Portability has been integral to the growth of my business. As event videographers, portability is often what enables us to do the kinds of shoots we do; the more flexible we are, and the more easily and confidently we can take our equipment with us, the more work we can get and the more productive we can be.
And it's crucial when our lives put us on the road and we need to take work with us. Although I hate traveling, (let alone the thought of a vacation), it is a necessity of family life. I've got a sibling or an in-law in every time zone in the USA, in-laws in Israel, and a wife who's a former flight attendant, and thus loves to fly anywhere.
Next Gear in Jerusalem
No matter where I end up, I always travel with a camcorder and (for the last four years) a laptop for editing. Way back in 1998, when I flew to Israel to shoot a friend's wedding in Jerusalem, I had to find a way to get my gear there. Instead of taking my 3CCD Panasonic Supercam in its Kata "Banana" case, I took my usual backup camera—a single-chip Panasonic AG-456, which fit neatly into the attaché case it came with. As I never do a pay job without a backup camera, I purchased a JVC SVHS-C camcorder for the wedding and for touring around. I put that in a compact toolbox in a small hiking backpack.
As luck would have it, the hotel I was staying in didn't have a "valuables lockup" for when I went out touring, so I had to schlep the AG-456 with me everywhere, and it got heavy after a while. Relief came on Ben Yehuda Street, when I happened into the Mr. T army surplus shop. There on the wall screaming at me was the largest (non-framed) backpack I had ever seen. It was from an Israeli company called Hagor and to the best of my recollection cost $40. It had a main compartment that not only accommodated the attaché case, but also the small toolbox I put the JVC in. It had a waist belt to keep it snug against me, a large external pocket on the back, and two huge side pockets. The loops for shotgun shells on the padded shoulder straps were a nice touch, too.
Over the next nine years I used that bag to transport first my 13" and then my 15.4" laptop and my Sony TRV900 (normally my backup camera and usually my family camera). I did this by putting the TRV900 in a small camera case I fashioned from a semi-rigid lunch cooler, placed that at the bottom of the pack, and put the laptop (which had its own pack) right inside the larger pack. Not elegant, but it worked well. I turned two airline "carry-ons" into one that could be split into two if it didn't fit in the overhead.
Now We're Cookin' with Petrol
I always hoped someone would find a better solution to this problem, especially as the day loomed when I would someday need to travel with a 17" portable editing machine. Kata introduced the first contender in 2005. I put one of their bags on my list of top products of NAB 2005 when I checked it out on the show floor while on assignment for the 4EVER Group. But despite nearly two years of phone calls, emails, and personal assurances that they would send me a bag to try out, it never came.
In December 2006 at a trade show at Burbank, California-based BandPro, I encountered Petrol, the latest company to throw its hat in the bag ring. Petrol was showing two backpacks capable of handling a laptop and mid-sized camcorder. They were the PMLCB-2 for 15" laptops and the PCBP-3N for 17" laptops. Could these bags be the missing link for the itinerant videographer? I requested the PCBP-3N for review, as it was the only one that could handle my newer 17" widescreen laptop, my new Sony FX1, and its attendant support gear (which also struck me as a pretty typical equipment aggregation for a videographer on-the-go).
My first impression out of the box was that it was built well. The zippers are strong and move easily, and there's a lot of room in the bag. The laptop slides into a thin compartment that is upright between your back and the camera section.
Opening the big, blue-accented-with-black bag's camera compartment, you are immediately taken by what we here in California call "Caltrans Orange," because it's such a close color match for the ubiquitous freeway repair trucks. The bag comes configured with a large space for the camera, three cubbies on either side, and one compartment below the camera. The PCBP-3N has two large zippered side pockets for stowing other small things such as tapes, cables, granola bars, bandages, and any other essentials. There is one more very thin zippered pouch on the outside of the access door. It may be good for your camera's instruction manual or other slender items.
There are two straps, one on the left, the other on the right, for attaching a tripod and/or monopod. If you are worried about the PCBP-3N flopping around on you back too much, there are chest and waist straps to secure it to your body.
Customize Your Space
If you've seen ads for the PCBP-3N showing it with an FX1 or Z1U lens down, and the bottom of the camera touching the laptop, keep in mind that it doesn't carry your equipment that way; the person setting up the shot simply didn't close the bag. In that position, the camera's viewfinder stuck out such that if zippering the bag did not break it, a bump to the back of the bag or trying to push it into an airplane's overhead bin would break it for sure.
Petrol's website shows a Z1U resting with viewfinder down. While that may fit it in, the plastic viewfinder isn't so sturdy that I would let the camera rest on it. Thankfully, the sections of the main compartment are made from Velcro. It is very strong Velcro that will give you a workout trying to move it around, as that is the solution to the problem. After some experimenting, and moving around of the "walls" of the main cubby, I found the best and safest way to put the camera in, was on its side, lens down.
Moving the Velcro spacers around is not fun, but it's a necessary evil in setting the bag up to meet your needs. The Velcro sticks extremely well to the material inside the bag. Consequently, sticking it where you want it on the first attempt is next to impossible, as you always seem to catch it to where you didn't intend it to go. Once you get it where you want it, you can expect smooth sailing and easy packing. I have another small Petrol bag (PDCB-N) that was a giveaway at a press event. I wound up taking two of its Velcro dividers and fashioning one more cubby that also helped keep the camera in place.
The Petrol website also shows a JVC GY-HD110 fitting in the bag lens down, with the viewfinder over the large side partition. That means the door of the backpack must rest on it, which is not a good idea if you are putting it in an airline overhead. Knowing the bag, and the way they are showing it on the website, I'm not sure that position will work either. I'll be reviewing a JVC GY-HD200 (that shares the same body and form) soon, and will see how well it actually fits in the bag.
Last January, my mother and I were invited to the IEEE Reliability Society annual banquet in Orlando to accept a posthumous award for my late father in recognition of his contributions to the organization. Of course I was going to tape the ceremony, as it was a nice piece of family history. While we were there, a family friend (and part-time videographer), whose husband is a senior media producer with Disney's Imagineering, offered to give us a tour of Epcot Center. What better way to try out PCBP-3N than taking it on a cross-country trip and bouncing it around on my back at a theme park?
This is what I put on the backpack for the trip: my HP ZV8000 17" laptop with power supply, a G-Tech Mini 100GB FireWire 800 drive, my Sony FX1 HDV camcorder, two Lenmar LIS-950 camcorder batteries, a Lenmar Mach 3 charger, a Sima camcorder light, a Ni-Cd battery (for the light), a Sennheiser G2 wireless microphone system, a Sony ECM-672 short shotgun microphone, a Beach Tek DXA-4 XLR adapter, a short XLR cable, AKG headphones, six Panasonic master-quality MiniDV tapes, my mobile phone charger, and various cables.
The backpack was pretty heavy when I loaded everything. The laptop and power supply were the two heaviest items. But on my back it was actually quite comfortable. As I was marching through LAX, I noticed that the curiously sculpted and thick padding between the laptop and your back gives you a massage as you are walking. You've got to like that! It does protrude from your back quite a bit, however. So when you are maneuvering through crowds you need to make sure you don't hit anyone with it when making turns. It's almost like driving with a small trailer.
Getting on the airplane itself was a bit worrisome. The Petrol representative warned me that this bag, the PCBP-3N, is not FAA-approved for overhead bins (although their smaller backpack for a 15" laptop is), which means if it didn't fit I'd be forced to put it in with the check-in baggage below. Fortunately it fit on both my outbound 757 and inbound 737 flights. The best way to put it in an overhead bin, I found, was top first, which made for a snug but acceptable fit. Had I not arranged the main compartment to accommodate the camera's viewfinder, putting it the overhead bin may have broken it.
Walking around Epcot, I cheated and cut my traveling weight in half, carrying only the camera in the PCBP-3N. Walking for six hours with the FX1 on my back in the Petrol bag proved very comfortable. At the banquet the following evening, carrying my full complement of shooting gear, I was easily able to find everything I needed to set up the camera and microphones in a hurry.
In conclusion, I have to say that I really like this backpack. It is well-built and can comfortably carry everything you could possibly need to shoot and edit on the go, without the need for another gear bag. In fact, in my experience there was room to spare. If I wanted to, I could have made room for my Sony TRV900 to take as a backup camera.
Your camera is your most important piece of equipment, and if you don't get it to the job in one piece, it won't do you any good. Don't underestimate the importance of a good camera bag. Once you've got it configured for your particular camera, the Petrol PCBP-3N is an excellent solution for confidently carrying your laptop and camera where you need to go, whether it be locations across the street or across the world.
Marc Franklin has been shooting since 1982, and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes and TV Technology; and has written for WEVA and served as technical adviser to The 4EVER Group.