Carrying a Camera Part 1: Bags

On the ergonomics of carrying photography gear throughout the day

by Robert May on Photography

I recently acquired a Canon 1Ds Mark III at a bit of a bargain price, and it's one hell of a camera, even at ~12 years old. It is quite heavy, however. Nothing much has changed in the market for camera bags, straps, and dorky harnesses since I last spent my spare time in photography. There are a lot of solutions on the market but I've not found much that meets my requirements.

Assumptions

Owning a large-body DSLR does not necessarily mean you want to carry 5 lenses with you. I have always used a battery grip for ergonomics, and the 1D series has one built into the body of the camera. It is a big camera. However I only ever carry 2 lenses with me when shooting: a wide angle (16-35mm) and a longer lens (currently a 70-200mm). I mainly shoot wildlife and landscapes, which involves hiking, and I don't know many people who relish the idea of lugging their own body-weight in glass up a mountain.

Most bags on the market seem to assume that you either want a compact system using a mirrorless camera and a couple of lenses, or they swing the other way and assume that if you have a large-body camera that you must therefore want a 40L rucksack.

Bags

My existing bag

I have a Crumpler shoulder bag from ~12 years ago which actually accomodates my setup perfectly fine. It doesn't quite fit the camera with the 70-200mm attached, but you can just about close the bag with it set up like that. The bag is a neutral green colour, it's sort-of-waterproof without needing a cover, and it has lasted extremely well.

But I broke my collarbone last year and carrying a shoulder bag on a hike is a bit of a pain. So instead I'm looking more at backpacks.

The problems

Bag problem #1: most camera bags look like camera bags

Maybe this isn't an issue in every area, but in the UK I certainly don't want to be carrying around a big black bag that might as well say "mug me". Crumpler used to understand this 10 years ago, having a non-descript logo and a variety of different colours, but they too have now ended up in "our entire range is black" territory.

There are notable exceptions and some of the bigger manufacturers, such as Lowepro and ThinkTank, have a few models that look less obvious. They are in the minority, however. And they still have their notably-camera-bag-making company name on the bags.

Bag problem #2: the word "tactical"

Just say no.

Bag problem #3: easy access means easy thieving

Camera backpack with the camera compartment accessible anywhere other than the panel against your back? Do the designers all live in the American mid-west? Have they never had to get onto a train, or walk through a human settlement?

Even if you ignore theft and just concentrate on accidentally leaving your bag unzipped: having the opening against your back prevents you losing your equipment. For 90% of camera bags, this should be the only option of how to access the camera gear.

Bag problem #4: bags that don't have space for anything else

Who wants to carry a 30L backpack but not have space for a jacket?

Bag problem #5: big camera == big bag

Got a full-frame DSLR with a grip? You're looking at the biggest bag in every range, usually something in the 30L+ bracket. From what I can tell this is usually down to the depth of the bag and the width of the camera body, and unfortunately most bag makers expand all the dimensions rather than just make a slightly deeper, smaller bag.

Bag problem #6: expensive

The prices are frankly eye-watering when compared to good hiking backpacks. F-Stop and Shimoda bags fall into this category, where their advertised prices don't even include the padded inner bags. They are so expensive as a complete unit that I can't justify their price to myself.

Bags that actually avoid most of these issues

There aren't many, but here are some that actually meet my requirements:

  1. The Lowepro Flipside Trek series (just put a sticker over the Lowepro logo or something)
  2. The ThinkTank MindShift Backlight series

I'll give an honourable mention to Evoc as well. They recently branched out into photo packs from their original market of mountain-biking/snow bags, and they have an interesting range. Personally the bags run foul of my "easy access means easy thieving" rule but they fall into the 10% of bags for which this makes sense: they're geared more towards photographers who are themselves taking part in the sports which they are photographing. And they also offer this jazzy number, the Evoc Capture 7L:

Evoc Capture 7L I'm not necessarily sold on hip packs but it occupies a pretty unique part of the market, and is something I do want to try out in the future. Although it won't fit my camera body, it will fit my two lenses, and that's pretty much all I need when hiking (because the body can just go in my actual hiking bag). I couldn't find many competing products, and the one that I did find; the MountainSmith Tanack 10L Lumbar Pack, is bigger, weirder-looking, and more expensive.

If you have a mirrorless camera with a couple of lenses this pack looks extremely practical, and for walking around the city you could just chuck it inside a normal backpack.

The future

After writing this and forgetting to publish it, I ended up buying a MindShift backpack, which I’ll give a longer-term review of in the future. So far it does everything I want, and can take the 1Ds MkIII with Sigma 150-600mm Sport with a 1.4x teleconverter and the lens hood extended, which is fantastically useful.