What Kind of Camera Bag Works Best?
Last week I wrote about tripod bags and have since been asked about camera bags. This is a subject I haven't written much about before, but let's take it head on this week.
I don't have a lot to say on the subject of camera bags, since I've never really found one that works well for all occasions. If you saw the shelf of camera bags in my closet though, you'd think I collect them.
Camera bags come in all shapes and sizes and styles. Shoulder bags are convenient in that you can easily get to things, but if the things you need to get to weigh very much, your shoulder can get awfully tired. Backpack style bags allow you to carry more by better balancing the load, but you pretty much have to take the thing off to get at anything inside. There are a few hybrids between these two that attempt to provide both easy access and comfort, but the fancier the bag is, the more it weighs itself even before you put anything in it.
Camera vests seem like a good idea, but not if it's hot outside. Most also offer only minimal protection for what you are carrying in them. Modular belt systems are available from several manufacturers, but aren't very flexible since you need the right sized pouch for each item you want to carry attached to it. In the right situation, both can work of course, but the traditional bag with adjustable compartments embodied in both the shoulder bag and backpack work in far more situations.
In my experience, camera bags seem to continually shrink. While I may be able to fit everything in a particular one on one trip, the next time out I have a hard time packing. I know that the bag didn't really get smaller of course. In reality, it was more likely to be the new lens or other gizmo I didn't take last time. The more stuff I try to take the harder it is to fit everything.
But as a camera bag shrinks, it seems to get heavier, not lighter weight. It must be collapsing in upon itself or something – becoming somewhat of a neutron star or black hole camera bag. When I go to pick it up, it's amazing how much it weighs. After carrying it for a while, it seems to get heavier still. The laws of the universe haven't really come unglued of course; it's just another aspect of trying to carry as much gear as I can in the field.
From this you can infer that I generally go for the backpack style. Loaded up, this lets me hike in relative comfort until I get to my destination. For situations where I want to shoot along the way, I either hike with the camera on a strap around my neck (for short distances) or resign myself to taking the backpack off when I want to shoot.
As for brands, I generally prefer LowePro because of the support system. No other maker seems to pay as much attention to detail in the carrying system as does LowePro. They started out making regular backpacks of course, so it's no wonder they know how to make the supports that carry well. Think Tank has created some interesting designs, but so far none seem to fit me as well as LowePro. Tamrac may be worth checking if too if you don't find LowePro to your liking for some reason. I'd recommend staying clear of companies that are too small so as to avoid becoming a guinea pig for an inadequately tested design. A failure of a strap in the field would be a horrible way for your camera to end its useful life. You have to be able to rely on your camera bag.
Shopping for camera bags can be an interesting experience. If you know someone who has a bag your interested in, ask if you can give it a try with some weight in it. Almost any bag will feel comfortable when empty. If you want to try a bunch of bags out, make a trip to a good camera store and plan to spend some time testing out what they have. Remember though that they have all those bags because they offer them for sale. Don't take up a bunch of their time and then buy online if you want that store to still be there the next time you need something from them. If you rely on them, support them.
If you research bags online using the manufacturers' websites, study the specifications carefully. Pretty much all of them play tricks with how much they hold. When they say they hold some number of lenses, they typically measure things using the smallest lenses possible. Modern electronic zoom lenses can be significantly bigger than older MF single focal length lenses. In fact, one of the first things I always have to do when I get a new bag is pull out about half the dividers and put them somewhere as spares. I really wish they'd provide fewer, bigger dividers than the plethora of small ones most bags come with.
Finding a camera bag you like can be a very personal decision. Not everyone's body is built the same nor does everyone have the same gear they need to carry. A camera bag has a tough job to fill too. A bag has to be able to safely carry your gear yet allow you to get at things easily when needed. It has to be big enough to fit what you need yet be comfortable at the same time. Those aren't easy requirements to meet, especially all at the same time. No bag can excel in all these areas so you'll have to be willing to make at least some compromises in your search. If you're in the market for a new camera bag, take your time and consider your options as well as your needs. Just be advised that in the long run you'll probably end up with a closet full of bags like I have. No bag works well in all situations even if you find one that works well for you most of the time.