Photography / Tips and Solutions

What Makes the Perfect Travel Photo Bag?


The only thing more important than picking the right travel partner (if you’re not flying solo) is picking the right bag. A necessary task on every pre-trip checklist, this is entirely subjective to the person carrying it, as well as to the kind of trip they will be taking. In my case, I needed a bag that could last through a year of travel that would include, but not be limited to, countless flights and cross-country bus-rides, overnight treks through the mountains of Laos, a camel safari in the Indian desert, a canoe ride across the Nile, sightseeing in France, and the less adventurous days of Spanish classes in Peru.

Clearly not built to carry a DSLR with a professional lens attached, I tended to carry my camera outside of my daypack when safety permitted. Photographer: Andrew Haglin

My 15-month trip around the world through more than thirty countries began with a “backpacker’s backpack.” Similar to the Gregory Women’s Deva 60 X-Small Backpack, my main pack and removable daypack held two separate inserts (the medium Timbuk2 Snoop Camera Bag Insert and the ONA Roma Camera Insert) housing my Nikon DSLR, three lenses, a flash, spare batteries, and multiple memory cards.

The Gregory Women’s Deva 60 “backpacker’s backpack” perfect for world travelers; not as perfect for photographers wanting quick access to bigger gear.

Three months into the trip, frustrated with the daypack clearly not designed for cameras and not big enough for my insert and gear, I picked up a JanSport backpack, similar to one I had as a student in college, from a street market vendor in Chiang Mai. Bigger and equipped with a wider zippered opening, the inserts fit easily into the backpack, allowing easier access to my camera and lenses. For a few months I was a much happier traveler, until I realized my (possibly fake) backpack was not at all equipped to carry a laptop, a DSLR, multiple lenses, a travel tripod, and the myriad additional accessories I didn’t feel comfortable leaving unattended in a hostel or cheap hotel while we spent the day sightseeing. While perfect for use with my inserts, the amount of gear I was forcing it to hold was quickly wearing on its seams and zippers.

There are those who travel in packs, on pre-arranged tours with guides safely escorting them from one sight to the next. If their bag is too big or cumbersome to take into the museum or on that afternoon’s walking tour, they can easily leave it on the tour bus until their return two and a half hours later. I imagine these travelers to be meticulously organized with a pristine set of suitcases and gifted leather luggage tags. Their sweaters are neatly folded and easily placed in their carry-on that did not require a friend to sit on and help zipper shut. A lot of these coordinated travelers may be experienced photographers with lenses safely tucked into padded dividers built into their cleverly formulated bag.

The Jansport student backpack held all of my gear (MacBook Air and travel tripod included) when I wasn’t comfortable leaving it behind in our hotel room. When using a camera bag insert, the JanSport backpack is low profile, comfortable, and provides easy access to lightweight gear. Photographer: Andrew Haglin

And then there are travelers and photographers much like me, who tend to opt for far-flung locations, often without an itinerary, sometimes traveling alone, sometimes with a partner, rarely on an organized tour unless a guide is absolutely required. I hop from one country to the next, inevitably carrying my well-worn jacket through the airport, as it won’t fit in my bag. I inevitably glance over my bag’s zippers every now and then, making sure they haven’t split open. I have even slung my camera over my shoulder, allowing the bronze Buddha I picked up in a back alley in Beijing to nestle safely in between lenses in my carry-on bag for the flight home.

Regardless of your organizational and travel tendencies, if you’re toting cameras to First- or Third-World countries, or simply on a never-ending pursuit to find the perfect photo bag, learn from my mistakes before attempting to pick out a bag for your next trip.

My first of many flights around the world touched down in time for a torrential monsoon rainfall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While a bag with a custom-fit rain cover in a dedicated exterior zippered pocket is your best bet, I settled for a more generic rain cover like the Timbuk2 Rain Cover for Messenger Bags and Backpacks to keep my packs dry. These covers act like a snugly fit shower cap for your bag, keeping its contents clean and dry from the outside elements, and have come in handy on past adventures traveling on less-than-pristine public buses, on the back of motorcycles, or trekking through rough terrain.

Timbuk2 Rain Cover is not to be left behind if your trip takes you to a beach, a desert, into a rainforest, or anywhere with the possibility of inclement weather.

Several weeks later, in Northern Laos, my travel partner and I were signing up for a four-day trek through off-the-grid Hmong villages nestled in the deep in the countryside, several hours from the nearest city. We were advised to leave larger travel packs in the trekking offices and to lighten our load as much as possible in preparation for the trail through mountains, rice paddies, and washed-out ravines. Although theft cannot always be prevented, locking zipper pulls, a Pacsafe Prosafe 700 TSA-Accepted Combination Lock, and even a travel safe can slow a perpetrator down. We took advantage of all three as we left the bulk of our gear behind in the trekking offices and set out with smaller packs on our backs.

A Pacsafe Prosafe 700 TSA-Accepted Combination Lock will help protect your equipment whether left behind in your hotel room or when used with a pair of locking zippers on your day bag.

On the trail, I wished I had a sportier backpack designed to stay in place as I struggled for balance on slippery rocks and jumped over leech-filled puddles of water. Without a waist belt, my backpack rarely stayed squarely on my back; without a lifted and molded back pad, I was far from cool and comfortable as we trekked further up into the mountains. A Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW Backpack or, for more bells and whistles, the MindShift Gear rotation180˚ Horizon 34L Backpack, would have made my trek much easier and much more enjoyable.

Lumbar support is key to even the shortest of trekking trips; this Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW Backpack would have made my trek through Laos much more comfortable and enjoyable!

While a ventilated, sturdy, sporty backpack is perfect for trekking, it can often be an unwanted advertisement that you are a tourist in a foreign land, especially in busy overpopulated urban environments. If you can reach something quickly in a side pocket, so can someone else, especially when it’s on your back, out of sight, without a protective arm draped over the front of it. This lesson was learned the hard way when a Polaroid camera was snatched from my backpack’s side pocket in Kathmandu during Diwali. Annoyed at my own ignorance, I couldn’t help but wonder if this kind of theft would have happened if I had been traveling with a messenger-style bag or a zippered tote that would have been nestled firmly under my shoulder protected from curiosity and quick fingers.

Domke’s F-832 Medium Photo Courier Bag, Ape Case’s Large Tech Messenger Case, and ONA’s Prince Street Camera Messenger Bag are a few of the many great messengers to consider if you want more control over where your bag is positioned on your body while traveling. They can also allow you to swing your bag around to your front, placing it between you and your driver as you jump on the back of a “boda boda” (motorcycle taxi) in a small village in Uganda.

Domke’s F-832 Medium Photo Courier Bag is a great low-profile, padded bag that can easily withstand months upon months of travel.

I gave up on my student backpack somewhere in Eastern Europe, opting instead for my camera bag insert in a zippered shoulder tote I picked as a souvenir. I could easily reach in the bag for my camera or a different lens, without allowing others the same easy access. It gave me an added sense of security traveling through densely populated cities that a backpack couldn’t. If B&H had a brick and mortar in Sarajevo, I would have had a hard time choosing between the Jo Totes Miss Camera Bag and the Kelly Moor e 2 Sues Shoulder Bag with Removable Basket.

With three months and three countries to go, my mother met me in Peru. An Incase Designs Corp Ari Marcopoulos Bag made the trip with her, and I hoped it would alleviate my travel photo bag conundrum. This messenger-style bag stood out from the rest with its low-profile appearance, one handed adjustable strap with a quick-release buckle, and a custom-fit rain cover.

The Incase Ari Marcopoulos Bag doesn’t look like it’s built for photographers, but it’s adjustable strap and quick release buckle, low-profile tripod straps, rain cover, and adjustable dividers are details that every photographer shouldn’t have to live without.

Although it wasn’t a sport backpack, the messenger was easily tightened to be flush against my back while climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu and comfortably loosened for the rest of the afternoon exploring the more well-known Machu Picchu. While slightly too wide for my female frame, lacking locking zippers, and more dedicated interior and exterior pockets, this bag fits most of my needs. Much like shopping for a camera, one bag tends not to have it all. If it did, features for my perfect bag would read along these lines:

  1. Structured, padded exterior
  2. Waterproof all-weather cover in an easy-access exterior dedicated pocket
  3. Convertible (preferably multiple) strap options
  4. Locking zippers
  5. Expandable main compartment
  6. Adjustable, padded interior dividers
  7. Dedicated interior accessory pockets and laptop compartment and exterior water-bottle pocket
  8. Secret pocket for passport and emergency cash
  9. Small built-in pocket on messenger strap for phone or wallet
  10. Slim width (for a female frame) with a low-profile appearance

At the peak of Huayna Picchu, 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu, the author poses for a picture with her Incase Ari Marcopoulos bag still on her back. Photogapher: Margaret Groeschen

Like many photographers and travelers, my pursuit of the perfect bag continues. While not all subsequent trips will be 15-month adventures around the world, they will be undoubtedly filled with unpredictable blunders, wonders and, hopefully, a bag that can keep up.

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Kranberry- the DNA is definitely a great choice! Glad you've found your perfect bag! 

Great suggestions and ideas that I had not considered. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks Diane!

Cool article! Looks like a fun trip. I've always wanted to see Machu Picchu. Clicked on the link to the Domke F-832 messenger bag -- hmm, think I know what I want for the holidays. 

Thanks, it was a great trip! Glad you found a new bag for the holidays! Enjoy!