Something I never tire of when passing through the B&H SuperStore, in midtown Manhattan, is perusing the umpteen aisles of camera bags. At last count, I own about 10 or 12 bags of various styles and sizes, and I use all of them over the course of the year. Why so many bags? Mostly because my camera and lens choices vary from assignment to assignment. In the case of personal assignments and day trips, I usually choose a bag that fits my mood and/or gear choices. I do own an elegant “fancy-pants” shoulder bag I take out for special occasions but, more commonly, I defer to one of my older (read: “rattier”) bags, to avoid unwanted attention.
Whether you are purchasing your first camera bag or upgrading to a new one, there is a set of questions you have to ask yourself to ensure you are choosing the best bag, case, or backpack for your particular needs.
Camera bags are personal. You either like the bag or you don’t like the bag. In addition to liking the bag, maybe even more important than your animal attraction to the bag is the functionality of the bag. Fumbling your way past three layers of straps, buckles, and flaps to get to your camera is the last thing you want to be doing when action calls.
Write Down a Want / Need List
A good starting point if you already own a camera bag is to write down what you like and do not like about your current bag. What would you add, change, or eliminate from your current bag? Do you need more pockets? If so, larger pockets? Wider pockets? What about flaps and weather protection? I once owned a messenger-style bag that was perfect except for one thing: the corner openings of the bag’s top flap did a horrible job of preventing rain, snow, and sand from blowing in from the sides.
What Style Bag Do You Want/Need?
In addition to traditional shoulder-styles, camera bags are available in the form of messenger-style shoulder bags, sling-style bags, narrower attaché, or briefcase-style bags, waist packs, and backpacks. And then there are the hard cases, which are available with or without wheels and typically used for transporting and storing photo gear safely and securely.
Each of these style bags is available in sizes small enough to carry a single camera and lens with a pouch or two for batteries, wallet, and keys. There are also larger models with padded compartments for multiple bodies, lenses, flashes, etc. Like most things in life, each style of bag has its strong points and weak points.
Some photographers prefer shoulder bags or backpacks, while others like sling bags. I own all sorts of bags, backpacks, and cases and, depending on what, where, and with what combination of cameras and lenses I plan on using, I make good use of all of them.
Something to keep in mind when choosing a bag is that a camera bag need not look like a camera bag. Depending on the nature of your photography and/or where you plan on traveling, you may not really want a camera bag that looks like a camera bag; sometimes stealthier is healthier.
What Do You Plan on Carrying in Your Bag?
A good starting point when shopping for a new bag is to first figure out how many cameras, lenses, and accessories you expect to be carrying, and don’t forget to include spare batteries, memory cards, and chargers for whatever will be needing a charge along the way. Now add 20% of additional storage space to the amount of storage space you think you’re going to need, and you’re probably close.
If you plan on traveling, consider placing a weight cap on the gear you plan on bringing. When planning a three-week trip through China a few years ago, I placed a six-pound limit on the total weight of my gear—not counting the bag. I ultimately set out with a Sony A7r III, three fixed focal length Zeiss Batis lenses (25mm f/2, 40mm f/2 CF, and 135mm f/2.8), a charger, three batteries, sensor swabs and cleaner, and a few lens cloths and lens cleaner. My choices worked out fine and my back and shoulders graciously thanked me upon our return home.
Consider Taking a Second, Smaller Bag for Local Outings
One thing all big yachts have in common are small dinghies for getting around locally. For crossing large bodies of water, yachts are the way to go, but once you get to port it’s far easier to tool around in a smaller vessel. The same goes for camera bags. I often pack all my gear into a larger bag I can work out of when necessary and stow a smaller shoulder bag or sling bag in my luggage for local outings where I often need (or want) to carry little more than a camera, a lens or two, and a spare battery.
Consider Construction Materials
What is the bag made of? Some materials are heavier than others. Leather and canvas bags weigh more than ballistic materials, though leather and canvas typically outlast most synthetic materials. And while leather definitely makes a fashion statement, treated canvas does a better job of keeping your gear dry when the rains start blowing sideways. Then again, if you’re going to be on the move for days on end, there is a choice of well-made lighter-weight synthetic bags that can lessen the load on your shoulders and back. Remember the six-pound camera limit I described a few paragraphs above? The camera, the lenses, and all of the related accessories went into a lightweight, weatherproof ballistic nylon backpack that weighed far less than a similar canvas bag I own.
When comparing bags, make a point of checking out the stitching around clasps, where the shoulder strap meets the bag, etc. Check to see if the shoulder strap goes around and under the bag as a continuous loop, or if the ends of the strap are merely stitched to the sides. Straps that wrap under and around the bag last longer and afford far more protection for the contents of the bag.
And while we’re on the subject of shoulder straps, is the strap wide enough or narrow enough for your tastes? Is it padded? If not, your shoulder might become fatigued sooner than you’d prefer. The same criteria should be applied to backpacks. Do the shoulder straps feel comfortable? What about the back padding and hip support? Does it have enough padding? If the strap is made from synthetics, will it slip off your shoulder every three steps of the way? These are all valid concerns when choosing a camera bag.
They say the best camera to have is the one you have with you. Is the bag you are interested in designed in a way that functionally speaks to you? Is the bag pretty or cool-looking, or is it a bag that melds seamlessly with your personal shooting style? Folly is fine but make sure the bag you settle on will work with you and not against you when you’re busy behind your viewfinder. Just as the best camera is the one you have with you, if you can’t get to your camera without having to tear through a jungle of zippers and flaps, you may as well not have a camera with you.
Carrying a laptop or tablet? Most manufacturers offer bags and backpacks with slots for tablets and laptops of all sizes.
I saved this piece of criteria for the end because while it’s not a life or death consideration, it would be fair to consider the color of your camera bag to be a quality of life decision. So, if having a Navajo print camera bag puts a smile on your face, go for it—life is short.
Do you have any special criteria when shopping around for camera bags? Do any of the bags we have featured here appeal to you? If so, let us know your thoughts in the Comments field, below.