Getting new gear is one of the awesome parts of being a photographer. I love getting a sexy new lens or better/faster/smaller gadgets to play with. Finding a bag to put all your fun stuff in is one of the non-sexy, yet very essential, parts of gear acquisition. But, what should you look for in a camera bag?
Here's what to look for when choosing a camera bag, no matter the size or purpose.
The first thing I look for is a bag that doesn’t necessarily look like a camera bag. If I’m going to pack several thousands of dollars worth of gear and take it to another country, or downtown DC, or leave it in my car, I don’t want to become a target for theft.
The very last thing I want is a bag with a giant Canon or Nikon logo. I’d rather have a plain black bag that looks just like a briefcase, a gym bag or a suitcase — something that could be holding paper or tennis shoes. No logos, no flashy patterns, or shiny metal pieces, just a plain looking bag. If it’s a little beat up, dirty or with gaffer tape stuck to it… even better!
Next, I’ll look for a bag that weighs next to nothing. My camera equipment is heavy enough. I don’t need a bag to add to the weight of gear already breaking my back. Leather bags look cool but just weigh too much to use very often. Canvas bags are a little better, but some are almost as heavy as leather. Nylon bags are my favorite, as they are light, durable and pretty weather proof.
I love having a ton of pockets for stuff. I think that pockets will depend on your organizational style, but for me, I like keeping everything separated. Batteries, memory cards, gels, lens tissue, wireless triggers, cables, filters—everything has a place and I know how to get to it quickly. I like having some pockets with zippers for small or fragile items and some without zippers for items I use frequently, like batteries.
For the big items, like camera bodies, lenses and flash units, it’s nice to have those Velcro panels that allow you to adjust the layout of your bag. I can adjust the inside of my shoulder bag depending on the gear I bring. For one shoot, I might bring one camera body, a 24-70mm lens, a 70-200mm lens, and a flash. I can adjust the panels to hold this gear in place perfectly. For another shoot I might have gear that is sized differently, like two camera bodies, and three prime lenses. In this case I will move the panels to that each piece is protected. The removable panels also let you continue using your bag as you upgrade your collection of gear.
Easy to get in and out of, big zippers
The bag has to be easy to get gear in and out of it quickly. I certainly don’t want to miss a great moment because the zipper is hard to open or there are clasps that take 30 seconds to open. Speaking of zippers, get the big ones. The small ones always seem to jam up at the worst times. Also, test getting in to the bag while you are wearing it. If it is a shoulder bag or backpack you may be wearing it while you are getting in and out of it. Make sure it is comfortable to do so. A bag that is difficult to open while you have it on will prevent you from taking photos.
I would rather spend $300 on a durable bag than $50 every year to replace a broken bag. Spend the money — it’s worth it. Your bag will be thrown around, dragged on the ground, used as a sandbag, and sat out in the sun for hours. Good bags can take this beating and last for years. I have three ThinkTank bags of different sizes (pictured above) that have all been useful and durable for many years. I’d recommend starting your bag search with them.