Review: Backpack Alternatives

Bags we love; One size doesn't fit all

By Curtis Joe Walker

There are many ways to securely and fashionably carry a camera and have fast access to both camera and accessories. Sling bags are arguably the all-round best for this purpose. Backpacks can be cumbersome and sweat inducing, wheelie bags can be bulky and unwieldy, and fanny packs just don't sit well with some folks. Let’s look at five sling bags we particularly like, in various situations and with various amounts of gear.


©Curtis Joe Walker

From left: Tamrac Velocity 8x, Lowepro Slingshot 350 AW, Crumpler Brazillion Dollar Home, Kata 3N1-20, Boda Dry

Kata 3N1-20
This bag is the best thought out, most versatile backpack/sling hybrid bag on the market. Use it as a sling, reconfigure the straps to turn it into a standard backpack, or take advantage of the secure-fitting X-position to distribute the weight like a backpack and have the quick access of a sling bag. To configure the X-position, put on the bag like a sling, then cross the other strap over your other shoulder, so the straps form an X on your chest. Simply unhook the crossover strap to swing the bag to the front for access to the most important items. Large, stylish buckles securely fasten the flaps over the main compartment. For nearly instant access to your camera, unbuckle the fastener and pull to simultaneously unzip both zippers.

The bag is ambidextrous, with identical pockets and access on both sides of the bag, so lefties and people with injured shoulders can use the side that suits them best, doing some reconfiguration of the interior partitions. Inside, the well-padded bag is bright yellow, making it easy to spot the item you need. Other features include welded metal D-ring attachment points for the straps and a tripod. A separate bright yellow rain cover is included for all-weather functionality. The Kata even comes with an instructional brochure illustrating various configurations, some of which aren't otherwise immediately obvious.

In the main compartment, we fit in one SLR, two hot-shoe flashes, two small lenses and two medium lenses. We stowed memory cards, readers, thumb drives, rain cover and other small accessories in the side compartments and had room to spare. The top compartment held a fold-up light modifier, point-and-shoot camera, notepad, batteries and remote trigger. The entire interior of the bag can be configured into one big space for alternate usage, including accommodating virtually any size lens. That arrangement takes away much of the advantage of a sling style bag, but flexibility is always welcome.

Who it's for: People who need to carry gear for long periods of time, such as location shooters, photojournalists, commuters and enthusiasts. Wearing this bag while riding a bike or motorcycle is trouble free; it simply will not budge once it’s in X-position.

Who it's not for: People with fast telephoto lenses, people who need to carry two SLR bodies at all times.

Kata 3N1-20
Empty weight: 3.5 lbs
Loaded weight as tested: 15 lbs.
Price: $99.95


Boda Dry
The Boda Dry bag begs to be touched—the materials used feel physically rewarding every time you make contact with it. This bag is for lenses rather than cameras, but that doesn't mean it's not versatile. Designed from the ground up with working shooters in mind, the Boda Dry can be used as a shoulder bag or, with the optional hip strap, as a fanny pack. It's got room for two long, fast telephotos or one long lens, a couple of small lenses and a flash or two. The interior compartment is divided in half by a full-length partition, and one side is divided in half by a smaller partition.

There's a plethora of additional pockets as well. A compartment designed to hold business cards sits above a mesh pocket for a water bottle or lens. On the front, a pocketed flap covers a media card pocket, pen holders, battery pocket and a large slot for a notepad or slim accessories. A versatile pocket for items such as cell phones rounds out the list.

We tried using the Boda Dry as a camera bag, but clearly that's not the job it was meant to do. Unlike most bags for photo gear, this one isn't overly rigid. That will be a bonus for some users and a caveat for others. The padding is adequate and the internal partitions keep the bag's shape well enough, yet allow for comfortable pliability.

The construction and materials are top notch. The bottom is rubberized to protect the contents in case you accidentally plop the thing in puddles. Inside, the tabs covering the Velcro on the partitions keeps them from accidentally detaching in normal use. The wide padded straps comfortably distribute the weight of the bag. The accompanying accessories include a microfiber wipe and a business card case.

Who it's for: People who need quick access to lenses and don't need to carry around a lot of accessories—wedding photographers, event shooters, photojournalists, nature shooters, paparazzi. People who have a good camera-toting system will be able to easily integrate this bag.

Who it's not for: People who aren't swapping lenses or using fast telephoto lenses on a regular basis; there are better options for less money.

Boda Dry
Empty weight: 2.8 lbs
Loaded weight as tested: 12 lbs
Price: $195.99


Tamrac Velocity 8x - Model 5768
When a limited selection of gear is all that's needed or when you don't want a bag that screams "photographer," this bag is great. Of our picks, it's the most traditionally styled sling bag. It has a single padded, adjustable shoulder strap and two compartments. The camera compartment has room for the essentials: one SLR, two small lenses, two medium lenses and a flash. It can accommodate lenses up to 8 inches long attached to the camera body, and it holds a surprising amount for its size.

Functionally, the bag works pretty well. The single-pull zipper on the main compartment is adequate, but gives slower access than a double-pull zipper. The straps on either side make attaching accessories easy. We hung a small tripod on one with no problem. The host of Tamrac MAS accessory bags will complement the bag nicely. The bag can slip around if you’re riding a bike, but using the built-in waist strap solves the problem. Swinging the bag around to the front is a handy option when the going gets crowded. The stacked design of the bag hinders access to the items on the bottom, so pack the infrequently used items first.

The accessory pocket is slim, but roomy enough for spare memory cards, batteries, notepad, card reader, remote trigger, cell phone and other small items.

Who it's for: Enthusiasts and people who want to pack the most gear in the smallest space. Event shooters and photojournalists may find the space sufficient for a collection of lenses, a flash and a single body.

Who it's not for: People who use more gear than this bag will hold.

Tamrac Velocity 8x - Model 5768
Empty weight: 2.8 lbs
Loaded weight as tested: 13 lbs
Price: $74.95


Crumpler Brazillion Dollar Home
It's hard not to love a bag that holds virtually everything. This bag, a maker-proclaimed "Mothership," truly has room for it all. A laptop slot accommodates a 17-inch laptop, as long as it’s not much thicker than an inch. The entire interior of the bag is brushed nylon, and the 22 included partitions can be configured in limitless ways. This bag is designed to be a shoulder bag, but the strap is long enough to allow using it as a backpack if necessary.

Due to its sturdy structure, the bag is quite heavy even when empty. Loaded with two pro bodies, lenses, laptop, flashes and accessories, it has the potential to become a real back breaker. Using the hideaway waist strap helps distribute the weight and keep the bag where it belongs, but it isn't meant to be lugged around all day. Think of it as a bag to get you and your gear through an airport. We also picture it as a good bag to get your gear into a press room or wedding venue. Its cam buckle—Crumpler calls it a “Quick Flick”—allows you to adjust the extraordinarily long strap however you like, but it’s a little confusing at first.

The main compartment is covered by a pair of flaps. The first closes with two buckles, and gives you access to all of the accessory compartments and the lid to the main compartment. This rigid lid serves as a workspace for changing lenses, using your laptop or taking notes. It's held closed by Velcro rather than a zipper, which eases access, but at the sacrifice of sand-proofing.

A front compartment contains a colorful though excessive 24-slot memory card organizer. Behind it is a zippered accessory compartment with three mesh pouches for flashes or other slim devices. A pair of larger pockets are a good size for batteries and manuals. Outside, there are attachment points for accessories, and the straps underneath the bag will hold a couple of small light stands or a tripod securely. The included rain cover is a nice touch.

Who it's for: Wedding photographers, trade show journalists, strobists and anyone with more gear than most bags will hold. It's good for photographers who use public transit, too, because it's a lot more commuter friendly than wheelie bags, especially on stairs, in crowded trains or congested walkways.

Who it's not for: People who don't need to carry a laptop, two bodies and a basic hot-shoe lighting kit; they’ll be better served by a smaller, lighter, cheaper bag.

Crumpler Brazillion Dollar Home
Empty weight: 8.5 lbs
Loaded weight as tested: 39 lbs
Price: $280


Lowepro Slingshot 350 AW
This sling bag from Lowepro is the largest and newest entry in its Slingshot line. The AW in the name stands for all weather, and there’s a hideaway rain cover attached to the bottom of the bag. Its size allows for a camera with a large telephoto lens and 15-inch laptop, along with a cadre of medium-sized lenses and accessories.

The primary strap is sturdy and well padded, and the equally well padded hip straps will take the brunt of the weight off your shoulder for longer hauls. A small strap connects the hip strap to the primary strap to keep the pack securely in place. These are great features considering the size of the bag and its capacity for a bundle of gear.

Inside the primary compartment, the attached microfiber cloth can be used to protect and clean DSLR view screens. It's a thoughtful addition. There are five small compartment dividers to chop the interior into eight separate areas, with plenty of room for up to three large lenses, or a mixture of medium and small lenses, along with flashes and other accessories. A memory card organizer with room for up to eight CF cards is attached to the flap. The interior is light gray, which helps you locate lens caps and other loose items.

The accessory compartment is large enough for batteries, spare SLR body, point-and-shoot, memory cards, hot-shoe flash modifiers, and laptop power supply, with room left over for a few more small items. The second accessory pouch on the front has room for pens, notepad, business cards and other slim items. Outside, the bag has four rubberized loops for attaching tripods or small light stands. The well padded laptop pouch is accessible when you sling the bag to the front, and makes for easy access in airport security screenings.

Who it's for: Photojournalists, wedding photographers, travel photographers and anyone with several lenses and a laptop to lug around. When used with all of the straps, the bag fits securely.

Who it's not for: People who don't need to carry this much stuff, and can get by with a smaller, less expensive bag.

Lowepro Slingshot 350 AW
Empty weight: 4.8 lbs.
Loaded weight as tested: 25 lbs.
Price: $179.99

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Comments (5)

What about bags for travelers that need the bag to not look like a camera bag, and also carry some clothes. Ideally this bag would carry 2 pro bodies and have room for 3 tele lenses, plus a laptop - and accessories...

Todd--It's not mentioned here (probably because it is an older design) but the LowePro Stealth is designed to do what you want. I've used mine all over the world when I'm travelling without a long lens (it'll fit my 70-200, but not a 200-400 or 600).

It will (just) fit 2 pro bodies + 3 lenses, a laptop and some clothes or other stuff.

It looks like a large "bullet-shaped" backpack, so it kind of fits your criteria of not looking like a camera bag.

Regards--David

That's weird. My comment to Todd showed up with his name on it.

Regards--David Cardinal

Leslie Allen:

The problem with slingbags is, they were designed by men for men. Why don't they take the female anatomy into consideration when designing these things? I've tried many, and the strap always falls in an inappropriate place.

CJW:

Todd: I think that when you get into carrying clothes, something like a wheeled bag starts making more sense than a sling style bag or backpack.

David: We chose the LowePro Slingshot because it was conveniently introduced during the early stages of the story, and it fit perfectly with the scope of the piece. It was tough to narrow our focus to a single bag from their extensive line.

Leslie: As a male, I can only slightly relate to your concerns in regards to the positioning of sling straps. Depending on one's frame, the Kata bag seems like it would work well with its slim straps. When put into 'X-position' it may draw even more attention to the anatomy in question though.

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