In 1989, a flashy young tennis star named Andre Agassi began marketing cameras under the slogan: “Image is everything.” While Agassi’s now-iconic Canon Rebel campaign helped make a generation of weekend warriors look like savvy professionals, there is one aspect of the industry that his motto has yet to influence: camera bags. Seriously. Why is it so hard to find a functional camera bag that doesn’t look or feel terrible?
It seems like every other week a different startup releases a gorgeous bag that falls apart after a few months of use because the designers have no industry experience or cut the wrong corners during production. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the “classic” brands continue to churn out variations of the same ugly bags they made twenty years ago. Read the reviews on our website. Every bag is either too flimsy or too ugly. Surely, a middle ground exists. Am I asking too much? Here are five options that give me hope.
The Everyday Struggle, Solved
Most of my time is spent in Brooklyn or Manhattan. When I’m on the street or train, I don’t want anyone to know that I’m carrying more dollars in camera gear than I have in my bank account. Any bag that looks like it is designed for cameras is automatically a no-go. Earlier this year, my desire to low-key carry my gear through the city led me to the Hex Raven DSLR Backpack. This bag is as close to the Holy Grail of commuter camera bags as I have come.
The Raven’s main compartment can be re-arranged to organize your equipment and everything can be accessed by unzipping the back of the bag. You can also get in via the top of the bag—perfect for quick access when shooting on the street. A thin, front compartment designed for laptops and tablets runs parallel to the main storage area and is lined with a soft, faux-fur material to prevent scratching electronic screens. There is also a smaller front pocket for storing extra gear, and an ID card pocket that’s great for carrying business cards. The outside of the bag is made of tarpaulin, which will cover your glass on rainy days when you have forgotten your umbrella.
In addition to the practical attributes of the bag, its flat black color and condensed geometric design look great. I’m a relatively lanky person, but the Raven does not look like a turtle shell on my back the way other camera backpacks sometimes do. Nothing about its exterior betrays its contents. Mission accomplished.
A Trusted Sidekick
I’m not a fan of side-carry camera bags—the added width makes for an awkward rush-hour commute in a city as overstuffed as New York. In addition to their bulk, they nearly always fail the don’t look like you are carrying a camera test. However, I know that I’m in the minority with this opinion. Personal bias aside, Billingham makes some very nice bags. The Hadley Pro Shoulder Bag is a solid choice for traveling light, while the Hadley One Camera Bag adds a bit more storage space for when you need to carry more. The durable build and iconic look of Billingham bags exude Old-World craftsmanship at every corner. Both options above feature brass hardware, full-grain leather accents, and weather-resistant construction.
Additionally, each bag contains a removable padded insert, allowing you to free up space for uses beyond camera carry. Billingham bags are available in a variety of color schemes and are further customizable with the addition of different pouches, dividers, and straps. For a more eloquent homage to Billingham bags penned by a longtime user, check out Dan Wagner’s article here.
Go Hard or Stay Home
Traveling is enough of an inconvenience without having to worry about your gear being damaged by sadistic baggage handlers, or from contents shifting overhead. Pelican sets the industry standard when it comes to cases designed for abuse. The 1510 Studio Case delivers your equipment organized and intact, no matter your destination or mode of travel. Like other Pelican models, it is built for war: its ultra-high impact copolymer shell is virtually unbreakable and, when closed, air and watertight, dust proof, chemical resistant, and corrosion proof. It has an IP67 rating, which means if it falls in the ocean, it will sustain 1-meter submersion for 30 minutes without damaging anything.
For flexibility, its divider system is customizable to fit a variety of camera systems. Bottom foam inserts keep contents of the dividers cushioned and protected, while an organizer built into the lid provides extra storage. For ease of carry, there is a side handle, as well as a retractable top handle and wheels. As of this writing, the 1510 Studio Case meets FAA requirements for carry-on luggage, but it never hurts to double-check before traveling. While Pelican cases are not particularly beautiful, there are instances when function reigns supreme. For a gratuitous demonstration of what I mean, watch this B&H video.
High Fashion Hack
You are not going to find a camera-ready version of your prized Birkin bag. However, you can turn nearly any bag that you already own into a camera bag by adding a padded insert. It’s a safe bet that if you are carrying around a $20,000 purse, you want to be photographed. Why not stuff a camera in your Hermès to make sure to record your decadent evening for social media? At the other extreme, throwing an insert into an old, canvas tote bag is one of the most discreet ways to transport camera equipment—a clever trick that is personal favorite of this humble writer.
There are many options to make this happen. Peak Design’s Travel Camera Cube is a great choice for getting the job done. Designed for maximum compatibility with Peak Design’s Travel Backpack, it is equally useful as an unassuming component to other bags. Depending on the size and amount of gear you are carrying, it comes in three sizes with padded, moveable interior partitions. Finally, it features a weather-resistant exterior in case you get caught in bad weather. Your expensive ostrich bag might be ruined, but your camera will be safe and dry.
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic film, Blow-Up, a self-indulgent fashion photographer played by David Hemmings casually transports his rangefinder in a wrinkled brown bag. If you want to be as cool as Hemmings, but want to put something around your camera that isn’t paper thin, consider first wrapping your bag in a Domke Protective Wrap. Protective wraps are extremely versatile accessories, worth much more than their modest cost. With three sizes and five colors available, you can grab one for each piece of gear you need to carry. Wraps are also great for smaller purses or bags that cannot fit a full padded divider, or for adding extra cushion to an already-padded camera bag.
Have you found a solution to the great camera bag conundrum that is better than mine? Let the Internet know, in the Comments section, below.
I would like the Pelican bag with a backpack insert so that I can use it as a carry on when flying but ditch it to a hotel room and just have a backpack.
This is not a Pelican bag but follows your line of thought: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1282865-REG/skb_3i_2011_7bp_case_with_think_tank.html
On the other hand, you could grab a Pelican bag with the foam insert and shape it around a backpack you already use.