airline carry-on limits. At 6.5kg with an untouched cubed foam interior, it’s on the heavy side for its size, but that’s no big deal as there are smooth roller wheels and a stout one-piece extending handle to take the strain.

Build quality of the case itself is also extremely rugged, with very little flex in the lid despite our best efforts to jump on it with gusto - the whole case simply exudes solidity. Our only minor complaint is the the two catches securing the lid need a bit of a whack in order to close.

The 51.7 x 27.7 x 21.7cm interior is about as large as you can go without the exterior size exceeding carry-on limits. If you need more capacity, Calumet’s WT6840 has a commodious 86 x 56 x 35.5cm interior, though at 16.4kg unloaded, its roller wheels are essential.

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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

5. Peli Protector 1510

A fine case by a top brand, and with three decent interior options

Wheels: yes: | Exterior dimensions: 56 x 35 x 23cm | Interior dimensions: 51.4 x 29 x 19cm | Weight: 6.3kg (with full foam interior)

Top toughness
Exterior colour and interior padding options
Practical, versatile size
A little heay
Divider interiors can be pricey

Peli (short for Pelican) cases are the industry standard for camera hard cases. The Protector 1510 is one of the most popular cases in Peli’s huge range that includes a vast selection of different size options. At 56 x 35 x 23cm, the 1510 is designed to comply with most cabin baggage size requirements. Its 51.4 x 29 x 19cm bare interior will be a few centimeters smaller when lined with foam, but it's enough to store a typical camera kit as long as you don't plan to carry any fast super-tele optics. At 6.3kg with full foam, it's a little heavier than some equivalently sized hard cases, but its well-protected roller wheels will lighten that load most of the time.

Perhaps the best bit about Peli’s Protector range is you don’t have to settle for boring black plastic. The Protector 1510 can also be had in silver, tan, orange, pink, and the gorgeous bright yellow version featured here. It means you’ll have no trouble spotting your gear on the airport baggage carousel if ever has to travel in hold luggage!

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(Image credit: Future)
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6. Vanguard Supreme 53D

If you need to carry a whole lot of gear, this extra-large roller case is for you

Wheels: yes: | Exterior dimensions: 63 x 52 x 24cm | Interior dimensions: 56 x 45 x 20cm | Weight: 11.2kg (with divider insert)

Huge carrying capacity
Excellent toughness
Divider insert doesn't add much cost
Very heavy, even when empty

The list mainly includes hard cases that can be carried as hand luggage for maximum versatility and portability, but hard cases are designed to be almost indestructible, giving them a fighting chance against your average baggage handler.

Vanguard’s Supreme 53D will have to go in the hold as it's 63 x 52 x 24cm on the outside, but that gives you a capacious 56 x 45 x 20cm interior - large enough to carry a serious amount of gear. You also get wheels, which are a real must as the case weighs over 10kg empty.

The D in 53D signifies this case carries a removable padded divider insert, rather than the 53F which contains cubed foam. The 53D is little more expensive than the 53F though, and is the smarter buy if you need to reconfigure your interior to carry varied kit requirements. The divider insert is highly customisable, but annoyingly it doesn’t quite fill the whole case.

Despite its large size, the 53D feels every bit as invincible as the smaller cases here, with its lid held shut by no fewer than six latches. It’s also rated to withstand 120kg of crushing and is waterproof to a 5m depth.

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(Image credit: Future)
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(Image credit: Future)

7. Manfrotto ProLight Reloader Tough-55 HighLid

A good rolling hard case, but it’s up against some near-flawless competition.

Wheels: yes: | Exterior dimensions: 55 x 35 x 22.5cm | Interior dimensions: 50 x 26 x 17cm | Weight: 4.6kg (with divider insert)

Practical size
Neat external tripod harness
Good internal divider system included
Doesn't feel quite as solid as some cases
Annoyingly stiff handle release

The Reloader Tough-55 comes in two size variants. Both have a 55 x 35cm length and width, but where this HighLid version has a 22.5cm depth, the LowLid option is 20cm, ensuring you meet even the strictest airline carry-on size requirements.

You get smooth rolling wheels on both, yet at 4.6kg, the HighLid is relatively light if you need to carry it. Like the HPRC 2550W case on this list, the Manfrotto's lightness is helped by an interior that uses a removable padded liner and Velcro dividers, rather than heavy cubed foam. It’s very effective, but HPRC’s Second Skin is better made and eats up slightly less interior space.

Internal dimensions are quoted as 50 x 26 x 17cm for this HighLid variant, which seems small, but this takes into account the thickness of the padded liner, where most case manufacturers quote an unrealistic internal size with the case completely bare.

The lid is secured by two-stage latches for added security, and we like the included harness that enables you to strap a tripod on the front. We’re less keen on the needlessly stiff release catch for the otherwise robust extending handle, and the case flexes slightly more than the competition when crushed, but not worryingly so.

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