Monday, July 11, 2011

Choosing photography equipment bags for travel - Part III

Lowepro Dryzone 200
I've been getting many queries about choosing bags for travel, for photography gear. The two major domains in which photographers carry their gear on trips are “in-transit,” and during shooting.

In Part I, I discussed the problems of “in-transit” travel, which also affects how you pack for your trip.

In Part II, I discussed the specifications for bags for carrying your gear while “in-transit” which must be considered when choosing bags for that purpose.

In Part III below, I'll discuss bags for carrying your gear while shooting.

The decision when purchasing a bag for carrying photographic gear while “in-transit” is dominated by the stowage options of transit companies, the physical size of their stowage areas, their bag restrictions on the physical size and weight of bags, plus the transit companies' limits on liability.

On the other hand, the decision when purchasing bags for carrying your photographic gear when working or shooting is dominated by bag characteristics which affect their use, protection for your gear, comfort of the photographer, and issues of quality and purpose.

To me the issues we should consider when looking for a shooting or working gear bag include:
  • Protection — When most people think of protection, they only think of protecting their gear from “bumps and bruises,” from getting knocked around from the outside, or clanking against each other in the bag. In addition, rain protection must be considered, for your bag of equipment. Sometimes photographers, especially wildlife and travel photographers are out in the rain for much of a day. Rain protection must be able to keep equipment dry for more than a stray shower, or a light rain.
  • Accessibility — When we're shooting, it goes without saying, we want quick and easy access to our equipment, but if we think about it, that's not enough. I've seen bags with quick, wide open access, but access, with the photographer's bag wide open can be a recipe for disaster, as equipment can get dirty, drop on the ground, or easily snatched.
  • Capacity — If you have to leave a critical piece of gear at home, or the hotel, your bag is probably too small. If your bag can't handle the type of gear you need, it's likely the wrong bag. If your bag is large enough that you can stuff it with everything you need, but it's so tight, it's hard to pull anything out, then it's too small. Finally, if everything you want fits now, but one new purchase, such as a new lens, can't fit, it's still too small.
  • Flexibility — I don't know about you, but the equipment I take shooting varies from trip to trip, and day to day. Camera bags should allow you to customize their interior for the gear you carry on any particular day.  Each bag should have some space where smaller equipment and supplies can be stored and easily accessed.
  • Durability — In my opinion, it's rarely a good idea to skimp on quality. I've found that in the long run, cheap gear is more expensive than quality gear. Cheap gear often doesn't last for long, and seems to always fail at the wrong time. You need to consider the quality of the material, its strength, and the bag's construction details, especially stitching, lamination, zippers and clasps. For example, I try to avoid plastic zippers in favor of metal ones.
  • Security — Many people forget this one when considering bag's capacity and all those customizable features they want. Security is one of the first characteristics I look at to disqualify a choice. If it has Nikon, or Canon, or some other camera company written all over it in big bold letters, I won't choose that bag. It's not a good idea to advertise that expensive equipment is in the bag. I have mixed feelings over whether it's a good idea for bags to use steel cable reinforced straps to prevent slash and run thieves. While it may stop that kind of crime, some thieves, might still try to pull the bag away from the photographer, injuring them, if they are pulled to the ground.
  • Non-Photo Gear Capacity — Sometimes it's important to take more than photo gear when out shooting. During changeable spring or fall days in particular, the weather is often changing and unpredictable, requiring us to have room to stow clothing. We might need to have a rain jacket some days, or have room to put it away as weather improves. We might want to pack lunch and snacks, and in my opinion, we should always have some water or other drink available if we're out shooting for more than a short period of time.
  • Comfort — It goes without saying that if your bag isn't comfort to wear, for as long as you're anticipating being out shooting, the bag is a non-starter. That means it has to be comfortable for an all day, and sometimes into the evening shooting day. If you get too tired or uncomfortable, it's hard to think about photography, instead of your misery and alleviating it. You need to consider its physical size and how it fits you, its weight of the bag and that of your gear, and how it distributes the total weight of both. The types and size of straps is critical to comfort too.
  • Use — Many people forget this one when choosing a bag. Use is the primary reason many of us have multiple bags, as there just aren't any bags which can fulfill a photographer's needs for all situations and uses. For example, my main shooting bag doesn't necessarily fully fulfill my needs when I'm out hiking, shooting wildlife all day in changeable fall weather, but it's great for urban photography most every day. If I'm white-water rafting, or hiking through a rain forest, I need a waterproof bag, not just one which is water repellent. Each photographer has to consider how the bag will be used before choosing it.
There is one more important issue to consider when choosing a bag, and it has little to do with the bag itself. It's your shooting style and how you prefer to carry your gear. Don't dismiss this as unimportant. It's very important.

There are many bags which will successfully handle these issues well, and work for you according to your style.

I've had emails from many who have said the information in this series is exactly what they needed, but they wanted on thing more. So look for my “Epilogue” to this series in which I'll discuss the bag choices I've made over time and why.


Sarah said...

Ned, what a great series. I look forward to the epilogue prompted by my email and apparently those of other readers.

Oliver said...

Wonderful article. I learned the hard way about backpack harnesses. I bought a Tenba, a great bag otherwise, but it didn't fit right. Unfortunately I hadn't tried it on before buying it and I didn't know how badly it fit until it was too late and I was tired with hours of shooting to go, and miles to walk.

jdroach said...


Any suggestions about traveling by plane with gear as carry on as well as for use the same bag when backpacking. Later this year, I will be flying to Las Vegas and join others in vans for an 8 day trip to Zion NP and Bryce Canyon. I want to take two Nikon camera bodies, gitzo tripod, Nikkor 18-200mm zoom, a Nikkor 35mm lens, a Tamron 10-24mm lens, and finally Sigma 50-500mm lens. An option may be to include a Tamron 60mm Macro Lens.


Ned S. Levi said...

JDR, are we talking about day hikes, multi-day hikes or part day hikes where you keep going back to the van? I ask because I need to know if the backpack will need to carry more than your equipment such as clothes, lunch, snacks, and something to drink.

I ask all this because it's easy to have a backpack that will work as carry-on and carry all that gear, but not so easy to carry the gear and have clothing and other items for the hike, in the bag too, when out shooting.

May I assume that you prefer to have all the equipment in the bag while "in-transit," but a camera/lens out while hiking? Or perhaps are you like me and even carry a camera/lens separately to be able to capture photo opportunities even while "in-transit?" This matters as to size.

I look forward to your additional information.

jdroach said...


I have the sense that my first attempt at posting my follow-up comments failed this morning. So I apologize in advance if this posting is a less then exact duplication of my first response to your comments from last night. To answer your questions. I am going on the ANPAT 11 Excursion through This is my first ever of these type of trips. I really am excited about it. The trip is the first week of October. We will take vans to various areas of Zion and Bryce with short hikes (walks) from the parking areas--so it is not the traditional hiking where I travel all day long on foot. The instructions are good and it suggests we be prepared to layer up and down due to weather changes. I didn't mention the first time that I will take in transit a laptop and a small cpap (as carry-on to the plane). Those will stay at the hotel during the day trips. I want to have some flexibility with lenses so I can do quality landscape and wildlife shots thus the lenses I mentioned. I will put tripod and two ball heads (one for the big lense and one for all other uses) in my checked luggage but will need to care them with me daily. The macro can be scuttled, it probably would take up to much space and I can do close up work with other lenses. I have sling case for the 50-500mm but it is just another item to keep track of. Ideally, it should be in the backpack too -- at least it is smaller then some of the faster big lenses. I may be over doing it taking it but I don't want to miss wildlife picture opportunities. I probably can carry a canteen with water on my belt. Yes, I may want to carry one camera and lens at the ready.

Ned S. Levi said...

In my Epilogue to this series, which will be published on Monday next week, I'll have some more info you might find useful for your situation, which would be an alternative to my suggestion below.

You're going to have you photo gear, plus laptop, plus CPAP, plus if you follow my general carry-on suggestions, a carry-on bag with your meds, toilet articles, breakables, electronics, valuables, and a change of clothes.

Please remember that while I believe backpacks are generally the right kind of bag for "in-transit," it's not necessarily the right total solution for shooting. Backpacks don't give you quick access to your gear while you're shooting, for example. The again, typically, sling bags and definitely shoulder bags don't have room for clothes, snacks, lunch, drink, while you're out shooting.

I have a possible "one bag solution" for your trip to ANPAT. Check out F-Stop gear for their Loka backpack with large ICU. The ICU is its "internal camera unit" where you put your lenses and bodies, etc. It should have room for your photo gear, plus have room at the top and sides for some clothing, food, drink, etc. While shooting you can put your tripod on the outside of the bag. While "in-transit" you can put your laptop in a padded sleeve and fit it into your backpack.

Think about this possibility and take a look at my Epilogue on Monday and see what you think.

By the way, I'd leave the smaller ball head at home and just use the larger one. It will work fine for smaller lenses and lightens your load by volume and weight. The tripod and ball head I take on any trip is sized to the largest lens with which I'll use it on that trip. It would have to be an amazingly special job for me to take two tripods and/or two ball heads on a trip. I always have one tripod with me for night shots, if not for something else as well.

jdroach said...


Thanks for the suggestions regarding the bag and the ball head. I will compare with some of my own research and look forward for more on Monday! Best regards,


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