The search for the perfect camera bag … I can tell you definitively that it doesn’t exist. Yet we hope that somebody will make it eventually. In the meantime, we have to constantly acquire bags — some working for us, some not — until we come up with a collection that fits our needs or we run out of closet space.
I’ll admit that I have a bag problem. I have way too many bags, and I unfortunately keep buying more. But I was good recently and sold some of my camera bags. A total of eight bags! But I still have nine others.
But here’s the lesson I have learned over the years is that there is no one perfect bag. And there never will be. The reason why is that there is no perfect shooting situation. Every shooting situation is different, and each situation requires a bag solution in and of itself. While that might sound like me defending my endless bag purchases, it is a reality for me that I have discovered and now see as a realistic way of moving forward.
Many people like ThinkTank bags as they have truly turned the bag industry on it’s head with some smart solutions, from the modular belt system to the Airport rollers (seen at left). I do have their modular skin belt system and use it occasionally. While it is great for keeping your gear easily accessible, in my opinion, it is not ideal for travel. It’s great for being in one place and have your gear with you at your hip. But you certainly can’t travel with it, as in on a plane or bus. A waist belt like that, with pouches holding lens and accessories, is just not feasible in the travel getting-to-your-location environment. But that’s what they made their Airport roller for!
I have been a life-long fan of Domke camera bags. These were called the shooter’s bags when they first came out many decades ago. They were designed by a photojournalist, Jim Domke, who wanted to make the perfect bag. And he came pretty damn close. I originally purchased the legendary and heritage F2 shoulder bag back in 1986, the one that started it all. And I loved it and used it endlessly. But as my gear volume grew, it also outgrew the bag, and I ended up buying bigger and bigger Domke bags, until I had this monstrous shoulder bag that could carry everything (literally!) … but my back was in pain. That was 10 years ago.
So I swung to the other end of the pendulum. I got rid of all my big Domke bags and went for their smallest shoulder bag. Loved traveling lighter. But it was just too small, so I bought the next bigger one, then the next one up from there. Finally, last year, I sold all the Domke bags and bought … you guessed it … the original F2 (seen at right) that I started with. Happy once again.
But … that isn’t my go-to camera bag every time. That is my casual shooting bag that can hold my camera, a couple lenses and extras easily with no problem. (I also bought the Domke Postman Shoulder Support Pad for the first time and I’m thankful for that.) I have the black bag, which is a thick canvas that just shapes to your hip. I do use it sometimes when I am traveling, as it has one added feature that is key for security: it has a small strap that I loop through my belt buckles and clips to the bag. If the bag falls off my shoulder or someone tries to grab it, it’s not leaving my body.
My other bag that I use when I am traveling is a Mountainsmith Tour waistpack bag (seen at left below). It is not a camera bag at all, but a glorified “fanny pack” that has a thick waist belt and shoulder strap. I put some Domke compartments in it and it works as a perfect light camera bag that I can shoot from, that stays close to me, and doesn’t look like a camera bag. I have been using this same bag since about 1990. It comes as one big empty pouch, so you have to fit it with compartments.
Now that I have switched to the Fuji X mirrorless system from DSLR, I use this bag more often as I can put the camera with lens and two additional lenses in it no problem. Couple extra batteries, filter and knick-knacks in the front pocket, and two water bottle holders on the outside work just wonderful. This bag doesn’t make you look like a tourist or a photographer. It’s the defacto standard bag for most ex-pats throughout the world. You tend to blend in well.
This bag solution with Mountainsmith worked so well for travelers that Mountainsmith picked up on this and made their own line of camera bags and backpacks. While they include compartments for the gear, they also made the bags look like … well, camera bags.
One thing that I don’t like using as a camera bag is a backpack. In a nutshell, I absolutely hate having to take the backpack off and unpack every time I want to take a picture. Maybe it’s the journalist in me that wants to be able to shoot on a moment’s notice, but a backpack is not efficient. And these days, my back hates it. In 2010, I did a Semester at Sea voyage around the world using a large backpack for my gear bag, as I was shooting video and needed much more gear. I ended up buying a camera backpack made by Burton Snowboards (you notice I stay away from the typical brands?) that actually was comfortable, relatively easy to work with, but just too large. Haven’t used it since. But it still takes up space on my custom-built camera bag shelving.
But that’s not to say that backpacks don’t have a use. Coupled with my philosophy that there is no perfect camera bag, just many different situations requiring different bag solutions, I also believe that we struggle trying to find a camera bag that we can not only travel with but also shoot from. And that is where we hit the wall every time.
KEY TAKEAWAY: I spend a lot of my time on the road, in airports, on a ship and in foreign countries. Getting from Point A to Point B, the travelng part, requires a bag solution. Once you get to Point B, you need a separate solution as a shooting bag. Two different bags.
My Point A to Point B solutions over the years have ranged from backpacks to shoulder bags and back to backpacks. For well over a decade, I used a discreet black backpack called the Stealth by LowePro (seen at left). It held everything! Two camera bodies, three lenses, two flashes, 17″ laptop, cables, batteries and more. And that was only in the main compartment, as the second compartment held a full day’s worth of clothes and emergency toiletries. To top it off, the bag was very compact (not something you see these days with backpacks, as most of them will knock someone out if you turn quickly) and could easily fit in the overhead of small commuter jets. Loved this bag. Used it until it fell apart. And LowePro stopped making them years ago, sadly.
So I switched to an elegant shoulder bag by LowePro that holds the same amount of gear, but sticks out quite a bit from the hip. Not ideal, but it would fit under the seat in front of me on all airplanes, so it got my seal of approval.
But I recently switched back to a backpack when I bought an Osprey roller duffel with attached backpack. I put some Domke compartments in the backpack, along with the laptop, and I’m good to go. Very reminiscent of my LowePro Stealth Backpack. And when I am getting to Point A departure and after I have arrived at Point B, the backpack simply zips onto the roller bag and it is off my shoulders, a relief for my back.
If you want to read more about what goes into the bag, back in 2012 I wrote a column about packing for a four-month photo trip, sharing my thought process and gear choices, along with some similar thoughts about camera bags. You can find that column here: http://highsierraworkshops.com/whats-in-the-bag-gear-for-a-4-month-trip/
Ironically (or maybe not), none of the bags I talk about in that column I use today. Surprised?
ONE LAST CAMERA BAG TIP: With the exception of the LowePro Stealth backpack, one Domke bag, and the Mountainsmith waist pack, I have never bought a camera bag new. I always bought them used, with a perfect hint of aging and neglect to them. Why? For the thief, a new camera bag means a new camera is inside it. An old beater bag (or one that is aged through some bleach, fabric softener and a couple weeks sitting outside in the sun and elements) just gets passed off as not really something of value. The less attention you draw to yourself, the better off you are while traveling. Plus, the used bag (seen at center at top of page) doesn’t need any break-in period, isn’t stiff to the touch and packing, and just far more comfortable to use.
I have bought most of my camera bags off of eBay. And at the rate photographers go through camera bags, somebody else’s reject just might be your perfect bag. Just make sure that the buckles and straps are in good condition. Everything else … just go with. (I am not ashamed to admit that I have used some well-placed duct tape inside a bag to keep it going.)
But don’t plan on making a bag purchase that is going to work every time. Buy the bag for what you need it to do. And then buy another bag for that other need. Because each one is different, and just like a tool in the tool bag, you need a tool bag that you can get your gear out when you need it, keeping you comfortable and pain-free while your gear is secure.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE CAMERA BAG? IS IT THE PERFECT BAG??? CLICK HERE TO TELL US ABOUT IT AND SHARE YOUR STORY!
Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, including “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking in Yosemite“, “Yosemite in Winter”, “Yosemite in Spring”, “Death Valley”, “Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley”, and “The Giant Redwoods of Northern California”.