The great thing about camera bags is that no matter how much you spend, you will never be at peace with one camera bag. It will always be too big, too small, not padded enough to check through, not slim enough to carry on, … . You may be sure only of the following:
you will eventually have a closet full of camera bags
you will never regret having spent big bucks for quality
Ideal Shopping Procedure
The best way to shop for a camera bag is to gather up all of the gear that you think you’ll be likely to use on a typical project and walk into a well-stocked camera store. Budget at least an hour to find the bag that best fits the gear collection.
For throwing an SLR camera with lens into an airline carry-on or for rain and shock protection when out and about, the Zing neoprene cases are ideal.
A holster-style bag is sized precisely for one camera body attached to a particular lens. The ThinkTank web site is a good illustration of the possibilities. Tamrac is an alternative high quality supplier and publishes a useful fit chart. Also see the LowePro Toploader bags. The holster is not used in between photographs; the camera needs to be kept out and ready. The holster is used to protect the camera/lens between projects and when the camera/lens is tossed into a standard backpack or duffel bag.
The small bag
A small bag holds a camera body, three lenses, and maybe a flash. Typically these are rectangular bags with a shoulder strap. Perhaps the classic example is Domke, the perennial favorite of photojournalists. I find this kind of bag good for leaving under a table at a wedding reception, but not great for access to gear while I’m in motion.
A minor improvement on the standard design is the addition of a waist belt that can be tucked back away when not in use. The waist belt, pioneered with the venerable Tamrac 709, stabilizes the bag on a long walk.
Some designs worth investigation:
LowePro, especially the AW versions that are rain-proof
ThinkTank Urban Disguise (shoulder bags) and Change Up (waist belt, backpack straps, chest harness); the ThinkTank bags include an integrated rain cover that can be spread over the bag
What if you want to carry a camera system but can’t get through the day without an Android tablet or iPad? Tamrac and ThinkTank are ready for you. I have experimented with the Tamrac Zuma 4 holding a Sony NEX-6 and three lenses. It ended up being unstable, wanting to topple over due to the weight of the tablet.
The ThinkTank Retrospective 7 worked out very well for a small Canon EOS system and a couple of tablets. The fold-over flap makes it very convenient to get to the camera gear. This is my favorite tablet-carrying bag.
The big bag
Once a shoulder bag becomes large enough to hold enough equipment to cover a wedding or an entire medium format system, it becomes awkward to carry and difficult to dig through. Consider a backpack. The best big camera bag that the author has used is the LowePro SuperTrekker AW backpack.
The SuperTrekker is a big frameless backpack divided up with foam. It has only one level so you don’t have to figure out what goes on top of what, as with big shoulder bags. I’ve stuffed this one bag with two Canon EOS bodies, five EOS lenses (including a big telephoto L zoom), plus a Fuji 617 monster, lots of accessories, a tripod and film (it was that long ago!). The bag was not quite full. You can configure the case to hold a 600/4, a 300/2.8, a folding view camera, or maybe even all three.
Back before I got old/wise enough to hire assistants, I found the SuperTrekker very comfortable to wear and it had thoughtful and clever design features that took years to appreciate fully. The SuperTrekker can be a little tight for putting in an airline overhead bin, though a couple of times I checked it with no ill results. The tripod case on the back is worth mentioning. It separates from the backpack if you wish to carry it separately, is big enough for a Manfrotto/Bogen 3021 and ballhead, and is well padded with foam.
If you are caught in the rain with the bag, unfurl the built-in rain fly.
The photo backpack
The SuperTrekker is too big and heavy to carry while taking pictures and, even if you force an assistant to wear it, getting lenses out while the backpack is in a vertical position is not easy. LowePro makes some smaller backpacks that are worth investigating. The Rotation 360 from ThinkTank is perhaps the most interesting idea in photo backpacks. The lower part of the pack can be swiveled around to your front temporarily. It opens at the top so that you can conveniently change lenses while standing and wearing the rest of the pack on your back.
The photo backpack that an assistant wears
If you can persuade a friend to go hiking with you, why not have the friend wear the backpack? Then you don’t have to put the backpack down on the (dirty) ground in order to begin the process of changing lenses. Your friend essentially becomes a mobile camera closet. Unfortunately, as noted above, the typical photo backpack is designed for access with the backpack flat on the ground. If opened up when the backpack is being worn, nothing stops all of the lenses from falling out. Your friend might be willing to carry the backpack, but is he or she willing to get down on hands and knees every time you want to change lenses?
A very nice backpack that goes part of the way to solving this problem is made by Gura Gear. Their Bataflae system can open in a variety of ways such that not all of the lenses are simultaneously at risk. It is also great for airline travel due to the facts that the straps can be tucked away and the bag carried with a couple of very thoughtfully placed handles.
Also look at the Tamrac Evolution backpacks for this application. I have not tested them.
The photo backpack that is truly waterproof
A unique product that will keep your gear safe if a canoe, raft, or zodiac is part of your day, is the LowePro DryZone 200. This backpack uses a waterproof zipper and a rafting-style drybag material around a standard soft-sided photo backpack.
I used the DryZone 200 backpack on a trip to Antarctica in February 2013. Once you get on the ship in Ushuaia there is no possibility of ordering a replacement SLR body, even for Amazon Prime customers! So it was very comforting to have my gear stowed safely during Zodiac rides and landings. The waterproof zipper is a little bit cumbersome to operate so I would not recommend this backpack in a situation where there is no risk of dunking.
The voice of experience (LowePro versus ThinkTank)
We asked Peter Menzel (interview) to compare a LowePro to the ThinkTank backpack that he had been using:
The Lowepro Vertex 200 AW held the following: two Canon 5D bodies with vertical grips and lenses attached; the 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 100-400mm lenses; 2 Canon flashes; Bogen table top tripod; Minolta flash meter; soft case with extra battery, charger and 10 CF cards; headlamp and maglite; 15" notebook computer and charger. As an all-in-one backback—for photographic missions requiring airplane travel or complex shoots where I need more lenses and gadgets—it doesn’t have the room. For my needs, the Lowepro Vertex 300 AW would probably be more appropriate.
The Vertex 200 backpack is rugged and well thought-out. It looks waterproof, although I wonder how the newfangled waterproof zippers will hold up over the years. I like the waistband and shoulder straps: the harness system offers good support for hiking with minimal equipment. It has good straps for attaching a bigger tripod too.
I normally use a Thinktank Airport Acceleration backpack, which, in addition to the equipment listed above, holds a 70-200mm lens, a 100 macro, and an infared remote receiver and trigger. The laptop slot is less padded than the Lowepro, and the harness system is not as good. I would take the Thinktank for transporting gear at airports, taxis and for moving fragile equipment around. The Lowepro would be better for backpacking and rougher assignments where I need fewer lenses.
For less than $200 you can get a waterproof, dustproof, indestructible plastic hard case. It will hold a moderate array of equipment and look very nice sitting in your basement.
If you’re going to be spending a long time in a hostile environment, e.g., a sailboat, one of these might be worthwhile, but they are very user-unfriendly. If you can’t get to your equipment, you probably can’t take a very good picture. A Pelican or Zero Halliburton case is nice if you are collecting cameras but not very practical if you want to use them.
You might imagine that a hard case like this would be ideal for check-through airline travel. However, the last thing that you want is a rigid case transmitting all the shock directly to your equipment. For situations in which water immersion is a possibility I recommend the LowePro DryZone 200 backpack instead of a hard case.
The bag that is at home in the belly of an airliner
Suppose that you need to check or FEDEX lighting equipment and larger cameras/lenses and then, once you’ve arrived on location, work out of the shipping container. You need an “air case”. These are made with a rigid plastic core, strong enough to support this 200 lb. photographer. The core is made of shock-absorbing foam and then it is wrapped inside and out with more shock-absorbing foam. A final boon of an air case system is that all of this foam functions much as the foam around a picnic cooler. This protects gear from temperature extremes (though remember not to put film in checked luggage; airports use much higher strength X-rays on checked bags than carry-on). If you don’t want airport baggage handlers opening your case, you can use a TSA-approved luggage lock on the zippers. Each case comes with a wrapped-foam divider system that is adjustable with Velcro. You have to budget a couple of hours to cut up the dividers to suit your goals.
There are three major brands of air cases: Lightware, Tamrac, and Tenba. I’ve had good experiences with six or seven different Tamrac bags, but have never tried their “protective hard cases.” I have a Tenba case and the dividers come from the factory with sewn-in Velcro. It works perfectly. My experience with the Lightware case:
Paid $380 back in the 1990s when this was real money.
Spent a whole evening to cut up the dividers and attach the supplied glue-backed Velcro strips to the edges.
Ran out of Velcro fasteners because Lightware was rather stingy with the supply.
Called Lightware to ask for a few more Velcro strips. They demanded $1/strip to drop a few more in the mail.
After a couple of trips out of the house, my dividers were all drifting from their moorings; the Velcro strips had come unglued from the divider edges. I called Lightware and they said “oh yes, that happened to lots of people; we had a bad batch of strips.” They sent me some new strips with allegedly more tenacious glue.
After every airplane flight, the dividers shift and I have to reglue the Velcro, despite the fact that I never put more than 45 pounds of stuff in one of Lightware’s largest cases.
Second opinion: I once asked a clerk at Calumet what the difference between Lightware and Tenba was (they had both on display). She said “the Lightware sucks”.
The photo vest
If you’re a gearhead, you’ll probably end up with a camera bag too big to carry around an art museum or a city. One effective strategy is to leave the bag in the car trunk and use a photo vest to carry what you need for a specific sub-project. Some photo vests have sufficiently large pockets to hold a 70-200/2.8 zoom lens, but none alas have pockets large enough for a mid-sized body with mid-sized lens attached.
The main problem with photo vests is that they make your neck hurt, but they are still more comfortable than most shoulder-strap bags. Plus your equipment is much more accessible.
Nikon made an interesting vest they called “Vestrap”, which is sometimes available on the used market. The Vestrap has two little runt strapettes that you hook to your camera and then clip to the vest. The weight of the camera you’re using then becomes part of the vest weight as well. The vest looked beautifully tailored, at least by computer nerd standards, and the pockets were large enough to hold 70-200/2.8 lenses or second bodies. I tried this vest for a month in Italy and didn’t like it. First, the pockets aren’t padded on the outside so if I sat down or took the vest off, the lenses took a lot of hard knocks. Second, I quickly discovered that a neoprene strap distributed the weight of a camera more comfortably than the Vestrap collar. Third, when you have the camera clipped in, it is difficult to take the camera or the vest off. You become inextricably linked to the vest and your equipment. I thought it was a reasonably good vest for covering a photojournalism assignment where you’re going to be on your feet and focused on photography for a few hours. However, I preferred living out of an older Tamrac vest.
If you find yourself melting in the summertime in that photo vest and/or it won’t hold your big lenses, try a belt system. The pioneer in this product category was Kinesis. I used a Kinesis system to cover MIT’s 1998 graduation and found that a Canon EOS-5 body with vertical grip plus 70-200/2.8L lens all fit into one of the pouches with the enormous 70-200’s plastic sunshade attached. I ran into Charlie Krupa, an AP News photographer, at the MIT event. He noticed my Kinesis belt and pointed to his own: “don’t you just love this system?”
LowePro and Tamrac make competitive modular belt systems.
The thin straps that come with camera bodies are good for keeping a tight leash on your equipment. If you don’t mind a bit of stretch, thick neoprene straps distribute the weight of a camera much more comfortably around your shoulder. The Tamrac “boomerang” strap is a good example of the maximum in width and comfort. I was a big fan of the Tamracs because the same plastic connectors can be used to switch the camera into a (discontinued) Tamrac “Action Strap” in about 20 seconds. The Action Strap was a clever contraption that has the camera hang down from your neck against your chest and a neoprene belt with a hole in the middle comes around your waist to sit over the lens. This presses the camera up against your chest so that you can ride a horse, for example, without getting battered by your camera. When the time comes to snap a picture, you can pull off the neoprene loop in about 2 seconds, raise the camera to your eye and expose. It cost about $20 but was discontinued during the Bill Clinton Administration.
The view camera case
As noted in “Choosing a Large Format Camera”, when using a monorail view camera on location, you probably aren’t going to be carrying it too far (was it Edward Weston who said “if it is more than 500 feet from the car, it isn’t photogenic”?). The most convenient way to carry a view camera is with a huge case that lets the view camera hang from its rails. You can have the camera out and set up on a tripod in less than one minute. Jeff Hirsh at Fotocare is probably the best person to talk to for a recommendation.