How I Conquered the Camera Gear Carrying Conundrum

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 I am with my Cotton Carrier Vest, the belt system, and my hat on backwards. A fashion statement!

Here I am with my Cotton Carrier Vest, the belt system, and my hat on backwards. A fashion statement!

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.

About Author Anne McKinnell

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.

  • Larry Citra

    My back is not too bad so I am capable of carrying the gear, but as the years go by (70 of them) I find that I am going lighter and lighter. I have tried almost everything out there and for years I carried my gear in backpacks until I discovered the camera vests by The Vested Interest. These vest are very well made of a mesh material that is breathable and comfortable, even in hot climates. They come in a variety of configurations that you can have customized to your needs. These are not flimsy cotton vests that dig into your shoulders when loaded down with gear. When properly loaded you can carry an amazing amount of gear. The best part is that you don’t have to keep taking it off and laying it on the ground to get at the gear you need (a real nuisance in snow or wet marshy areas). You do have to take it off to access the rear pouch but it has a hanging loop that lets you hang it from your tripod. They even have shoulder pads for resting your tripod.

    I should add that I don’t do a lot of handheld shooting and usually carry my camera attached to my tripod, ready to go …… unless I’m going light using my mirror less system.

  • Nancy Bob

    Question: I’m looking for a tripod for traveling. Any suggestions?

  • Lauren

    You can add me to the Think Tank belt system. I love having the weight distributed around my hips rather than stressing my back and shoulders. At my age (66) this is a great system. The pouches can slide around the belt if you like, making it easy to reach into them or walking through narrow openings. Think Tank is perfect.

  • Crunch Hardtack

    I use the Think Tank modular belt system. As with many, age and back problems rear their ugly heads. Using a belt system directly places the weight on one’s hip, not on the back. They also offer harnesses to help support and shift some of that weight to the shoulders if desired. Très chichi.

  • Bryce Bizub

    I have also had the issue of carrying things on my back due to scoliosis. I do nature photography so going down a two foot hole in the ground to a cave, or climbing a tree is difficult with lots of gear I used to use a sling carry bag, but once I get where I am going I usually have no where to set my gear, and getting there is a hassle. So I use used military canteen bags to Carry my gear. Thankfully I am skilled with free hand. Unless I am taking a landscape at night I don’t need a tripod.

  • Wendy

    I’ve gotten to like “hobo” style purses (yep, those things you toss billfold, notebook, and maybe a reading book in).The one I used to use (until the strap anchor broke) could handle my SLR and usually a spare lens–depending on what else I had in it. Now most days I’m at the library, so my DSLR get to share an ordinary backpack with my laptop.

  • First off, I’ll say that I’m a physical therapist and I see patient’s on a daily basis with low back and neck problems. I’m also an avid hiker which is a major reason why I got into landscape photography to begin with. I’ve noticed many landscape photographers don’t bother to venture beyond areas that you can drive right up to. I like to venture far into the back country, but I started to understand why this might be the case with most landscape photographers not doing so once I loaded my previous hydration pack with a DSLR and started adding heavy lenses and a tripod.
    I tried just about every “camera” backpack you could imagine after realizing how serious of an issue this was when doing a 50+ mile trek through the Grand Canyon and having back pain for several weeks following..
    In short, by far the best backpack I have ever found is the Camelbak BFM. It has a 3 liter hydration pack, it has traps along the side that are perfect for holding a tripod, and most important in concerns of health- it has a lumbar support similar in structure to all back country backpacking. With this lumbar support, you can unweight your spine by placing the strap around your hips (it transfers the weight to traction your pelvis as it puts the force through your legs).
    Additionally, I had tried so many other “camera” backpacks that didn’t even fit a camera and lens as well as this Camelbak BFM. Not only does this backpack have plenty of room to add stuff like overlayers and any camera gear you can imagine, perhaps the feature that tops the bag off more than any other is the light weight endurable military grade material it is made from called “molle”. This allows you to connect add-ons and customize the backpack in a pretty much infinite number of ways. Trust me, this is the best bag you’ll find on the market.

  • I have a Cotton Carrier vest that I don’t leave home without if I am going out shooting, it is awesome because I can have my camera out all the time and it helps distribute the load across my shoulders and back and doesn’t bother my neck. When I got it, it came with the hand strap and the mounting plate has a couple of extra tripod screw holes, so I can use it with my tripod with no problem, maybe you have an older version?

    I have also suffered trying to find the perfect backpack to carry all my stuff, I have changed my backpack not sure how many times, recently I backed the new Peak Design campaign and I can wait to get their new backpack, I hope that would be the one.