It’s not enough to take our suitcases with us when we go, filled with clothing and odds and ends for every possibility and weather condition. We haul our camera gear with us, too. For some, it’s a simple matter of throwing a simple-point-and-shoot camera into a pocket. For the serious photographer and traveler it means bringing a full bag of gear.
Choices in camera bags used to be limited to good, bad, and indifferent. Sometimes the home-made bags were the best. Now there is an outdoor pack and bag for every possible sport from simply taking a walk in the park to hanging off the steepest cliff. The qualities that make a good camera bag haven’t changed, but the selection and technology sure has improved.
In general, high on our brand recommendation list are Tamrac, Domke, Billingham, Kinesis Gear, and Lowepro. They offer everything from waterproof to water resistant, padded to unpadded, classy to punk, dark earth tones to neon crazy, and everything in between for all types of photographers. The key is to find one that carries what you want to carry, keeps everything safe and protected, allows easy access, and is comfortable to lug around.
It Carries What You Want To Carry
Functionality means it has to carry what you need when you go. If you require two camera bodies and 18 lenses, then the bag you choose needs to carry that. If you just have a single point-and-shoot camera, then a big bag will be way too much. For the serious photographer, the important part of a camera bag is the inside. We demand high functionality and durability over good looks.
Before going bag hunting, put your equipment together in one place and play with it to get an idea of how big a bag you really need. Does everything go with you every time you go out? Or do you customize your equipment each time to meet the requirements of your target subject? Do you prefer a shoulder bag, fanny pack or the backpack style? After you have a preliminary idea of what you need, put your equipment in the car and head down to the local, well-stocked camera store. The best way to test a prospective camera bag is to pack it with your gear and test drive it before you buy.
Keeps Everything Safe and Protected
Nature photographers and travelers are typically rough on their equipment. We are always banging into trees, slamming things down on rocks or even sitting on our camera bags. Whatever your choice of personal violence on your equipment, choose a bag that insulates your gear from harm.
One of the great accessories they include on some of their larger packs is a removable day pack. They vary in size from the smallest barely able to carry a book or two to slightly larger, good enough for walking around the city during the day but not carrying home gifts or groceries. These removable day packs attach to the pack with straps and zippers so they look like they are a part of the pack. They also feature a "loop" strip for carrying coats and sweaters when the day warms up.
While they carry small accessories for small cameras in their line, these are traditional style packs, and are very lightweight and durable. I carry my camera equipment inside wrapped in Domke wraps for padding, distributed through clothing and other items when I’m out hiking. For serious camera carrying capability, you can custom create foam or padding inside the pack to hold your equipment safely. Check them out.
- Look closely at the way the bag is built and the elements used in its construction. Years ago, the technology for padding a bag was based on the use of cotton batting surrounding cardboard sheets. With the availability of new plastics and foams, padding has improved. It is much better and lighter. Find out what is inside the layers. Is it waterproof plastic, long-lasting closed-cell foam, or water-absorbing cardboard? We prefer bags with linings which can be opened and dried out if they get wet. This is rare to find, but worth the hunt.
- Look at the stitching, inside and out. We’ve had bags go crashing down on the rocks because of bad stitching around the straps which broke under the strain. Make sure it is reinforced and double stitched. The stitches should be very close together and with a durable thread.
- Look inside
- Pay attention to the details inside. Is the fabric on the dividers as soft as it is on the sides, or is it different? Not only do you need a bag with sufficient padding, the fabric must be soft enough to not wear the finish off your camera body or the writing off the lenses. You certainly don’t want to skin your knuckles as you dig inside. Are the dividers sturdy enough to hold the lenses in place? Can you attach the dividers anywhere in the bag or are you limited to specific locations and layouts?
- Look Outside
- Look at the labels for the listing of fabrics used. Look for durable fabrics such as denier or cordura? Is the outside fabric durable or just resistant? Check seams to make sure they are even and sewn all the way through. Is the stitching strong with small, even stitches, enforced with bias tape? Are all the pockets accessible and easy to open? Are the straps securely attached with adequate stitching and is there room to attach additional straps if necessary?
- Check openings and closings
- Play with all the zippers and clasps. Are they easy to open? Can you do it with one hand, or does it require two? Can you do it without looking, while you are concentrating on your subject through the camera? Are the clasps plastic or metal? Will they wear out with heavy use? Can you easily find the zipper pulls? In other words, will your gear stay securely inside, protected from the elements, while you still have fast and easy access to what you need without taking your concentration away from the camera?
- Put it on
- Can you open the bag while wearing it? If so, how does it open? Does the lid flip down to keep your gear protected while you are changing lenses? Can you use the lid to stabilize a lens without it falling off when changing lenses? Does the lid open towards you or away? Can you change that to suit your needs? While you have the lid loose, can you bend over and not have everything come spilling out as you move around? Think about all the ways you move as you use your camera equipment and photograph. Will the bag hamper your movements or allow you to move freely?
Allows Everything to be Easily Accessed
If you can’t find it, you can’t use it. Can you get to everything, or at least what you need most, most of the time? A great bag will let you reach in blindly and pull out exactly what you need. You’ll never have to take your eyes from your subject. Does everything fit in nicely? Is there a place for everything and is what you use the most readily available? The bottom of the bag is often hard to get to. Some of the Tamrac bags allow for easy outside access to these places.
Consider modular interior or exterior systems for maximum flexibility. Look for removable and interchangeable innards to adjust to your specific needs, one that will grow with you as your photographic interests and equipment changes over time. When searching for a new bag, look for a system with the most flexibility and security so you can spend more energy concentrating on what you are doing and not on the bag.
Luv to Lug?
Put your photography gear in the bag and then put the bag on. It’s important that the bag be comfortable with the normal weight you’ll be carrying. A pretty bag may be miserable to carry. Bringing your gear into the camera store, and put it in the bag you are interested in. Lift it up and carry it as you would while you are traveling and photographing. Is it too heavy? Does it feel cumbersome? How does it fit against your body?
How do the straps work for you? Shoulder strap bags are great if you are rushing to an airplane and need to toss it off for the security scans. They are great for working out of a car. But for the long hikes, a fanny pack or backpack are better bets. Check the straps that rest on your shoulders and hips. Are they thickly padded? Thin supports and padding can cut right through clothing and wear into the skin on long hikes. Is the pack soft where it meets your body or does it rub against you as you move? Have an experienced salesperson help fit it to your body for maximum comfort and support. Make sure your bag or pack will distribute the weight so you don’t injure yourself when you carry it.
Advertising to a Thief
Don’t forget to consider security issues. Does it say "steal me" on the side? Many professional photographers choose bags resembling worn-out and much abused knapsacks. Others buy excellent brand-name bags and cut off the logo to keep it neutral looking. We like working with untraditional looking bags and keeping a very low profile when we travel and photograph. It’s bad enough having a 500mm lens that stands out in a crowd, but carrying a bright-colored camera bag invites too much attention. Consider where you go and how you will be using the bag. Make sure you get one that doesn’t attract unwanted attention.
Making the Final Selection
There are so many different bags on the market, choosing one can be overwhelming. You can buy the traditional styles, or go for the add-as-you-need modular systems.There are backpacks which are camera bags and camera bags which are backpacks. LowePro and other manufacturers are making packs that can be split into separate pieces. You need to find one that meets your specific needs. Like shoes, you’ll probably own several before finding the right one.
Whatever you decide on for your travel camera bag, keep it close to you at all times and never let it leave your side. Or you’ll be looking for a lot of new equipment AND a new bag real soon.