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Saturday, April 12

Talking Gear: Camera Bags, the Devil's Spawn

I've been meaning to write this post for a while as much to garner your opinions about what makes a good bag as anything else. Is there anyone out there who has found their perfect bag? I suspect the silence might be deafening.

Over the years, I've picked up a few bags, mostly secondhand, but, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, they've been relegated to the status of camera storage containers, left behind in cupboards and hardly ever seeing the light of day, dull or otherwise.

They were bought on the recommendations of people on camera forums and include two Billinghams, a Domke, a Lowepro Slingshot and a Crumpler. Of these, the only one I actually use as a camera bag on a regular basis is the Domke. It's an F803 and is a great, no frills bag if you just want to go out with a camera, two lenses and a few rolls of film. I constantly switch one outfit or another in and out of the bag., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
Domke F803 with my Contax outfit. A nice combination., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
It's quite a tall bag but it's difficult to make much use of the upper area.

But I often want to take a lens or two more than that and that's where I have a few problems with the Domke. I can fit more gear into the expanding pockets at the front but the trouble comes when you want to change lens as there's nowhere to put the lens I'm taking off and holding it between my knees - as I often do - is inviting disaster.

The other bag that sees some use is an ancient Fotima I bought at Edinburgh Cameras 30 years ago. I can remember the proprietor, Blair Russell, telling me at the time that, yes, it was an expensive bag at about £30 if I remember right, but it would last me for 30 years. Well, it's still going strong so Blair was spot on., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
The Fotima. Just a good, sensible bag.

I've got my Rollei SL66E outfit in a bag that was a Jessops' own brand and cost much less new than I paid for the Billinghams secondhand. Why? Because it accommodates the bulky camera and 80mm, 150mm and 250mm lenses and it's the only one I have that does. Although the Billingham 335 feels bulkier than the Jessops, it doesn't offer as much space.

So, apart from size, what's wrong with the Billinghams, Crumpler and Slingshot then? At the risk of upsetting Leica enthusiasts - look away now Phil Rogers and Michael Stevens - Billinghams are the Leicas of the bag world. They're wonderfully-well made using the best of materials, look tremendous, hold their value well but are awkward to use. There's a top flap to be undone which involves unhitching leather straps from brass fittings and then you have to unzip the main compartment folding the fabric either side of the zip out of the way., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
Billingham 225, domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
Billingham 335

Once you've done that you're OK. Unless you want access to the pockets on the front which have the same bothersome strap-type fixing as the top flap. Even clipping the two carry handles together using the wraparound leather sheath is a pain. That description might not seem too bad but, at least from my perspective, they're just not very user-friendly and probably the slowest I've ever used in operation. It's something like bridling a horse., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
Some of the buckles that have to be undone for access., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
The Fabric around the zip has to be tucked out of the way before you can reach inside.

On to the Crumpler and the stupidest model names on the planet - Million Dollar Home, Barney Rustle Blanket, Bunny Man and Budgie Smuggler, anyone? Grow up guys! How about a naming system that tends to suggest whether one bag is bigger than another - now that would be useful.

I have the Bunny Man and I've used it once. The problem is again to do with access. Getting into the main compartment is a palaver but the Crumpler raises the issue of access to a whole new level with a "secret" compartment on the underside. This is fine if your aim is to stop people guessing where your lenses are stored or making life difficult for thieves. But just try getting something out of the base compartment when the bag is round your shoulders., domke f803, crumpler bunny man, billingham 335, billingham 225, lowepro slingshot, fotima
Slingshot in use. Pic copyright of Lowepro.

I had high hopes for the Slingshot when I first got it but they were quickly dashed as well. The bag is designed to be worn across the back like a messenger satchel. When you need access, you swing it round to the front. I took it on a holiday to Paris with a Pentax DSLR outfit inside and it sort of worked but I wasn't comfortable having the bag out of my sight around the back - just where it would be nice and handy for thieves - so I tended to have it hanging from my shoulder where it would constantly slide off. Plus, it makes you look a right plonker when you're using it...

The problem with bags is that manufacturers have to second guess the needs of photographers and, since we all see photography slightly differently, what is fine for me might not work for you at all. But still, there must be a bag somewhere that just works for the vast majority of photographers?

Is there anything that comes highly recommended and that allows you to get at your gear quickly and easily? If it could accommodate one 35mm SLR body and four lenses I'd be happy. If it could take a spare body I'd be ecstatic. I've seen a couple of Chinese-made bags on Ebay that might do a job but, though the price is good, the quality looks dubious. It's too much of a gamble having them sent over.

Ideally, I'd like something like the Domke F803 that doesn't have a lot of padding, isn't too deep front to back and moulds around the body rather than only having one contact point. Please let me know in the comments if something suitable has slipped under my radar.

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Nick Jardine said...

Hi Bruce,

I use the rucksack type backpack, Lowepro do a pretty decent range.

I have a small one that i used to use for street shooting 35mm style and a larger one for 5x4 gear. Drawback is that you have to take the thing off to change a lens, but it's secure and as a bit of a trekker, I'm used to carrying a rucksack. These types of bags can also accommodate a small tripod strapped to them.

I don't like the 'messenger' type ones because when you move around or bend down it always swings from my back round to my side, plus the weight is all on one shoulder.

Juha H said...

Hello, Bruce,

I had Billinghmams Hadley Pro. What a quality! But al so quite heavy versus room inside, I sold it away. I used to dislike slingshot type bags, but wehn I saw Golla's generation mobile bag, me and bag was sold (for me). It's low cost and when I bought it I has Mamiya C220 F and they were perfect match. The Bag has nicely room for films etc and can carry two middlesize cameras well (=middleformat).

C Winters said...

There is no one bag I know of that's perfect for all use case scenarios. I use a Domke F833 as my everyday bag. It is a courier style bag that fits a couple of bodies and lenses plus my laptop, and sits nicely in my bicycle basket to boot. When I travel, I use a Lowepro Roller Lite - which is huge and fits all my equipment, yet complies with overhead luggage restrictions for air travel. In addition to these two, I am now looking for a good backpack for trecking through and photographing landscapes. Reading reviews of the ones out there throws me into a state of despair, but hopefully I'll find something, and all my bases will be covered.

Regular Rod said...

Those bags are for small and medium format kit. The tricky stuff starts when using 4x5 and then Large Format such as Whole Plate and 8x10...

Those slingshot bags are very good for medium format work, especially if you are going to be standing in rivers and mud to work. The Think Tank Sling-o-matic works well for me. It comfortably holds three folders, a HolgAgon, a Spotmeter V, some spare rolls of film, cable release, notepad and pencil, reciprocity charts, long tripod plate and a clutch of filters.

8x10 is now all tucked away in a P3 from Best thing I ever did was sell the big Lowepro and buy the P3. Chaos is a thing of the past now.


Jan Moren said...

I used to use a couple of Lowepro bags. But the strap failed where the connector can rotate on each and every one of them (picture here:, in one case sending camera and lenses crashing down onto a concrete landing. I will not trust them again.

I looked at Domke bags when I went shopping for a new bag. I brought my P67 and lenses to test bags in store. My theory is that Domke bags are actually connected to the TARDIS: it has a lot more space inside than outside; that space has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is from the inside of Domke bags. I was amazed just how little I could fit into even the largest, bulkiest bags of theirs. They do look nice, though.

In the end I have two solutions: for travel, and when I bring my medium format kit, I use a Vanguard Up-Rise 38. Not perfect, but the best bag I've owned so far. It has a zipper that lets you change the overall size; zippered it's good for a 35mm camera and extra stuff. Unzippered I can fit my medium-format gear along with accessories, a tablet, a book and even cram in a rain cape and desktop-size tripod.

The bag itself is light (good for my back, and for flying weight restrictions), and the strap is wide and comfortable, though I generally prefer to carry bags in my hand*. It's got a zipper across the top that lets you in the bag without having to open the flap, and the pockets and layout are fairly well thought out. It seems decently water resistant even without a cover, and it's got a "flap" on the inside that lets you slide it over the handle of a large suitcase so you don't need to carry it separately. It looks pleasantly anonymous, and doesn't signal "expensive things inside!".

On the downside, there's no good place to stick a tripod, although at that point a wheeled bag really starts to seem like a better idea. The front flap pocket is good for your passport and tickets, but if you don't zip it up properly they can very easily slide out on their own. I had a real scare in one airport once, though fortunately another passenger saw what happened, picked up the passport and ran after me with it.

But often I simply use my everyday non-camera bag, with a separate soft insert to hold whatever camera I bring (you can buy those inserts in camera bag shops, and camera bag inserts are often removable), and extra lenses in soft lens pouches. No "camera bag", just my bag containing the camera — along with my computer, documents, tablet, bottle of tea, glasses and whatever else I happen to need when I'm going to work or somewhere.

* I used to use shoulder straps or backpacks on a daily basis. I also used to have stiff shoulders and neck pain, on a daily basis. Finally tried to carry my work bag in my hand instead and the shoulders improved and the neck pain disappeared. Now I only use straps when I'm actually taking pictures or something and need both hands free.

Bruce Robbins said...

C Winters, the F833 looks very interesting. I've checked out a few pics online and it looks capable of taking quite a lot of gear.

Jan, funny you should mention the Vanguard Uprise 38. The last time I was seriously looking at bags, that was the front runner. Can't remember now why I didn't buy one.

Antonio Aparicio said...

I use a Billingham Hadley pro which I use with a leica M6 or Hasselblad 500 Cm systems. I also have a Billingham 296 which fits the lot and tend to use for large assignments when taking flash, etc.

Thinking of getting a hadley small for the leica.

I love the billingham bags.

Anonymous said...

Try looking at CourierWare Messenger bags.Very well made and last for years!

Herman Sheephouse said...

My Lowepro Nova Mini AW has been perfect for 120 and 35mm - it's a little boxy, but is tough and reliable and if you scout around on ebay they're dirt cheap s/h.
If you need something bigger, the LowePro Elite AW will actually comfortably hold a severed head - it's boxy too, but easily fits a Koni Omega and would do for a Hasselblad outfit.
My Tamrak 777 does very well for 5x4 gear, but holds little else, and for simple everyday Leica stuff, the Kata DC 439 is thin and slim and discreet, but with a weird zip which is actually accessed from your body's side.
The best made little bag I own is a Tenba, which was built to house a 'bridge' camera, but was enough to house a Pentax MX and 50mm SMC . .and little else apart from film and keys etc. It was fine on holiday though, being discreet enough to not get in the way . .if you want to trade a Billingham for it Bruce you're more than welcome!
I love camera bags me!

John Robison said...

I don't always take my bag with me on a photo walk but when I do I just ask her for a lens and she hands it t.......

OK, got my head bandaged now, where were we...oh yeah, camera bags.

I use them to keep a kit in one place so lenses and filters and things don't get misplaced.

Can't stand the things for field use though. If it won't fit in a vest cargo pocket I didn't really need it anyway. I look like a silly photo nerd but I've become too old to care.

Derek said...

Hi Bruce

I also use a LowePro Elite AW. Very hard wearing with adjustable compartments and a weatherproof pullout cover. Very comfortable on the shoulder with plenty of space for film/filters/batteries. Good strong handle in the lid.

Omar Özenir said...

I've pretty much given up on camera bags. They've all been an annoyance.

When I'm out light, that is a Leica M6 with 1 or 2 lenses, I use a plain jacket/vest with big enough pockets for the spare lens and film + lightmeter. Or I might have just the Rolleiflex with me.

If I have the tripod with me, I use a standard rucksack (Eastpak or similar), which doesn't look like a dedicated photo backpack. I'm one of those guys who bought the tripod (Gitzo Traveller) to fit a rucksack, instead of the other way around.

Cheers, omar

Stephen Marsh said...

I'll second the recommendation for Tenba bags as I have a gaggle of them to suit different purposes. They're well thought out (for my needs at least) and quite durable.

morris1800 said...

I have a selection of camera bags to carry 35mm to a 5x4 monorail camera. The all have one thing in common which is they were inexpensive.My monorail travels in a rucksack with 45cm rail attached with lens and monocular head installed + quick release tripod plate. But my most versatile camera bag is actually an anglers bait bag. This is waterproof, semi rigid, thermal lined with feet and a rubberized base (non slip) for standing on muddy ground with front and side pockets.Any dividers I make myself to suit the size and shape of kit carried.They can be found in many different sizes. A cheap rugged alternative to pro camera bags.

Michael Stevens said...

I'm with Omar. I rarely (if ever) change lenses so prefer to do without a bag altogether. I just hang the camera round my neck and stuff my pockets full of film.

I do have an old Jessops bag which I use if I'm going away for any length of time, but that's just to stop stuff rattling about in the boot of the car.

Hai Nvi said...

Modern parents, confronted with the prospect involving holding close to a bright teddy-bear coated monstrosity of a diaper bag, are generally gratefully turning their particular messenger carriers in to tote bags for their kids.