The Camera Bag Problem, 2013

Posted on February 9, 2013 by psu

I bought a new camera, so I had to look at camera bags again. I was allegedly after something “smaller” to hold the new set of “smaller” equipment I would be carrying now. This is of course a lie. It’s apparently been a few years since I looked at camera bags. For the most part my conclusions are the same: get a Domke bag of the right size and stick with it. The explosion of Internet merchandising has added a few new things to ignore on your trip over to Domke-land, so let’s review.

In my last camera bag rant, I had the following complains, all of which still apply.

Too much padding: Most bag designers still seem to think that we need to put at least 3 inches of foam between your poor camera and the outside world. The truth is a thin layer of canvas will usually do.

Bag too small: Most camera bags to not hold enough equipment, given their size. This is usually because there is too much padding.

Bag too large: To make up for the fact that the bag can’t carry what you need, it will also be the size of a small suitcase. Usually this is because the bag “needs” to be tall enough to hold a 70-200/2.8 lens. Or it needs to be deep enough to hold a D4 body with a double grip (this doesn’t exist).

Vertical placement: Most bags are still too vertical.

In the intervening years bag designers have thought up a few more ways to get things wrong. Here are a few:

Too Many Pockets: Some bag designers seem to think that they need to sew in a pocket for every possible small item I might bring along. So there are pen pockets, card pockets, battery pockets, key pockets, bottle opener pockets, coat pockets, notebook pockets, and magazine pockets. All of these pockets take space away from the pockets the bag should have: the camera and lens pockets. I also hate all built-in key-ring thingies. And while I’m at it, I’ll also say here that wasting an entire pocket on a rain cover that I’ll never use is not a great move. At least let me throw the rain cover away.

Laptops: Every bag needs to hold a laptop, or an iPad, or both. This is stupid. When would you want your laptop while you are shooting pictures? You are shooting pictures. The laptop is either already set up (for studio things and real time proofing) or you’re going to use it later.

Messenger bags: Camera bags shaped like messenger bags are currently the most popular way to make a “camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag”. Of course, when you take a god-damned camera out of the bag it’s pretty obvious what it is. I had one messenger bag that I liked for cameras that was made by Timbuk2. But, their newer bags get the shape wrong and suck. Most other messengers I’ve tried are too floppy and just collapse down over the camera so you can’t get anything out of the bag. Lose.

Interestingly, Timbuk2’s take on the messenger camera bag has the opposite problem. The body of the bag is too stiff so the bag doesn’t open up and let you throw things in (or get things out quickly). I think their inserts are too thick as well, and they also cover up all of the interior pockets that Timbuk2 puts into their bags that you will never use. Not a fan.

The Hipster Bag: A variant of the messenger bag. This is a bag that is meant to be looked at rather than used to carry camera equipment. Shiny leather trim, weird buckles, pre-aged materials or anything with waxed canvas fall into this category. I think that this is the pinnacle of this style.

I want to say that Billingham bags are also like this, except for anglophile hipsters.

Etsy Custom Bags: A variant of the hipster bags, but for the crafty set. By “custom” here we mean mostly custom colors and fabrics. Like buying a pair of pants, except for bags. That said, the Porteen bags actually seem be reasonably well designed and might be useful. The fact that you can buy one in red leather is just a bonus, I guess.

Make Your Own Bags: In this scheme you buy some bag (retro military-style bags are popular) that is not meant to carry cameras and you put a foam insert inside to hold the cameras. This always seems like a good idea, but the inserts never stay in place and have nothing to keep them from folding in on themselves when not completely full. So these bags tend to fail. It’s of course perfectly find to throw the camera in there without any foam once in a while. I do that all the time. But then it’s not really a camera bag so why am I talking about it?

All of this leaves us pretty much where we were last time: get a Domke bag or something like it. If you want to drop $300 on a bag, get the Billingham Hadley, which is like a Domke bag but done up as a British man-satchel. I think I saw Richard Hammond carrying one on Top Gear last week.

You might ask why Domke remains the best. Well, I’ll tell you.

Not too big, not too small: The best of the Domke bags are all around 12 to 15 inches long, 4 to 6 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches high. This is provably the correct size range for a camera bag. It lets you store enough but not too much and it sits on your body comfortably.

Easy to Store and Fetch Things: The Domke bags do not get in your way. They are just a big subdivided bucket into which you put things and it’s always easy to get them back out again. More importantly, the canvas is soft, so it’s comfortable to carry. In addition, and this is the most important fact ever about camera bags, it is also stiff enough to hold its shape so you can reach into the bag with one hand and grab something without needing to use the other hand to hold the bag open.

Domke also doesn’t saddle you with millions of little pockets and holes into which you can lose things. The pockets are all big and easy to reach, and there are no “organizers”. Organizers suck.

My favorite Domkes are the F-803 satchel and the F-6 medium sized shoulder bag. Look them up. The F-3x and F-2 are the other two classic bags. I should pick up a few just in case the whole outfit goes out of business next year. You never know.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and I do have a few complaints about the Domkes.

First, the inserts are not the right shape for modern DSLRs. They tend to be a bit small. Second, the metal hooks are kinda painful. Third, I hate the grippy shit on the all the Domke straps. It makes wearing the bag like a messenger bag hard because the strap will not slide across your body. This is probably my number one gripe about these bags.

The last time I looked at bags I thought ThinkTank photo was doing some interesting things. Sadly, all their bags are the wrong size and are laden with pockets.

If any of you want to buy me a Billingham Hadley to try out I can tell you if it sucks. But I can’t face dropping that much money on a bag that is that ugly. Maybe the black one is OK. But, I’m pretty sure the Hadley is too padded.

Summary: if someone could make a Domke satchel without the grippy strap and slightly more flexible dividers … and also do the same for the horizontal Domke bags they would achieve perfection. That’s all I got.