Camera bags are one of those things that if you ask 10 photographers, you'll get 20 opinions. It's a very personal decision about what you choose to use. Many pros have closets full of bags that they bought, tried out, and then decided they didn't like. The best is to go to a well stocked camera store and try everything and buy what seems to work best for you. Ideally you should bring the equipment you want to carry so that you can see how the bag handles under load. And get it from somewhere with a liberal return policy! You definitely want to test things out in the field too.
This page has my thoughts on particular camera bags. I review the Domke F-3X; LowePro Rover AW; LowePro Micro Trekker 200; LowePro Stealth AW; and LowePro Off Trail 1.
First some general thoughts.
- Whether to use a waist pouch, backpack, or shoulder bag is entirely up to you and your back.
- Inconspicuous bags are best. Avoid anything with a big bright logo or that shouts "camera bag." The worst would be one with a huge NIKON or CANON logo. That being said, duct tape is remarkably handy in these circumstances. Tape over the label and write your initials on the duct tape in fat magic marker. It makes a difference when you're trying to find your bag among many.
- Unpadded shoulder bags such as Domkes are surprisingly capacious. Padding is pretty superfluous and just makes things bulky.
- The only thing I don't like about shoulder bags is that they tend to throw my back out. I'm using backpacks much more often these days.
- I'm also a big fan of diaper bags for my day bags. They're cheap, capacious, have tons of pockets, have fold out changing sheets, and thieves seem to avoid them like the plague.
- Regardless of the bag, do not leave it on a table or chair at an outside cafe or bus stop. There are professional motor scooter thieves who will grab it and split before you know what has happened. Always loop the main strap around something solid (like your leg). Professional photographers carry a small rockclimber's carabiner and always carabiner their bags to something (like the table) before setting it down.
- Just like one cannot have too many shoes, one cannot own too many camera bags. You need one for each occasion and in every color variation.
I used to swear by my Domke F-3X as my standard day-bag. It's tough, very water resistant, and the top panel allows easy access to the equipment you need. I prefer relatively unpadded bags because of the flexibility and compactness they offer. The Domke only has padding where you need it most, on the bottom - where it protects against rough landings.
The F-3X easily held my EOS-3 with lens attached, two other moderate size lenses, a 550EX flash, and tons of film. All you would need for a standard day's street photography.
However, I threw out my back about ten years ago in grad school and it hasn't gotten much better. The Domke has a nice wide strap but still it puts pressure on my lower back and I've stopped using this bag as much as I used to. I'm using the LowePro Micro Trekker 200 instead these days.
There's a Domke Backpack Strap which turns any Domke into a backpack. It looks intriguing but I want to try before I buy (it looks potentially dorky as well as off-balanced), but Domke's distributor is apparently in financial straits and it's hard to find Domke accessories recently.
Backpacks allow you to carry much heavier loads while sparing your lower back. But they have one major inconvenience - you have to take the pack off in order to access the innards.
The LowePro Rover AW is a moderate-large size pack that I use on longer day-trips or overnight stays when I need to carry a maximum equipment load. It is a split-pack design with a padded camera/gear compartment on the bottom and a personal items compartment on top. The lower compartment can hold an SLR and three lenses and flash. The top compartment can hold a windbreaker and small pack lunch, or change of clothes for an overnighter. The outside pockets are perfect for holding film.
There's a tripod mounting system which holds the tripod vertically. This is not that convenient since mounting a tripod makes accessing the lower-compartment very difficult. It also throws the pack off balance and makes you a menace on crowded streets.
I like the mesh pockets mounted on the left and right sides. I use these to carry bottled water or a lens or flash that I'm not using. I'm flexible enough to be able to reach them without taking the pack off. When carrying the pack and changing lenses, I find it handiest to have a lens-pouch attached to the waist belt via the module Slip-Lock system. This lets me change lenses on the fly.
The "AW" or All-Weather feature is nice although I've only used it a few times. It's basically a waterproof pack-cover built into the bottom of the pack. You can use it to protect the pack against sand, rain, or pick-pockets. You don't use it that often but when you need it, it's a god-send.
The pack is infinitely adjustable for all sizes. I have mine fitting me like a glove. It'll fit most airline carry-on restrictions, but it is on the larger size and some european carriers may balk at its bulk. The only thing I don't like about the Rover is that there isn't anyplace to put a laptop or any letter-size or A4-size documents. This is a huge handicap when I'm doing fieldwork as I often carry my 12" PowerBook and need to carry around documentation.
LowePro Micro Trekker 200
This is an excellent small day-bag for urban and mountain photographers. This is my favorite day-bag because of its minimalism. It's compact enough to easily fit under the seat of airplanes and doesn't tempt to you to carry everything and the kitchen sink. I'm now using it for most of my fieldwork photography where I can return to base each night and don't need to carry a laptop.
The MicroTrekker 200 can carry a *lot*. My standard fieldkit is:
1. EOS 10D body + BG-E2 grip with 16-35mm f/2.8 L attached
2. 28-70mm f/2.8 L lens
3. 100-300mm f/5.6 L lens
4. 550 EX flash (this could be used to carry another lens)
5. ST-E2 transmitter
6. 4 x BP-511a batteries
7. All my CF cards and CF card reader
8. Still lots of room for personal items (wallet, cell phone, maps, keys) in outer pocket
With my Hasselblad system, it carries:
1. Hassie 203 FE with 80mm CFE attached and A12 back
2. 2 spare backs
3. Digital point and shoot as a proof camera (on site polaroid)
4. Small flash for fill flash
5. Personal items as above
In addition, you can strap a small tripod horizontally on the bottom of the pack. This is much better than the vertical strap system on my LowePro Rover AW (above). The vertical straps get in the way of getting into the pack (you have to remove the tripod to access the innards). The Micro Trekker's horizontal system lets you only use the tripod when you want to, and still gives full access to the pack.
The pack is small and inconspicuous. Just the thing for street photography. But some bigger men have found it too small for them. It's perfect for women and men under 5'10 or so. I found the waist strap a bit flimsy (it's more for stabilization than for carrying weight) but otherwise this pack is perfect for my needs except that it can't carry a laptop.
One unfortunate thing is that this pack is not waterproof nor does it have the AW feature of other LowePros where there is a waterproof cover built into it. You can buy a seperate waterproof cover or attempt to spray a waterproofing solution on it. I recently shot at an event during a typhoon and my equipment got wet. It was all professional L level Canon equipment, so the water didn't bother it, but the pack was literally dripping wet inside by the end.
LowePro Stealth AW
The one complaint I had about all of my packs is that there was no way to carry my laptop while carrying my photography equipment, especially when travelling overseas. The purchase of a used Stealth AW solved that. In general, I'm pretty happy with the bag although I'd like to use it more before I give a final verdict.
The Stealth AW comfortably holds two professional SLR bodies(i.e., Canon EOS 1 series with boosters); the main trio of professional zoom lenses (i.e. 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-300mm f/2.8 L zooms); flash unit; and 15" laptop. It was apparently designed by a White House photographer who needed something discreet and comfortable. There is also enough space to store a change of clothes or other equipment you don't want to put in your checked luggage.
As with the other AW bags, the Stealth AW has a built-in rain cover. This is essential if you need it, extra weight if you don't. The pack is much bigger than it looks, it's almost a full size pack. Yet because it hugs your body, it doesn't look big and you can get by most airport security without problems.
The one complaint that people have about the Stealth AW is a major one: it is not a bag that you can work out of. It can store two SLR bodies, but only if the lenses are detached from the bodies (notice photo above: the Nikon has no lens attached). There's no easy way to store a SLR with an attached lens in this bag. If you're covering a press event in a conference room, you can set the pack down and work out of it on the ground, but this is not a bag that you would use in a field setting where you are running around and need to change bodies or lenses. Leave this bag in the hotel and use a smaller bag or vest.
The new LowePro CompuTrekker AW pictured above right solves many of the complaints of the Stealth AW. Basically a LowePro MiniTrekker with a built-in laptop holder, it's a bag that you can work out of. It holds more than three lenses. It can hold a camera with a lens attached. And the laptop can be removed without disturbing the camera equipment. I'm thinking of getting one the next time I'm in the USA, it's going for around $130. There's a good review here.
Waist Packs (aka Fanny Packs; Butt Bags; etc.)
I don't get any kick-backs from LowePro, really. I just like their equipment a lot. I wish I was getting kick-backs though since I use a lot of it!
The LowePro Off Trail 1 is a very nice modular waist pack designed for a small SLR and two lenses. It comes with a nice wide waist belt and is balanced enough that you can go hiking or rock scrambling with it. I used it to run around the volcanic mountains in Hawai'i with it and never felt it throw me off balance or became unstable.
It only holds a smaller SLR or rangefinder. I found my Canon EOS 10D would not fit with a 50mm f/1.4 lens attached. And the attached lens pouches will defintiely not fit the rather large 16-35mm L or 28-70mm L lenses. A smaller SLR like the Nikon FE with manual focus lenses would fit nicely.
I use mine to carry my Leica M7 with 35mm f/2 attached. In fact the main compartment has enough space to hold the M7 on top and the SF-20 flash laid horizontally on the bottom with two spare rolls of film. The lens pouches on either side are perfect (actually too big) for the 50mm f/2 and 90mm f/2 Summicrons.
My only complaint is that there's no easy place to store film except in the main compartment which quickly gets cramped. Also, where do you put your wallet, keys, and map? There's no personal space in this waist pack. I ended up strapping an additional small pouch into the waist-strap for my personal items. Which takes you back to the original problem of buttpacks - they tend to easily make you look like a dork...