Most of us photographers suffer from episodes of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). A new lens, another camera, flashgun, you name it. Everything to fuel the believe that it will get us better pictures (or just because we are total gear heads).
Then comes the next urge for an acquisition: a fitting bag. Contrary to gear, we are often struggling to make a choice. There is a lot involved in getting the right bag. What will you be using it for? Street, travel, storage? Does it have to be an inconspicuous bag, or must it stand out and be really stylish. What about the form factor? Backpack, sling bag, shoulder bag, messenger style… Will you be carrying only your camera gear or all kind of day to day items as well?
Bag companies are very aware of this and offer a broad range of equipment bags. Just take a look at the offerings from brands like Domke, LowePro, Ona, Think Tank and Peak Design to name but a few. They all promise a lot and also cost a lot. It’s no problem to buy a bag costing as much as a nice new prime lens for a Nikon DSLR. Most of them have one big downside for me. Because of the padding and dividers they are more bulky, heavy and less flexible in fitting something besides a camera and lenses than a non-camara bag.
I’m quite sure that we all own our share of ‘photo’ bags, I know I do… Some of us switched from DSLR’s to mirrorless, so that big bag isn’t suitable anymore.
Some of us are really getting the hang of shooting with primes and the standard small bag is getting way too small to fit all those primes.
Another problem is that you might need a specific bag for all your different photo endeavours and assignments.
I use a variety of camera’s, from a DSLR with a big zoom, to small and mirrorless cameras. As we all are in progress of doing 365 project, having a camera on you every day is sort of essential. Still, on many occasions I have more than one bag to carry. A small camera bag with equipment and another bag with a wallet, iPad, lunch, water bottle, keys, etc.
To me, this kind of defeats the purpose of having small camera.
Recently I went on a trip that only allowed for one small camera with a small lens mounted. There was no room for a photo bag. I had small compact camera bag that fitted my X-Pro1 with an 18mm, I even had to leave the lens hood at home. This little bag fitted nicely into a 30 litre backpack.
This got me thinking: The most important reason I don't throw my camera in one bag with the rest of my stuff, is that I don't want it to become damaged.
So, what would be the ultimate photo bag?
I started by asking myself: What is it that I want in a bag?
- doesn’t look like a camera bag, discreet, unassuming;
- I like retro stuff, hence my preference toward the Fuji X system…
- Gear is heavy enough as it is, so a weight and bulkiness should be limited;
- flexible for multiple endeavours, so a little adjustability would be nice to have; fit day to day items and a camera and sometimes lenses and/or a flash side by side;
- robust and able to handle various weather conditions;
- not too expensive;
- messenger style.
I searched the internet for a particular type of bag that I really liked and that reminded me of a bag I had in my childhood: a canvas army bag. I found out that there are lots and lots of them for sale. You could also visit a local army dumpstore. They come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes.
The best part: they are really cheap. I’ve seen these kind of bags around from all over the world: British, Polish, German, Swiss, American, Russian, Japanese, you name it. I just bought a 37 year old Czech army m60 canvas sidepack, a.k.a. Bread Bag for only € 12,50.
This is how mine looks like:
Protecting your gear
This is a tricky part. You can get inserts that will instantly transform any bag into a photo bag. What I am afraid of, is losing the flexibility that I am after. I found that lens Wraps would do the trick for me.
These are square pieces of fabric that use Velcro on each corner wrap and secure almost anything in a lot of different configurations. You can buy them in different sizes to fit different pieces of equipment.
I started off with size 11” to fit the X100, an 18mm lens and size 15” to fit an X-Pro1 with a 35mm lens or a DLSR with a prime lens. These should protect my gear from run-ins with each other and items like keys, usb-sticks, pens, iPad, iPhone and so on. The ones I chose are from Domke. I really like the type of Velcro they use, because it is soft and does not scratch your skin or equipment.
Most of these bags smell a bit funny. You could of course wash them, but I noticed that mine repelled water really well. So maybe the smell comes from some kind of impregnation treatment. If you get a bag that isn’t water-repellent, there are several ways of doing this.
Canvas and other textiles can be waterproofed by using a special impregnation agent or by waxing it with Fjällräven Greenland Wax, which will alter the look and texture of the bag.
Canvas on the other hand is quite thick and robust. The fibers also expand a little when getting wet, stopping rain from getting in.
Having an inexpensive bag means that you should not be too afraid to alter it to better fit your needs. You could sew in more pockets, alter the closure system with Velcro or magnets, get another strap.
The end result
For going to clients, office or just running errands, this bag really suits me very well. It holds personal belongings next to well protected gear of choice for that day. It is smaller than I expected, but it fits a full size iPad, iPhone 6, wallet, X-Pro1 with 35mm in a wrap and the 18mm in a wrap and a Leatherman Super Tool 300. I am sure a can squeeze some other stuff as well.
Bag, totally dry on the inside after 20 minutes of walking and biking in the pouring rain. Inside: X-Pro1 with a 35mm lens in a 15” wrap, 18mm lens in an 11” wrap, wallet, keys, small spectacle case.
So is this the ultimate photo bag? In the end I realised that isn’t so much about the bag itself. It’s about how you protect and fit your items in a bag you really like. The Domke wraps do help a lot in getting this done.
I Guess it still comes down to having different bags for specific purposes. For most of the time that I carry a bag the purpose for me is to be able to carry gear and belongings in one flexible small bag, so mission accomplished.
I did notice a few downsides to this approach. For one, gear wrapped in lenswraps tend to be a little more bulky. You can fit more gear in a good padded bag with dividers tuned towards holding specific gear, it is more efficient in terms of storage-space.
I also feel that gear might be a bit better protected in a purpose-built camera bag. I don't want to drop a camera bag, but do feel more confident when it would happen with a totally padded bag.
If I am on a payed photo assignment the focus lies on getting a satisfied customer. If this means taking a lot of equipment with me, I will certainly go for a purpose-built camera bag. The convenience it provides for accessing gear and changing lenses fast and getting easy access to a flashgun, etc. is a big plus.
Wraps can be a great means of transportation-protection, but can be a little fiddley when you need to handle different equipment fast. I will not, however, shy away of taking it along on an assignment for keeping a second camera and personal stuff.
I would like to hear from other 365-ers about their favourite bags!
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