Photographers the world over have been searching fruitlessly for the “perfect” bag in which to carry their equipment since Oetzi wandered the Alps in search of that elusive sunset shot. Sexist though it may sound, I am of the opinion that what shoes and handbags are to the fashion-conscious woman, so gadget bags and backpacks are to the travelling photographer. The quest for the optimal solution is endless and the choices bewildering to say the least.
Let me lay out some parameters here. I specifically use the verb “travelling” to differentiate between bimbling about with your camera and a couple of lenses closer to home and the need to have something to transport in comfort, security and safety a more extensive kit plus the paraphernalia of modern life on a longer journey, a short citybreak say, or a multi-night trip. Such travels often involve what some call “multi-modal” transportation; perm any two or three from car, bus, train, ferry, aeroplane, walking, horseback, sedan chair, cable car, etc.
The ideal bag for the peregrinating photographer is thus simultaneously large, small, discreet, easy to spot, easy to carry, hard to steal, waterproof, dustproof, theft-proof, organised, easy to work from, secure, comfortable, flexible, protective, robust, squishy, crushproof. It is a backpack, shoulder bag, tote bag, it is black to be discreet in urban environments and khaki to reflect heat in hot climates. Oh, and empty it weighs less than two Malteasers and a feather.
Thus is the dilemma. When you add in on top of the laundry list of physical and practical attributes that elusive thing called “personal taste” you might as well give up and carry everything around in a supermarket carrier bag.
As a result of the above, I have a cupboard full of the finest bags and backpacks that money can buy from Messrs Billingham, Safrotto, Domke, Samsonite, Manfrotto, LowePro and others. I also have a particular penchant for Billingham Hadley inserts, large and small, which can be pressed into service to turn almost any old bag into an effective camera bag. I have pretty well every type of bag with the exception of the “sling” type, which are largely useless to me because I am left-handed.
Which is why, the other day, I went shopping.
When I go on a longer trip, my bag of choice for the past couple of years has been a cheap and frankly tatty looking khaki canvas photo backpack from Amazon. It has space enough for a couple of cameras—XPro2 and X100T in my case—and four or five lenses, plus chargers (always pack in hand baggage…) notebook, power pack, Kindle, folding umbrella, cap (flat, of course, not baseball), shemagh, keys, torch, spare batteries and cards. There’s even room for a thin sweater and a bit of on-trip shopping (I refuse to use the term “duty free” anymore because it isn’t…)
The bottom of the bag is designed specifically for photographic use; it has its own zip up “hatch” that sits securely against the small of the back (thereby ticking the box marked “secure” and putting a big, fat cross into the one marked “ease of access”) and comes with a set of dividers. These are unfortunately so soft that a stale scotch egg dropped in the top of the bag will surely dent your rear screen. I got around this by putting said dividers into a large, lidless “Tupperware” sandwich box which itself then fitted into the bag and provided some much needed rigidity. The XPro2 and its assorted lenses went in there.
The top half of the bag and three outside pockets can carry everything else, including my X100T kit (camera, TCL and WCL converters) contained in a Domke F5-XB. Now, whilst I am happy to travel like that, I should make clear that I wouldn’t work out of the bag loaded in such a fashion. Fully loaded it’s heavy, and the cheap, sparsely padded straps cut into the shoulders like cheesewire. Full up, it is a means of securely transporting everything; once in situ half the kit listed goes in the safety deposit box and only what’s needed for the day gets carried about.
So I decided this year to upgrade to a newer and better-made backpack; one that would be more robust, more comfortable to wear and would still carry all of my stuff. And there, the fun started. Problem is, every single photographer has a different set of kit and a different idea of what constitutes a sensible division of space between photo and non-photo gear.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most dedicated photo backpacks are designed for that one purpose, and for larger DSLRs and their accompanying lenses at that. Even those that are billed as being suitable for mirrorless system cameras simply aren’t; they are DSLR (or even film) compatible designs that have been “updated” and rebadged without any thought to the smaller form factors of both cameras and particularly, lenses. I also don’t want to carry a 17″ Macbook; I mean, I wouldn’t be seen dead carrying a Macbook of any size (sorry Mike) but the ability to lug a laptop on holiday isn’t important to me.
Thus I found myself spending hours online, and in assorted camera shops juggling armfuls of kit. I read reviews. I even watched videos. What is it, by the way, that makes photographers such unwatchable videographers? I lost count of the number of cringemaking YouTube clips that I abandoned partway through out of embarrassment for the baseball cap clad “reviewers” mugging their way through yet another turgid piece to camera.
After much initial faffing—I mean “research”—I pressed the order button on the frankly ridiculously named Thule Covert Dark Shadow backpack. Yes, I know it specifically says “DSLR” but I refer back to my earlier comments. A couple of days later the postman struggled up the drive to Palmer Towers and presented me with a large parcel.
In the flesh, the Thule is enormous. It has a roll-top and I think that they must roll it down to the max before measuring it for the listings. It thus failed at the first hurdle since it would only conceivably be carry-on for Brobdignag Airways (Club class). Built like a tank, it weighed a ton empty, and whilst it could certainly swallow all my hand baggage and more it was just too unwieldy and over-engineered for my needs. If I had been contemplating a hike through downtown Kabul or somewhere in which to hide to escape the fallout from a nuclear weapon it would have been just the job, but back it went.
Back to the drawing board. My second attempt saw me taking delivery of a Samsonite Universal DSLR Digital Camera backpack. Again, note the “DSLR” in the title and the laptop carrying capability in the description. By this point I was piling compromise on compromise and still not coming up with something that could do the job. The Samsonite was light, robust, well made—and quite impractical for my purposes. I could have filled the photo compartment with a large DSLR and a couple of Bazooka-sized lenses but the top compartment would take no more than a boarding pass, a small apricot, a sock and a half-sucked Werther’s Original.
At this point I gave up trying to get a new bag prior to my next trip—a week in Madeira—and took the old Amazon bag with the F5-XB inside. Upon my return I had another go. Having had plenty of time to think while away, I adopted a different procurement strategy, which took me to where I am today. I abandoned all hope of trying to get a dedicated photo backpack that met my needs and instead reset my parameters and looked further afield at backpacks and rucksacks that could be adapted to my use.
Best of British
The result is what I can best describe as a hybrid solution which like all such approaches is tailored to my needs but is not available “off the shelf”. It involves some of the best of British manufacturers, Billingham and Millican, a lesser known one—Ohyo—and the American Domke.
The main component is the Dave rucksack from Millican. This is a 28-litre backpack with a number of useful features; a main compartment that can be accessed from the side and from the top, a plethora of sensibly sized external pockets, straps to secure a tripod, walking pole, monopod or umbrella and even it’s own rain cover. It’s made of lightweight weatherproof canvas and critically has sensible and adjustable shoulder straps even for someone who is five-foot fifteen inches in thick socks. I snagged mine in Farlows, in London’s Pall Mall; the sort of huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ shop that is all too rare these days, and a pleasure to shop in.
The Dave is named after a local farmer (apparently) and is built to last. I went for the khaki variety, since most of my intended use will be in warmer climes (that is, anywhere other than Blighty…) and it suits me better. What it is not, however, is a camera bag any more than I am a ballet dancer. The large internal compartment is entirely devoid of dividers or the wherewithal to attach them. To be fair, Millican not only do dedicated camera bags, and inserts but produce them in concert with Fuji and with their products in mind. Two things count against them, however. Firstly they do not hold a lot; the large will take an X-Pro with three small lenses (one attached) and the small is just about big enough for an X10/20/30 or an X100/S/T—too small for my overall needs. Secondly they seem not to do the inserts on their own any more—at least, the link on their website is broken.
This is where Messrs. Billingham come in. I am a happy user of a Hadley Pro and a long-discontinued “MB” briefcase, but most of all I am a fan of the Hadley inserts. I have a couple of both the Hadley Pro and Hadley Small inserts which I regularly transfer from bag to bag. They can be used, for example, to furnish a businesslike leather briefcase or a cheap and inconspicuous market-bought messenger bag. It’s handy to have different rigs in different inserts, so that I can quickly and easily choose what I want for a particular day or a particular shooting objective. The pictures hopefully speak for themselves, but to explain, I can carry:
- Two Hadley Small inserts, upright, plus the Domke F5-XB
- A Hadley Small insert, upright, a Hadley Pro insert on end, plus the Domke F5-XB
…and various permutations thereto.
Bear in mind that this means I can carry up to three camera bodies (four if you include the diminutive GR) and a plethora of lenses PLUS all the other bits and pieces I want to take as hand baggage on a trip.
To make that real, the configurations I have just shown will take (deep breath):
Fuji X-Pro2, Fuji X-E2, 14, 27, 35, 60, 90, 18-135mm, Zeiss 50mm lenses, Fuji X100T, WCL & TCLX100 converters, spare batteries, chargers, cables, memory cards, straps, tabletop tripod, monopod, small flash and off-camera cable.
And still leave room for:
Light jacket or kagoule, folding umbrella, shemagh¹, tablet or Kindle, battery pack, folding keyboard, ‘phone, hat, passport, papers, pens, notebook, guidebook, medication, keys and a packet of Polos. (Ed: The mind boggles)
Fair to say I have also used the Dave as an overnight bag for a short business trip. It fits perfectly well in an overhead locker, carries a laptop along with a change of clothes (rolling, I would suggest, is the best way to pack such things) and of course my trusty little Domke in the top.
Remember, that’s all for travelling; just carrying stuff safely from A to B. When I actually reach my destination I unload, and break down the components based on what I want to carry on the day, and how, with the rest going into the safety deposit box. With my load thus lightened I can go out and about with the little Domke and its contents; if I want or need I can also of course take the Dave itself out and about, with just one of the inserts. The Hadley Pro insert is good for this, since it fits vertically and can thus be easily accessed from the side opening. I could even put a beach towel in there and the Domke or Hadley Small insert on top. The possibilities are endless.
All well and good. However, there are many places where a backpack of any sort is a liability or even not welcome. This is where the canvas Ohyo bag comes in. Designed by Felix Conran, it is a very clever combination of small tablet bag, messenger bag, tote bag and even daypack all in one. This video explains it better than I can:
It is sufficiently compact that you can either carry it slung across your body to hold your passport and phone or even put it in the Dave or your main case when not needed. These photos show mine with one of the Hadley Small inserts inside. It gets around the objections of museums, art galleries and the like and can even be extended to carry those matching his’n’hers purple floral alpaca wool ponchos you just picked up in the gift shop. At a pinch I can even, by the way, fit my Hadley Pro into the Dave; I’m not sure I would want to, but it highlights the flexibility of this approach.
So there you are. The beauty of this Dave-based setup is that it is very, very flexible. The configurations I show and describe here are just examples based upon my own needs and experience, and on what I already had in my possession; yours will vary but the principle’s the thing. My “BilliMilli” Frankenbag and the Domke and Ohyo add-ons are light, robust, infinitely flexible and highly configurable to suit your own needs. The whole thing works because all the manufacturers mentioned produce items that are well designed and made. Bringing them together, however, makes them far more valuable and useful than the sum of their parts. The perennial problem of how to safely, securely and comfortably carry your kit can be solved by giving up on the multitude of bags and backpacks that are, theoretically, designed for photographers and assembling your own, instead, based on YOUR kit, YOUR needs and YOUR travels.
- You can find more from Bill Palmer at Lightmancer
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- The shemagh, or keffiyeh is the single most useful travel accessory known to man. I use mine as padding in bags, as a pillow, a wrap, a towel, a ground-sheet and a sunshade I use it to keep the light out so I can doze on a ‘plane or on the beach and sometimes I even wear it as a scarf… ↩︎