Review: Pelican ProGear Sport Elite S115 and S130
By Ellis Vener
I doubt there few experienced photographers alive who haven't owned at least one Pelican case. These are heavy-duty, and heavy, molded crush-proof ABS plastic cases providing excellent shock protection. Pelican is the de facto choice for anyone who needs to keep delicate optics and electronics protected from the elements, errant assistants, and careless baggage handlers. They are also watertight to a depth of one meter for 30 minutes, and are rigid enough to stand on.
From the beginning Pelican has sold their products to all sorts of people, and photographers have always been a prime market. Recently they began making backpacks designed specifically for photographers. This review covers the S115 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Pro Pack and the S130 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Divider Pack.
What really sets these apart from other photography-oriented backpacks? The amount of protection built in. The foundation of the pack is a lowprofile crush-proof padded case for a tablet or laptop computers up to 15.5 x 10.5 x 1.1 inches (a 17-inch Apple MacBook Pro just fits). The hard case portion is hinged at the bottom, and the spring-loaded latch at the top locks the case shut with a satisfyingly clack and requires two steps to reopen. For additional security you can add one or two padlocks. As with other Pelican cases, the top and bottom halves of the case meet in a tongue-in-groove seal with a rubber O-ring gasket on the groove side, making it water tight down to one meter for at least 30 minutes. A pressure equalization valve prevents vacuum lock situations when moving from a low atmospheric pressure environment to a higher pressure one.
The S115 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Pro Pack
The non-watertight backpack portion of S115 is shaped like a traditional soft-sided carrying case: a tough woven nylon shell covers a well padded box. The padded sides and base are integrated into the overall structure of the backpack and the usable internal storage area measures 15.5 x 10.5 x 4.5 inches. The front of the pack opens with a zipper running around three sides of a hard panel that protects against impact damage. Three zippered mesh pockets are sewn to the inside of the front panel and a rigid internal panel separates this storage area from the main compartment. The panel adds another layer of impact protection and reinforces the overall structural integrity. The storage area and movable dividers are padded and bright yellow, making it easy to organize and see what is packed inside.
The exterior sides of the backpack portion have flat zippered compartments, good for a cell phone or a passport. On the right side of the pack is a similar but smaller zippered compartment and in the upper left side corner is a strap for securing a tripod.
Essentially the S115 is a gear case and computer case combination with backpack webbing. The webbing for the shoulder straps, along with the lumbar, back pads and the main compartment are permanently attached to the case. A removable hip belt is included as well. While there is a hard but rubberized handle at the top of the case, the one major criticism I have of it is that it needs a cloth handle on the side of the case so you can carry it more easily going up and down stairs or getting it in and out of vehicles.
Empty the S115 weighs 8.65 pounds, and the exterior dimensions are 18.5 x 13 x 10 inches. It retails between $200 and $280 dollars.
S130 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Divider Pack
Built on an identical hard case foundation, the S130 is more like a traditional daypack with a large top-opening compartment and a zippered door covered with a stiff ABS plastic plate protecting the lower portion of the pack. A padded insert holds a medium-size camera kit. You slide into the top opening and down to the bottom of the pack where you can access its contents through the lower door. These insert zippers shut as well for a second level of protection against the elements and potential theives. The soft space above the box can be used for accessories, jacket, or possibly another body with a reasonably large lens attached. I have been carrying a Nikon D800 and AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF VR Nikkor combination, wallet, keys, and a light fleece pullover in there. On the bottom of the S130 are straps for carrying a tripod, and the top flap has a larger zippered pocket for items you want quick access to.
Depending on how much gear you carry the S130 is reasonably comfortable, at least for me. I'm not sure I'd want to hike 10 or 20 miles wearing it across the Mojave, but I spent a warm fall afternoon wearing a fully loaded S130 while shooting stock images at a local zoo. (Trust me: Baby rhinoceroses and baby lowland gorillas are irresistibly cute.) Like the S115, the S130 external measurements are 18.5 x 13 x 10 inches, but it retails online from $179 to $260.
Fashionwise, the S115 and S130 don't cross the line into paramilitary style but come fairly close. The S115 can carry a full set of image making tools, but it looks exactly like what it is: a gear case with shoulder straps attached. I think the S115 would be perfect for a battery-power lighting kit and the S130 for shoots when the camera and lens choices are simple. Both packs have a crucial feature I wish more photo backpacks had: when you put them down they are stable upright - no more having to lay the pack down on the shoulder straps.
These are innovative backpack/cases and I look forward to using them in more challenging circumstances. If I can just convince Pelican to add those side handles I'll be very happy.