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One of the challenges I faced when becoming a professional photographer was finding a good way to carry all the camera gear. It’s one thing when you are first starting out with a camera and a lens or two, but as you grow as a photographer you want more lenses, a tripod, and more accessories. All of that translates into a heavy bag! It’s an even bigger challenge for those of us who venture into wildlife photography when you need larger lenses to get the job done.
This isn’t a challenge faced by all female photographers. In fact, there are plenty of women who are capable of carrying that heavy bag. But for many of us, heavy gear can be an obstacle. Plus, I have a significant back injury, so finding a way to carry all my gear without causing further injury is an ongoing battle.
Here are some of the things I have tried, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked in my quest for the perfect gear carrying method.
The Front Loader
The first type of bag I tried was a front loader. It has straps that make an X across your back and the bag is on the front. I think women were designed to carry weight in the front! This turned out to be a very comfortable way to carry a camera, two lenses and a few accessories. The only problem is that I looked like a goof and felt like a pregnant woman. But, it’s a tried and true method. I still have my front loader, it’s 25 years old now, and I still turn to it on days when my back is bothering me.
The Cotton Carrier
One thing about any camera bag is that when your camera is in it, it takes some time to get it out and ready for the shot. A front loader is faster than a backpack, but nothing is faster than the cotton carrier. It is a vest system where your camera attaches to the front of it with a circular clip. When locked in place, it can’t come off. With a simple half turn, your camera is off and ready to go. But there are a couple of problems. First, the clip mounts on your camera using the tripod screw hole, so you can’t use the vest and a tripod at the same time. Second, what to do with the lenses? Third, I still looked like a goof.
The Belt System
The belt system was the solution for carrying lenses while using the Cotton Carrier. You attach a number of small lens bags to the belt, transferring the weight of the lenses to your hips. That’s a big plus since a woman’s center of gravity is lower than a man’s. The downside, my hips are already wide enough, thank you! Adding another 8 inches on in bulky awkward bags wasn’t very attractive. I still looked like a goof.
For many years I used the cotton carrier plus the belt system during the day, when I could get away without a tripod, and the front loader in low light conditions. Of course, that meant I didn’t always have the right system on me at the right time and I was always transferring my camera gear from one system to the other.
The Sling Bag
Sometimes I would go out with just one camera and a couple of lenses, and I thought I might be able to carry this limited amount of gear in a sling bag that easily rotates to the front to make the gear easily accessible. However, it turns out that all the weight is on one shoulder making it very uncomfortable after an hour or two.
The Women’s Camera Strap
For those occasions when I am going out with a camera and only one lens, I tried the Black Rapid Women’s camera strap. It’s so nice to have a strap that doesn’t go in exactly the wrong place, if you know what I mean. I love this method for street photography because the camera is comfortable to carry and is ready to go in an instant. It also attaches via the tripod screw hole, so no tripod.
The Purse Bag
I know, this sounds like a really bad idea, right? But by the time I tried this method I had switched to a mirrorless system which is much lighter and smaller than a DSLR. With my camera and one extra lens, I could carry it in a purse type of bag for a couple of hours with no problem. Another benefit of this is that I finally didn’t look like a goof! But, all the weight is still on one shoulder, so it doesn’t work if I want to carry a bunch of lenses.
The Roller Bag
When I went to Africa for wildlife photography, I had a problem on my hands because I needed all my big lenses. I got a rolling camera bag which was excellent when going through airports and getting to the final destination. It also worked well in the safari vehicle sitting on the seat beside me. But I couldn’t carry it. I was rather disappointed when a (female) photographer told me I could never be a wildlife photographer because I couldn’t carry all my gear. Well, it turns out that a dollar goes a long way. I paid a porter at each of the safari lodges one dollar every time I needed my bag moved. Sure, that cost me about $4 a day, but that’s nothing when the alternative is missing out or getting injured. And, they seemed pretty happy about making an extra $4 per day.
The Tiny Backpack
Backpacks used to be totally out of the question. Nothing would make my back worse than a backpack. But since I switched to mirrorless, its more feasible with the lighter weight gear. I have a 10 liter backpack which is perfect for my mirrorless system. I carry my tripod in my hand to take that weight off my back. If I want my camera to be quickly accessible, I take it out of the pack and attach it to my tripod and carry it on my shoulder as I walk.
But still, after all this time, if my back is sore and I don’t want to miss out, I use the tried and true front loader. Now that I have the mirrorless system, I don’t usually have to resort to that method, but its nice to know I have that option. Old reliable.
I hope this journey through my evolution in carrying camera gear is helpful for any of you photographers, of either gender, who have difficulty carrying heavy bags.
Feel free to share you own experiences with different camera bags in the comments below.
Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.
You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.