Mo Gear Mo Problems – The Camera Bag

Mo Gear Mo Problems – The Camera Bag

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Whether you just bought your first SLR camera or your fifth, there’s no denying the fact that most of us photographers are gearheads one way or another. Some of you might be looking for a bag to lug around your first big boy camera, some are running out of space for additional lenses you are adding to the never-ending collection, and some have more specific needs in a bag. Let’s take some time and go over some things I’d recommend you consider when shopping for a new bag. I can remember back when my gear grew and/or changed in size. I made a couple bag purchases and quickly outgrew them or they simply lost their purpose in life for me. Let’s breakdown some of the basics when considering that new camera bag and some of the problems that can arise unexpectedly quick, leaving you with a bag only 6 months old, yet worthless.

I think that the people this post will help most are those who have recently bought their first DSLR, who probably have a kit lens and maybe one more lens (most likely a mid-quality longer zoom). So you are juggling two lenses, you are going on some adventures and want to have them both with you, yet you want to pack/protect your investment. Others might have been in the game for awhile and you’ve caught a serious gear bug, and you have a lens/accessory infestation. There are bags for you and your “issue,” and we’ll cover that as well (I fall into this category). Some of you may choose to have multiple bags, one big guy that fits all your gear, and another smaller bag for your wandering adventures.


Pretty straightforward, but something we should still cover, after all, you are buying a bag to both wrangle all of your equipment, yet protect it from all the packing’ and bumps along the way. It’s always good advice to be in-person to touch, feel, and get an idea of what various bags offer in terms of protection for your first good bag purchase. Once you’ve bought a bag or two, a detailed set of images of a certain bag while shopping online can give you all the info you need coupled with existing bag buying experience. Will you just be taking short trips around town, going on a lot of airplane flights, or maybe facing wet/nasty weather? Answering these questions will determine the outer shell of the bag, which will prevent water getting in, or getting crushed in an over-head storage bin, etc. Hard shell, soft, and/or waterproof. Next step are the padding inside the bag. It’s important that all inside walls of the bag have plenty of firm cushioning, as well as the dividing compartment walls. This will prevent shock damage from dropping a bag, a rough car ride, etc., and keep your various pieces of equipment from knocking into each other. Camera bodies, lenses, and other accessories should fit snug, velcro’d in, or zipped-up to prevent further chaos in your bag while on the move. For these reasons, I wouldn’t try and convince yourself that your old school book bag will do the job. You’ll want plenty of cushion and a good fit.

Size and Compartment Versatility

While both size and versatility could be two different categories, they are closely related due to the fact that most bags are very adjustable. You usually have the liberty of moving all of the separating dividers inside the bag to fit your specific needs for varying camera and lens sizes. I have yet to buy a bag that I didn’t completely rearrange the velcro operated dividers right off the bat. Size of the bag usually directly relates to the complexity of the compartments and the number of combinations you can arrange all of the dividers. Smaller bags have only a couple ways of arrangement possibilities, while larger bags can be a puzzle. Compartment versatility usually isn’t an issue, since most are totally flexible, so it’s usually the sheer storage volume you should concern yourself with. Gear can be arranged to fit width-wise, height-wise, or length, so think three-dimensionally. Sure, you can lay your lenses on their sides, but can you get more efficient with space if the lenses stood-up? Lots of combos with bags, so look at the bags height, length, and width.

Bag size and space is all relative. Do you have a small entry level DSLR and a few of the smaller low-to-mid-grade lenses? You can probably stuff all of those into a fairly small bag (like the one pictured below). That same bag would only hold a single larger camera body with a pro lens on it (see below as well). Once you start upgrading to larger camera bodies and lenses, that space disappears faster than you can say “crap, I bought the wrong bag.” (which is what we are trying to avoid).

A shoulder strap, mid-sized bag. My first bag, and still handy for some occasions. Plenty of pockets for all your misc. accessories. One large, easy access flap to get your hands quickly on any gear. It also has straps to attach a tripod.

It is perfect for a single camera body and a couple small to mid-sized lenses, even room for a couple hot shoes. Pictured here with 3 lenses fitting snuggly (a 50mm on body).

As you can see, this same bag can only hold on large camera body and pro series lens. I squeaked-in a hot shoe as well.

Foresight, especially in the “space” category, is your friend. Are you lusting for that bigger, faster, pro series lens? Chances are if you have any disposable income whatsoever, you’ll find some way to justify the purchase, and you’ll have a 3 lb., foot-long lens now fighting for space in your bag before you know it (along with a big smile on your face). So, let’s plan ahead a little bit. I know, it’s not cool to buy a bag which is holding all of your equipment and it’s only half full, it’s like a dare to make you go buy more. Truth be told, I don’t know many lovers of photography who only stopped at one or two lenses. This is where I give you the “I told you so” line. If you are really diggin’ photography, and it’s in your definite future, buy a bag that will grow with your collection/addiction. So light-shooting hobbyists – a small to mid-sized bag will suit you fine. The gear freaks, go big, something that can hold 3-5 pro lenses and a couple bodies (if you like to take all of your gear on shoots). All legit bags, no matter the size, should come with a set of pockets to tuck your memory cards and batteries in. It’s the volume and compartment arrangements that should be the focus.

Size is great but it can work against you. For example, my large, gotta-have-everything-on-me bag is JUST small enough to squeeze into an overhead storage bin on a plane. In fact, if a particular flight staff wanted to be jerks, they could easily force me to check it (and that would be an “um, hell no!”). Some bag manufacturers will praise their models for being ideal for flight travel and things alike, so that’s always a bonus if you are shaky on it’s limit of travel adaptation, so read item descriptions.

Weight and Comfort

Obviously bag weight will directly translate to the length of time it’s comfortable to pack. The way the bag straps onto you will determine a proper weight/comfort level as well (whether that be a single shoulder, a backpack style, or even a cross-chest sling). My large bag… it’s 60 lbs when loaded up (it actually has seatbelt material for the strap, pictured below.), not going to be going on any long walks with that bad boy. It’s designed for short walks to and from the car at a shoot location. I have smaller bags for this reason, ones I can take on hikes and not feel like I have a hippo hanging off my shoulder. Look for bags that have nice, big shoulder straps/pads. It’ll help distribute the weight of the bag across a larger area over your shoulder/back, and help against the feeling of straps cutting into you. Even a 5 pound gear bag will start to wear on you if the straps suck.

My fit-everything-bag. Big, heavy, and a pain in the ass to pack around, but I know that I have everything with me. Oh, the lens case you see zip-tied to the top handle holds all of my lens hoods. Ugly but functional. This BARELY fits on an airplane.

It not only has width and length, it has depth, so there are actually layers of equipment in the bag. I have arranged the compartments so that it holds two camera bodies (with lenses attached), 3 hot shoes, and 9 big lenses. It has a TON of pockets for all the little things, even a dedicated pocket to hold a laptop. IF I loaded this thing to full capacity, it’d weigh 80+ lbs.

Active Access to Bag

By this I mean if you are wearing the bag, do you have to take it all the way off, set on the ground, and unpack a bunch of stuff to do a lens change? When I do walk-around shoots, I usually just carry my camera in my hands since shots are pretty frequently (and keep spare lenses in the bag), but if you are only taking shots every 15 mins or whatever, you might wanna keep bagging and unbagging your gear. Maybe there is bad weather or you are in a muddy place where you can’t set your bag down – a cross-chest sling or a single shoulder bag would be best for you frequent gear accessors. It’ll allow you to access the bags without having to spend a lot of time taking them off or having to set them down in a not-so-clean area. These types of bags usually have easy access flaps that make all of the bag compartments accessible with a single flip.

Cross-chest strap, mid-sized bag (about the same capacity of the should strap mid-size shown above). Easy access flap unzipped to provide access to main bag cavity. Smaller compartment above which is just large enough to squeeze a hot shoe into.

Firm, yet comfortable strap. Plenty of padding on back of bag as well. This is my hiking bag, which allows me to swing it around for easy access, not having to set the bag down.

Photography Interests

What will you be photographing? I know, that’s a tricky one, ’cause so many of you shoot everything under the sun. By asking yourself this question, you will answer most, if not all of the sections covered above, along with providing foresight into future lens/camera purchases, which then will directly relate back to all of your bag needs (hopefully resulting in a wise bag choice). The more you shoot the more you’ll start to settle into one or a set of areas in photography, which will then drive your specific future gear purchases. Most of us will be pretty fairly standard with wide to mid-range zoom lens needs, while wildlife photogs, for example, could be looking at some pretty long glass. Use a tripod often? Some bags come equipped with straps to accommodate a tripod.

Buy What Makes Sense, Not What’s On-sale

It should be obvious at this point, but truly consider these factors before purchasing. If your first criteria for finding the “right” bag is looking at what is on sale, you are not thinking too clearly. There are a few things in life you can easily get away with skimping on, and this is not one of them. You and your camera bag will be going on many journeys together, so invest wisely so that your gear stays safe and you stay comfortable.