Written by John Camp
The near-perfect shoulder-carry bag would be:
Light. Water-resistant. Not too heavily padded. Made of some species of nylon. Have two-closure systems: a zipper, plus a few Velcro tags, or snaps, so that you have the choice to close it securely, or to have it lightly closed, for instant access when you need it. It would have an adjustable shoulder strap, with a soft, conforming pad, and an accessory belt so that it could, if necessary, be worn as a fanny pack. It would have special plastic pockets in the cover for extra memory cards, small pockets on either end for batteries and to hold lens caps when you're not using them, and a pocket on the back for maps.
The near perfect travel pack would be:
Sturdy, protective, water resistent, and as light as is consistent with optimal protection. (In my opinion, most packs are over-padded.) The interior dividers would be easily customized.
It would have zip pockets that would contain the proliferation of wires, chargers and batteries that we carry. It would have a sturdy carry-handle both on top and down the side, and also a good fully detachable back-pack system, so you could carry the straps in another piece of luggage if you wished.
It would fit in the overhead of mainline jets.
It would have, as an accessory, a compact collapsible set of wheels that could be carried in your regular luggage when not in use.
It would have a removable pocket that would hold a 15-inch laptop, if you needed it to do that.
The near perfect heavy bag, for use when you're travelling by car, or when you're willing to check the bag on a plane:
Should emphasize protection. It should have light but rigid plastic reinforcements under the waterproofed nylon on all sides. It should have TSA locks. The internal dividers should be very customizable, and you should get perhaps a dozen extras when you buy the bag. It should have velcroed-in pouches, with snap tops, to organize wires, chargers, extra body and lens caps, and camera-cleaning equipment. It should have a very good set of wheels, and a solid handle that can be used as a supplemental luggage carrier when you need it (in other words, you can drop a backpack on top of it, and have it stay in place, when you’re rolling the bag.) I believe it should be black, so that it can’t readily be seen through the tinted windows in the back of a car or truck.
Preferences and prejudices
A few of my prejudices. You may disagree:
Too many bags are over-padded. Travel bags need some padding, but padding adds bulk and weight. Shoulder-carry bags mostly need padding in the bottom, for when you put them on the floor or on a table, and very little in the sides.
Shoulder bags should hang close to your side; better to stack the lenses vertically, than horizontally away from your body. And they should have good, padded slip-proof shoulder straps. The pad on the shoulder strap is where several companies cut costs—the edges of the strap cut into your shoulder. Check it before you buy.
Most bags need, and lack, accessory pouches that are designed for the bag, that will take digital-era electronic components like wires for chargers and computers, small parts like thumb drives, memory cards, etc.
Full waterproofing adds weight, and is hard to accomplish. Most of the more expensive backpacks come with a light, packable, fully waterproof cover that you can slip over the bag. That works. But: in my opinion (as a former canoe jock and fisherman) all bags should have a fully waterproofed bottom, and a waterproofed ring around the bottom, two or three inches high, so you can put the bag down on wet rocks, sand or grass without worrying about it. You know what I’d like? If the bag had little carbon-fiber rods like you find in self-supporting tents, that you could use to stand the bag upright. That would add no weight and be extremely useful.
Too many bags are too large. If you took at the larger LowePro, Tenba and Tamrac backpacks that you see in the average camera store, they will take a lot of equipment—and will be very, very heavy, and will be squarish, and stick too far out from your body. None of them that I've found have backpack systems good enough to carry very far. If you need to carry a lot of equipment, you need transport cases, with lots of protection, and wheels. If you're going off-road, on foot, and any distance, you need to think seriously about your pack—and perhaps go for a backpacking pack, into which you build your own inserts. Or (a really good idea!), take less equipment.
Backpacks are convenient, but mostly for transport. There aren't many that are good shooting bags. Do you really want to walk about Rome in the middle of July with thirty pounds of gear on your back? People argue about whether access should be top, bifurcated top and bottom, or butterfly with a central zipper, and so on. The fact is, you have to take most packs off and set them down to open the bag, so they're not really amenable to fast action. If you have a backpack, you also need a shooting bag. (Unless, in your special circumstances, the backpack works because of your special circumstances—I worked for several years as an archaeological photographer in the Middle East, had a heavy bag, but only had to carry it as far as a bus or car.)
One of the Kata bags I currently own (not the one pictured above) has backpack straps that can be switched diagonally across the bag, so they serve as slings. It also has zippered side-openings. Using it as a sling, you can pull the bag around in front of your chest, while the strap is still on your shoulder. You hold it in place with your first hand, and then, with the second hand, unzip the side opening and remove what you need, assuming that what you need is under that flap. Then, using your second and third hands (while your first hand still holds the pack) you can safely change your lens and put the other one in the pack. Theoretically, you could be standing in a creek two feet deep, and change gear without needing to put the bag down.
That's in theory. If I were to do that, I'd drop the lens/camera in the creek.
End of Part II
Part I can be found here
Coming in Part III (tomorrow): Capsule reviews of many specific bags and backpacks
John Camp is a former reporter who is now a novelist. He writes thrillers under his pen name, John Sandford. And he is a bagaholic.
Ed. Note: The illustrations in Part II are arbitrary and don't constitute authorial recommendations. The first one is just the bag Yr. Hmbl. Ed. has owned since the '80s.
©2013 by John Camp, all rights reserved
Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Bojidar: "For what it's worth, Steve McCurry uses a beat-up black Billingham 335. I guess that's a thumbs up for that bag from the ultimate travel photographer."
Bill: "When Domke first started, he had his bags made by Smith & Co., a Chicago canvas company and tentmaker. When he took his business elsewhere they started making their own bags, which were lighter and sturdier than Domkes. They did this by sewing everything in place—no adjustments! I got my three different models at Ken Hanson's store in NYC. Two of them are still with me (and used constantly), the other lost in a home burglary. They are/were the best shoulder bags I've seen. I don't know when they quit making them, but I always look for them when I'm at a camera show."
dogman: "I own almost as many bags as I do cameras and, like the collection of cameras, most of the bags are old and don't get used anymore. My preferences in bags have changed considerably over the years. I carry less stuff around with digital equipment and that's a real blessing for an old fat man with moderate to severe arthritis. A Billingham Hadley or Domke Little Bit Smaller bag is all I ever use now when I'm out shooting. Except for residual redundancy ingrained by my previous incarnation as a news photographer, I usually don't even need the bag. Premium quality zooms are so good these days, I seldom use more than one lens and I really don't need that second body except it makes me feel more secure to have one. Old habits are hard to break and, at this point, why bother trying.
"Fact is, I've been known to make use of a photo vest on occasions and just leave the bag behind. I know some people see them as an affectation but they are very convenient and much more comfortable than a shoulder bag for all day carry of equipment. I've been using them for decades and I still have my old raggedy Banana Republic vest although it's a little snugger fitting in the middle now.
"Since I haven't flown in years and I don't really intend to do much of it again, I don't use my padded bags anymore. My traveling is done by auto, so a couple of Domke F2 bags can transport a lot of equipment. If I take any long lenses, I just carry them separately in their own padded cases. Most of the time, those long lenses just stay packed away—those old habits again."
Carsten Bockermann: "Many newer bags use Velcro to help keep them closed. I hate the noise that this material makes when you open it. Immediately draws attention to the photographer. That's why I'm staying with my Billingham Hadley bags."
Jeff responds to Carsten: "Or Velcro draws the photographer's attention to the thief, if that's who's doing the opening. Perhaps why John Camp prefers having the dual option."
Chris Malcolm: "I'm a convinced user of robustly padded bags. I was carrying my camera and handful of lenses in a large Lowepro Slingshot in a carrier on the back of my bicycle when I was hit sideways by a sports car. Bicycle trashed under wheels of car. Bag and I bounced off the hood of the car. No damage to gear in bag. Last week I accidentally dropped my gear bag (camera plus four lenses) down the stairs of a double decker bus as the brakes were slammed on. It banged down all the way from top to bottom of the stairs. No damage to the gear inside. Plus several more minor drops. These experiences have made me a convinced adherent of the robustly padded gear bag."