How to choose a camera bag for landscape photography
Almost as important as your camera system itself is a way to carry and protect that system. Like many photographers I know or whose articles I read, camera bags are a personal choice and most of us go through many many bags before we find ones which work. I have some that I used only once or twice before consigning them to the attic or ebay! One grubby no-name bag that I picked up for £10 in a bargain bin has been used many times as it is just the right size to fit into my backpacking rucsac and holds just the right amount of camera and gear for wilderness trips.
I'm not particularly brand loyal, trips to my local camera shops (like cameras I'm not happy buying these online because I like to actually hold them in my hands, for all the good it does me!) will normally see my looking through many different brands of bags, but I do often come back to LowePro. Whilst often overly heavy due to being overdesigned and coupled often with bad design features (I wonder if their designers actually use or test their bags e.g. they leave really long adjustment straps on shoulder straps which certainly make adjustment easy, but which whip painfully and are a liability to eyesight in 40mph winds!). However their overall design and very robust build quality often makes them an attractive choice, for me.
Dreadnought, Shetland - A long walk in needs a comfortable camera bag.
As I've said in previous articles I respect other photographers who carry massive loads into the hills and wilds, but I like to be able to move freely. Why have relatively lightweight DSLR systems that are capable of great image quality and are robust workhorses if you can't take advantage of that light weight? And this is where my last camera bag, a LowePro Vertex 200 AW backpack, fell down.
"A premium backpack" certainly, but all those straps, adjustments, padding, zippers, handles, covers, pockets and other 'premium' features add up to a bag weight of 3.32kg! That's just the bag. Add in the camera system, then strap your tripod to the suggested tripod carrying point and this is a really uncomfortable pack to carry. It's too short in the back so the hip belt doesn't allow the load to be transferred through the hips (for anyone over about 5'8"), and the relatively heavy tripod is carried at the furthest point from your back, making it feel even heavier. Moving the tripod attachment to the side helps load carrying, but makes it awkward to get in the bag in a hurry.
And whilst it is notionally within airline cabin baggage dimensions, when it is full all the straps and bulging pockets mean it will not fit in an overhead locker. Vertex 200, very configurable but too heavy and cumbersome for me. I've tried modifying normal rucsacs to take a smaller shoulder camera bag, but whilst very comfortable, it was a pain to get at camera gear in a hurry resulting in missed shots.
So what should you consider when looking for a new camera bag?
An upcoming trip (involving a flight and already having a lot of other gear to take) got my cogs whirling again and I started looking at combined backpacks and camera bags (looks like a rucsac with a gear compartment in the top and padded camera compartment in the bottom) e.g.
Crumpler also make some, but I hate their styling, no matter how good their camera bags are. I spent a long time looking at these online, but a looming departure date and a need to handle and see these products took me into my local camera shops.
My criteria for selecting a new camera bag for lightweight landscape photography where:
- Lightweight - this means a minimum of extraneous features.
- Long back - a properly fitted rucsac should have the hipbelt going round the hips, not round the waist. This allows the efficient and comfortable carrying of heavy loads by transferring the weight through the hips, not your shoulders.
- Minimum space for the camera gear that I carry, see my Single Speed, Single Lens article. Basically extra space encourages the carrying of 'junk'.
- Easy access to camera gear - more on this below.
- Good amount of load space for mountain gear including waterproofs, survival bag, headtorch, map/compass/GPS, food and drink.
- Tripod attatchment was not actually something that I was bothered about. My Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod has a comfortable rubberised carrying handle (good in sub-zero conditions) and I didn't really want any extra weight on my back. However, I thought it would be useful to have some sort of tripod attachment if I was crossing rough ground and needed both hands free so basic tripod attachment was a must.
- Laptop compartment - I don't need this, but you may.
- Sortability - Having your gear well organised where you can find it on a shoot is essential, even in the slow moving world of landscape photography. Missing that critical cloud formation or waning light because you are hunting for the filter adapter is annoying, and expensive! However, given that I have reduced my current gear to a bare minimum, then I need less customisable compartments than in the past.
Like choosing any backpack, trying it on my back is the final decider. Whilst the above backpacks are still a little short in the back, keeping the camera gear weight down (and carrying my tripod) coupled with careful adjustment of the shoulder straps so the load is not pulled up my back made this acceptable. The LowePro Rover AW II fulfilled all my criteria reasonably well, but like most LowePro products the lack of attention to real usage details (like overly long straps that whip about in the wind) necessitated some customisation.
Customising a LowePro Rover backpack for landscape photography.
I made the following changes to my LowePro Rover backpack:
- Whiplash straps - All long straps were adjusted to a typical position then the excess tails were Duct-taped to the main part of the strap (with a little excess for small adjustments) so they wouldn't take my eyes out in the wind.
- Take it on the chest - a chest strap reduces the strain on your shoulders by keeping the shoulder straps in the correct position on your shoulders. However, for some reason LowePro have fitted the chest strap on very loose sliding loops that allow them to slide to the bottom of the shoulder straps so that clipping the chest strap on requires sliding the chest straps back up into place every time you put the backpack on again. When LowePro go to so much time and effort to produce what is mostly great gear, it escapes me why they fail to get little details like these right is beyond me. That said, I would much prefer to make customisation like this myself than some of the overdone adjustment features that are found on their premium products like the Vertex making them so heavy and cumbersome. A bit of needle and thread time fixed the chest-strap to the shoulder straps in a reasonable position.
- More space for cameras! - Finally, despite my recent article on carrying a single camera and lens, the reality is that a backup body is a must in many locations, and it may as well have a lens attached to allow quick grab shots. The Rover camera compartment has enough space for a pro body with lens attached (e.g. Nikon D2X with 12-24mm lens) and various accessories like filters, cleaning cloths, blower and binoculars), but a second body will just not fit. I considered buying a good compact like the Canon G10 which is getting such good reviews, but I wanted to make the most of the gear that I had and a DSLR still produces much better results than a compact for large prints. A second visit to the camera shop got me a Think Tank Digital Holster 20 which easily holds my Nikon D300 with 17-55mm lens and either affixes to the hipbelt for a quick draw (very cowboy) or fits in the main body of the backpack. A final customisation with a pair of scissors and some Duct-tape opened up the hip belt attachment loops to allow the Digital Holster's attachment strap to attach to the Rover's hipbelt without sliding around.
UPDATE - it's a continuing saga, another bad buy! The Think Tank Digital Holster is a great bag, but it is too bulky when carried in the rucsac to leave much space for mountain gear. I found a Exped Crush Dry bag at LD Mountain Centre that is padded enough to protect the camera, but has very little bulk. Perfect! Probably!
My perfect lightweight landscape photograph camera backpack.
I'm really pleased with this setup and the LowePro Rover. Not only is it comfortable for all day use and feels light, but easy access to both cameras and the tripod in my hand means I can quickly get a camera set up to catch those fleeting moments of light in the landscape that used to elude me. And the rest of the pockets and load space are just enough for other outdoor kit. So, four out of five stars for the LowePro Rover AW II camera backpack from me. It would get five, but the need for modifications that the designers should have considered reduces the score a bit. Oh, but I do wish I had bought the larger version, the Rover Plus AW. I can't quite get all my sandwiches in without crushing them!
UPDATE 2 - since drafting this article for the new site and the site going live I have sold my camper van and am now travelling around by bike and bike trailer. Guess what, not another new camera bag! I went back to the compact Cobra bargain basement bag that I use for backpacking. Oh dear. Look forward to a future article on photographing by bike. I hope the above guidelines will still be useful in helping you chose a bag.