One of the hardest questions I'm asked as a traveling photographer is, "What bag should I bring on my next trip?". To me, this question is the same as asking, "What should I put on my feet in the morning?".
The answer depends largely on where you're going, what you're bringing, how you're traveling and so on. And yet, there is always a bag to be had that is just right for the trip. In this article, I'll be suggesting what to look for when choosing a photo bag for travel.
What to Look For
While it is very hard to find a perfect bag for every type of trip, there are some common factors to look for when selecting a bag for your next adventure. I've listed 7 categories of features to compare when selecting a bag. They include (in no particular order, except maybe comfort) Comfort, Security, Organization, Compartmentalization, Ease Of Use, Size and Build Quality.
Copyright Thomas Claveirole
Bag comfort is one of the most important aspects of bag selection. If the bag is not comfortable, none of the other factors matter as you will be reluctant to even bring the bag on a trip. A comfortable bag can mean the difference between a horrible trip and one that has you wanting to hit the road again the moment you get home. There are a couple of components to comfort.
Copyright Ed Yourdon
The first factor is weight. This is a combination of both the bag weight and camera (with all required lenses, strobes and accessories). Bag weight can play a big part in the equation - larger than you may suspect. Well constructed packs can weigh up to 7lbs, enough take a toll after a full day out in the wilds of a city or the mountains. Try to find a good balance between too much weight and too little quality. Look for a pack that meets your minimum of requirements for storage (covered in a minute) and not a lot else. All those extra compartments, zippers and straps do add up and will entice you to carry more stuff.
Camera weight is also something to consider when packing. Do you need every last bit of gear with you for this particular trip? Will you be able to purchase extra batteries for your strobes when you arrive or do they need to come with you? And again, what's the least you can get away with? Sometimes it takes a couple of trips to find your rhythm so don't worry if things aren't perfect the first time out. You'll need those learning experiences to show you what items never left the bag and which were used daily.
The next factor for comfort is carriability. How is the bag handled? Is it a backpack, a shoulder bag, a messenger bag, a roller bag or some other type? No matter the type, is this the type you're used to carrying? Personally, I prefer backpacks as that's what's most comfortable to me. When I've used a shoulder slung bag I always felt lopsided and I can't stand roller bags (they tend to be heavier any way). But for some who have back problems, a roller bag is perfect. Also consider the terrain you will be covering while on your travels as not all bags will be appropriate.
The security of your photography equipment while on a trip is quite important. First, you don't want a bag that is too flashy that calls attention to itself. Some people have been known to use a bag that is not specifically used for camera gear at all. Something like an old handbag or well used day backpack. Anything that isn't new Cordura nylon, emblazoned with logos! This can be a sane tact especially if the bag is also comfortable. If your bag is newer, consider using a permanent marker to darken logos and make them less conspicuous.
Next, depending on where you will be carrying your bag, consider one with access only from the side closest to your body. There are special backpacks with this type of access, giving up convenience (you need to remove the pack fully to access camera gear) for security. And that is always a trade off. If it's easy for a friend to access your camera gear while traveling around, it's also easy for a thief to access it.
Lastly, consider your bag's security when it's not in your possession. Let's say you leave it behind at the hotel while heading for a night on the town. You may want to look into one of the many bag security nets available on the market. These bags are a metal mesh that fits over your bag and attaches it to a sturdy object, such as a drain pipe of a sink for instance. While nothing is impermeable to a thief with enough time, attempting to thwart the opportunistic thieves is a safe tactic.
When I speak of organization, I'm speaking of the bag over all (I'll get to the specifics of camera gear organization in the compartmentalization section below). Unless you wish to carry two bags while out shooting, your bag should be able to handle not only your required camera gear, but also all the odds and ends that help you get through the day.
Will you be heading out for a full day of shooting, or do you plan on just taking short trips here and there? If you plan for a full day away from creature comforts, your bag is also going to need to carry water, clothes, guidebooks, snacks and possibly sun tan lotion (forgive me for dreaming of sunny destinations at this time). If you want to have your hands free for shooting, carrying a second bag may not be your best solution. There are a number of bags on the market that offer a specific section for all these little items. In fact, the best bags are organized something like an office on-the-go, with room for all of the above and more.
I'd advise against a single, large duffle for all your photo gear. Beside damage to the camera gear, having items stacked on top of each other almost always increases the amount of time you spend fumbling around looking for that one item at the bottom. Clear, well thought out organization for the entire bag is key to making it more useable. Take time before a trip to test sorting guidebooks, notepads and snacks in different pockets until you find a system that works best for you. And don't be afraid to return a bag if it won't fit all the items you deem vital for a day out shooting. There is a bag out there that will work for you!
When looking at the compartmentalization area of the camera bag - the area set aside for just photo gear - you want to make sure your equipment will not move. Anything moving in the camera area can cause damage to itself or other camera equipment. Find compartments with moveable padded dividers, usually with some type of Velcro system for rearranging them. Then, play around with the best layout for your gear, ignoring the diagrams you might find in the bag's literature.
I currently have a smallish backpack intended for one camera with lens attached and two other lenses beside it. And yet, I have found a way to fit two full sized DSLRs with large lenses attached by removing most of the Velcro dividers and placing the cameras sideways to the bag. Do what works best for you!
Selecting a bag without physically being able to try it out beforehand (such as purchasing a bag online) will require you to measure your gear. Know how tall your camera sits with a power grip on the bottom, or how long your strobes will be lying down. I've encountered bags which I thought would be perfect, only to find my largest lens stuck up too high to get the zipper closed.
Also consider what will be placed on top of the gear. Will the closing flap also contain a laptop or books that will not be malleable? Does the area for battery storage (another hard object you don't want to come in contact with gear) protrude into the camera storage area?
Some bags now come with a removable insert that houses all of the camera equipment. This makes it easy to use the bag itself for other purposes (see the note on security about when leaving the camera pouch behind). It can be a useful feature if you will only be shooting part of the time. It also comes in handy when boarding a plane as the bag itself can be used as your one carry-on item and the camera pouch, removed, is your personal item, easily placed under the seat in front of you.
Ease Of Use
How easy is the bag to use? This is a combination of most of the categories in this post, really. The overall organization has to make it easy to find what you're looking for without pulling everything out. Plus you don't want camera gear bouncing into each other in the camera compartment. And if the bag isn't easy to bring with you, chances are it will sit in the back of a closet until one day being donated or sold on eBay.
Copyright Ed Yourdon
When checking the overall ease of use, it is also important to look to the other items not listed, such as tripod carrying and water bottle holders. Make sure tripods can not only be attached firmly to the back and not swing wildly, but also ensure they can be removed easily. I have seen a number of packs with multiple straps that end up getting in the way of quick tripod use. If the tripod holder is the type with a boot, make sure there is no extra stitching to bind up on the footings when removing the tripod.
While being obviously handy to carry quarts of water while out for a day of shooting, water bottle holders can have a number of other advantages. They can hold all the small things you need quick at hand, such as a filter or two or possibly extra batteries. Or non-photo gear; chapstick, maps, sunglasses or a lightweight wind jacket. On the other hand, I have noticed that having a bottle on both sides will often make a bag harder to stow when on an airplane or overhead on a train.
Just a quick note here on size. This point is highly dependant on the amount of gear you plan to bring as well as how you will travel with the bag. Will this bag be your "personal item" on a flight or train? Then make sure it will fit under the seat in front of you or you may have to check your carry-on item. Will the bag be your one and only for a weekend getaway? Best to get a slightly larger bag with room for shoes, toiletries and a couple changes of clothes.
Copyright The Lightworks
Another note on size - check the fit of the bag, be it a backpack or any other bag. I've often been tempted to get the smallest bag I need, for maybe a camera and a couple lenses and strobes, only to find the bag was very small on my back and not comfortable. A larger bag was less desirable (yes, I ended up filling that extra space with extra weight) but far more comfortable on my back when traveling.
Lastly, take a look at both the build quality and warranty if you are buying new (if you're going with a used daypack to disguise the contents, as previously mentioned, you can skip this section). Check the seams and see if they are single or double stitched. Extra stitching can add a minor amount of weight but will help the bag last longer. Are the straps stitched with ample thread, preferably doubled stitched as well? What about the buckles? Does the plastic seem too flimsy? Will they break easily if the bag is handled roughly?
If you are indeed purchasing a new bag, what type of warranty does it come with and where would warranty work be performed? Having to send a bag back to the factory often becomes the case with many bags if not purchased at a top rate retail outlet which allows returns on any gear. So where you shop can be as important as what you're looking for.
If the bag does not come with a lifetime warranty (or something close to that) make sure to purchase the bag in a store that offers a full guarantee on all items purchased in their store. Likewise, do just a bit of internet sleuthing to see what kind of experience other customers have had with warranty work and customer service. A little extra time spent in selecting the right bag with regards to warranty can save you a a headache a year or two down the road.
Many factors can go into choosing a photo bag, and it largely depends on where and how you travel. I hope this article will help you narrow down the features that are most important when deciding. And remember, there may be more than one type of bag out there that is perfect for you, so take the time to shop around until you have found the solution that makes photo travel a breeze!