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 with my Contax outfit. A nice combination.|
|It's quite a tall bag but it's difficult to make much use of the upper area.|
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.
|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.
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.
|Some of the buckles that have to be undone for access.|
|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.
|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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