Transporting and Protecting Your Super-telephoto

     My 500mm lens was a major investment, especially considering this is a hobby and not a money-making venture. Babying this lens is a priority. I simply cannot afford to not protect my investment. While prudence and common sense when handling and using the lens is the first line of protection, I also had to consider what happens to it when it's packed and transported (essentially out of your sight inside some sort of carrier). Anything bumping and rubbing it ( zippers, other equipment, etc.) can go unseen until you discover scratches and nicks, or worse. I've spent considerable time figuring out the best way to transport this beast for the varied shooting situations I run into with wildlife photography. It's a challenge, to say the least, trying to provide ample protection while minimizing weight and bulk and maximizing accessibility.

     The hard case that comes with the lens (affectionately known as the "coffin") is great protection when shipping it, or when it's packed away with other cargo. However, it's not a very handy or practical way to carry the lens when I need to access it constantly for shooting. Such a hard case in my front seat, for example, is far too big, cumbersome and unwieldy to open and shut. Banging and scratching the interior of my car (or bumping my elbow for that matter) with a hard case is not my idea of fun. Having to take the lens off the camera body every time I need to put it away is simply unworkable. I really needed some easier-to-handle protection for the lens.

     My initial solution is described in this article -"Super-telephoto Lens Case for Backpacking". Though I've never actually backpacked with the lens in this homemade protective case, I do use it as the default camera bag for my 500mm lens, while the hard case is banished to the back of my closet. This backpack case is soft, has multiple handles to make carrying it a breeze, and I never have to worry about it scratching or banging either my vehicles or myself. I set it in the passenger seat of my vehicle and seatbelt it in place, making it easy to reach and access. With the "lid" flipped open, I can slide the lens in and out with both the lens hood and camera body still attached. It provides excellent protection while being handy and easy to use. When I need the seat space for other items, I set it in the passenger floorboard and it's still easy to reach and use.

Lowepro Vertex 300  

     Along the way I came across a good deal on a large used camera backpack/laptop carrier, the Lowepro Vertex 300, to use for backpacking my other camera equipment. I found that the 500mm would also go inside it, but the pack was really not well suited for that purpose. The Vertex 300 itself weighed virtually as much as the 500mm lens, adding to the overall bulk, so I never actually used it with the 500mm. If I wanted to just carry the 500mm, the homemade backpack case was lighter, more practical, and offered much more protection.

     Eventually I got into kayaking, which provided another avenue for me to access locations for wildlife photography. I don't yet try to use the 500mm in the kayak. The lens is enough of a bear to handle on dry land with a good tripod and gimbal. No way was I going to try shooting with it from such a small watercraft. Along with the weight and handling issue there is also the concern of dunking such expensive glass in the water, mostly precipitated by the weight and handling issue itself, and not by any concerns over the boat's stability.

Dry Bag/Camera Bag for Kayaking
     Shooting with a 500mm from the kayak, and transporting it in the kayak are two completely different issues though. With a good drybag and some padding, carrying the lens in a kayak is not such a concern. For my smaller lenses, I've made padded "sleeves" that fit into drybags which work well. The first such project was a dual camera pack which is outlined in ""Kayaks, Water, and DSLR Cameras - How I Manage Mine" on my "Casual Kayaker" site. The second project was for a single lens and camera, and is featured in "Dry Bag/Camera Bag for Kayaking".

     After leaving my 500mm behind on a trip to Shackleford Banks to photograph the wild mustangs there, I decided I needed to come up with a solution for an alternate means to carry it. I couldn't take it to Shackleford in the special padded backpack I'd made for it because I had to use my Kelty hiking backpack to carry my jacket, two smaller lenses and two camera bodies on that trip. I could hardly have worn two backpacks, so I vowed to somehow take the 500mm the next time I went to Shackleford. All I needed was to get it there on the ferry. Once there, I could take it out of the backpack and mount it on the tripod for walking around. I ended up wrapping it in a towel and stuffing it into the Kelty backpack with my other gear. I was very uncomfortable with the solution. It worked out, but I wanted something safer than a towel.

Padded insert for standard
cylindrical 20-liter dry bag.

Completed lens barrel sleeve         

Lens barrel sleeve velcroed over lens   

Lens barrel sleeve slipped fully into place   
under the hood
     From my experience creating the padded inserts for the drybags, I came up with the idea of simple padded sleeves to slide onto the lens. The sleeved 500mm would then just slip into the Kelty backpack with the smaller lenses. It wouldn't have the armored protection of either the custom backpack I'd made, or the original hard case, but it would certainly have better protection than a towel could provide. With the sleeves made from ripstop nylon sewn over 3/4-inch thick grey sheet foam, they would also provide some moisture protection if the backpack got wet.

     The technique for making these "padded sleeves" was virtually the same as I used for the padded inserts in the "Dry Bag/Camera Bag for Kayaking" project. I hot-glued sheet foam into cylinders (one the diameter of the lens barrel, and one the diameter of the hood), but I only glued the butted edges about 1/3 the way up so there was a "slit side" the rest of the way. This slit was necessary to fit around the tripod foot on the barrel sleeve. It wasn't necessary on the hood sleeve, but I thought it might serve to velcro tighter if there was a slit there too. I hot-glued circular end caps of foam to plug one end of the barrel cylinder, and sewed ripstop nylon inserts and sleeves to cover the inside and outside of both foam cylinders. I attached velcro and a strap to hold the "slit" end tight once installed on the lens. That was pretty much it. Nothing complex about this project.

The hood sleeve

    Lens barrel sleeve
     In the left image, the barrel sleeve is shown slipping over the lens. The top of the sleeve in the photo has 2 inches of foam padding in the "cap" to cushion the lens rear cap. This is the end the lens will sit on when carried in the backpack. At right is the completed barrel sleeve with the blue velcroed strap. The sleeve slides onto the barrel and is velcroed snuggly by the blue strap under the lens tripod foot. Then the foam padded sleeve slides down a little farther between the lens hood and the barrel. This provides a "filler" for the gap between the large diameter reversed hood and the barrel of the lens.

     At left above is the other sleeve I made to cover the hood. Since I'm using a LensCoat Hoodie for my lens cap, I didn't need padding in the "cap" end of this hood sleeve, just padding around the sides to protect the hood from scratches and nicks. This sleeve is slit half way just like the barrel sleeve. It velcro's onto the hood as shown in the photos below.

     With both sleeves in place, the whole thing is slipped into the backpack along with another padded insert that I made for my smaller lens. With this setup, I can carry the 500mm, a 300mm with TC attached, a 70-200mm with body attached, and a second body in a padded pouch, plus other items (wide angle lens, another TC, extension tubes, etc.). Since the Kelty backpack is a good 6 pounds lighter than the Lowepro Vertex I have, it makes a considerabe weight difference carrying the lenses this way.

          Another angle of the lens with
           both sleeves, ready to pack.
     At right are three photos showing both the hood sleeve and barrel sleeve on the lens, then with the hood sleeve velcroed tight, and finally the whole thing stuffed into the Kelty backpack along with a 300mm lens. At left is one last photo of the lens with both sleeves on. Additional uses for these padded sleeves could be to cover the lens in the field, providing not only a water resistant cover for rain sprinkles, but padding to protect against bumps and scratches when carrying it around on the tripod. Last but not least, I now have a protective covering that I can use to slip the 500mm into a drybag and transport it in my kayak without fear of banging it up.

Visit my flatwater kayaking site, The Casual Kayaker.