One Photographer’s Quest for the Perfect Commuter Backpack

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I needed a new camera bag. More specifically, I needed a new camera bag that didn’t look like a camera bag. Not something to carry all my gear—just a mirrorless camera with short tele attached, a 13" laptop, a few books, lunch, and other daily sundries. A commuter camera bag? A hybrid camera bag? Whatever you want to call it, my new bag needed to blend in on the subway and rest comfortably on my lap should I be lucky enough to score a seat. A backpack seemed the logical choice: less clunky than a shoulder bag, more spacious than a sling. 

I narrowed my options to seven bags that I could imagine myself wearing in public, and spent a few weeks with each. A disclaimer: the bags in this article were not recommended or provided by their manufacturers; they were all chosen by me as potential future purchases. Like The Bachelor, but backpacks—the “Backpachelor,” if you will. Which bag won my heart? Read on to find out.

Timeless Style: ONA Leather Clifton Backpack

ONA Leather Clifton

ONA Leather Clifton

What I like: Visually striking, simple design, quality materials 

What I don’t like: No quick access to camera, non-functional side pockets  

Zipper test: Solid 

Rain test: Leather exterior requires upkeep, interior lining adds extra defense

Subway seat test: A comfortable fit 

Side access: No   

Laptop Sleeve: 13"

Removable camera compartment(s): 2

The Leather Clifton from ONA is a beautiful bag. Every person—photographer or not—who approached the mountain of backpacks on my desk was drawn to this bag. Maybe it’s the full grain leather, maybe it’s the nostalgic, schoolyard design—whatever it is, the magnetism of this bag is undeniable.  

The Clifton’s leather exterior is a show-stopper 
The Clifton’s leather exterior is a show-stopper.

Though its craftmanship screams luxury, nothing about the Clifton suggests it might house a camera inside. All this changes once you unzip the top and are greeted by two removable camera cases tailored to the exact dimensions of the bag’s interior. I used a Sony a7RII with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens as my test camera for all bags in this review. It fit into the large compartment with plenty of room to spare and snugly in the bottom rectangular compartment. For the purposes of my commute, I would stick with the small camera case and remove the larger one to make room for other items. The only potential design flaw here is that it can become difficult to access your camera quickly if all your other stuff is resting on top of it.

Two removable camera cases provide extra protection inside
Two removable camera cases provide extra protection inside.

The Clifton is comfortable to wear and holds its shape better than I expected. Its leather exterior is supplemented by a lined interior for an extra layer of protection against the elements. ONA says that its bags are water resistant, but I would still recommend investing in a quality leather lotion and waterproofing product to be safe. One detail that could be improved is the side pocket design which, for all intents and purposes, is non-functional. I would love to see a version of this bag that could accommodate a water bottle on its side. Otherwise, it is hard to find flaws with such a beautiful bag.

Everything in its Right Place: Manfrotto Street Backpack

Manfrotto Street Backpack

Manfrotto Street Backpack

What I like: Smart layout, unique design

What I don’t like: Camouflage pattern inside, more straps than I need 

Zipper test: Solid  

Rain test: Confident  

Subway seat test: It fits 

Side access: No 

Laptop Sleeve: 15" 

Removable camera compartment(s): 1

If you’re the type of person who needs a dedicated place for every item in your bag, Manfrotto’s Street Backpack was made for you. It comes as no surprise that a company as steeped in the photo world as Manfrotto would design such a clever and photocentric backpack. 

The Manfrotto Street is full of compartments
The Manfrotto Street is full of compartments.

The main interior space of the Street is divided into a top and bottom, separated by a zippered floor to keep items from moving during transport. The bottom of the bag contains a camera grid that can be easily accessed from the front. Removing the grid and unzipping the divider turns the Street into a regular backpack. The bottom of the bag is reinforced so you can put it down on a wet surface safely. The more time you spend with the Street, the more compartments you will discover: stealthy pouches sewn into the exterior shell; side pockets providing quick access to essentials; interior pen, memory card, and phone holders—the list goes on.

 A removable camera grid provides quick access to your gear through a dedicated zipper
A removable camera grid provides quick access to your gear through a dedicated zipper.

The Street’s color scheme is unique and separates it from the crowd in visual terms. However, I am forced to subtract aesthetic points due to the use of a kitschy camouflage pattern on the interior. It also features more straps than I would have expected for a bag targeting urban photographers. Walking around, the metal loops on its straps jingled like bells on a cat collar. So much for sneaking up on my prey.

The “Photographer Bag”: Peak Design Everyday Backpack v2 (20L)

 Peak Design Everyday Backpack v2 (20L)

Peak Design Everyday Backpack v2 (20L)

What I like: Functional design, durable materials, weather-resistant 

What I don’t like: Looking like every other photographer in NYC 

Zipper test: Fantastic

Rain test: Dependable

Subway seat test: Almost too big 

Side access:

Laptop Sleeve: 15" (+ 12.9" tablet sleeve)

Removable camera compartment(s): 0

When Peak Design emerged on the camera bag scene about a decade ago, it answered the collective prayers of so many photographers that its signature designs have become synonymous with camera carry—among photographers, at least. The Everyday v2 makes a few tweaks to the original Everyday, a backpack that—full disclosure—I’ve used for several years with few complaints.

The Everyday Bag is built to survive any condition
The Everyday Bag is built to survive any conditions.

Like its predecessor, the Everyday v2 is built to last a long time. Its weatherproof 400D shell is a safe bet for nearly any environment. While I wouldn’t recommend doing so, I’ve placed my bag in snow and worn it through downpours without a drop of water reaching my gear inside, surprising me every time.   

The interior layout of the Everyday is entirely up to you 
The interior layout of the Everyday is entirely up to you.

The new model has noticeably smoother zippers for fluid access to both side compartments. Like its older version, the interior is shaped using rigid dividers. A variety of pockets inside and outside provide extra organization, and magnets are used throughout to add security and reduce clutter. Up to a 15" laptop and 12.9" tablet can be separately stored in a dedicated compartment accessed through the top of the bag. The Everyday v2 has handles on the top and side of the bag, making it easy to grab and carry if you don’t feel like wearing it on your back. Although I tested the smaller (20L) of the two Everyday sizes, it is still almost too big for my lap when seated on the train. The new version does not really make enough changes to justify upgrading for those who already have the original Everyday—a testament to the durability of these bags—but it maintains Peak Design’s formidable position in the camera bag pantheon.

The Hidden Gem: Simple Brevite Jumper  

Brevite Jumper Backpack

Brevite Jumper Backpack

What I like: Blends in on my commute, thoughtful layout

What I don’t like: An extra lining would go a long way in bad weather 

Zipper test: Solid

Rain test: Safe in light rain, requires (separately available) rain cover in heavy rain 

Subway seat test: Perfect fit

Side access: 1

Laptop Sleeve: 16"

Removable camera compartment: 0

My first impressions of Brevite’s Jumper were all over the place and served as a good reminder of why I had set out to do this article in the first place. Sometimes you just need to spend some time with a bag before forming an opinion. Online, I felt like the Jumper could be the bag: simple, unassuming, easily adapted. Yet when it arrived, surrounded by the other bags on my desk, it looked—to quote a colleague, “cheap.” After a few days using the Jumper, however, its low-key aesthetic and thoughtful design won me back over. 

The Brevite Jumper is a low-key hero for photographers on the go
The Brevite Jumper is a low-key hero for photographers on the go.

A removable “floor” separates the Jumper’s camera compartment from its upper storage. The padding on its interior and dividers is the softest of any of the bags on this list, promising your gear a luxury experience. Access to your camera is possible in two ways: through the front of the bag or the side. In front of the camera compartment is an additional, separately accessed pouch, the perfect size for a good book or sandwich.

The camera compartment is extremely plush
The camera compartment is extremely plush.

A word of caution: the exterior of this bag does not look much like the photos used to advertise it. Made of 600D polyester, it has more texture than some of its pictures suggest. Look at the photos in this article instead. This bag is also, according to Brevite, machine washable—something I did not try since I planned to return it after my review. I would trust the Jumper in light rain but would not take it into a downpour without using a separately available rain cover. This shortcoming could be addressed by adding an extra lining to future models.

The Adventurous Option: Thule EnRoute Backpack (20L)

Thule EnRoute Backpack

Thule EnRoute Backpack

What I like: Rugged, but subtle construction  

What I don’t like: Small camera case  

Zipper test: Stiff but not in a flimsy way  

Rain test: Confident

Subway seat test: Comfortable

Side access: 1  

Laptop Sleeve: 13" 

Removable camera compartment: 1

Founded in 1942, Thule is a company with plenty of experience getting expensive gear from one place to another. The EnRoute is right at the threshold of commuter and adventure-oriented backpacks, equally at home on the subway or hiking trail.

The EnRoute is ready to get you to your destination regardless of the weather outside
The EnRoute is ready to get you to your destination regardless of the weather outside.

This is a bag I would feel confident carrying through a monsoon. Two layers of protection promise your camera will stay safe: a nylon ripstop exterior and a separate rigid, padded camera case. Inside, your camera is as protected as you could hope in a non-hard case—if it fits. This was the only bag with a camera case that my a7RII and 16-35mm f/2.8 felt too big inside of. It fit—but barely, and less comfortably than I would want for daily usage. The EnRoute is better suited to small-format mirrorless cameras and lenses.

The interior camera case was designed for small mirrorless cameras and short lenses
The interior camera case was designed for small mirrorless cameras and short lenses.

Thule uses a zip-in design for the camera case, separating it from the rest of the interior. This leaves a somewhat awkward gap in the bottom corner of the bag. A longer camera case could occupy this space and expand compatibility to larger cameras. The top compartment of the bag has space for small accessories for quick access. The zippers on the EnRoute are somewhat sticky—but in a way that instills confidence.

Wandrd PRVKE 21L v2 Photo Bundle

Wandrd PRVKE 21L v2 Photo Bundle 
Wandrd PRVKE 21L v2 Photo Bundle

What I like: Weatherproof, tons of storage

What I don’t like: Unwieldy for daily commute, inspirational text on handle

Zipper test: Average

Rain test: Very solid 

Subway seat test: Too big 

Side access:

Laptop sleeve: 16" (+12.9" tablet) 

Removable camera compartment: 1

Wandrd is among the fresher faces in the camera bag world and has quickly cultivated a loyal following. Founded by photographers frustrated by the state of the camera bag market, Wandrd’s popularity stems from its careful blend of style and function. The PRVKE v2 is the latest iteration of Wandrd’s flagship backpack. As versatile as it is unpronounceable, I found the PRVKE v2 to be a labyrinth of storage hidden behind a sleek exterior. 

The PRVKE v2 features a weather-resistant roll top closure

The PRVKE v2 features a weather-resistant roll-top closure.

The PRVKE v2 is made of tarpaulin with 1680D ballistic nylon to keep its contents dry. It features a roll top that can expand to hold more gear when necessary. The photo bundle includes Wandrd’s Essential Camera Cube, a stand-alone case complete with its own shoulder strap. Accompanying padded dividers, the cube includes elastic straps that can be positioned to prevent your gear from falling out when opened. Smart. The cube has top and side entry points that can be aligned inside the PRVKE v2 for quick access to gear. Together, these two lines of defense promise to keep your camera well protected. In addition to the side access to your camera, the entire back of the bag unzips—a design choice I’ve never been a huge fan of since it requires the backpack to be taken off to work. This was the heaviest bag I reviewed, weighing more than 4 lb with the camera cube inside. It was also the largest, taking up more space than I would want from a commuter bag.  

Camera gear can be accessed from the side or back  
Camera gear can be accessed from the side or back.

The PRVKE v2 has dedicated spaces for up to a 16" laptop and 12.9" tablet. There are so many storage compartments in this bag—some obvious, some not—that it flirts with excess for commuters. Likewise, the included waist belt and extra straps may come in handy for long-distance journeys but are not necessary for my specific needs. Neither is the text reminding me to “Worry less, Wander More” emblazoned on the top carry handles of this otherwise elegant bag. Is this a camera bag or a souvenir t-shirt at the beach?

The Afterthought: Manhattan Portage Snapshot  

Manhattan Portage Snapshot Backpack  

Manhattan Portage Snapshot Backpack

What I like: Looks nice, compact form

What I don’t like: Poor design for photographers

Zipper test: Average 

Rain test: Potentially vulnerable through top

Subway seat test: Perfect size 

Side access:

Laptop Sleeve: 13"

Removable camera compartment:

Manhattan Portage has made its name designing messenger bags here in New York for nearly four decades. Aware of its reputation outside of the photo world, I was excited to see what kind of backpack the company cooked up for photographers. 

The Snapshot features a unique, compact design 
The Snapshot features a unique, compact design.

To my dismay, I found little to like about the Snapshot. Nothing about its design indicated that it was created by or in consultation with photographers. Its removable camera case is… odd. The dimensions are confusingly tall and narrow, taking up a lot of space for such a small bag, the hook-and-loop material on its dividers stick to themselves instead of the case walls, rendering them practically useless, and the top does not fully secure. Adding to the confusion, the Snapshot has a side zipper that is like a door with a wall built behind it. The camera case can’t fit through it even when there is nothing else in the bag and if you rotate the case so that your gear faces the zipper, it doesn’t stay in place, risking your camera jostling around inside or worse, falling out when you unzip it.

 The interior camera case leaves much to be desired 
 The interior camera case leaves much to be desired. 

The exterior is made of rugged 1000D Cordura but it relies on a drawstring closure topped by a flap, leaving its contents potentially vulnerable to rain and debris. Additionally, the flap is secured by a buckle that tends to stick, slowing your access in and out of the bag. The Snapshot incorporates two button-closure compartments in its front, distinguishing it from a more conventional backpack design and giving quick access for a phone or similar-sized item. Take out the camera case and you have a nifty everyday backpack. Put the camera case inside and you have a dysfunctional mess. 

Season Finale: (One) Photographer’s Choice

If you made it this far into the article you are probably wondering which bag I ended up choosing to spend the rest of my commutes with. The decision was a tough one—if I could keep them all, I would. Just kidding. After a month of tripping over all these bags at home I was glad to see them go. Except for one—or two. At the end of the day, brains triumphed over looks and the Brevite Jumper narrowly surpassed the ONA Clifton as my favorite bag from this group. My colleague was as surprised as you.

Brevite Jumper Photo Backpack (Triple Black)

Brevite Jumper Photo Backpack (Triple Black)

Did I make a mistake I’ll regret for the rest of my life? Have a better commuter backpack at home that I forgot to review? Argue about it in the Comments section, below! 

10 Comments

Great article.

A hundred times I was seconds from clicking "BUY NOW" on a McKinnon Nomatic. Then, last minute, bought the Shimoda Explore 35 and medium insert from B&H. Happy with my choice.

Thanks, John! It sounds like I need to check out the Nomatic-- the Explore looks like it would be a great travel bag. Glad you are happy with it. 

Did you not mention the Ruggard Outrigger 65 because it's less than $50 and not as stylish as the $400 packs in your article? I am a serious wildlife photographer and currently own two of these Ruggard packs and both are replacements for Ruggard packs I literally wore out over the years while hiking through the roughest terrain in the US, Europe, and Mexico. I've never met a photographer out in the wilderness that was using a $400 pack. The Ruggard rocks because it's incredibly tough and it holds a ton of gear. It's also comfortable to wear and you don't have to worry about it taking a beating because it will there at the end of the day still protecting your gear. Spend $50 on the pack and the rest on gear - you'll be better off. 

I didn't mention the Outrigger 65 because my daily commute is not out into the wilderness, unfortunately.

How could you miss ThinkTank bags? Design that works, great quality and decent price.

Good point, Dennis. I personally use Think Tank for smaller pouches and organization inside of larger cases and bags so I didn't even think of them for a review like this. But they do make some great backpacks. 

I have the Nomatic / McKinnon 25L, it's amazing and super versatile with it's ladder / "loft" setup. I also just backed Gura Gear's latest Kickstarter bag, the Kiboko City Commuter 18L which is like a greatest hits compilation of all my favorite features in one package. The Nomatic bag is for heavy-carry / long lens outings, while the Gura Gear bag will be a slightly smaller everyday carry. I've gone through quite a few backpacks over the years, I've finally consolidated down to these two (and the McKinnon 8L sling).

Thanks for the recommendations, Craig. They both sound worth checking out-- next time!

Hmmm, Tamrac Mirage?  Maybe that isn't a "commuter."  I have an older version just about identical to the one linked below.  Has a waist belt that can be hidden away, can be reconfigured for cross body single strap if desired, can configure for side access to your DSLR from either side, rain cover included, Laptop pocket, etc. Hard to argue with . . .

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1029531-REG/tamrac_545673_mirage…

Looks like the Mirage is discontinued-- maybe we'll see an update -- or there is the Tradewind from Tamrac that could fit the bill for some commuters. Thanks for the lead, Patton.