Selecting the Best Camera Bag

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The debate over which is the best camera bag is almost as old as which is the best camera brand. There is no easy answer to “Which is the best camera bag?” The answer is, “That depends…”

I have to admit, the past couple of years, I have been acquiring camera bags. My first camera bag was an inexpensive Lowepro Micro Trekker 200 backpack. It was a great bag. It served me well, held up nicely, and has since gone to another photographer. But as time passed, I acquired more gear. And when you have more gear, you always want to have it with you. The Lowepro bag quickly became too small for the equipment I wanted with me when shooting, so I needed to upgrade.

Are Expensive Bags the Best Camera Bag?

About five years ago, I got my first taste of the “more expensive” bag. I had more expensive and heavier gear – gear and other stuff that I wanted to have with me when shooting. Also, I was doing different types of photography and traveling specifically to photograph. I needed a new bag and found it a bit intimidating with all the choices out there.

"Selecting the Best Camera Bag" - 
The MindShift Backlight 26L backpack allows you to swing the bag around to the front of your body to open the back of the pack and access your gear, all while not taking the bag off.
The MindShift Backlight 26L backpack allows you to swing the bag around to the front of your body to open the back of the pack and access your gear, all while not taking the bag off.

Buying a new camera bag should not be an impulsive, quick purchase as there might not be one best answer that will work for all the types of photography you do. I will assume that because you are reading this on the Milky Way Photographers web site that you are an outdoor, travel, or nature photographer. I will refrain from commenting on roller bags and traveling studio type bags. Reading through the following questions should help point you in the right direction when selecting your next camera bag.

Camera Bag Questionnaire

  1. What type of photography do you do?
    Most outdoor photographers prefer some sort of a backpack camera bag. Shoulder or messenger type bags are great for short distances or when carrying minimal gear. But shoulder bags place all the weight on one side of your body and are not practical for hiking, where distributing the gear’s weight evenly on your frame is preferred.
  2. Do you need your bag to carry more than just camera gear?
    Overnight backpacking trips or day trips where you might experience drastic temperature changes require additional space in your bag for layers of clothing, extra food, and water. Look for packs that have large pouches on the front or top, which provide room for those items. Bags for backpacking usually have additional straps and buckles for attaching other overnight gear.
  3. Are you using a Mirrorless, DSLR, or other systems?
    The bigger size of a DSLR’s and adding an L bracket or a grip will require extra depth and width, so that you may need a deeper bag.
  4. Will you be traveling by plane?
    Make sure to check airline carry-on size limits. Airlines seem to be placing more size restrictions on carry-on luggage. Smaller regional jets may have stricter weight and size restrictions. Consider a bag that has a small pouch that will hold items needed while at the airport or on the plane.
  5. Will you purchase more equipment in the future?
    I know it’s a silly question to ask, right? Purchasing a bag that just fits all of your current gear does not allow you to buy anything new and carry it with you. Consider a pack that enables your camera system to grow. Regardless of the bag I use, I have never said, “Dang, I don’t have anything to put in that section of my bag!”

Front and Back and Sling, Oh My!

Camera backpacks come in several different gear access styles: front access, back access, sling-type, and modular compartment style that utilize a “core” or “Internal Camera Unit” insert.

Front Access

On a front access pack, the front completely opens like peeling the lid off a can of sardines.

The Mindshift Airport Commuter rar access backpack which fits most overhead compartments, holding up to a 400mm f/2.8 lens. Image Courtesy www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
The MindShift Airport Commuter front access backpack which fits most overhead compartments, holding up to a 400mm f/2.8 lens. Image Courtesy https://www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
  • Pros – you can quickly get to all of your gear.
  • Cons – you have to take the bag off and set it down.

If the ground is wet, muddy, or sandy, the part of the pack on the ground getting dirty will be against your back when you put it back on. Also, if you forget to zip up your bag completely, you could have some gear fall out. Finally, it’s easier to have gear stolen out of your front access bag when in crowded places.

Rear Access

The back completely unzips on a rear access backpack, after laying the bag down or swinging around to your front side.

The MindShift BackLight 26 rear access backpack provides access to your photo gear without taking off the backpack. Image Courtesy www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
The MindShift BackLight 26 rear access backpack provides access to your photo gear without taking off the backpack. Image Courtesy https://www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
  • Pros – If the bag gets dirty from ground contact, your back stays clean.
  • Cons – It can be cumbersome to swing the bag to your front.

A significant advantage of the rear access bag is that some manufacturers have waist straps that allow you to slide your arms out of the upper body straps, with the waist straps fastened, and you can swing the bag around to the front of you. That allows you to open the back to access your gear, all while not taking it entirely off or setting it on the ground.

Another pro for this type of bag is that it is nearly impossible for someone to get into the main compartment of your backpack when in crowded places. But if you have a lot of layers on, or if you are utilizing additional belt attachment gear holders, it can be a bit cumbersome to swing the bag to your front.

Sling-Type Bags

This type of bag is popular for those carrying limited gear. They use a single cross-body shoulder to waist strap while keeping the bag on your back.

The MindShift Urban Access 8 Sling bag enables you to quickly access gear without taking off the back. Image Courtesy www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
The MindShift Urban Access 8 Sling bag enables you to quickly access gear without taking off the back. Image Courtesy https://www.ThinkTankPhoto.com
  • Pros – You will be carrying less weight on your back.
  • Cons – There is not much space for carrying additional items.

To access your gear with a sling bag, first, you slide the strap at your shoulder towards your back. The sling bag, which was at your waist, then slides up to your chest. The side of the bag opens, allowing you to drop in your gear. These bags typically carry one body and several lenses.

Sling-type bags really make you think about what limited gear you will be using. You will be carrying less weight on your back. They don’t have much space for carrying extra items. If you forget to zip the opening all the way, your gear may spill out.

Modular Compartment and Regular Backpacks

These bags require a “core” or Internal Camera Unit (ICU) insert, which is a separate compartment that can slide in and out of the camera bag. They contain dividers and usually have a handle on the side of the unit.

"Selecting the Best Camera Bag" - 
The Shimoda bags utilizes the "Core" system. Select your size bag, select your size core and then accessory storage. Photo Credit: https://www.shimodadesigns.com
Shimoda Design bags utilizes the “Core” system. Select your size bag, select your size core and then accessory storage. Photo Courtesy: https://www.shimodadesigns.com
  • Pros – Inserts can work in any type of bag.
  • Cons – Gear might not be quickly accessible.

You can use the inserts in any type of bag or backpack to organize your gear. Your bag does not scream, “Expensive camera gear inside!” if using a regular looking bag.

The core and ICU can come in various sizes. If your gear is over the weight limit at airport check-in, you can “pluck” your core unit out of your bag and use it as a separate carry-on. When using one in a regular backpack, your gear might not be quickly accessible due to other items in your bag moving around and sliding down over the insert opening. And they may add some extra bulk to your bag.

Try Before You Buy

If you have a local camera store, grab the gear you think you want to be packing, and go try out some different style bags. Load in your gear. Keep in mind the bags will hang differently on your torso when fully loaded. Make sure the back straps, back padding, and chest and waist straps are comfortable. Check the zippers to make sure they run smoothly.

Are there enough pockets and places to put your extra items? Is there a way to attach your tripod?

Spend some time with the different bags and their sizes. One, maybe more, will start to stand out as the best suited for your needs. It took me two hours of packing and unpacking my gear into the different bags at my local camera store. You can help narrow down your bag choices, before heading to the camera store, by looking online at the major camera bag manufacturers websites and Youtube for reviews and videos of how different bags are packed.

My Next Bag

The bag I moved into after the Lowepro was the ThinkTank Streetwalker Pro backpack. The Streetwalker worked well for shooting concerts and general photography needs as a camera bag. I loved that I carried my gear on my back, which allowed my hands to be free as I move about shooting photos. As I started doing more hiking, nature photography, and traveling by air with my gear, I discovered that larger pockets on my bag were essential.

MindShift Gear Backlight 36L Backpack

My current bags of choice for hiking and air travel are the MindShift Backlight Series. The 18L backpack is excellent for a mirrorless system and as a day hiking bag. The 26L backpack, which I just purchased, is great for longer hikes and air travel. I can get just about everything I want in that bag. The 36L Backlight pack works well when I need to carry a lot of layers, either adding or taking off. It’s a spacious bag, with plenty of room to bring food for the day and other items to be kept separate from your gear.

Check it out, Joe!

Check out these popular camera bag brands to help with your search: MindShift, ThinkTank, Shimoda, Peak Design, f-Stop, Gitzo, Manfrotto, Thule, Lowepro, Vanguard, and Tenba. After trying out the different bags at your local camera store, don’t forget to support them with a sale! Most of the camera bag manufacturers have set prices that are the same online as they are in the camera store and don’t usually go on sale. If you are having to pay sales tax because you are purchasing it in a brick and mortar store, I look at it as the cost of getting to handle the bags in person. It is well worth the price of paying the sales tax and also helps keep our camera stores operating.

Ask Around

A good camera bag is an investment. Don’t be afraid to ask other photographers what they are using and how they like their camera bag or backpack. You will find that most photographers are as much of a fan of their camera bag brand as they are their camera system. What is your favorite bag, and why?

Happy shopping!

Win a MindShift Backlight 36L

Do you need a new camera backpack? Then enter our Milky Way in May MindShift Bag Giveaway.