Choosing a good camera bag is hard. It’s a very personal endeavor on two levels: style and functionality. How people use their cameras and what they decide to carry differ significantly for different people.
When I decided to step up my photography game earlier this year, I decided to go with a Micro Four Thirds system — specifically, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 — rather than a DSLR. The reason largely boiled down to size and quality. There are awesome lenses available for Micro Four Thirds, and the equipment as a whole is significantly smaller and lighter than the equivalent DSLR camera and lenses. When I see my friends lugging around giant packs of equipment, I just shake my head. In this day and age, it’s just not necessary.
Once I had acquired my new equipment, I needed to figure out how I was going to carry it all around. Specifically, I wanted something:
- Small. What’s the point otherwise of smaller equipment?
- Ergonomic. Again, what’s the point of small and light if your bag is not designed to feel comfortable?
- High quality. My equipment is expensive. I didn’t need to be putting at risk in a cheap bag.
- Accessible. Compact isn’t helpful if you have to dig around to get your equipment.
- Stylish. I’m not exactly a fashionista, but I like things that look good.
- Flexible. I didn’t necessarily need a single system to work for all occasions. If it made sense to have different bags for different occasions, I was willing to do that… within reason. I didn’t want to have a bunch of unitasking bags floating around either.
Given the flexibility requirement, the first question I asked was, “How can I use my carry this equipment in my existing bags?”
I’m brand loyal to very few companies, but one of them is Tom Bihn, a Seattle-based company that makes beautiful, functional bags. I bought my first Tom Bihn bag in 2008, and I have consistently bought new bags (for different purposes — these things are designed to last forever) approximately every two years. I also have a boatload of accessories. They are not cheap, but they are high-quality, they look great, and they are superbly functional. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
I first bought a Brain Bag as a travel backpack that could hold a whole bunch of stuff efficiently and ergonomically. That bag was so comfortable, I replaced my messenger bag with it and started using it as my every day work bag. However, there were certain situations — walking around the city for the day, for example — when a big bag was overkill, and all I needed was something that would carry my water bottle, a pocket camera, and a book. I eventually bought a Medium Cafe Bag to fulfill that role.
This past year, I bought a Synapse 19, which has become my primary day and work bag. There is a larger version of the Synapse (the Synapse 25), but the smaller one is more comfortable, it fits quite a bit for its size, and it forces you to be smart about what you carry. I realized that most of the stuff I had been carrying around in my Brain Bag were “just in case” items. I was better off focusing on what I actually needed. It’s a shift in my philosophy about bags, one that colored my choice in photography bags.
So the first question was, could I carry my equipment around in my existing bags? The second question was, did I need to get another bag to fulfill different needs? The answer to both questions was yes.
Tom Bihn makes a camera insert for the Brain Bag called the Camera I-O. However, it’s designed for a DSLR system and was overkill for my camera. It also only fits in the Brain Bag. I wanted something that worked with my smaller bags.
I ended up buying this $20 insert from Amazon.com. It’s holds my camera and two additional lenses easily, and it fits perfectly into my Medium Cafe Bag, as you can see from the video below:
It fits easily into my Brain Bag, of course, but it’s a tight fit in my Synapse, and I can’t fit my laptop sleeve at the same time. My Synapse is good for carrying additional gear — lenses in lens pouches or the Side Effect (as described below), a flash, etc. — but it really doesn’t work well as a camera bag. And frankly, I don’t want to be using a backpack as a camera bag. It’s too hard to get my gear in and out.
The Medium Cafe Bag with insert works fine for most cases, but it’s not big or functional enough to carry additional gear. It’s also not functional enough for volume shooting — for example, if I’m shooting an event. In the latter case, I don’t want my camera in a bag. I use a BlackRapid Metro shoulder strap to hold my camera, but I needed something to hold my lenses. The Medium Cafe Bag or any other camera bag would have been overkill.
As it turned out, Tom Bihn had a great solution: the Side Effect, which can be used as a waist pack or a tiny shoulder pack. It can easily hold three lenses or two in heavily padded pouches. It can also fit in the bottom pocket of my Synapse 19, which gives me a modular, padded system for carrying my lenses in my backpack.
I wear the Side Effect with my lenses around my waist, as I describe in the video below. The original Side Effect had built-in, tuckaway waist straps, but it seems that most customers didn’t want that, so they replaced them with removable waist straps. I’m probably the only person in the world who wishes that they had kept the old waist straps, but it’s not a big deal. This system works fine.
The above bag combinations covers a good percentage of my needs. However, there are times when I don’t want to be carrying my camera on my shoulder (if I’m walking through a sketchy neighborhood, for example), I still want to have easy access to my camera (meaning a shoulder bag rather than a backup), and I need to carry more than my Medium Cafe Bag can easily accommodate (a flash, for example).
I thought about getting a Co-Pilot to fulfill this need, but the lack of built-in padding and my concerns about how efficient the space would be for this specific needs were deterrents. I decided I wanted a dedicated shoulder camera bag for this, and unfortunately, Tom Bihn does not make one. (Please consider it!)
I investigated a ton of camera-specific brands, and I ended up getting a Billingham-Hadley Small. These are gorgeous, high-quality bags, and it turned out to be the most functional as well as the perfect size. My only gripe is that it does not have a handle on the top (larger versions of the bag do). It’s perfect for keeping what I need most accessible, and if I need to carry additional items “just in case,” I wear my Synapse 19 as well.
I ended up choosing expensive bags, but it’s all well worth it in my opinion. Often, people buy cheaper bags, find that they don’t quite work, and then buy additional bags. It ends up adding up, both in expense and also in space and mindshare. Better to pay the money up-front for the right bag. If you do your research and especially if you’re willing to buy used, you can also find some good deals on the above bags.
I also can’t help reiterating how awesome the form factor of these systems are. I can carry quite a bit of equipment around very discreetly, and I don’t feel the effects of the weight, even if I’m on my feet all day.
I invested a ton of time into thinking about how I wanted to use my equipment and finding the bags that fit my needs, but it was worth it, and I hope others find the fruit of my research useful as well.