If there’s one thing about camera bags and cases, it’s that we never seem to have enough. Like the cameras they contain, they just build up and multiply over time. We justify the collection of bags and cases by saying that each has a different purpose. That they’re all used when shooting in different circumstances.
And while “the perfect camera bag” can never exist, there can be perfect examples of particular types of bags for each of those different circumstances. And when circumstances call for a roller case, the Lowepro PhotoStream SP 200 comes pretty close.
Typically, I’m more of a backpack kind of guy. They make life easier for me when working on location because those locations are usually in the middle of nowhere. So, I don’t have to try and drag bags of equipment over rough terrain.
It’s been a struggle for me to break away from backpacks, even when they’re not the best bag for the job. My favourite backpack is still an old Tamrac Cyberpack 6 that I bought around 15 years ago. It’s been with me to several continents, and while it doesn’t quite look like new anymore, it still stands up to the job just fine.
But airline regulations have changed since I got that bag, and I’ve found that it’s just a hair too big now for many of their limitations. Travelling on trains, too, the overhead storage on trains in the UK seems to have slimmed down a little. Half the trains I get onto now will no longer fit my old Tamrac in the overhead, but they’ll fit the PhotoStream SP 200.
And then there are other logistical and pain management considerations to take into account. When I’m covering a trade show or other type of event, for example. If I’m on my feet all day, every day for 5 or 6 days at a show, I don’t want a heavy backpack weighing me down and breaking my back – did it once, never again.
This is where a roller case steps in, or rolls in. Specifically, 4 wheeled roller cases like the Lowepro PhotoStream SP 200.
I don’t have a need for a roller case as often as I do other bags & cases, perhaps 4 or 5 times a year. But when I do need one, there really is no substitute.
My go-to roller case in the past has been a Think Tank Roller Derby. That, too, is a very nice 4 wheeled roller, but a couple of things did always frustrate me a little. Things that Lowepro’s PhotoStream SP 200 seems to address nicely, for the most part. It addresses them for 75% of the cost of the Roller Derby, too. And you’ll see me make some comparisons between the two throughout this review, as it’s the only other roller case I’ve spent a significant amount of time with.
But let’s start with the basics.
An overview of the Lowepro PhotoStream SP 200
The Lowepro PhotoStream SP 200 is a 4 wheeled roller case (Lowepro’s first 4 wheeled roller case) that can hold a couple of DSLR or mirrorless bodies, a bunch of lenses, a speedlight or two, a 15″ laptop, a bunch of spare batteries and the usual things you might expect to take with you when travelling somewhere to shoot photos.
Aside from how slick the front panel on the SP 200 looks, the toughness and build quality immediately strikes you once you put your hands on it. It has an EVA hardshell to help keep your gear protected. And other than some straps on the side to hold a tripod, and a document wallet on the back, everything is stored & accessed through the one tough zip-up front cover.
Inside, there are a couple more zip-up pouches on the lid for storing things like memory cards, lens cloths, USB cables and other small bits. In the main body of the bag is the expected assortment of reconfigurable dividers to suit the sizes of items in your kit.
Going to the outside of the case, as I mentioned, there are two straps on one side to hold a tripod, and there’s a document wallet on the back – very handy if you want easy access to a flight itinerary, event entry details & passes or other printed information.
On the top, other side and bottom of the SP 200 are handles for when you’re loading and unloading the bag from an overhead bin, taking it in or out of a vehicle, or just carrying it – not everywhere works for wheels.
There’s also the regular two-piece pull-out top handle for when you want to wheel it around.
And speaking of the wheels, there’s four of those, if you hadn’t noticed, and they all rotate a full 360 degrees (yes, I know all wheels rotate 360 degrees, I mean the other way) allowing you to push it in any direction.
With that done, let’s have a look inside…
This brings me to my first point against the Roller Derby, and why I prefer the SP 200’s way of doing things.
The Roller Derby has an external pouch on the front cover of the case in which to store a 15″ laptop. It’s designed this way so that you can get your laptop in and out without having to open up the whole bag. Makes sense, right?
With the SP 200, the laptop storage is contained on the underside of that front cover. But you still don’t have to open up the entire front cover to access it. You only need to zip open the top bit, and then fold it down to reveal and access your laptop. So, you don’t have to completely open the front cover and all your gear isn’t going to fall out.
But what’s the advantage of this method of storing and accessing your laptop over a separate front pouch? Well, when you’re not using your laptop, it sits behind that protective EVA hardshell. The pouch on the Roller Derby doesn’t really have any protection at all, beyond basic thin padding, which doesn’t provide the best protection if a lot of weight (other peoples bags) are stacked on top of it.
There’s also the security advantage. Having the laptop storage inside the main body of the bag also means that if you’re forced to check it when you fly, you only need a single lock for everything. The front pouch on the Roller Derby doesn’t even have a spot to attach a lock. So anybody could potentially access it.
The SP 200 claims to hold up to a 15″ laptop, but it has no problem at all holding my 15.6″ ASUS ZenBook Pro.
Under the lid storage
Aside from the laptop storage, underneath that front panel are a two zip up webbed pouches for storing things. While the pockets are quite big, you don’t want to try to put bulky items in there.
I typically use this for memory cards, lens cloths, variable ND filter, USB cables for my phone or card reader, my ColorChecker Passport, a spare phone and other small items.
My next issue with the Roller Derby, which the SP 200 mostly solves, is the tripod holder on the side of the case. With the Roller Derby, there’s a pouch at the bottom and then a strap higher up. Their promotional material shows all three legs of a tripod pushed down into this pouch to hold it.
But in the real world, I’ve found that I’m maybe able to get two legs in there at most. And even that can be a struggle, depending on whether the legs of the tripod are twist lock, flip lock levers or the more old-school screw type. This leaves at least one leg dangling and randomly catching on things as I’m walking around a show (which has happened on more than one occasion).
With the SP 200, there’s no pouch, but there are two straps. One for lower down on the tripod and one higher up. These straps are adjustable to take any thickness of tripod I might carry. They wrap around all of the legs, regardless of whether it’s a little Manfrotto Element Carbon travel tripod or a thicker, larger video tripod.
And the straps hold the tripod well, without working loose or allowing the tripod to slip.
I do wish, however (I did say “mostly” solves), that these straps had a quick release clip that you could open to get your tripod off, and then refasten and tighten to stow it, rather than just fixed straps that loosen and tighten. If I’m removing and replacing that tripod a couple of dozen times during the day, those straps get quite fiddly and annoying to constantly open and close. To the point where it’s sometimes less hassle to just carry the tripod in my other hand.
This may just be me, though. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.
That document wallet
One of the things I mentioned in my Wacom Intuos review is that it now goes everywhere my laptop does when I leave the house. When I use the PhotoStream SP 200, the document wallet is where that Wacom tablet generally lives.
I could slide it inside the laptop compartment, but if I don’t need the tablet, having it in the document wallet means I’m not accidentally pulling it out every time I remove the laptop. But it’s always handy if I need it.
If I’m actually travelling by air or train, then the Wacom tablet does go in the laptop storage area where it’s kept safe, and use the document wallet for its intended purpose. Documents. But when I’m not, the Wacom Intuos Medium fits in there perfectly, and I can close it up with the velcro at the top. For things like shows, where the bag is always close to me, it’s very useful.
Inside the case
Inside, as I mentioned, there are adjustable dividers. Vertically, the bag is split into three with two long dividers, and there are a lot of smaller dividers to split these three lanes into smaller pockets for different gear.
Like most bags, these are simply held with velcro. But a couple of the dividers offer some extra features.
One is extra reinforced for when you’ve got a big lens in there. It helps to prevent it from deforming the divider and weighing down on anything that might be stored below it.
The other is like a double-padded pocket divider for small items. Memory cards, for example, or your memory card reader, or perhaps some spare business cards. And it’s sealed at the top with velcro to prevent them from falling out.
Underneath these dividers are some removable padded blocks of foam. When they’re in place, they offer a little more protection at the bottom of the case and also allow you to get a flat surface on which to place all your gear.
But if you have something that requires a little more room, like say the tripod foot on the collar of a longer lens or a lens with a bit of girth and depth like the new Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art, you can remove this padding to accommodate them.
Once you’ve arranged the padding how you like, though, you can see that it holds a ton of gear. A couple of bodies, a few lenses, a charger for my laptop, spare batteries, memory cards, cables and more.
It’s quite comparable in capacity to my Tamrac Cyberpack 6. And it’s also similar to the Pelican 1510 I occasionally use. As long I remove the Pelican’s foam. But there’s no strain on your back with a roller case like a backpack and it’s not as heavy to lug around as the super tough 2-wheeled Pelican style cases.
Wheeling it around
Mostly I’ve been using the PhotoStream SP 200 simply as gear storage while travelling in the car to a shoot. The handles on each make it easy to lift out when we arrive and load back into the car when we’re done.
But I have also covered a couple of trade shows using it. On the hard concrete or carpeted floors of a trade show, the wheels work beautifully as one would expect. And because the wheels rotate a full 360 degrees in the vertical axis, it’s easy to manoeuvre it through the tight spaces behind a stand.
On exiting the show and hitting the pavement, it performs equally as well. It has no problem with paving flags, concrete, tarmac or other hard surfaces when crossing the street or walking through car parks.
It sometimes has a little issue with the raised knobbly bits next to crossings. Depending on how high they stick up and I might have to lift the bag to carry it for a few feet to the edge of the pavement. But as those little knobbly bits are there to alert blind people that they’re near a safe place to cross the road, it’s something I can live with.
And, to be honest, it’s no different to most other roller cases or even suitcases in that respect.
Obviously, in the middle-of-nowhere locations where I often like to shoot, the wheels aren’t that useful. They can’t roll over grass all that easily, and they certainly can’t handle the kind of rough wilderness terrain I usually have to cover to get to a shoot location.
But this kind of case isn’t designed for that sort of terrain, so it’s not much of a surprise or complaint. For a wheeled bag that could handle the kind of terrain I usually shoot at, they’d need to be the size of BMX wheels.
One thing missing
One feature I do think is missing from the PhotoStream SP 200, that would be very welcome for me, especially given the amount of travelling I do on trains, is some kind of tethered locking cable.
This is the one advantage that I feel the Roller Derby has over the PhotoStream SP 200 (and most other travel bags). On one side of the Roller Derby is a pouch with a security cable and a lock on the end.
If I’m travelling on a train and have to load a bag into the luggage rack rather than overhead directly above my seat, then I often can’t keep an eye on it through my whole journey.
The security cable on the Roller Derby means that I can lock the bag to the bars of the luggage area, knowing that it’s reasonably secure, without having to carry a separate chain and lock around with me.
Without that, while perhaps unlikely, the potential is there for it to disappear before I need to get off the train. And when you’ve got a few grand’s worth of camera gear & laptop in there, it’s a big risk.
It’s not a dealbreaker, but it does make me keenly aware of not leaving my bag unattended anywhere. Which can be frustrating on a packed train with no room in the overhead storage.
Overall, I really like the PhotoStream SP 200 and I do prefer it over the Roller Derby.
- Tough EVA Hardshell
- Internal secure laptop storage
- Easy access to the internal laptop storage
- Removable bottom padding to maximise space
- All four wheels rotate about the vertical axis a full 360 degrees
- Three handles for loading & unloading into cars, luggage racks, etc.
- Carries a ton of gear and fits most airline carry-on specifications
- Less expensive than much of the similar competition
There aren’t too many of these, really. In fact, there’s only really a couple. One’s pretty minor, and the other’s more of a wishlist item that I would like to see become standard on all cases of this type.
- No security cable to attach it to things (like a luggage rack)
- Tripod straps are fiddly if you’re regularly taking your tripod on and off
This isn’t the only roller case that doesn’t have a security cable, and most suitcases don’t have this feature, either. But it’s the one feature of the Roller Derby that I really do appreciate when travelling. Especially by train. And it’s one of those features that you don’t realise how valuable it can be until you no longer have it. And I think it’s the one feature that would make this bag essentially perfect. I could even overlook the fiddliness of the straps.
Of course, The PhotoStream SP 200 is $100 less expensive than the Think Tank Roller Derby, so I suppose we could just use that difference to buy a security cable and wrap it through the handles.
The tripod straps… I’m sure I’ll just get used to them eventually. It would be nice if they had adjustable quick release clips, though.
For my needs, this is pretty much the ideal roller case. It conforms to most flight carry-on restrictions and also fits in the overhead storage on trains. It holds a whole bunch of gear and keeps it safe from damage thanks to the tough EVA hardshell. It’s easy to manoeuvre in and out of cars and overhead storage thanks to the three handles, and it wheels along most urban ground rather well.
While a roller case might not be something I use regularly throughout the year, there’s really no useful alternative for those times when one is needed. And when one is needed, I’ve not found a roller that I like as much as the PhotoStream SP 200. Hopefully, though, in a future iteration, they can find a way to build in a security cable.
The Lowepro PhotoStream SP 200 is available to buy now for $299.95.