How many times have you purchased a camera bag only to send it back? I can tell you…and so can my husband…that I’ve bought and returned a LOT of camera bags. Unless you live near a major camera equipment seller like B&H or Hunts Photo, it’s not easy to find camera bags and backpacks to simply try on anymore. You have to order them, see if they fit you and your gear, and typically send it back because something just doesn’t work. The choices on the internet are overwhelming. Day packs, back packs, sling packs, belt systems, holsters, and the list goes on. I’ve got some ideas to help you, at the very least, narrow the field of choices and purchases that you have to make.
First off, what type of photographer are you? Do you do portraits, travel, commercial, sports, nature and landscape photography? Each of these disciplines needs a different kind of camera bag simply because of how they’re used. A travel or portrait/wedding photographer typically needs a camera bag that has quick access to lenses and extra camera bodies that allow easy changes on the fly. A shoulder or messenger bag usually works for these photographers.
Nature and landscape photographers are typically hiking from one location to the next and possibly even doing a bit of climbing. Shoulder bags just won’t do the trick. They’re going to need some sort of backpack or even a slingpack. These camera bags will allow you to put all your gear behind you which makes hiking safer. Many come with some method to hold a tripod which is very important to landscape photographers. Think about how you’ll be carrying this bag and how you’d like to access your equipment before going shopping.
After you’ve narrowed down the overall type of bag you need, it’s time to start looking at the specifications.
Weight: Think about how much a bag weighs because after you add your gear, you may be in for a sore back if you’re packing too heavy a load. And keep in mind, the bigger the bag, the more you’re likely going to fill it. It’s so very tempting to bring EVERY lens you own on a trip.
Dimensions: How many camera bodies and lenses will it carry? This is entirely an individual decision. Are you carrying one mirrorless camera and 2 small lenses or 3 DSLR bodies and half a dozen lenses? Consider not only the interior dimensions but the exterior as well. Fitting gear is one thing, but fitting you is even more important. I’m a bit short and most of the bags I sent back after purchasing were due to them being too long in the torso. No matter how awesome a bag seems and how many people have recommended it, if it’s too long, I just won’t buy it. And don’t forget those TSA requirements. If you plan on traveling with this camera bag and carrying your precious gear onto the plane instead of checking it, those external dimensions will become very important.
Build: What material is the photo bag made of? Is it going to last? Based on the environment you’ll be photographing in, does it need to be water resistant? Will it keep out sand and dust? Do you need one with wheels because you’ll be traveling with it often? How much padding on the straps do you need? I live near the ocean so having a bag with a little water resistance is essential. Your requirements may be very different.
Organization: Are you a super organized person who needs a storage pocket for each of your photo tools and accessories? Does it need to have a space for a laptop or tablet? I like a lot of pockets for batteries and memory cards while someone else may need a big empty space for rain gear and energy bars for those long trips in the backcountry.
I teach a lot of workshops and often get asked about my gear including my camera bags. There is, unfortunately, not a single bag that will do everything for you. I have about 4 photo bags that I use for varying purposes. There’s no need for me to carry my big landscape backpack with me if I’m going to photograph my son’s soccer game or if I’m visiting Disney World. I’ve got a small sling pack for those occasions.
When I’m deep into my landscape photography, I have a combination of a backpack to keep my heavy gear in and a belt/modular system with 2-3 pouches to have all of my filters, cleaning supplies, cell phone, memory cards, and other items in. I’m ashamed to admit that I have occasionally ignored the need for a polarizer filter in the past because I’d have to take the backpack off, put it in the mud, and dig for a filter. Call me lazy but we’ve all been there. Go ahead and admit it. Having my filters at my side makes all the difference. It also really helps distribute the weight so that my back isn’t taking on the entire load. But that’s just my personal preference.
Your needs will change over time as your gear changes. Hopefully this will help you navigate the world of camera bags with a little less frustration.
My Bag list: Lowepro Micro Trekker 100, Lowepro Mini Trekker, Tarmac Expedition 5X, MindShift Gear Filter Hive, Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Harddrive V2.0 backpack, Peak Design Everyday backpack, Think Tank Photo Turnstyle 5 V2.0 Sling Pack.
My current Landscape Photography Setup: Think Tank Photo Pro Speed Belt with Chimp Cage and Mindshift’s Filter Hive attached. Peak Design Everyday Backpack.