Kata R-103 shown with camera equipment
Put together a group of professional photographers and assuming they don’t all work exclusively in the studio, I can pretty much guarantee they will all have fairly strong opinions about their choice of camera bags.
Every photographer looks for something different in a camera bag, depending on their individual requirements, so perhaps that’s why most can only agree that there is no one single perfect bag. Different jobs require differing amounts of equipment, so from that perspective, the easiest time of my life was during my last couple of years in Milan, when I worked almost exclusively with my Hasselblad kit.
At the time I always rented studios that had lighting in place, so I was able to fit all of my equipment in a sturdy Tenba shoulder bag and weave my way through the busy traffic on a motorcycle.
In those days I tended to take the same basic kit on location shoots as well, so that one bag was all I needed 95% of the time and I was able to work quite happily, whether on a beach in South Africa shooting nudes or at a studio in Milan doing a beauty editorial. I still have that Tenba today with no signs of any wear and tear at all. They are extremely well made and well worth checking out.
My current bag of choice for most purposes is a Kata R-103, which is very well made just like the Tenba, but I prefer some of the features, such as the bright yellow interior that makes it so much easier to view black equipment in dark conditions compared to other makers who choose to make their interiors dark grey or black like the image below.
For me it’s very important that the bag falls within the right measurements to be allowed as carry on luggage when flying and that is no problem with this Kata, whereas I always had to plead with the Tenba, which is technically too big and should be stored in the main baggage area. Believe me, you really don’t want to risk that when you have a paid assignment…
The only negative I find with rucksack designs is that they are not quite so easy to work from when on location because you have to put them down on the ground and open them fully to access any equipment. This can not only slow you down but obviously it’s more likely to become dirty.
N.B if you do decide to opt for a rucksack type camera bag it’s important to make sure that the design is suitable for carrying over long distances particularly if you’re carrying a heavy load. Look for well padded properly adjustable shoulder straps and these should feel very comfortable. Also look for a good chest strap, which holds the shoulder straps in place; greatly improving comfort and safety.
Finally with the bigger rucksack bags it’s definitely an advantage if you also have a comfortable belt included that goes around your waist to help support the weight properly. On the Kata bag I have shown at the top this also comes with an optional attachment for added space that clips onto the bottom of the main rucksack and then adds the belt part. I rarely need this but I’m glad I have it. See picture below:
Regardless of which bag you choose, there are a few key points that you need to consider:
1) Any bag should be waterproof enough to withstand a heavy downpour for several hours and still keep the equipment perfectly dry. The weak point in most bags will be along the edges where you have stitching or zips. Since most cameras don’t appreciate being left wet for a couple of hours this is a primary consideration for me.
2) While it’s good to have a bag that is light, ultimately it’s main requirement is to protect your equipment, so I always look for bags with serious padding and tough, resistant materials that will really protect my gear properly.
The vibrations caused while travelling or worse still, seeing a bag slip off a rock or even a baggage shelf in a train can easily damage equipment unless you have some strong protective padding and I don’t see the sense in spending thousands on equipment, but relying on a thinly protected bag. That is why I have personally never liked Lowepro.
3) Personally I prefer it if a bag doesn’t immediately look like a camera bag, so you can walk through busy areas without attracting too much attention. Those bags from Billingham with the brass and leather just seem to scream “steal me!”. Crumpler are very good in this respect because they make bags that look much more generic and not necessarily carrying an expensive array of equipment.
4) It should go without saying but any camera bag should be comfortable to carry. When you are choosing a bag, it’s a good idea to take your equipment to the shop and see how it feels with the full weight and then think very carefully how you would manage if you were carrying it for a few miles whether over rough ground or even in a crowded city. That is why is now tend to favour rucksack designs most of the time.
N.B If it’s too heavy with all your equipment ask yourself if you really need all that equipment. For most shoots these days photographing nudes or glamour I can get by with very little equipment and one good zoom like the 24-105L can substitute several prime lenses.
5) Think carefully about the size and exactly what you need the bag for. Also consider whether you are likely to buy other equipment at some point in the future and whether that bag will still be big enough. On the flip side though, having a bag that is huge and unwieldy is a pain in the neck as I found with a CCS bag I have that sits nicely round my side, but becomes very wide when packed with equipment, making movement through crowds just about impossible despite its tag a bag for photojournalists.
6) These days with digital cameras we tend to have lots of accessories, such as flash cards, readers and batteries, so look for a solution that has appropriate areas for these items. It’s easy to spot older bags that were conceived before digital became standard because they generally lack these kinds of tailor made spaces.
Ultimately no bag is perfect for every situation and that is why most professional photographers own at least a few, but bear these key points in mind when choosing a bag and you should make a good choice.
Finally make a point of always packing your equipment carefully and never race away from a location without fully checking that you have everything in place. For this reason I like to store equipment in the same spaces and find it quicker that way to count everything in at the end of the shoot. You definitely don’t want to arrive at a shoot with a nude model, make up artist and assistants only to find you are missing equipment or something has broken in transit.