Lens cases  

A lens case is a semi-rigid, padded bag for storing a single lens, and sometimes a lens cap and/or filter in an internal pocket. Typically, lens cases have a semi-rigid lid that closes with a zipper and provides a reasonable protection against wind-blown dust, humidity and rain, while soft lens pouches often close with a drawstring or a Velcro lid and are far less sealed from the external environment. Lens pouches are often made from a neoprene sheet or a synthetic cloth superficially similar to a spongy leather. Lens cases, instead, are typically made from a closed-pore synthetic foam sheet sewn between two layers of cloth, of which the exterioir is rough and wear-resistant, while the interior is soft to protect the lens finish. Also, lens cases are generally meant to hang on a belt, shoulder strap, vest or the exterior of a backpack, while lens pouches are only meant as additional protection when stored inside a backpack, camera bag or suitcase.

Some manufacturers use other terms to indicate lens cases. For example, Tenba calls them lens capsules. You need to be aware of these different terms when googling after lens cases of a specific brand.

Lens case for the Olympus Zuiko Digital 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD
Figure 1. Lens case for the Olympus Zuiko Digital 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD.
 

Some legacy lens cases, e.g. by Olympus (Figure 1 shows the legacy LSH-1220 for the Zuiko Digital 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD) open broadly along a dual zippered flap and a clasped top lid to make it easier to insert and extract a large lens. This particular lens case is also generously sized, with enough space to accommodate a 3/4 to Micro 3/4 adapter at the rear of the lens and an Arca-compatible lens plate under the tripod shoe. Other refinements include four plastic feet to raise the bottom of the lens case above wet ground, and a webbing at the front of the case (displaying the Olympus brand and model) for attaching a small pouch. It also provides two D-rings for attaching a shoulder strap but, surprisingly by modern standards, no tab at the back of the case for attaching it to a belt or webbing. Were it not for this miss, this lens case could have made it among those worthy of a honorable mention.

Lens case for the Sigma Art 30 mm f/2.8
Figure 2. Lens case for the Sigma Art 30 mm f/2.8.
 

Some lenses are sold with an accompanying lens case, but the majority come with a simpler soft lens pouch, or sometimes no case/pouch at all. The above lens case for the Sigma Art 30 mm f/2.8 is pretty basic, with a naked patch of foam padding inside the top lid. The foam padding at the bottom is instead wrapped in synthetic cloth, as typical for lens cases. This lens case has neither attachments for a shoulder strap (not an important miss because of the small lens size), nor a tab for attachment to a belt or backpack. The lack of a tab makes the lens case useless, except if stored in a bag. The same basic quality and lack of features can be seen also in Sigma lens cases for much larger and more expensive lenses.

JJC and Lowepro lens cases
Figure 3. JJC (left) and Lowepro (right) lens cases.
 

Third-party lens cases are often sold by manufacturers of camera bags and backpacks, or by China-based sellers. The JJC lens case shown above (Figure 3, left) is closely modeled after the Lowepro lens case (Figure 3, right), which is several years older. In both cases, the tab at the rear of the lens case is too wide to fit PALS webbings on tactical camera backpacks like the Tenba Axis models and standard third-party MOLLE/PALS backpacks. The tab of the Lowepro case (53 mm wide) does fit Lowepro utility belts and vests, while the tab of the JJC case (58 mm wide and thicker than the Lowepro's) is a bit too wide even for some of these wider-than-standard webbings.

JJC lens cases are available in seven sizes from 12.5 x 7.8 cm to 31 x 13 cm. Lowepro lens cases are currently available in 9 sizes ranging from 11 x 11 cm to 32 x 13 cm. These ranges are enough to accommodate lenses up to a 300 mm f/2.8.

There is a "hidden" feature in all-black JJC lens cases that I own. At the bottom of the case, there is an internal zipper that attaches the lining of the inner wall to the lining of the bottom. Unzipping it allows the plastic foam padding of the wall to be exposed, and extracted if desired. I am not sure about the purpose and value of this zipper, especially since opening the zipper and exposing the foam is laborious and time-consuming. This might allow a suspicious security or border agent to make sure that there are no drugs hidden under the lining. I am not aware of other lens cases with this feature.

JJC lens cases were upgraded some time ago with blue zippers and brand labels that make them similar in style to Tenba lens capsules (see below). The design of the current JJC lens cases, however, has not otherwise changed with respect to the earlier, all-black (external) and light-gray (internal) example shown above. Both JJC and Lowepro lens cases are good, but their non-standard tab width makes them problematic to attach to backpacks of other brands.

Lowepro lens case
Figure 4. Lowepro lens case.
 

Lens cases from different manufacturers are of varying quality, and differ in a few respects. These differences include how good the zipper is at reducing the risk of rainwater entering the lens case, how easily a lens is inserted and extracted, and how easily the lid of the lens case is unzipped and opened, as well as closed and zipped shut. The Lowepro lens case in Figure 4 is typical of current designs. Note how the padding extends above the zipper. This should prevent water from dripping into the lens case through the zipper, but makes it clumsy to close the floppy edge of the lid and zipper it shut with just one hand. The tabs at either end of the zipper make it easier to close and open it, but require the use of two hands. The close proximity of the zipper with the inner cloth lining may also encourage the latter to wick moisture away from the zipper and spread it inside the lens case if the lining is not waterproof.

Some Lowepro lens cases also have a built-in rain cover of waterproof cloth. This is primarily useful when wearing the lens case attached to a belt or vest harness. When attached to a backpack, the whole backpack, including any attached lens cases, is typically protected by a single large rain cover.

Counterfeit Lowepro camera backpacks and accessories of inferior quality are becoming increasingly common, especially from mail-order sellers. Sometimes I ask myself whether some of the Lowepro items that I own, like the above lens case, are genuine Lowepro items. It is difficult to decide whether a given item is a genuine Lowepro, short of comparing it directly with a corresponding known-genuine Lowepro article. Since I purchase virtually 100% of my camera gear by mail order, in the past few years I have been staying away from Lowepro altogether, since the risk of getting counterfeit products is too high. Pity, because Lowepro does make good stuff at reasonable prices.

Lowepro lens case
Figure 4. Legacy Tamrac lens case.
 

Legacy Tamrac lens cases are designed much like Lowepro lens cases, albeit protected from rain by an external overhang of the lid that covers the zipper (rather than a padding extending above the level of the zipper). This makes the Tamrac lens cases slightly easier to zipper shut or open with one hand, as long as one folds the overhang away first.

The old Tamrac lens cases also have an oversized attachment tab a good 75 mm wide and almost as long as the lens case (even in cases for telephoto lenses). More recent Tamrac lens cases have a pair of parallel tabs that are much narrower and look compatible in width and spacing with PALS webbings (albeit longer than PALS tabs). At present, Tamrac seems to have discontinued all of its lens cases, although its backpacks still have double-layer webbings on both sides of the pack that can accept their old- or new-style lens cases.

The Think Tank Duo lens cases have a dual access zipper. One zipper is fitted around the top lid, as usual. The other zipper is vertical and runs from the top lid to one side of the case. This supposedly facilitates using the lens case when attached to a utility belt. I have not tried these lens cases and cannot say whether the dual zipper provides a significant advantage.

Several lens cases have one or two straps enclosing the circumference of the case. These straps are presumably meant for attaching other equipment to the lens case, or perhaps for attaching together two or more lens cases, but I never found a clear need for them.

Wandrd markets an inflatable lens case (as well as an inflatable camera cube and a camera backpack with inflatable frame) of variable length. This case uses longitudinal tension straps to control the length of the case (up to almost 23 cm), and the body of the case is then inflated (e.g. by blowing into it) to extend to this length and stiffen the wall of the case. Price of this lens case is quite high, roughly enough to buy three third-party lens cases like the JJC ones discussed above.

A few padded tripod and telescope semi-rigid bags can be used as lens cases for long telephoto lenses. For example, see my use of a Marsace MTB-46M tripod case for carrying the legacy Olympus Zuiko 600 mm f/6.5 refractor long telephoto lens.

Rigid lens cases of leather (or imitation leather) used to be marketed by the makers of legacy lenses, and were often sold separately from the lenses. All major camera manufacturers seem to have marketed such accessories at one time or another. These lens cases are scarcely padded, and do not provide a good protection of the lens from impacts. The leather and padding of these lens cases can be brittle and dusty. In general, it is not a good idea to use these old lens cases to carry equipment in the field.

Lens changers

In addition to lens cases, Lowepro markets lens exchange cases, which when open have two collapsible interior compartments, one of which is left empty. The empty compartment allows the photographer to dismount one lens from the camera and insert it into the lens changer before extracting the other lens and mounting it onto the camera. In principle, this operation can be carried out with only one hand (while the other hand holds the camera). In practice, this requires some getting used to, as it may be tricky to collapse the empty compartment with one hand before closing the lens changer.

Think Tank also markets "lens changers", but unlike Lowepro's offerings, the Think Tank products are lens pouches incompletely closed at the top by a drawstring and have a single internal compartment. One lens must be extracted before the other is inserted, and two hands, one for each lens, seem to be required to swap lenses.

For swapping lenses, I prefer to keep things simple. I use an ordinary lens case for each lens, of the right size for each lens, including the lens currently mounted on the camera. This last case is of course empty. In this way, I can dismount and put away my current lens, and close its lens case, before taking out the next lens. My frequently-used kit for Micro 4/3, for example, consists of four lenses (7-14 mm f/2.8, 12-40 mm f/2.8, 60 mm f/2.8 macro and 300 mm f/4). They are of quite different physical sizes, and a Lowepro lens changer would either waste a lot of its space or be too small.

PALS webbings

Standard PALS webbings are 25 mm wide ribbons attached in a horizontal orientation and spaced 25 mm vertically from each other. The stitchings that attach each ribbon to a piece of carry equipment are horizontally spaced 38 mm, although up to about 42 mm is acceptable. The PALS tabs that insert in these webbings are supposed to be semi-rigid to prevent them from coming loose even if accidentally unclipped, and must not use Velcro fastenings because of its ripping noise when pulled open. In the context of trekking and photographic equipment, the latter requirement is not as vital as for military field use, but the noise of Velcro can be a problem in many types of photography.

Hazard 4 currently markets four sizes of padded lens cases, which they call "Jelly Roll cases". All measurements are internal, height is the first:

  • 10 x 8 x 6 cm,
  • 10 x 10 x 8 cm,
  • 20.4 x 9 x 7.5 cm, and
  • 22.9 x 11.4 cm.

All are available in tan (called "Coyote" by Hazard 4) and black. The largest model used to be available in camouflage patterns, and specimens might still be available from some retailers. All models are equipped with two standard PALS tabs, and the largest model also carries PALS webbings for adding small pouches. A padded divider is also supplied, and can be stored in the lid when not in use.

Additionally, there are on the market a couple of no-brand padded bottle holders with standard PALS tabs, which can be used to store a medium telephoto lens.

Standard PALS pouches usually have attachment tabs much narrower than the specified 42 mm. Many lens cases that nominally follow the PALS standard, including the Tenba lens cases discussed below, have tabs that are too wide and/or thick to fit most standard PALS webbings, and therefore are not truly PALS compatible.

There are two main types of PALS webbings: those made with 25 mm ribbons stitched to a cloth substrate at intervals of about 38-42 mm, and those with holes for PALS tabs laser-cut in a stiff layer of synthetic cloth, which in turn is stitched to a substrate. The former type is more traditional, and by removing a set of stitches (carefully, in order not to damage the ribbon) it is possible to double the width available for an oversize attachment tab. I used this simple way to make part of the webbing on a Wisport Caracal compatible with the wide tabs of some of my lens cases.

Modifying the laser-cut webbing type is more difficult, because after joining a pair of adjacent holes by cutting the "bridge" between them, it is necessary to seal the newly cut edges to prevent threads from running. This can be done either by heat-sealing the edges, or by using a cloth adhesive to glue the cut threads in place.

Tenba lens capsules

Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case
Figure 5. Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case.
 

Tenba markets lens cases, which they call "lens capsules", in five different sizes. Their internal measurements:

  • 9 x 9 cm,
  • 13 x 9 cm,
  • 15 x 11 cm,
  • 23 x 12 cm, and
  • 30 x 13 cm.

These are rather large and generously padded cases. The 13 x 9 cm is tall enough and more than wide enough to fit a Nikon AF Micro Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8. The 15 x 11 cm fits a Sony FE 90 mm macro G OSS f/2.8 with reversed lens shade and third-party tripod bracket. The 23 x 12 cm accommodates the Olympus 300 mm f/4 Pro with a custom neck strap attached to the tripod shoe. The 30 x 13 cm should fit a 300 mm f/2.8, which at the moment I don't have. The Olympus Zuiko 600 mm f/6.5 without adapters is too long by just a couple of cm to fit in this case, but it looks like with some stretching I could succeed in closing the lid of the case.

Eyelet on Tenba 15 x 11 cm lens case
Figure 6. Tenba 15 x 11 cm lens case, with eyelets for shoulder strap.
 

Unsurprisingly, Tenba lens cases are made in China. All but the two smallest models have D-rings for a shoulder strap, and a simple non-padded strap is included. The blue zippers (recently copied by JJC) and zipper tags contrast well with the black case and give a smart first impression. Internally, the cases are lined with a blue spongy cloth (as opposed to the smooth nylon of other brands). A net pocket under the top lid can store a lens cap, filter, silica gel packet, or lens cleaning cloth (the last is included). The side of the lens cases that carries the attachment tag is flattened, much like the JJC cases, but less than the Lowepro case shown above.

Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case
Figure 7. Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case, containing a lens.
 

Unlike most other lens cases, the padding of the body in the Tenba lens cases does not rise above the zipper. This makes the zipper of the Tenba cases easier to operate. In fact, the Tenba lens cases lack the tab at either end of the zipper that is present in JJC, Lowepro, Sigma and many other lens cases to help with opening and closing the zipper. With these lens cases, but not the Tenba ones, two hands are often necessary to zip and unzip the top lid.

Top and bottom of the Tenba lens cases are made from rigid molded plastic, externally covered with synthetic cloth and internally padded. Both top and bottom are cup-shaped rather than flat, and this makes the Tenba lens cases stand out from virtually all other brands. The Tenba logo is displayed in relief on the top lid. The wall of the body is semi-rigid and externally covered in rip-stop nylon cloth. A ribbon carry handle is attached between the case and its lid.

Bottom of Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case
Figure 8. Bottom of Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case.
 

The bottom of the cases has a raised rim, which adds protection against impacts and limits the amount of water and dirt that one can get on the case by laying it down on a wet or muddy surface.

Attachment tab of Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case
Figure 9. Attachment tab of Tenba 13 x 9 cm lens case, with double Velcro patches.
 

The attachment tab is kept closed at its bottom with large Velcro patches on both faces, for added safety.

The tab is 38 mm wide, and therefore right at the upper width limit of compatibility with the PALS webbings. This tab is easy to attach to the PALS webbings on the back and side of the Tenba Axis 24 l backpack (and presumably the other Axis backpacks as well). However, the tab is very thick and stiff (in part because of the double Velcro strips), and is too thick to mount on the PALS webbings of any of the third-party military-style carry systems I own. The tabs of the Tenba cases are also not strictly compatible with PALS in the sense that the case does not have PALS ribbons. PALS-compliant pouches allow weaving the tab alternately between ribbons on the carry system and ribbons on the pouch itself, which makes it almost impossible for the pouch to fall off even if the tab comes loose at its bottom.

The tab of the Tenba lens cases is long enough to bridge two PALS ribbons, at least on the lens cases sized 13 x 9 cm and above (I don't own any 9 x 9 cm cases as they are a bit too small to help with my lenses). The taller lens cases have a longer tab than the rest of the models, and in the 23 x 12 and 30 x 13 cm sizes the bottom attachments of the tab can be stretched to bridge three PALS ribbons.

As a whole, the molded rigid lid and bottom of the Tenba lens cases, together with the easily operated zippers, are the features that make these lens cases stand out from the rest of those I own. Although no lens case can protect a lens against all possible mishaps, the Tenba ones go one step further than most. In my opinion, this justifies their higher price.

Summary

Lens cases are useful to carry camera lenses attached on the outside of belts, backpacks and harnesses, and to protect the lenses from impacts and scratches. As lens cases go, the Tenba lens cases, or lens capsules, are one step above the rest, mainly because of the hard plastic, molded lid and bottom, and good padding. Their attachment tabs are nominally compliant with PALS measurements, but too wide and thick to fit many military PALS carry systems. Lens cases of other brands are often not at all PALS-compliant.



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