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Suffering from Bag Shoulder? Try a Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap for size

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Recently I’ve been suffering from a muscle pain on the left of my neck and over the adjacent shoulder. It will probably disappear in time, as these things do, but it has definitely been exacerbated by carrying a heavy camera bag slung over that particular side.

If I swap the bag to the other side I get temporary relief, but there is no doubt the weight of the bag and the inflexibility of the Billingham canvas strap are to blame. I began to think about shoulder straps and ways in which to make the burden lighter.

It was reader Brian Nicol who set me thinking in his comment on our article on Brady bags as an alternative to good ol’ Billingham.

“It is too bad that Billingham and everyone else, including the custom Ming Thein bag, I purchased cannot figure out how to make a comfortable shoulder strap. I pay big bucks and then have to customize the shoulder strap with my local skilled expert.”

Brian Nicol

Tom to the rescue

After my recent experiences, I can fully understand Brian’s point. But then the name Tom Bihn sprang suddenly to mind. Tom, the Seattle bag guru, has developed what, for me, is the most comfortable shoulder strap ever invented.

The Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap is a stretchy device with a large sticky pad to fit comfortably on any shoulder. I’ve been a Tom Bihn fan for years and have written at length about several of his bags, including the handy Ristretto satchel (my usual day bag), the Empire Builder carry-on and the Synapse backpack (which, remarkably, accommodates a Billingham Hadley Small insert to perfection).

The Empire Builder is a case in point. As an item of carry-on luggage, it can hold a lot, including a large laptop, tablet, several cameras (Oxford comma missing) and lenses (again using the Billingham “bucket” insert) and all the paraphernalia you need when travelling, including cables, adapters, papers, tickets and suchlike. All this means that it can get very heavy to carry and a shoulder strap does help.

Transformation

The Absolute strap is an upgrade, at a reasonable $20, but it transforms the handling of the Empire Builder. I can scurry through airports with this great weight comfortably suspended over my shoulder by the Absolute. The bag bounces slightly, by design, and this tends to relieve the load. I’ve always subconsciously missed it when toting a heavy Billingham, whether Hadley Pro, Small or One.

But suddenly, last night, I had one of those eureka moments. Why not use the Absolute strap on the Billingham bags as well? I’d discounted this idea several years ago because all Billingham bags then had fixed, sewn-in straps. Now, however, most including the popular Hadleys come with a large brass D-ring to which the strap is attached by a leather buckle.

I can’t believe that I haven’t thought of this before: Remove the Billingham strap and clip on the Tom Bihn Absolute stretchy dangler. I have now tried it on the Billingham Hadley Small, Pro and One. And, also on the Thomas briefcase I am currently reviewing. In every instance it works well and definitely makes a difference to the perceived weight and the comfort of carrying and of the bags. I feel I might just have found a permanent solution.

Banana comfort

One advantage of the Absolute strap is that the end fixings, which feature a large and easy-to-operate sprung clip, swivel around by 360 degrees so there is never a danger of the strap getting tangled. The wide padded shoulder section is built in — it doesn’t slide up and down like Billingham’s pads, which is a constant annoyance — and it has a banana-shaped profile to fit more comfortably over the shoulder.

On the other hand, the Absolute comes in one colour only — black. The strap, therefore, looks rather odd with any of the Billinghams other than black. But I’m willing to accept that slight visual dissonance in return for the greater comfort and the floating feeling that you get with the bag suspended on the Absolute.

I am definitely grateful to Brian for prompting my thoughts and I can recommend this simple but effective strap if you are suffering from the inflexibility of the fixed canvas straps that came with your camera bag.

Comfort at a bargain price

If you live in the United States, the Absolute Shoulder Strap is a no-thought buy at $30 (it’s $20 extra if you specify it in place of the standard strap with any Tom Bihn bag). Buyers outside the US could incur extra charges, but I still think the Absolute is worth the cost. It could just transform your relationship with shoulder straps.

Incidentally, Tom Bihn makes a great range of luggage. While he may not be renowned in the Photographic world, his products have achieved cult status in the tech field. I’ve been using several of his products for over ten years and constantly marvel at the thoughtful design and workmanship that goes into anything he tackles. In the photos below you can appreciate the workmanship of the strap. Note how the clip swivels on the end ring so the strap can never get tangled.

Tom pays great attention to the storage of small items, incorporating lots of sleeves and pockets. This is unlike the majority of dedicated camera bags which are poor when it comes to safe accommodation of notebooks, pens and small items. I’ve often thought of suggesting to Tom that he make a proper camera bag with all the inserts and a plethora of pockets.

Another aspect of Tom bags I love is the modular system of accessory pouches, which you can add to your heart’s content, albeit at extra cost. They include wallets, cable pouches, passport holders, pen and pencil organisers and simple zipped pouches in various sizes.

Accessory pouches

Most bags incorporated small D rings sewn into the pockets and main compartments. You then clip your pouches to the D rings, often with an intervening strap for convenience. The pouches and straps come in a range of colours which you can use to identify contents.

Just two examples of Tom’s accessory pouches, a plain pocket and a twin-zip wallet pouch, both in small size. Many colours and sizes are available, as are the straps in various lengths to attach the pouches to any Tom Bihn bag (or to a ring or clip on any bag)

I have relied on these pouches for my travel needs over the past decade and I now know to pull on the red strap (for instance) for my frequent flier and credit cards. I even used them with Billingham bags to hold batteries and spare SD cards (they attach to the main strap D rings with a Tom Bihn extension strap).

I am convinced that they vastly improve both organisation and safety. On one or two occasions I’ve forgotten to slip a wallet or pouch back into the bag. But it is always there, dangling on the end of the retaining strap, refusing to be left behind.

If you are a luggage freak, I recommend a visit to the Tom Bihn website. You will not come away without filling at least one cart. And if you own camera bags with D-ring strap connectors you should surely stump up $30 for an Absolute Shoulder Strap. If you own one or buy one, let us all know what you think.


Visit Tom Bihn’s webshop here

More about Tom Bihn bags from the Macfilos archives:

Review of Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack

Review of Tom Bihn Ristretto Mark II

Review of Tom Bihn Empire Builder briefcase

More on the Absolute Shoulder Strap

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thinking of ‘springy’ straps reminds me that Leica and others made an optional strap based on Neoprene which does all you claim, if not so elegantly. Bought for my M6 TTL, it has since seen service on M8, M9 and MP 240.

    Another cause of neck pain is unavoidable arthritis, as we age. I recently found a brilliant night time remedy called – a pillow. Not just an ordinary pillow but one with skillfully shaped memory foam. No longer do I wake up in the mornings with aching neck and shoulders.

  2. Hi Mike, I hope this helps you out.

    I used the Op/tech USA S.O.S strap available from B&H photo for $25.95 US. It is made out of neoprene as well and has hooks for attaching. The strap is 1.5 inches wide so spreads the load nicely on my shoulder and puts no pressure on my neck. It is designed for a load of 30 pounds and is also useful for luggage and other cases. They come in a variety of colours

    They make all kinds of straps and sizes and they stretch making things feel far lighter. Back when I used big DSLR cameras I used their straps but I now prefer rock and roll straps as they are more compact but stretch less but are adequately comfortable.
    I had a professional cut my Billingham straps off and do a beautiful job of installing metal loops for the strap hooks. I am now a happy camper.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Brian. I am aware of this problem. Some like it, others don’t. There is a technical reason which is to do with the template used for the blog. For images there are two main options: normal “image” or “gallery” (which may consist of one or more grouped images. There is then the Lightbox option which allows and image to be enlarged. Images have the caption below the frame, galleries have the caption as text over image for obvious reasons.

      Up to a few months ago it was possible to use the lightbox effect in single images but this has now disappeared. Only gallery images can be linked to to then Lightbox.

      So it’s now a choice between images and separate captions but no enlargement or gallery images with enlargement but integral captions. Something of a dilemma and I am hoping the theme designers can do something about it.

    • Brian, there is another very good reason why embedded copyright information should appear when images are available globally. Too many people believe that any picture published on the Internet is freely available for anyone to use how they like without attribution or appropriate repro fees being paid. That is why I rarely publish pictures of any commercial value on the web.

      Regarding captions, as an author, I find it infuriating when captions are printed away from the relevant pictures. It makes reading less comprehensible and very frustrating. I would only support your preference if captions remained colocated with the relevant images. Failing that, captions should be embedded with their respective pictures.

      • Captions are always attached to the pictures, either below (in the case or single images) or superimposed (in the case of single or multiple gallery images). I much prefer this to referencing the images within the text of the article in case I decide to more the blocks around.

  3. I can confirm that the Optech straps do indeed work as Brian says.

    I like natural materials, rather than man made, so it is the kind of strap that I would not normally buy. However, I have a Fujica GL690, ehich though light by some MF cameras, is still no trifle. On account of the peculiar strap mountings, the only strap that is available is the Optech.

    And it is a model of functionality, as the camera bounces along with gay abandon.

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