Through the Gadling Lens: picking a good travel camera bag

This week, I’m going to be traveling again — and I decided that I finally had it with my cheap little roller bag that I’ve been using as a carry-on and carry-all for my camera equipment. To date, every time I’ve gotten on a plane, I have shamefully packed my laptop into a protective sleeve, and tossed into the bottom of this rickety little roller bag. And my camera and lenses? Merely packed carefully at the bottom of the bag, in amongst a ton of pairs of rolled socks.

Yes, you heard me, rolled socks. You know, for padding.

I know. I know.

Anyway, this week, I decided to finally act like a grown-up photographer, splurge and by myself a real travel camera bag. So I thought I’d tell you how I went about it.
Lest you think I’m completely beyond hope, this isn’t my first camera bag. Last year, I bought myself a Crumpler bag, which, actually I love:

For clarification, this bag is the Crumpler Sinking Barge. The reason I’ve been a fan of this bag for so long is because it generally doesn’t look like a camera bag. It also appealed to me because it has a compartment to pack my laptop, in addition to a camera body and a couple of lenses. Plus, I’ll admit that I liked the little dreadlocked dude as a logo.

The thing is, though, that I haven’t used this bag nearly as much as I thought I would. The first reason is because once I’ve loaded it up with my camera, my lenses, my laptop, chargers, and then crammed in my phone, its charger, some a paperback (or my journal), a small makeup bag, my wallet, passport and other documents and say, a tin of roasted almonds into the small space that remains, this thing is heavy. Plus, rarely did all of those other things fit in the small remaining space anyway, requiring me to get a second carry-on bag — and frankly, I resented having to have a second bag when this first bag was so heavy. And so, this bag eventually got left behind in favour of the small rickety roller bag. I use the Crumpler solely for day photo trips in and around town.

So this week, I headed to my favourite local camera store to look for a new bag. An aside: every person should have a favourite local camera store — not a photo lab that happens to sell some stuff, but an actual, honest-to-God camera store, staffed with knowledgeable employees who have actually picked up a camera or two before. In Houston, for the past 15 years, mine has been Houston Camera Exchange. I often visit this store when I have no idea what I want; however, on this particular day, I walked in with a list of requirements:

1. The bag had to be large enough to carry at least one camera body and at least 2 or 3 lenses, as well as my laptop with its power cord.

2. The bag had to be large enough that it could carry my journal and my roasted almonds, in addition to my laptop and other photo-related gear.

3. The bag had to be small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of a plane.

4. The bag had to not look like a camera bag, screaming to passers-by that it was full of expensive camera equipment.

5. The bag had to have roller wheels, so I didn’t get back strain carrying it.

Luckily for me, one of the first people I ran into was Mallory, who apparently has been described at the store as the “Bag Lady.” If there was one thing Mallory knew, it was camera bags. So I asked her to share with me her favourites.

The first bag Mallory showed me was the LowePro Slingshot 200:

A good-looking bag, no doubt, and the coolest part is (as Mallory demonstrates, above), you don’t have to actually take the bag off to take the camera out. This, my friends, is huge, when you’re out in the field — sometimes there’s nothing more annoying than having to get out from under your camera bag to take one fleeting shot. The bag even has a compartment to carry those roasted almonds. And, quite obviously, there’s lots of room for camera bodies and lenses. It even has an all-weather cover in the bottom of the pack, so you can cover it in inclement weather. At around US$ 89.00, this bag has a lot of bang for the buck.

The downside? It looks like a camera bag, to me. Also, it doesn’t have any room for my laptop, or much of anything else, for that matter. So while this is Mallory’s favourite bag (and admittedly, looks like a pretty good daypack), I decided to pass.

The next bag Mallory showed me was the National Geographic NG W5050:

“Dude, National Geographic makes camera bags?” I asked, incredulously. “That’s sort of… brilliant.” Mallory agreed, and I have to admit, I almost fell for this bag. It’s got great room for camera body and lenses, and it doesn’t scream “camera bag.” There’s some room in the top compartment that would definitely hold my journal and my almonds, and there’s a hidden compartment in the back (against your back, if you were wearing it) where a laptop could easily fit. Not only that, it’s kitted to hold a full size tripod, if necessary, as well. And at $150, while not cheap, it also isn’t in the realm of really expensive bags, either.

Thing is, though, I rarely travel with a full size tripod (I have a Gorillapod that does the trick, when necessary). And the problem of the bag being too heavy isn’t really solved by this bag. So we went on.

Next up, the LowePro ComputrekkerAW:

Holy moly, does this thing carry a lot of stuff. Like, a LOT of stuff. And when it’s closed, it doesn’t look any different than any other backpack, which is very, very cool. It has a secret compartment for your laptop, so more bonus points. The bag retails for about US$ 150 — but since this is quite a heavy bag, you might want to upgrade to the rolling version of this bag. But it’ll cost you: the wheels take the price up to US$ 275.

So. This bag, you would think, would pretty much be right up my
alley — except, to be honest, while it appears to hold every type of camera gear I could possibly imagine, I couldn’t imagine it holding much else — like my journal, or makeup bag, or my beloved almonds. So I put this bag on the short list, and kept wandering around the store, until I finally came across …

… the Jill-e rolling camera bag:

People, I had found my bag. It has enough compartments for a camera body and several lenses, as well as for my MacBook laptop, and all associated chargers. There’s enough room above the compartments for me to stash my journal, a few toiletries, and yes, my beloved almonds (not to mention that the room exterior pockets). The bag doesn’t even begin to look like a camera bag — in fact, it just looks like a regular weekender. But the best part? Even though the bag is heavy, it comes with wheels — without compromising the design of the bag. It wasn’t cheap — this bag retails for US$ 289 — but frankly, I was willing to pay the extra money. And while I wouldn’t use this on a day trip, I have smaller bags that I can fold up and pack in my suitcase for quick daytrips. This is a hell of a bag.

So, that’s my Great Camera Bag Adventure. I’d love to hear what bags you use, and if you’d recommend any other makes and models. And of course, as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.