Camera bags feel like a constantly revolving door in my house. Over the years, I’ve been through many more camera bags than I ever intended. And it’s something that happens to everyone — as the amount of gear you have changed, you’ll always find yourself in need of more space or different features.
So, what kind of bag do you actually need? That’s a question that nobody can really answer completely. But I can give you some clues where to start looking based on my own experience.
In the end, I’ve been able to whittle down my camera bag collection to just 1 bag. Even if I’m not carrying it fully, my camera gear is always inside that one. It’s just such a perfect bag for everything that I’m never without it. So here are the top 10 features that are needed in a camera bag that you’ll use to hike or travel with.
Most tripods are too big to fit in your camera bag. If you don’t have space to hold your tripod on your bag, you’ll have to carry it up the side of the mountain by hand. And while that might take a bit of weight off the bag, you’ll very quickly get tired of it. Most camera bags have a strap off the left or right-hand side that’ll hold your tripod for you.
Whether it’s a waterproof shell that you can put on, or waterproof zippers and casing, having a form of waterproofing on the bag will be helpful if you ever get caught in a storm in the backcountry. Especially out in the mountains, storms can come on quickly and more powerful than in towns and cities. So unless you want to carry home a bunch of wet bricks, get a camera bag that can withstand some weather.
You’ll need to rehydrate on long hikes, and storing a water bottle inside a bag is just asking for it to leak all over your expensive gear. Don’t let that happen.
Your camera gear is going to change all the time, and you need a bag that can adapt to those changes so it doesn’t end up collecting dust. Many bags have padding and foam separators that can be adjusted with velcro to fit your camera gear. These bags are incredibly versatile, and ensure gear isn’t banging into each other each time you take a step.
If you’re traveling, one of the worst things you can do is announce from afar that you have $10,000 worth of camera gear in your backpack. Find a camera bag that looks as normal as possible. Lowepro has made a number of bags recently that look fairly normal, or have zippers on the backside so that they can’t be opened while strapped to you.
If you’re using professional gear, you’re going to need an ergonomic bag that’s meant for long hauls. That’ll mean having a strap around the waist to help take some of the stress off your shoulders and lower back. You won’t notice it as much at first, but halfway up a hike, not having that strap will become very apparent.
There are plenty of bags that come with a chest strap. And while that helps, they’re not as useful as the ones that go around your waist. The problem is that the bag won’t be distributing the weight onto your hips, where it’ll have the most support and power to get through a hike.
If you’re carrying lighter equipment, it may not be a problem to use a bag with chest straps. But as soon as you throw in a tripod, and a heavy lens like a 70-200mm f/4, you’ll start to notice the difference.
If you’re hiking with camera gear, you won’t be able to carry another bag. So you’ll need a bag with at least one extra pocket on the top to carry snacks, a rain shell, extra clothing, and a first aid kit.
Without an extra, non-camera-related pocket, these extras will have to fight with your camera gear for space in the bag, and no matter which side wins, you’ll lose something. Whether that’s an extra lens or a first aid kit, you’ll feel that loss at one point or another.
This is the first thing that I look at when purchasing a new bag. I got sick of putting my bag on the wet ground, getting my camera out, and then putting the wet, dirty part of the bag onto my back. Because when you inevitably get back to the car, if you don’t have another layer to change into, that dirty jacket is now pressed up against the seat and just gets everywhere.
All of this can be solved by just getting a bag that opens in the back. That way, you put the front of your bag on the ground first. It doesn’t look as pretty to the hikers behind you, but this is about saving your clothing and car seats. And I think that’s much more important in the long run.
If you’re taking the bag hiking, you’re not going to use this feature. But if you’re like me, who has to bring a laptop for meetings with clients when I’m selling work, or when traveling with camera gear, then you’ll want a laptop holder inside your bag. These are incredibly convenient, and if your laptop isn’t in the bag, they don’t take up any additional space, or add weight.
The laptop pound has made my camera bag so much more user-friendly. It also makes traveling through security at airports a breeze. These laptop pouches make it possible to easily take your laptop out of the bag to go through the scanners.
Having easy-access pockets on the straps can make a bag so much more convenient. I use pockets like this to store my cell phone, hold my sunglasses, and carry a pocket knife. Taking off the bag and digging through it to find these things takes up precious time and energy that I’d rather spend on the hike itself. I know there’s been a few cases where I took the wrong trail because I just didn’t want to dig my phone out of my backpack. It sounds lazy, but when you’re a relentless uphill climb for four hours with 30lbs of gear on your back, you’ll understand.
Think Tank TurnStyle Sling 10V2, $89. A solid bag that can carry a good amount of small equipment, or even a pro camera with two lenses. It’s perfect for carrying a small amount of gear, and the sling style makes it easy to take out your camera without having to put down the bag. The front pouch can also store small accessories or daily needs.
Manfrotto Street Backpack, $154.88. This backpack has the space to do everything you need in a single backpack, including space to store a tripod, laptop, and other goods. Best of all, it doesn’t look like a typical camera bag, so it won’t attract a lot of attention (until you hang a tripod on the side, of course). This bag is great for day trips where you’ll need more than just your camera gear, but this bag won’t be the best for long hikes. Being built by Manfrotto, you know it’s going to be a good, dependable bag long term.
Shimoda Designs Explore 60 backpack, $419.85. This backpack is built to carry the weight on a long walk or hike. This backpack is modular with plenty of padding for your gear. This bag carries more stuff, and with the wide-padded waist strap, it will distribute the load to your waist. The Shimoda Designs bag also has plenty of room for peripherals, including a 13” laptop, and other hiking necessities. The bag also has a nylon shell, making it water-resistant so that your gear doesn’t get wet when it’s caught in a sudden deluge. 60 stands for 60L size, including the expandable top so you can stuff a jacket, snacks, and a first aid kit inside. This bag also fits in the overhead bin in larger airplanes, but won’t fit in the overhead bins of small, propeller-driven planes.
Lowepro Powder: $249. Cheaper alternative. The bag itself is not waterproof, but it comes with a waterproof pack cover and has a back-opening design so that your back doesn’t get wet when you put the bag back on. This bag is lightweight and perfectly suited to longer hikes, with plenty of space for water, food, and some extra clothing.
Getting the right backpack is just one part of every photographer’s journey. But technique matters more than anything else. When you’re ready to learn more about how to plan and take incredible photographs with the camera you already own, come and take my free web class! Here you’ll learn about the four-step system that has helped me take award-winning fine-art landscape photographs. Sign up today!