What To Look For When Shopping For A Camera Bag

January 11, 2015

What To Look For When Shopping For A Camera Bag

Did you get a new camera over the holidays? Or did one of your New Year resolutions include getting re-acquainted with a camera you already own?

Whether you have a new camera or if you've had one for a while, one of the most important accessories you can get is a good camera bag.

A camera bag keeps all of your photo gear in one place and allows you to keep your gear packed up and ready to go. It also helps to keep your camera safe from the elements.

But what kind of bag should you get? Here's what you need to know before making the purchase.

Types Of Camera Bags


Backpacks are probably the most comfortable type of camera bag because they evenly distribute the weight of your gear across your back. So backpacks allow you to carry a heavier load more comfortably. Backpacks are also easier to manage when hiking or on long walks because they stay out of your way and don't swing out in front of you when you lean over or turn quickly. And some backpacks even come with pop-out wheels that allow you the options of rolling instead of carrying.

The disadvantage of backpacks is that it takes a bit of time to get to your gear. You have to remove the pack from your back in order to access your stuff. That can make it hard to get out your camera and be ready to shoot quickly.

Although the appearance is similar, camera backpacks differ significantly from the backpacks you may have used to haul around books when in school. The big difference is on the inside, where camera backpacks provide a number of individual, padded compartments for your camera, lenses, and accessories.

Backpacks come in a range of sizes. Some of the smaller ones can carry a single camera body and two or three lenses. Larger backpacks can carry multiple camera bodies, several lenses, a flash unit and lots of accessories.

If you think a backpack is the way to go, I'd recommend looking at the Lowepro Fastpack 350and Lowepro Fastpack 250.

The Lowepro Fastpacks feature a side-entry compartment that lets you access your gear quickly, even with the bag still being worn.

The video below demonstrates how this works

I also like the Vanguard Adaptor Daypacks:

All of the bags in the Vanguard Adaptor series can be converted from a backpack to a right- or left-hand sling bag. The interior of these bags can be customized to your equipment and they all include a tripod holder.


Shoulder or Messenger Bags

Shoulder or messenger bags hang by a strap over a single shoulder and feature top openings for loading and unloading gear. This design allows you easy and fast access to your camera equipment.

But shoulder bags aren't as easy to carry as backpacks, especially when they'll loaded down with a lot of equipment or used for a long period of time. For this reason, it's a good idea to try one out first to see how it feels and definitely look for a model with thick padding on the strap.

Here are two shoulder bags that I like:

The Think Tank Retrospective because it's so functional, but feels great—soft and comfy—and yet is water-resistant and sturdy.

And the Jill-e Jack Messenger Bag, because it's a well-designed, equipment-friendly camera bag that doesn't look the part.

Sling Bags

A sling bag is essentially a cross between a shoulder bag and a backpack. A sling can be worn over just one shoulder or across your body from shoulder to hip.

The advantage to the sling design is that it allows you to carry your gear on your back—like a backpack—, but also lets you swing the bag to the front—like a shoulder bag—for quick access to your photo equipment.

There are a few things to keep in mind when considering a sling bag.

The first is size. Many of these types of bags tend toward to be small, at least relative to traditional backpacks. So, while you can find some larger size slings, don't expect to be able to carry as much equipment as you would be able to with a backpack.

For that reason, slings bags are often the choice when carrying smaller cameras, such as mirrorless systems, or in situations where a minimal amount of gear is carried, such as in street photography.

Secondly, some sling bags are designed to be one-sided. In other words, they can only be worn in one direction. This is just something to be aware of, especially if you have a problem with one of your shoulders or if you simply have a preference as to how you want to wear the bag. In that case, look for an indication of the carrying configuration or phrases like, "left carry" or "right carry" in the bag description. And if it doesn't say, give the manufacturer a call.

Here are two of my favorite sling bags.

The Lowepro StreamLine Sling Bag:

Lowepro StreamLine Sling bag is a nice looking bag that's also really functional. It can carry a mirrorless camera and an extra lens, but also has room for a tablet, a jacket or sweater and, if you can believe it, a water bottle. So it's a great option for day trip around town. The Lowepro StreamLine Sling bag is a right-handed bag.

If you are looking for something bigger, check out the Think Tank TurnStyle 20:

The TurnStyle 20 holds a surprising amount of gear—standard DSLR with 1-4 lenses— and still has room for a large-size tablet as well as extra batteries/charges, memory cards and other small accessories. And for flexibility and comfort, it converts from a sling bag to a beltpack.

To see the Think Tank TurnStyle in action:


Waist Packs

Waist Packs (sometimes called fanny packs, hip sacks or beltpacks) are small camera bags that wrap around you like a belt. This design allows you to carry your camera equipment right at your waist, giving you quick access to your gear.

These bags are, not surprisingly, small. A typical waist packs can hold a DSLR with a 4-6 inch zoom lens attached, along with a few other accessories. And they're usually padded to offer some protection to your equipment, although they aren't as protective as a traditional backpack or shoulder bag.

The waist pack that I especially like is the Inverse 200 AW Camera Beltpack by Lowepro.

Rolling Bags

If you have to carry lots of gear, rolling bags are the way to go. They are perfect for hauling around a lot of equipment with as little strain as possible on your back, shoulders and arms.

Professional photographers and especially wedding and event photographers use large rolling bags to transport their gear. I actually use mine exclusively for storing my photo gear. So I keep all of my photo equipment in a rolling bag that I then stow in the back of my closet. That way, my stuff is safe and out of the way, but easy to get to and all in one place.

Rolling bags come in soft- or hard-sided versions, so you can go with your preference. If you are planning air travel with this bag, be sure to check its size. You will want it to be small enough to carry on while still being large enough to fit all of your gear. And while we're talking dimensions, look for a bag that is narrow enough to roll through the aisles of an airplane. Some are a bit too wide for that and you have to end up carrying the bag to your seat. (By the way, the aisle width on most airplanes is 17 inches.)

Also, it's a good idea to choose a bag that looks like regular luggage rather than like a camera bag

When it comes to rolling camera bags, I like the Think Tank Airport AirStream because it fits a lot of gear, but is still a reasonable size for carry on luggage. I also like that it looks like luggage.

I also like the Ape Case Pro Digital SLR because it's a rolling bag that can also function as a backpack. So you get the best of both worlds.

Bag Size

Look for a bag that fits your equipment, with an eye towards future purchases. If you are using a compact point-and-shoot and you don't see yourself purchasing additional gear, a small bag should be enough. In that case, look for something to hold your camera, an extra memory card, batteries and/or charger.

If you are using a digital SLR, you'll need something bigger depending on the number of lenses you have and want to carry around and taking into account any new equipment that you may be getting soon.

With those parameters in mind, check the product description. It should say the number of camera bodies and lenses the bag will hold. And look to see if the description specifies the types of lenses. Remember that a long telephoto is way bigger than a short one. If you don't see these details in the product description, call the manufacturer and ask.

Other Features To Consider

  • Consider the bag's construction. Remember that a camera bag needs to protect your gear, so the compartments should be well-padded and the bag should be weather resistant. And look for thickly padded straps for comfort.
  • A place for everything. The perfect camera bag is one that lets you find what you're looking for quickly and easily. A bag with separate compartments for different types of equipment helps in this way and makes it easy to organize and access your camera gear. Look for a bag that includes sections for extra memory cards, batteries (along with the charging unit if needed), and filters and rings.
  • Don't forget your laptop. If you are planning to carry a laptop or tablet, be sure to get a bag that includes a dedicated, padded compartment, because you don't want to stuff that kind of expensive and fragile equipment just anywhere.
  • Rain Protection. Some bags include a rain cover to keep your gear dry and protected in wet weather.
  • Looks count. If you will be using your bag for travel or if you will be moving about in high-traffic areas, it might be worth considering a camera bag that doesn't look like a camera bag.

    Camera gear is a big target for theft. So realistically, there are times when it's best to avoid looking like you're carrying valuable photographic gear. Luckily, more and more camera bags these days are being designed with an eye towards fashion. The result are camera bags that look like anything but.

  • Airline friendly. If you are planning on flying with your bag, make sure that it will fit into the overhead compartment.

    Checking camera equipment is never a good idea because it's too easily lost, stolen or damaged. Instead, look for a bag that meets TSA requirements for carry-on luggage. Most manufacturers will say whether a bag is carry-on friendly in the product description. If you don't see that information, give them a call.

  • What about your Tripod? If you are interested in carrying a tripod along, look for a bag that features a tripod pocket or straps.
  • Is it mobile-friendly? If you will be doing a lot of walking with your gear, consider a bag with wheels (for airports and around town) or a waist strap (to support your back when walking/hiking with a backpack). Another feature that can make airport travel easier is a trolley sleeve on the back to slide over the handle of rolling luggage.

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