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Photo Bags: From Shoulder Bags to Rotating Backpacks

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The search for the perfect photo bag is far from over. Galen Rowell started it in the eighties, now Mindshift Gear continues, with a rotating backpack. Here is a walk through some past and present solutions and future options. And a guide for your next purchase.

Since the first days of photography, photographers have found it difficult to find the right bag. Equipment may be smaller than the 8x10 cameras Ansel Adams carried on the back of his mule, but we still need to carry our gear.

There are multiple solutions, from shoulder bags to backpacks that can transform some inexperienced photographers into beasts of burden, the quest for the perfect photo bag is a moving target. We seem to be close to finding the solution, but then something else more promising shows up.

Different photographers have different needs, and that is a paramount reason for the existence of so many different solutions in the market. Many brands are well known internationally, others more in a region or country. Some new names have shown up, while some others have vanished. Photo bags have, usually, a very special look, almost stating to the public "I am a photo bag", so some people will look for alternatives that suggest otherwise.

Not All Bags are Photo Bags

From my experience of trying to adapt different types of bags to photo bags, I've discovered that many times you'll give up in the end. I do not mean that you'll not find a solution that fits you, but photo bags are special items - the true photo bags and not those that are "wannabes" - and even more so these days, with all those little pockets for small pieces of equipment, cables, cards, etc.

Besides, photo bags tend to be built to protect the equipment, so they are padded and fulfill a lot of other specifications that make them reliable when you're caught, for example, in the middle of nowhere and rain pours down from the sky.

I have some stories, from years photographing outdoors, of wandering for shelter in the rain for hours. And my first Lowepro bags did not have an "all weather" cover as they all have these days. Still they took a lot of beating before giving up.

A Real Photo Bag

So, if you've decided that you rather get a real photo bag, be aware that there are some models these days that do not look much like photo bags, but will still protect your gear. Models like Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise or Lowepro Classified fall in that category. And if you're looking for something almost classic, like Henri Cartier-Bresson would use, check the Retrospective series from Think Tank Photo, a modern representation of the classic shoulder bag.

So many choices

Choosing a photo bag is never easy, and it all depends on your needs, This said, there is no "one size fits all" solution. I know this well because I've had dozens of bags in over 40 years of photography. Different brands, different sizes, different materials.

I've had Tenba, Cullmann, LowePro, Tamrac, Sherpa... you name it. Some brands come and go, and it also depends on the region of the globe you live in. In some countries, it is easy to find different brands, but I do guess two of them are almost international: Lowepro and Think Tank Photo.

Of course there are many other brands, like Hama, for example, I've a nice shoulder and waist belt pack from them, the Hama Defender 170 Colt. But I am centering this article in the photo bags specialists and most known names amongst photographers. I am also drawing from my experience reviewing photo bags to write these notes that may help and guide you in choosing your next bag.

Accessibility is Paramount

Having a nice backpack that carries all your gear is great, until you start to find out that you pass on many photo opportunities in your walks because you become tired of repeating the same process over and over: take the backpack from your back, place it on the ground, open it, take the camera... and what was a photo opportunity is gone by then, I guess.

A photographer using a shoulder bag easily accesses his gear. The problem with them comes when you're carrying long lenses for long periods, all that weight on a rock trail can throw you off balance and become very uncomfortable. Nature photographers or any photographer using backpacks had a problem that needed an urgent solution, something between a backpack and a shoulder bag.

Back in the eighties the late Galen Rowell, a renowned outdoor photographer, designed, together with Photoflex, a line of photo bags that was the first modular belt system, as it featured interchangeable belts, lens cases, and side pockets.

The Galen Rowell Legacy

Galen Rowell started by designing his modular waist pack to be light, durable and to hold a lot of camera gear. The bag could hold up to 2 camera bodies, 3 lenses, a teleconverter and more equipment. Pouches and exterior compartments would carry all your filters, film and accessories. The interior compartments and dividers firmly attach to the large compartment walls with Velcro so the bag can be customized to fit the gear you carry.

Although Photoflex has left the scene in terms of photo bags, Rowell's main bag solution is still available for purchase at Mountain Light and there's an interesting article from the photographer about the system, that shows he was way ahead of its time.

Rowell's solution could also be used with the military grade MFP Backpack that Photoflex sold, a modularity that would set the basis for future development of photo bags. Since then we've seen some solutions, experiences like the sling-style bags, sophisticated modular belt systems and an array of promises. Now there's a new kid on the block, and its name is MindShift Gear. And they have a first backpack made with nature photographers in mind: the Rotation 180.

And Now, MindShift Gear

Founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo and conservation photographer Daniel Beltra, MindShift is dedicated to building carrying solutions for those who are passionate about experiencing the natural world. Their slogan, "Engage with nature," challenges people to not only become involved in outdoor activities, but to create a conversation about nature and our relationship to the environment.

The first offering is a backpack for outdoor photographers, the Rotation 180 Professional, a name that immediately points to a Think Tank Photo original bag, the Rotation 360, recently discontinued. Now it is easy to see why. It's an interesting option and a sign that explains a lot about the philosophy of Think Tank Photo. But let me write a bit of the whole story.

Back in 2006, when Think Tank Photo launched their Rotation 360 bag, the backpack won some prizes for its outstanding solution: a waist pack that could be rotated. The concept was unique, although derived from a previous model, under the brand Lowepro, the Orion, which in fact the creators of Think Tank Photo had designed when working there, in 1991.

I am well aware of this because I own an original Lowepro Orion (in my immense collection of photo bags) and I was always amazed at the mix of a waist pack and a small backpack that could be used together or apart. I used the waist pack much more than the upper part, but the idea seemed to open space for new designs.

The Rotation 360

When Think Tank Photo launched the new backpack, I had the chance to interview TTP co-founder and designer Mike Strum for my magazine at the time, and also review the Rotation 360, which I adopted. One of the most interesting aspects of the backpack was the solid frame, that would let you leave it standing anywhere.

Still, it was also a drawback, because it made the backpack a rigid structure and a heavy one too. I loved the Rotation 360 for excursions along the seacoast, because I could leave the backpack upright on sand or anywhere, but at the same time I felt the rotating waist pack was small for my needs (smaller than the Orion solution, at least). So, slowly the Rotation 360 began to be left home.

I never gave up on the idea and have asked Brian Erwin, from Think Tank Photo, if there would be a new solution of the same kind, and when TTP would do something geared towards nature photographers. I recently asked the same question, again, when choosing a new backpack to use as my "carry all" for workshops. I had no specific answer, but felt "something was cooking."

Well, MindShift Gear has just been announced. It's a new company created by the same people. And their first product, the Rotation 180, continues the concept from Rotation 360 but applies it to a backpack that does not seem as heavy or rigid as the original. And the waist pack will be very familiar to those that know the original Orion: it has about the same capacity.

So, now photographers have two choices when they look for Think Tank Photo quality. The TTP collection made with photojournalists in mind, and the MindShift Gear, for nature photographers. Different brands, but the same philosophy: work along with professional photographers to make some of the best carry solutions in the world.

Which is Best for Me?

As I've written before, there is no one solution for all photographers when it comes to photo bags. As a matter of fact, one single photographer often needs to have more than one type of bag to use, accordingly to each assignment.

I have photographed in calm landscape areas, busy city environments, atop cliff areas on the coast of Portugal, from hot-air balloons, helicopters or open door airplanes, and I need different solutions for each task. I would not carry a big backpack for an air-to-air shoot... unless it had a parachute. So, based on my experience, let's look at some possible solutions that you may want to check.

Sling Bags? No Thanks!

Sling bags have been in the market for some time and they are usable, but not what I consider the best option. I've seen models that become true backpacks, others that let you change the shoulder strap from left to right, but none impressed me. If you're absolutely aware that your gear will not grow over time, you can go for a sling solution (check if the strap fits comfortably on your chest and shoulders), but I would rather look elsewhere.

This is my opinion after having used/tested some of the models in the market from different brands. Your experience may differ, but from my point of view sling bags are not as practical as promised in terms of ease of access to gear, and some of them may even be dangerous to your gear if you forget to zip a pocket. I've seen lenses flying from some sling bags... And after all, you can also - well, almost - sling a shoulder bag, if the strap is adjustable. Try it!

The being said, the Phototuts+ editor, who is a photojournalist by trade, swears by the Lowepro Slingshot AW200. He's used it for years along side other bags. To each their own, I suppose.

Shoulder Bags

Shoulder bags are as old as photography. We've seen them in all sizes and shapes, from classic Billingham models to strange offerings in materials and color, that fade away after some time. If buying a shoulder bag, you should consider that it should be used to carry a camera, one or two lenses, a flash, some accessories and not much else. Your shoulder will not like it if you decide to buy a big shoulder bag and then carry all your gear around with you. And photography becomes less fun.

My best solution for shoulder bags are waist packs. From the original Lowepro Orion AW that I carried on my shoulder using the waist belt to the Think Tank Photo Speed Racer Pro V2.0 which I've elected as "the best camera bag in the world", I love them.

I have a few waist packs, some branded Kodak Professional (very, very old, from back in the nineties) or Canon (from a Kenya Safari), but I've settled for the Speed Racer V2.0 because it offers a shoulder strap and waist belt in a photo bag I can carry on my shoulder, but use in front of me, with the waist belt, when working.

For small trips in the field the Speed Racer Pro is a great solution. And when photographing airshows it lets me have all my gear close to me. I usually carry my gear for the day in the bag: a Canon EOS 50D camera, 100-400mm, 17-40mm, 60mm Macro, Speedlite 580 EX II, Phottix Odin TCU and receiver, a small Rogue reflector, extra batteries for camera and flash, and other small accessories.

A Big Backpack

I've had quite a few backpacks, big and small, but I've settled for a Think Tank Photo solution, the StreetWalker HardDrive. It is the biggest solution in the series and most times I do not fill it up with gear, as my regular selection of gear is the one mentioned above. But I do not mind carrying the extra backpack weight and have extra space available for when I need to take more stuff with me.

Although this backpack is built to take a laptop, I do not use it for that. Usually the space reserved for the laptop carries a reflector or diffuser, and also a poncho, something I never leave behind when I am in the field. It protects me from an unexpected rainfall but can also be used as a hide or simply to put down on wet ground to give me a place to sit.

The Street Walker Hard Drive is also used in my workshops on location, so I usually carry - almost - everything I need in it. I call it "The School Bag" then. It takes all radio triggers (Phottix Odin and Atlas) different lenses, three flashes, filters (ND and CC), ExpoImaging Rogue reflectors assortment, extra batteries, cables, diffusers, clamps and a lot of other things photographers love to carry and use, including my notes. I then take my Speed Racer V2.0 to use on location.

I also use this combination, but not with so much gear, when travelling away from home by car, either for work or holiday. The Street Walker HardDrive is mostly the carry on bag and the Speed Racer V2.0 used to carry gear for the day. So I can always change between photo bags if I need to.

Modular systems

There are different solutions in terms of modular systems. It all started back in the eighties when Galen Rowell designed solutions for his own use. Modular systems are great for action photography but I would not use some of them as a permanent solution, because you've nowhere else to place your gear.

Especially with modular waist belt or harness options, you're "tied" to them all the time. I like to be able to put my gear aside for those calm moments like lunch time, if we can spare the time for it. Call me conservative, but I like to have a bag to keep my gear when not using it.

Rotating Backpacks

A backpack that lets you access you gear easily is always an interesting option. This is, probably, a great all round solution, and the new Rotation 180 is a good example. I must say I am excited with what I saw, and if you're a nature photographer, you should be, too. The Rotation 180 Professional lets photographers maintain their creative momentum when working in the field.

Since the backpack does not have to be taken off, the photographer can continue walking, hiking, or climbing, focusing on taking pictures, as opposed to taking the pack on and off. In addition, sensitive camera equipment is less likely to come in contact with destructive dust, mud, water and sand. The new backpack will be available next Spring and I've already signed to have mine.

Does it mean I am going to throw away all my other photo bags? No, no way! As I've said before, the quest for the best photo bag is never over. In fact, I think it is a never ending story. But along the way we find some interesting new options that make it easier to take our cameras further along the road. This rotating backpack surely fits in that picture!

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