In the Field: Petrol Cambio
Posted Apr 1, 2011

Petrol Bags CambioWhen I make my list of the top 10 products at NAB every year (compiled and presented in the June issue of this magazine as EventDV Winner’s Circle), I usually make a list throughout the 4-day convention and then narrow it down to a few products. Rarely do I ever see a product and say, “It’s on the list!” at first glance. Petrol Bags’ Cambio is one of those rare products. When I first saw it at a distance, I thought it was a camera bag lying against a tripod. Upon closer inspection, I realized the bag was the tripod--or was the tripod a bag?

The Cambio is a small to mid-size camera bag, similar to rolling carry-on bags used for airplane trips, with a pop-up handle. The wheels on the side of the bag are on shafts that pull out from the main structure, by about a foot on either side, and the wheels’ fenders roll down to become wheel chucks. A more traditional two-stage tripod leg unlatches and folds out of the back of the bag to become the third leg. The carry handle is also the base for a 75mm tripod head. The CA001, which lists for $699, comes without the head; the CA002, which lists for $799, comes with a head from Manfrotto that appears to be the 128RC with a payload of 8.8 lbs./4 kg. The carry handle that becomes the tripod base telescopes up about 5.5'. On the head is a small quick-release plate to mount the camera if you want.

A few years ago I reviewed Petrol’s PCBP-3N Cocoon Backpack, and I have been using it to carry around a lot of stuff ever since. It’s home to a Sony FX1, a Sony ECM-672 shotgun mic, BeachTek stereo XLR adapter, Litepanels Micro and MicroPro, three Sony type 970 L-series batteries, a Lenmar battery charger, an AC adapter, a host of AV cables, and sometimes a wireless system (normally kept with my Sony S270) and a 17" laptop with its AC adapter. It gets pretty heavy, but it works great. Now, would all of that migrate to the Cambio? Let’s take a look.

Loading Up
Setting the Cambio on the floor next to the PCBP-3N Cocoon Backpack, the first thing I noticed was the Cambio doesn’t have as much space as the PCBP-3N. The Cambio has similar cloth and Velcro dividers to set up the inside the way you like it. I have the backpack set up with “three columns.” I put the camera in the middle and surrounded it with accessories on both sides and below in another section. I found the Cambio had room for only two columns: One holds the FX1, and the other I have divided into four compartments. While I was able to fit most everything in it, the fit was much tighter. I actually had to make use of the external pockets for tapes and some video cables. It was kind of like going from a Chevrolet Suburban to the smaller Tahoe. For most instances you can make do by packing it more carefully, but sometimes you’ll really miss the extra space.

Petrol Bags
TOP: Petrol Cocoon Backpack; BOTTOM: Petrol Cambio. My gear fits more comfortably in the Cocoon.

The bag’s capacity issue derives from airline storage regulations. In order to be approved for overhead bins on all airlines, Petrol had to go by the smallest of the maximum approved sizes, which turned out to be that of a European airline.

Although the tripod head came in the Cambio bag, I found that if I put it back in the bag for transport, it would take up too much space. So I opted to just keep it attached, which had the added benefit of making setups faster.

Hitting the Road
It’s worth noting that the Cambio unit reviewed here is the third I received from Petrol; the first two had a defect (leg locks that broke after brief, light use). Petrol had corrected this issue in the third (more on that later, including options for purchasers of the product prior to this upgrade).

I went out and shot some stock footage with the first Cambio Petrol sent me. The Cambio converts from a bag to a tripod in less than a minute. The tripod head is very smooth, and I like it very much. I mounted the FX1 bare, without the BeachTek XLR adapter, shotgun mic, wireless receiver, and light because I didn’t need them for my little stock footage excursion. With the camera mounted and the center post extended, I found that it would take a minute or so for the head to stop shaking if I let the tripod go. It was very evident in the footage I took. I was shooting close-ups of the water, and the footage I captured had very noticeable shake. Luckily, I let the camera go for a couple minutes for each shot or all the footage would have been useless.

Petrol Bags Cambio

Another issue, even on flat ground, depending on what was in the bag and how high the center post was, is that the Cambio looks like it might fall forward. But so far, the small stubby feet have kept the camera, and the Cambio, from taking a dive. Watching it rock is not fun, though.

Walking fast on the sidewalk while pulling the Cambio along, I found that it would occasionally go out of control and twist my arm. I’ve had this happen when pulling other luggage through the airport. I think the Cambio was a little worse, because it has the one shaft going up to the handle instead of two, like most luggage handles.

With the new Cambio, I had a shoot in February on a brisk southern California Sunday of 63 degrees. I was shooting for a client that does creative roasts of its honorees, and this year’s theme was MTV Cribs. In order to get the Cribs “look,” I needed the flowing look of a Steadicam/Glidecam-type device. So I built a reasonable facsimile knowing that the S270 would be too big and that it would be giving the FX1 a ride. (It actually worked way better than I thought it would, but that’s a subject for another article.)

For this shoot I drove or pulled along the Cambio to five locations. The leg lock held tight through all of the banging around. I got to use the Cambio as a camera support for the final shot of the day. While at nearly full extension of the handle/pedestal, the Cambio can get wobbly, as mentioned before. But if you treat it more like a free-standing monopod, as Petrol product director Chris O’Neill suggested to me, putting your foot on the back leg keeps it from wobbling.

I have two other Petrol bags, and I love them both. I had high expectations for the Cambio from what I saw at NAB. Realistically, it won’t take the place of a PCBP-3N Cocoon Backpack or a similar bag if you need the full capacity of such a bag. Nor will it replace a good medium-sized tripod with stand-alone stability. That said, the Cambio will still prove to be very useful to many videographers and photographers who need frequent, fast setups. This will also work very well for journalists. They just need to be aware of the Cambio’s limitations. I still love the concept, and I like the main wheels, which roll easily, and the tripod head is excellent. But here are some things I’d like to see added to the Cambio 2.0:

• Instead of consisting of one column, the handle/tripod head holder should have two columns for more stability when pulling the Cambio along.
• Petrol should make a bigger version, closer to the size of the PCBP-3N Cocoon Backpack. I was barely able to get my Sony FX1 and its accessories into it. I could only do it by making use of the outside pockets, which are not suitable for fragile equipment. There was also no place for a laptop computer. Petrol can make it bigger and still make it fit into most airline overhead bins. It may not go in every “puddle jumper” airline bin, but a size certified by U.S. and Canadian carriers would be good for me.
• Add backpack shoulder straps. There are some places where the wheels don’t work, and the handles quickly tire out your hands. With shoulder straps, you could just throw it on your back and run through wherever you’re shooting.
• Offer a brighter interior color than battleship gray. Other Petrol bags have bright orange interiors, and Kata bags have bright yellow interiors, which makes it easier to find small gray and black accessories in the depths of the bag. Battleship gray doesn’t allow enough contrast for my eyes.
• Include a “safety belt” for the camera. The PCBP-3N Cocoon Backpack has one that will hold onto your camera if you accidentally pick it up without zipping it up.

In my 14 years of reviewing products, I’ve pretty much dealt with every company that makes something for the art and business of video production. When everything works, dealing with these companies is great. When things don’t go as well in the review process, these companies can become quite unpleasant and blame the reviewer or the reviewer’s method for defects in their products.

Petrol Bags, thankfully, is not one of those companies. Instead of covering up and denying the issue, once company reps confirmed the leg-lock problem that I identified with the Cambio, they worked tirelessly and quickly to solve the problem and institute a solution, not just for the specific unit they sent me for this review, but at the factory and for users who had already bought the product. That says something about the integrity of Petrol Bags as a company.

The production units now incorporate a modification kit. Petrol intends to send this out to customers free of charge, once they have all the parts ready to ship. Petrol Bags will most likely put a notice on the Petrol website (www.petrolbags .com) so customers can request a modification kit.

And as for the product itself, while the Cambio may be a bit small for my needs, I can attest that it does now work. It may be ideal for your needs. I look forward to reviewing a larger Cambio 2 model soon.

Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, andTV Technology and has written for Studio Monthly, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.