What to Look for in a Camera Bag - Buying Guide to the Ultimate Camera Bag
Tips for choosing the ultimate camera bag
Photo hobbyists sooner or later end up acquiring more than just a camera. There are memory cards, batteries, and possibly additional lenses, flash units and other gear, not to mention car keys, business cards, cell phone and other stuff like user manuals. Once you start thinking about some kind of bag to carry your gear in, the question arises, “What kind of camera bag should I get?” This article provides some insights into how to shop for a camera bag and what to look for in its construction.
First off, let’s look at material choices. Camera bags are frequently made of materials such as leather, canvas or ripstop nylon. Each of these offers advantages and disadvantages. Leather bags tend to be expensive, durable and good looking. Canvas conforms to the body well, but can be abrasive and not as durable. Ripstop nylon is probably the most common fabric for camera bags. It’s strong, good looking, comes in a variety of colors and not as pricey as leather.
There are some important things to look for when it comes to quality construction. First off, the camera strap should wrap all the way around the bottom of the bag instead of just being attached to the sides. It should be sewn in at key points using a box stitch (think of a box with an X in it). This is a very strong connection point when done properly. Stitched attachments points are stronger than rivets or grommets. Look for flaps that don’t just cover the opening of the main compartment or pouches, but extend over the opening and down the side an inch or more so rain can’t get in.
Padding and cushioning: There are two basic approaches to padding a camera bag. One approach calls for maximum cushioning all around the bag and in the lens compartments. Another point of view provides cushioning for the interior of the bag but not the walls or bottom of the bag. The idea behind this approach is to create a bag that is smaller and lighter than the more traditional all over cushioning approach.
Features: Many bags these days come with built in bag rain coats, some even come with built in microfiber cloths for lens cleaning. Other useful features include clips for holding keys and even ID card or change pouches. Of course, a variety of pouches and compartments are also necessary. Speaking of which, compartments are usually created by removable Velcro dividers so the owner can change the bag’s configuration. Some product lines are even designed to accept accessory pouches so you can add extra space when needed but travel with a lighter bag when you don’t. Bags of the digital era tend to offer pouches or enclosures for memory cards and batteries too.
Closures: Good bags offer both a fast close option and a more secure choice. The fast close option is fine for when you’re out shooting and want to be able to get things in and out of the bag while you’re making photos. Often simple Velcro strips do the job for this, sometimes its plastic clips. The secure option is for longer storage such as when you’ve put your bag away for the night or longer. These are often metal clips or even zippered closures.
Camera bag types
Camera bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Let’s look at common styles:
Shoulder bag – This is the most common and traditional style of bag and is available in a wide variety of fabrics, colors, sizes and designs. Shoulder bags offer a good starting point, can be found in not just camera stores but also in department stores and souvenir shops. Quality can vary greatly with these bags, so examine one closely before buying. LowePro, M-Rock, Think Tank Photo, Tamrac, Kata and Domke are just a few of the better known bag makers, but there are others. This style of bag makes a good first bag choice for a photographer who’s not sure what kind of bag they might prefer.
Sling bags – These are similar to shoulder bags, but designed to be worn on the bag and swung around to the shooter’s front when needed compared to a shoulder bag which is designed to be slung over an opposite shoulder riding on the shooter’s hip. Sling bags can put less strain on the shoulder and lower back than a shoulder bag.
Belt pouches – These bags are worn around the waist. The photographer positions it around the back where it rides out of the way until the photographer needs access to it. It’s then pulled around the waist to the shooter’s front and the gear compartment is accessed. These pouches vary in size. Larger ones often come with an accessory shoulder strap since fully loaded these bags can be too heavy for the waist belt to provide enough support.
Camera back packs – These make hauling a lot of gear easier, but also make getting access to that gear a little harder since the user has to either take the back pack off and put it on the ground to get at equipment, or must ask a helpful friend to retrieve gear. Some shooters prefer to customize regular back packs with foam padding or pouches rather than going to the expense or a back pack designed for photographic equipment. This is a pretty reasonable approach, particularly if you don’t have a lot of gear or are worried about a camera back pack making a desirable target for thieves.
Hard cases – These are better for gear storage than every day shooting, but if you do have gear to store or ship, they offer good protection.
Rolling bags – These are good for travel or if you have to manage a heavy load. Often these bags can be separated from the rolling cart part and turned into a shoulder bag.
Messenger bags – These bags try and get beyond the “typical” camera bag look while functioning in a similar manner. “Disguise” style bags work this same approach trying to look like a school bag or book bag.
Chest pouches – These pouches are designed to carry a camera with a lens mounted and sometimes a small second lens. They can often add an accessory pouch or two. These pouches can team up nicely with a camera back pack so that the user gets easy access to camera and lens for most shooting while still being able to pull other equipment when the situation requires it.
Choosing the best camera bag
Choosing the ultimate camera bag is a question that varies from photographer to photographer. Important considerations include how much equipment you have to carry, what kind of shooting you need to do, how much access to your gear do you need, how fast do you need to get at it and whether or not your gear needs a lot of protection.
Depending on how much equipment you need to carry and how often you use it, choosing the best camera bag can be a pretty big deal. Bags that let you get at your gear quickly, while still offering reasonable protection are important for shooters who use their gear a log making shoulder bags and sling bags great choices. Hikers, backpackers and outdoor photographers on the other hand will probably appreciate camera back packs or chest and belt pouches more effective.
If you only use your gear occasionally, then a bag that can double as a safe storage tool is a good idea. The ability to securely zip the main compartment closed and good cushioning can offer more protection for your equipment.
If you plan on doing a lot of photography while traveling, then making sure your camera bag fits carry on luggage requirements is also an important consideration. Checking valuable camera equipment is never a good idea and should be avoided if at all possible. Look for versatile bags that can also fit in a laptop computer or a change of clothes. Besides providing a little extra cushioning, you’ll be prepared in case your checked bags are misplaced.