Review: Backpack Camera Cases
By Ron Eggers
Camera case designs range from compact belt packs that are just big enough for one body and one lens to massive hard cases that are big and sturdy enough to ship an entire camera system around the world.
With advantages in capacity, comfort and portability, backpack-style camera bags are currently dominating the market. A backpack is easier and more comfortable to carry than a shoulder or sling bag with similar capacities. It's relatively easy to carry a backpack with a couple of camera bodies, a selection of lenses and whatever other gear might be required for a shoot.
The weight is distributed evenly and, with the right backpack and proper adjustment, the bag frame fits comfortably without straining your back. With the design technology that allows backpackers to carry 60 to 80 pounds of gear for weeks and months at a time, a photographer can go all day with a camera bag backpack without getting unnecessarily tired. Shoulder and sling bags put the load on one shoulder, and an equivalent amount of weight in gear will tire the carrier much more quickly than a backpack.
Many photographers now carry laptops along when they're shooting in the field, and most of the new backpack cases have a laptop compartment with appropriate protective padding. There are a few shoulder bags available that are large enough to carry a laptop, but they're the exception.
But there are also disadvantages to backpack camera cases. Photographers frequently carry backpacks slung over one shoulder. Carried incorrectly, they can cause more aches and pains than shoulder bags, especially since photographers frequently pack them heavier than similar sized sling bags.
Access is less convenient. Gear in shoulder/sling bags is accessible on the go, with many models designed to let you switch and store lenses or reach other gear without having to set the bag down. That's not possible with most backpacks, even if they're just slung over one shoulder. Switching lenses usually means having to take the bag off and set it down on a stable surface or the ground before you can access the contents. There are backpacks designed with workarounds to this issue, like Lowepro's Primus AW and Flipside packs and Tenba's Shootout line, but the solutions are still a bit awkward compared to easy-access shoulder bags.
One thing to consider with backpack camera bags is the carrying frame and strap configuration. Frames are the solid superstructures of backpacks that the straps and carrying compartments are connected to. Chest straps and waist belts are used to distribute the weight of the pack more evenly. Some packs are designed to let you tuck away the straps in a separate compartment.
While heavy-duty traveling backpacks have removable frames, making it possible to disconnect the frame stays and straps from the main pack, most camera backpacks don't. Some larger ones do have frames, or at least metal stays to provide support. Usually they use a flexible superstructure that strenthens the structure but gives to the body's countours.
Rolling backpacks offer an option to have the best of both worlds. They have the advantage of a backpack with the convenience of rolling luggage. Tenba is marketing the Large Rolling Shootout backpack, a roomy 13W x 18H x 7D inches. The case, with its large reconfigurable storage compartment, is the largest and heaviest backpack that I looked at for this review. It has heavy-duty shoulder straps and an extra wide waist belt, and a storage compartment to hide them in.
The black Shootout can accommodate multiple SLR bodies and an assortment of lenses. It comes configured so to store a body mounted with a long telephoto lens, but the interior partitions can be reconfigured. If you don't need it, the entire padded interior unit can be removed from its Velcro attachments. Strong interior aluminum stays keep the unit aligned, even when fully loaded.
The laptop compartment, which will accommodate a 17-inch laptop, is accessible on the top. There are small separate compartments on each side of the pack that can be used to store smaller items. In one side compartment, there's a tethered media wallet for memory cards. In the other, there's a cell phone/music player pouch, also tethered to the main case.
Removing the divider between the small and main compartments makes it possible to access the main compartment from either side. There's enough room to pull out a lens or flash unit, without having to open up the main compartment. By reconfiguring the dividers, you could also make this access into a single lens pocket that you can unzip and access without removing the pack.
The rolling Shootout comes with Tenba's Multi-Stage Tripod Carrying (MSTC) system that provides a range of tripod mounting, positioning and balancing options to fit a wide selection of tripods.
Since it's a roller, it has an extension handle. It's designed with a single extension tube for the handle, which looks good, but isn't as functional as a dual tube handle. With two extension tubes, it's possible to place another case on top of the rolling case and bungee cord it to the two extension tubes. That holds it in place. With a mono-tube, a second bag won't stay in place. The solid in-line skate wheels ensure a stable, quiet roll. It's obvious that a lot of thought went into the design and function of this backpack. It has a suggested retail price of $285.95. (www.tenba.com)
The Mountainsmith Parallax, with spacious configurable interior space, is designed for multiple camera bodies, lenses and accessories. With interior dimensions of 11W x 16H x 8D inches, it can take an SLR body with a long telephoto lens attached. The interior compartments can quickly be reconfigured as needed. The unit's outer padding is in zippered compartments, so it can be replaced if it should happen to get damaged or worn.
The main compartment is accessed from the side of the pack that has the shoulder straps on it, so you have to take the pack off to get at the camera gear inside. If you take your gear through crowded airports, public tansit and urban throngs, this makes it less accessible to potential thieves. The padded interior compartment cover is very comfortable resting on your back. The 16-inch laptop compartment is accessible from the top, without having to open the camera gear section, and contains smaller compartments.
An outer soft-side compartment is suitable for miscellaneous items, such as a light jacket, hat, sunscreen or snacks. A fold-down pouch supports a tripod and quick-release straps secure it to the exterior. Another pouch holds a weatherproof cover that protects the entire pack. Separate straps on the bottom can be used to attach additional gear. Mesh pockets on either side of the main compartment can be used to store accessories. Cinch cords ensure that nothing falls out.
Besides the shoulder straps, there's a waist belt with a small removable case. There are also handles on the top and side of the pack, making it easy to carry upright or like a suitcase. The Parallax costs $169. (www.mountainsmith.com)
Lowepro's new backpack is the Fastpack 350, the largest in the Fastpack line, which is available in black, arctic blue with black and red with black. It's more compact than the other two packs, with a 11W x 10.6H x 6.1D camera compartment interior and 12.4W x 9.6H x 19.3H pack exterior.
The bottom half of the storage area is devoted to camera space while the top is available for anything else. With its extra storage space and its heavily padded back, straps and waste belt, it's a good choice for an excursion that involves photography.
A rain flap protects a small outer compartment and the zippered camera compartment, which opens from one side and the top. The compartment cover has memory card pockets. Camera storage space is limited. There's enough room to stow one body with a short telephoto lens attached, as well as either another body and detached lens or a couple of lenses and a flash unit. The interior Velcro partitions can be reconfigured as needed.
The general storage compartment contains several pockets, as well as a Velcro fastened removable nylon pouch. The laptop compartment, which is underneath the camera and general storage compartments, can hold a 17-inch laptop. It is accessed from the same side as the camera compartment. A cinch-tied mesh pouch on the other side of the unit is suited for smaller miscellaneous items. There is a short loop strap on top, so the bag can be carried that way, but a real handle on top would have worked better. The Fastpack 350 lists for $149.99. (www.lowepro.com)
The Tamrac Expedition 3 Photo Backpack, available in rust or black, has modest interior dimensions at 8W x 11H x 4.625D, which is only about half the size of the other units. While it can't hold a laptop, it has a surprising amount of space inside. It's ideal for photographers who want a compact travel pack, but still want the maximum amount of protection for their camera gear.
The pack will hold an SLR body with a short telephoto lens attached, as well as a couple of additional lenses and accessories. The QuickClip tripod attachment system holds smaller tripods. There's a zippered pocket behind the tripod mount and zippered windowpane mesh pockets on the inside of the camera case cover.
Even though the pack is small, the padded straps are full size so that it sits comfortably on your back. The Expedition 3 has an MSRP of $59.95, though it's available for less online. It is compatible with Tamrac's optional SAS (strap accessory system) and MAS (modular accessory system) products that extend the functionality of the pack. This is one case where carrying it with one strap over the shoulder, for quick access, would work. (www.tamrac.com)
You generally don't think of needing documentation for a camera bag, but it is helpful. All the bags covered have cards attached that cover their features, but only the Tenba came with an instructional booklet. That was really helpful in getting the most out of the bag. For example, I probably wouldn't have figured out that the dividers between the small side compartments and the main compartments were removable without the documentation. They looked like they were sewn in. It would be good idea if the other companies did the same thing. Lowepro and Tenba offer helpful product demo videos on their Web site.
Almost every photographer has a selection of camera bags and cases. And almost all photographers have their favorite case. What works well for one photographer might not work at all for another. It's a matter of personal preferences. That's particularly the case with backpack camera bags.