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He Ain't Heavy, He's My Camera Bag

It's hard to carry much camera gear without a camera bag to hold it all. But that doesn't mean we have to like lugging one around.

Way back when, my very first camera bag was a modest LowePro affair that slung over my shoulder, handily holding my camera and a couple of lenses. When I upgraded one of those lenses to a slightly longer focal length, I found that it would only barely fit in that modest bag. If I stretched the fabric just right I could still close the zipper all the way, but it wasn't easy. Once I bought a third lens, that bag was beyond the breaking point. I needed a new one.

I decided I wanted a bag that I wouldn't outgrow as quickly as my first one. This one was a Tamrac and was still held by a single shoulder strap, but it held roughly three times the volume if you counted the pocket on the front and the two on either end. I was set. Or so I thought. Despite my well laid plans, it was only a matter of time, and not much at that, before I was straining the seams of that bag as well. And since I was carrying more gear, I was carrying more weight. As such, my shoulder was straining too. Try as I might to shift the load from one shoulder to the other periodically as I walked along the trail, all that succeeded in doing was to make both shoulders, and across my back, sore.

And so I switched to a backpack style camera bag. This one was another LowePro, and again bigger than the bag that came before it. The theory this time though was that it would be easier to carry since it was designed like a backpack. And I knew from experience that a well-fitting backpack could make a heavy load seem much lighter than it really was. If it worked for carrying a tent, cooking gear and so on, it should work for camera gear too.

Reality bore out that theory fairly well, but now I had a new problem. There was basically no way to access my camera anymore without stopping to take the pack off. My older shoulder bags could be swung around to my side for travel, or towards my front for easy access. That luxury was now gone. Often, when I stop to take a picture though, I take a lot more than one, so taking the pack off made reasonable sense. I could lay it on the ground, unzip it, and thereby have everything inside at my fingertips. If the ground were wet, it did make for a wet bag to put on my back when it was time to move on, but I wasn't going melt from a little water. I wouldn't be much of an outdoor photographer if I had an aversion to getting a little wet.

These days, I easily have enough gear that I couldn't possibly carry it all with me on the trail. Oh, they do make even bigger camera backpacks, but I decided I have to draw the line somewhere. It's interesting to observe that camera gear tends to be denser than traditional backpacking gear. Loaded up, the same sized pack ended up quite a bit heavier when filled with camera gear than with a sleeping back and tent. My camera backpack can top out at a good forty pounds when fully loaded. Carrying any more than this simply wouldn't be fun anymore.

One consequence of camera gear being both somewhat fragile and more than somewhat dense is that care has to be taken not to damage it. Camera bag manufacturers know this too of course. That's why most bags come with abundant numbers of padded inserts. In my experience though, most of these Velcro tabbed foam inserts are simply too much padding. Unless you plan to toss your camera bag around or entrust it to airline baggage handlers for them to toss around, a prudent attention to value of what you're carrying in your bag tends to lead to it being set down gently enough to only need modest internal padding. One of the first things I do when I get a new camera bag is to remove about half of the padded inserts it came with. Most modern autofocus zooms are 77mm thread size, larger in diameter than the spacing between dividers in most new bags. It also seems a shame to take up so much of that valuable cargo space with nothing more than foam rubber. I judiciously remove as many inserts as I think I can get away with, doing away completely with some, and substituting others with thick terrycloth washcloths. Yes, I'm the reason they made black towels and washcloths. Trendier colors would seem out of place when used as camera bag dividers.

These days, I also have quite a few camera bags. I've found that no one bag fits my needs in every circumstance. I still use at least the larger of my early shoulder bags for day outings where I know my shooting needs will be limited. I also bought a somewhat smaller LowePro backpack bag for situations that seemed in between that shoulder bag and my bigger backpack. Eventually, that initial backpack wore out sufficiently that I bought a new one to replace it, even though I do still load the older one in the car to accommodate overflow gear. I've also bought other bags too in my quest for the best fit for specific needs. For example, I have a large waist bag with a padded hip belt that holds more, and more comfortably, than a shoulder strap bag would. This lets me shoot on the beach without setting my backpack on the wet sand or in a tide pool (there are limits to how wet I'm willing to accept). It also means I don't have to worry about a shoulder bag suddenly swinging around my body and dipping into the surf if I bend over in just the wrong way. Indeed, I have a whole pile of camera bags upstairs I can choose from as needed. I've parted ways with very few of the bags added to my collection over the years.

Call me a pack rat.

Date posted: September 27, 2015


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