Safely and comfortably carrying all the expensive cameras, lenses and other accessories is what every photographer wants to do. If I had my way, I would have loved a ‘Mary Poppins’ kind of magic bag where I can fit in everything and still get away with a small form factor which is easy to carry around. Imagine having all those long lenses or studio lights close at hand whenever required. In the real world, there are however no such bags and laws of physics still apply. Lots of equipment also adds up to the weight. So, what are some of the good options for camera bags?
(This sunset photo is just to make the article look attractive. When I go out for photography, I do not click pictures of my camera bag. Due to lack of good camera bag photographs I am using one of these simple sunset photographs to add a bit of color here)
Camera bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The built quality, design, material used and even the kind of protection varies. Here is my short checklist on how to choose your camera bag.
Canvas is washable, leather looks refined and synthetic materials like nylon have a variety of colors. For a camera bag, I always recommend buying a regular camera bag covered in these synthetic materials, except when you are buying a camera bag insert. I’ll be discussing about the inserts a little later.
Canvas bags – Though are very earthly looking and environment friendly, the problem is that most of them permit some amount of dust to get inside. They also let the moisture get inside. Canvas by itself is just a thick cloth and to make it weather proof, wax is applied to it. After some time of use or after a wash, the amount of wax gets reduced and the bag may no longer be waterproof or weatherproof. If you are ready to spend time in taking care of your camera bag, then canvas makes sense. It is low profile, does not attract attention of thieves and best of all, it takes the shape of one’s body and therefore feels the most comfortable.
Leather Bags – Two words for them – ‘Keep Away’. Shiny ones are thief magnets and dirty ones look really gross. These also require a lot of care and most of them are not very comfortable to carry around. Artificial leather or rexine may look equally good but again the problems that exist with leather bags also exist with these. Another thing, leather can also grow fungus if neglected which can also take a toll on camera equipment.
Nylon bags – These are the most practical and light weight bags. Some of them are even washable. The disadvantage is that most of them look like camera bags and so once again these can attract the eyes of thieves.
Other things to consider –
Metal connectors are always better than plastic ones. One of my camera bags had plastic connectors, one of which broke on a photography assignment. I had a tough time carrying the camera bag around.
There should be enough pockets to hold everything.
Velcro is comfortable but it can be quite noisy for bird photographers. Buttons on the other hand can be tough to close and open. Zippers are noisy but comfortable. Take your choice depending on your own use.
The straps should go round the bag and not just attached to the ends. These take all the weight and the straps that go round the bag provide extra protection.
This is the best part that I love talking about. When it comes to the size of the camera bag, the right size is slightly smaller than what you think is sufficient. Most photographers carry too much of stuff. If you happen to buy a camera bag that is larger than what you are planning to carry, within a few trips, it’ll get filled with useless lenses and accessories which will just add to the weight.
I prefer camera bags which can store one medium sized camera body with a lens attached and a couple of small primes or one zoom. A few pockets to store spare memory cards and other tit-bits that I carry and the bag size is set.
Type of bag
Backpacks – These have huge spaces and long teles can be comfortably carried in them. Being on the back, the weight is very easily distributed on the back using the straps. The biggest disadvantage is that they are difficult to access and open, even if they are hung on the chest instead of back. Many a times, these backpacks require the help of another person to take things out or put them in especially if there is no place on ground to safely place the backpack. I do not recommend these camera bags for regular use. These are fine for once in a while carrying of the long lenses from one point to another. Once at the site, the camera should be kept out of the camera bag all the time. I am a fan of Kata bags when it comes to backpacks.
Shoulder bags – These are the favorite among photographers for the amount of space and ease of accessibility. The choice is huge. Ideal way to use shoulder bags is to hang them across the body and not just like a purse on one side of the body. It feels comfortable when a shoulder bag is at the belt level. Any higher, the bag is not comfortable to use and any lower the bag will tend to jump around and hit the legs while walking or running. The shoulder bags commonly look like a typical fat camera bags, but lately they are being designed as long and slim messenger bags which seems quite practical to me. Thinktank Photo series camera bags are designed around this style.
Sling bags – These are a type of shoulder-bags which have an opening on the ‘side’ and is built around the shoulder strap. By a simple sliding movement the sling bag can be moved to the back and used as a back-pack with one shoulder strap or it can be swung to the front and use like a conventional shoulder bag. Once again it sounds interesting but in reality, there are some drawbacks. The space utilization is very poor in these bags and the support provided is not as good as the conventional shoulder bags.
All purpose bags – These are the bags that have been built around a space for safely storing a camera and a few accessories. Some of them also have sleeve to slide in a small laptop. National Geographic camera bags are made with this kind of use in mind.
The conventional protection that camera bags provide are based around closed cell foam. These foam strips are covered with cloth or nylon and makes up all the sides of the camera bag. The partitions inside the camera bag also have velcro attached to it for creating the divisions. Some of these foams are washable whereas others are not. Apart from these protective linings there are a few more protective additions that should be considered. Simple things like rain-cover and rubber footers make a big difference. There are bags available that have various design features to strengthen the walls and provide protection. Some even feature layers of kevlar (the material used in bullet-proof vests) or ribbed inserts to withstand some amount of impact as well.
The access to the main compartment is another aspect that needs to be looked into. A quick one step access maybe easy to use but may not provide very good protection. I prefer two step access, e.g- in one of my camera bags, there is a central zipper which is further covered by a flap. The flap closes using a magnetic lock. Sometimes I can just leave the zip open and use only the flap for ease of operation.
Some small features that are quite useful
Though there are a large number of camera bags in the market, there are just a handful of bags which actually have given a serious thought to their design. Some things which do matter-
- A long zipped pocket that can hold a few documents like travel tickets or maps
- A net on one side to hold a small water bottle
- Detachable shoulder strap – you wouldn’t believe if I told you about how frequently the straps are of wrong sizes and how quickly they get damaged.
- Small compartment for spare memory cards.
- Bright colored inners – these help in quickly finding small accessories that sometimes hide themselves in corners of camera bag.
These are an attractive option for those looking for a customized camera bag. These inserts are those detachable protective casings which are found in some camera bags. The biggest advantage is that one can use any kind of bag that catches ones fancy with these. I use a messenger bag with such a camera insert. One of my friends uses a beautiful leather purse as a camera bag for her parties. Another colleague of mine has an insert which he sometimes keeps in his traditional cloth based shoulder bag. Camera bag inserts are very nice but make sure that you buy a good bag to support these. Camera bag inserts have a tendency to roll around inside too spacious a bag. If the bag is small for the insert, usability may turn out to be an issue. I recommend buying just a size larger bag for a camera bag insert. There should be enough space around the insert to slide your hand in the bag without deforming the insert. Buy a washable camera insert.
For those of you wondering about what I use
I use a shoulder messenger bag with a camera bag insert. I have three different messenger bags which can accommodate my camera bag insert. I do have a conventional shoulder camera bag which I sometimes use, when I have to carry equipment for a professional photo-shoot. Then there is a backpack which was a spur of the moment purchase and which I do not use very frequently. Most of the long lenses come with their dedicated carry cases. I have got one such case altered by my better half to also include a camera body when it is attached to the lens. This is what I use apart from my regular shoulder bag when I have to carry a long lens. These two bags are more comfortable than a single large backpack. Secondly, I have an option with this arrangement. I can leave the long lens in the car or in the hotel room when I don’t need it. Writing this article has made me realize that I have far too many bags lying unused with me than I actually require. I guess, It is now time to sell them off.
(I frequently use this canvas shoulder bag with a waterproof camera bag insert made of nylon inside. The canvas bag looks good and yet does not attract undue attention to itself)
(This is yet another messenger style bag with a camera bag insert inside. I use it when I am expecting harsh weather conditions. This photograph is from a photo-walk with some of my friends when I was almost knee deep in a lagoon)
Further reading –