Written by John Camp
Lots of bags
I'm a bagaholic.
Not just camera bags, but all kinds of luggage and packs and containers...most of which are empty, because they are, you know, not quite right.
This post is about camera bags, of which I've had perhaps...thirty?...in the last twenty years. I've had two or three Domkes; several Lowepros; one Tenba that I well remember; four Think Tanks; a Crumpler; any number of small Case Logics; Tamracs; two Pelicans; at least three Katas; one Billingham; a Nikon; a Victorinox; a Blackhawk; any number of Op/Tech pouches, which don’t count as bags, but allowed me to use non-padded, non-camera bags as camera bags, including an Osprey backpack and an expensive deerhide rucksack that might as well have had "steal me" written on the side. I also had a Kinesis belt system.
And before I go further, let me say that I'm going to mention a lot of brands over the next few days, but I don't care if you buy one or not. I have no connection to any manufacturer, and no stake in selling you a bag.
Last year, I moved out of my Minnesota house, where I'd lived for twenty years, and my partner went into the attic and started throwing out camera bags. When she got finished, she had a pile of perhaps twenty bags, some of which had been radically disassembled (in the hopes of making a new, better bag), some of which were badly worn or broken, and a few that even looked pretty new. Most of the wrecked ones went in a dumpster, and most of the others across the St. Croix River to the Hudson, Wisconsin, Goodwill Store.
The problem is that I'm convinced that somewhere out there is the perfect bag (or perfect combination of bags) for me. From reading a lot of online posts, I'm pretty sure other people have found perfect bags. So why couldn't I?
I currently have a Nikon D800 system in a StreetWalker HardDrive pack from Think Tank, and a Panasonic Micro 4/3 system (GH3 and GX1) in a Kata pack. I don't know the name of the Kata pack, but it has a tag on the back that says 3N1 30, so that might be it. [I think it must have been, but that model is discontinued now; the closest current variant seems to be the 3N1-25 PL. —Ed.] Selected pieces of either system go into a small Retrospective 5 shoulder bag from Think Tank, when I need to do that. I also have a very large and temporarily empty LowePro rolling case that I use for car travel, when I'm taking everything. All of those are good. Perhaps not quite perfect.
Because I tend to buy first, and think things out later.
Think it through
The most important consideration when looking at a bag is to know what you're going to do with it, and what equipment you're going to take. If you don't think seriously about that, you're going to be disappointed in the bag. You should not just go "bag shopping." Being a bagaholic, I once bought a Crumpler bag because it looked terrific...but after I got it home, I realized it really didn't suit any of my needs. I didn't even know why I had it.
Your bag doesn't necessarily have to be a camera bag. You can buy Domke inserts through the 'Net (B&H has them) and stick them in anything. Sometimes, this is a really good idea. I've never found a camera bag, that I can recall, that's as good for hiking, skiing or canoeing as the bags made for those activities.
If you don't travel, you can probably get along with a bag or two, one for when you're working from a car, another for when you're working on foot, or off a bike.
If you do travel a lot, as I do, things get more complicated in a hurry, especially if you do different kinds of photography. If you're traveling by air, and are not interested in taking "art" photos at your destination, you might take a compact camera, for snap shots and memory aids, no bag needed. I've had a belt pouch for an RX100 that I bought at Best Buy for a few bucks, but eventually stopped using it. A pocket was just as good.
If you're more serious about your travel photography, you might take a couple bodies and several lenses, and need a full-sized carry-on bag. In that case, it's good to have a small, unpadded bag that can be folded into your suitcase to use as a walk-around shooting bag. For example, if you're traveling in England, and you take a lot of gear in a well-padded carry-on, you might want a small shoulder bag, like the Domke F-3X or Think Tank Retrospective 5 for shooting in London, and also a small Kelty daypack, with a couple of Domke inserts, for the Cotswolds. I always take one, and use it to pack socks or underwear inside the larger bag.
Do note that when you travel, the plane itself may affect what kind of bag you want. I'm not so familiar with short-haul flights in Europe (I tend to fly to a destination and then move around on the ground, because Europe has great trains), but in the U.S., more and more short-haul and small-city routes use small jets, and they will not accommodate regulation carry-on bags, either in the overhead or under the seat. Before you travel, look for the names Bombardier or Embraer. If you see the names of either of those types of jets, there's a good possibility that you won't get your regulation full-sized carry-on on board.
I often travel by American Eagle in and out of Santa Fe from Los Angeles and Dallas Fort Worth, and they require you to gate check virtually any bag with wheels, and most normal carry-on bags. Gate checking isn't as bad as the regular bag-check, because you get your bag back when you get off the plane, which means it's handled by many fewer people—and always out in the open, where theft and mishandling in less likely.
If you travel by car or truck and can take everything, and want to do that, you may also wish to acquire several bags—a big solid wheeled case that can rolled into a motel room, and also a variety of "walk-around" bags to take when you're actually shooting, with only selected pieces of equipment in it.
Sometimes, you may be doing specialty photography, which may create requirements for specific kinds of bags—waterproof bags that float, full-sized backpacking bags, hard-sided equipment cases that require collapsible trolleys to move.
I've done all of that, except the big hard-sided equipment cases, so I've had a lot of bags.
End of Part I
Coming in Part II (Monday): On perfect bags and backpacks; and the author's preferences and prejudices
Coming in Part III (Tuesday): 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.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. 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:
Roger: "Yet another bagaholic here. I recently downsized my collection via eBay and ABQ's Vietnam Vets thrift store. I've replaced them with a a couple of those dirt cheap canvas bags and a rucksack the Chinese pump out via eBay and Amazon. Time will tell regarding their build quality. But unlike their name brand counterparts they don't scream 'Camera Bag.' Still have a few name brand bags to unload. And I recently succumbed to a Crumpler 5 Million Dollar bag Amazon had for 50% off. Reform is hard."
Gene Forsythe: "Short-haul jets in the U.S. are an issue with 'gate checking,' as you describe. When I know that I will be on an Embraer jet I generally pick up the gate tag, fill it out (though I have never had it checked against my ID!) and stick it in my pocket...then beg from the flight attendant, explaining that the Think Tank International is all my overseas camera gear. There is just enough space between the last row of seats and the rear bulkhead for a couple of smaller bags like the International V2, and it is a nice snug fit. Coming and going on American Eagle from DFW I generally get an accommodation when I mention being on my way back from Canada (or Mexico) or South Africa...just be polite and don't argue the point."
Geoff Wittig: "The commandment to think about what you really want a bag to accomplish before pulling out the plastic is exactly right.
"The bag I have the fondest memories of is the original Lowe-Pro Photo Trekker, which fit my entire Pentax 35mm system with two bodies and multiple lenses like a glove. Unfortunately when I moved on to a Canon digital SLR system, the lenses and bodies were enough bigger and heavier that they simply didn't fit. The next size up was big enough, but now we're talking seriously bulky and a chore to heave onto your shoulders when fully loaded. My current Lowe-Pro Photo Trekker (AW-II, I think, from a few years back) is just big enough to carry my usual kit, and comfortable enough for an all-day hike with the 35–40 lbs. load. But the rain-tight zippers are a royal PITA to operate, and the small day-pack included with it for snacks and sundries is a lot less useful than the outer compartment older models had.
"I'd consider looking for something better, but my wife has forbidden me from spending more money in the snark-hunt for the perfect bag. Seeing as how I now have six or seven of them in the closet, I have to defer to her wisdom on this point."
L. Young: "When it comes to bag collections, David Alan Harvey must be the winner."