Reviewing the Perfect Camera Bag Requirements

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Several years ago I wrote a post titled The Perfect Camera Bag, which details some of the features I specifically pay attention to when looking at a camera bag. I have been reviewing and reconsidering this stuff lately.

Types of Camera Bags

There are many types of camera bags. I’ve tried many of them (though not all), and they each have their own ideal uses. An overview of some of what I’ve used follows.

Sling Bags

For about four years, my preferred bag has been the Lowepro SlingShot 200. The sling-style is a great bag because you can easily carry gear on your back, then swing the pack forward to your chest where its easy to work out of. Unfortunately, the problem is that the bag will only sit on one shoulder, and if you’re out with it all day that means it’s a sore shoulder!

The Slingshot 200 can hold a lot of gear, but it’s not large enough to hold a 70-200 mm f2.8. As you may guess, I don’t use the SlingShot 200 when carrying the 70-200. Lowepro does make a SlingShot 300, and as the name implies, it’s a larger bag. However, moving to a larger bag means I can carry the heavier lenses such as the 70-200, which means the bag is heavier. And that means my shoulder is even more sore at the end of the day!

Conclusion: as much as I love the sling-style bags, they are best for lighter-weight kits. That’s nothing against them — they’re still great — but it’s something to be aware of when purchasing.

Shoulder Bags

Shoulder bags are the classic “go to” bag. It’s the first bag everybody gets, and many photographers will go through several of them. Unfortunately, I think that’s because they come in many sizes and prices, and are easy for manufacturers to make: it’s a padded box, and often little more.

I’ve used a bunch of shoulder bags myself. A few different brands, sizes, and colors. All held and protected my gear, offered a feature or two I found attractive when I bought them, and were ultimately unsatisfying.

My current shoulder bag is a Crumpler Seven Million Dollar Home. It’s a pretty nice bag: it holds lots of gear and is fairly comfortable to hold. But the pockets aren’t very usable and working out of it while carrying is kind of a pain. If you’re wearing it while shooting and kneel down, the shoulder strap typically falls off of my shoulder.

Holster Bags

I like this style of bag for a one- or two-lens kit. However, in practice I don’t use it. I prefer to wear cargo pants and shorts, and jackets with big pockets — which provide me with plenty of space to drop another lens or even flash. And so, the holster bag just sits on the shelf, going unused.

Backpacks

Backpack-style camera bags also have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious benefit is that it’s very easy to carry, with the weight balanced on your back. The most obvious disadvantage is that if you’re carrying it on your back, your gear is inaccessible. Basically, you must stop moving, take the bag off, and find somewhere to open the bag to get at your equipment.

Most backpack-style bags will open up with one big flap, providing complete access to all of your gear, which is a great advantage. Unfortunately, opening that big flap basically means that the bag occupies twice as much space when opened — an important consideration if you’re working out of a car, or even tighter space.

The backpack harness itself is an important consideration for this type of bag: some have a very capable harness system for carrying the weight of the camera gear the backpack is designed to hold. Other bags, however, have totally inadequate straps that cut into your shoulders and don’t let you carry the weight easily.

Camera Bag Features and Details

All of these camera bags have positives and negatives that you come to accept when working with that bag. But the thing that will make you prefer a bag are the little niceties it has.

When I wrote The Perfect Camera Bag four years ago I set forth a few requirements that each bag should have:

  • Adjustable dividers: self-explanatory, I think.
  • Bright interior: the bright yellow interior that Kata bags use is fantastic for being able to see in dim and dark conditions; more manufacturers should do this.
  • Zippered pocket; somewhere for pen and paper: a small compartment or two is essential for little pieces, and you always need pen and paper at the ready. (Actually, my desire for pen and paper is significantly lessened thanks to the iPhone.)
  • Wide and thick straps: they need to disperse the load well!
  • Appropriate padding: the bottom needs lots of padding because it will compress over time, the sides need some padding because the bag will get banged around; the top needs little padding because you want light and easy access. Sure “bottom,” “sides,” and “top” are terms that vary with the type of bag, but the key is that one thickness of padding is not appropriate everywhere.
  • Heavy-duty zippers/no fabric lip around the zipper: most quality manufacturers are now using high-grade waterproof zippers.
  • Manufacturer provides a good description of what the bag holds: understanding what gear — specifically — will fit in a bag is essential for those of us without a variety of nearby camera stores that stock many bags. Saying a bag holds “2 DSLRs, 4 lenses, 2 flashes and accessories” isn’t adequate, especially when what the manufacturer really means is the bag fits some combination of those things.
  • Ready for additional storage: sometimes you need to fit just one more thing. Lowepro’s Sliplock system and Tamrac’s Modular Accessory System are fantastic. For me, the add-on essential is a water bottle holder.

I think those requirements are all still true. They’re all fairly reasonable, and I think most manufacturer’s meet many of them. The one that I’m very disappointed with is that most bags still have a gray interior — a bright interior makes such a wonderful difference!

I think there are only a few more requirements to add to the list:

  • Lightweight: this is kind of an open-ended requirement, but if you start comparing the weight of similar bags from different manufacturers you’ll notice that some are decidedly lighter than others. Provided “lighter materials” doesn’t mean “inferior materials,” of course!
  • Easy to carry to the car: this might seem like an odd feature, but being able to quickly grab the bag and go is important. If I’m already carrying a bunch of stuff throwing the bag over a shoulder may not be feasible; I want a grab-point on the bag. Some shoulder bags, for example, have a carry handle on the top panel — however this handle collapses under the bag’s weight when you try to use it!

So, what camera bags meet these requirements? None meet them all, of course. Just like different styles of bags have benefits and drawbacks, all bags meet only some of my requirements!

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