Carrying 101

You bought it, now how do you carry it?

If selecting the right camera, lenses, and support system is troublesome enough for you, welcome to the world of "never satisfied." Yes, I'm about to delve into the topic that plagues all photographers: bags. I've been carrying cameras to assignments, into the backwoods, and on planes, trains, and in automobiles since in mid-1970's. You'd think that 30+ years of experience might have guided me to the ultimate, perfect solution. You'd be (mostly) wrong. 

Let's start off with some generalities. There are several conflicting requirements of all camera carrying systems:

  • Accessibility: How fast can you get to what you need?
  • Protection: How well does it protect your equipment from bumps, drops, water, and theft?
  • Comfort: How do you feel after a day of carrying your five to thirty pounds worth of gear?
  • Flexibility & Expandability: Can you strap your tripod in? Can you reconfigure the system for those times when you're carrying your monster lens versus when you aren't? If you suddenly get a vertical grip, is that going to cause problems with fitting the camera? Can you add to it to carry other things (jacket, water, survival gear, accessible accessories, etc.). 

Next, we have several different approaches to carrying systems:

  • Backpacks: typically lots of comfort, flexibility, and protection at the expense of accessibility.
  • Shoulder bags: accessibility, often at the expense of comfort and/or flexibility.
  • Vests and strap carrying systems: mostly an odd mix of "almost-but-not-quite" capabilities.
  • Travel cases (ala Pelican, et.al.): lots of protection at the expense of almost everything else. 

Now let's back up a moment and consider what it is we're likely to be carrying:

  • Camera: often just one, but sometimes a backup body and perhaps a compact camera, as well.
    Primary goal: accessibility (don't want to miss a picture as we're moving about).
    Secondary goal: protection.
    Tertiary goal: comfort. Ouch! [Flexibility and Expandability doesn't usually come into play for the camera] 
  • Lenses: the camera is likely to have a lens on it all the time (because we want to be quick to shoot when we get the camera out), so here we're talking about additional lenses you might be carrying, which can range from one small lens (perhaps the 10.5mm DX) to a half dozen (perhaps including a mammoth telephoto exotic).
    Primary goal: protection.
    Secondary goal: accessibility.
    Tertiary goal: flexibility and expandability. [Some might say comfort has to come into play at some point, but the bottom line is having the right gear with you is more important than comfort] 
  • Accessories: flash, batteries, filters, cleaning tools, gray card, etc.
    Primary goal: accessibility.
    Secondary goal: flexibility. [Comfort doesn't come into play, as these things aren't generally heavy or even bulky; plus most are easily protected] 
  • Support system: you may use anything from a trekking pole to a full blown tripod with all the fun gadgets such as leveling bases and panorama attachments.
    Primary goal: accessibility. 
    Secondary goal: comfort. [I've dragged my tripod up and down cliffs, through dense brush and mud, you name it; protection isn't really an issue with a good tripod (though cleaning it later may be!)] 

Next, let's consider logistics:

  • Travel from home to a location. Getting from Pennsylvania to one of my workshops I'm not doing any photography (and if I am, it's often with a small pocket camera). Same is probably true for you, too: traveling to a photographic location you want to have your equipment protected and comfortable to carry, and you don't worry about accessibility.
  • Travel within a location. Now that we're at our photographic location, suddenly protection takes a back seat to accessibility (comfort remains a high priority, though). 

I think you're starting to see the problem: we have conflicts all over the place that need balancing. Basically you can pick one of two strategies:

  • Compromise on convenience. Travel to and from locations has you using one type of carrying system, mostly centered on comfort and protection. Once you're at your location you may change carrying systems (or at least strip the transport system down) so that you can move more freely or have better access.
  • Compromise on simplicity. Whatever you choose has to work well as both a transport system and use system.

Just as with support systems, every serious photographer tends to go through a series of purchases, spending far more time, expense, and energy trying to get their carrying system "right" than they do at almost any other aspect of their craft. Show me a pro photographer and I'll show you at least one closet of theirs that is full of bags tried and abandoned. Heck, I've got a giant box of just dividers, pouches, and cushions.

Let's see if I can bring at least a little sanity to the topic that drives most of us insane at some point. First, some of my own personal guidelines (yours may differ from mine):

  • Shooting has precedence. To take a picture you must have your camera in your hands, not locked inside a case inside of a case inside of a protective wrapper. I'll compromise almost every other aspect if it means I get the shot versus I don't.
  • Comfort is an important second goal. If you're not comfortable carrying your gear, you don't carry it. This inevitably comes brings us back to the first guideline: if you need X to get a shot and you're not carrying X because it just makes things too bulky or too heavy to carry around all day, you don't get the shot. 
  • Protection is a state of mind. If you know that your carrying system has little padding, just don't fling it about! If you know that your gear is a theft target, don't leave it sitting about unattended! Put another way: you can finesse your protection needs by being thoughtful and careful.
  • Complexity is your enemy. Laird used to sell a very good and clever rain cover for Nikon equipment, but ultimately I stopped using mine because once you unfolded the darned thing it took either a rocket scientist or an origami lesson to get it back to its optimal configuration. Sometimes brute force and simplicity wins out over ingenuity and complexity.

So what do I conclude from all of the above? Well, here's where my brain went:

  • Once I've arrived at a shooting locale, the camera stays out, and with the lens I'm most likely to use mounted on it. This led me to a series of experiments over the years, especially since often I was traveling in the backcountry with a regular backpack carrying mostly camping and survival gear. Ultimately, I settled on the following: I modified all my main packs to take the clip-ins from a standard Op-Tech camera strap so that the camera hangs in front of me supported by the pack's shoulder straps, not a neck strap. How do I keep the camera from swinging? I use an old stretch device—I think it was made by Tamron and called the Slingshot, but there are no markings on it and I haven't seen one since—to hold the camera against my belly. More recently, Peak Design created a Capture Clip, that works well with smaller cameras and some pack straps. Drawbacks: I sweat on the camera, and if I were to fall forward, I'd land on it. Positives: the camera is at the ready and carries comfortably. 
  • Backpacks work better than shoulder and other bags as the equipment list gets longer. It's simply the comfort thing. A well adjusted backpack that is fit to your body can carry a quarter of your body weight without slowing you down or making you uncomfortable. I routinely drag as much as 40 pounds over 12 miles without having sore shoulders, back, or neck (okay, I'm getting older; sometimes I get sore now). Shoulder bags are like golf bags used to be: they put asymmetrical force on your body, and ultimately that means aches and pains. If you're out for shorter times with only an extra lens and a flash, sure, it might work fine to use a good shoulder bag, but as those things get added to, beware the dreaded strap fatigue. The final alternative, belt bags, has the advantage of carrying the weight where your carrying capacity is highest (hips), but the disadvantage of being awkward for carrying long distances (a telephoto lens case on a hip belt system tends to either stick out too much or preclude leg movement). Another comment: a really good, accessible backpack that is well organized (by you) can net you anything you need in a fast frenzy of motion: pack off, unzipped, item grabbed, rezipped, pack on.
  • Everything needs a place, and that place has to be consistent. This is where things get a little more difficult to describe. Most of the time I use a very light vest and a backpack. The vest allows me to avoid the pack-off, pack-on problem for simple, small things. Filters are in lower left vest pocket. Batteries in lower right. Cards in upper right. Cleaning materials in upper left. Sometimes a small lens is in one of the big pockets, sometimes panorama plates, sometimes something silly and fun like the LensBaby, more often something useful such as a remote release or right-angle finder. This means that when I arrive at a shooting location, I have to take those things OUT of the backpack (or shoulder bag) and put them INTO the vest. And put them in the same place as last time so my aging brain cells don't combust when I'm looking for something. Likewise, lenses and flashes that stay in the bag need a fixed place and can't be buried under other things. Short story: I spend a few minutes optimizing my accessibility to items before traipsing off in search of shots.

Now on to some comments about individual bags and companies whose products I've tried, using the conclusions I just stated. Let's start with some real backpacks that remain in my gear closet (I'm not going to write about all the ones that got sold off): 

  • Gura Gear Kiboko: While they need some attention to detail in packing them, these are the best African Safari capable bags I've used, as they do a good job of protecting gear in a small space while on the airlines getting there, and once reconfigured a bit, do a pretty good job of keeping your other gear accessible while in the safari vehicles. That's not surprising, as they were designed by a safari workshop instructor.
  • MindShift BackLight and Trailscape: For a small system, I like the TrailScape 18L. The BackLight packs are good, too, but more traditional. The Rotation 180° actually is a form of the old Galen Rowell "rotate the fanny bag" design that works well, too. The older Rotation packs weren't so great, the latest designs now work decently. MindShift is an outgrowth of ThinkTank, so their packs are well made.
  • ThinkTank Airport series: They make several now and are several generations down the line (after some of us complained about the original Airport Addicted being WAY too big for practical use on anything other than hub-to-hub plane flights (e.g. big planes with big overheads). The smallest, the Airport Antidote, became my working bag of choice for some time. First, the ThinkTank stuff is very well designed and impeccably made. The attention to detail is appreciated, and the feature list is extensive. But it really comes down to two things for me: can it fit in that RJ overhead and does it carry well deep into the backcountry? A third thing—does it work well while shooting?—also enters the picture, but isn't as important to me as the first two. The AA hits the bill on all three, though. It not only fits into an RJ's overhead, it has a better laptop solution than I've seen on any other photo backpack to date (hint: flexible material expands to hold the laptop case). I don't know how that material will hold up over time, but my initial impression is that this is a better solution than a clip-on bag or a dedicated, non-flexible pocket [it's held up well on over 100,000 air miles so far]. And it's just like a LowePro to work out of: one big zip and you're accessing everything. But the best news is that it carries well. I currently have two D7000's, 10-20mm, 17-55mm, 105mm, 70-200mm, SB-800, and a big selection of filters and accessories crammed into mine. The whole thing weighs in at 21 pounds and it carries as well as any pack I've tried to date. The shoulder straps are correctly cut, the hip belt actually gets weight transfer if you adjust everything properly, and the pack stays locked to your back correctly (though a little sweatily). You've got plenty of attachment loops (one of which you'll probably use for the supplied tripod carrier). The only "carrying issue" to me is the sternum strap. The way it hooks to the shoulder straps is unique and difficult to adjust (at least it was on my samples). The short length of the pack also means that for many, the sternum strap becomes a neck strap if the hip belt is positioned correctly. More recently, I'm trying the Airport Acceleration for when I need a long, exotic telephoto with me. It seems to work as well as the Antidote, though I prefer the smaller Antidote size when possible. Bottom line: LowePro has a serious competitor. I switched. You might, too. (Note: the 200-400mm barely fits in the Antidote, but it doesn't leave much room for anything else; if you want to carry that lens, you really should switch up to the Acceleration model.) 

In straight hip belt (waist bag) systems, there really are only a few to consider, IMHO: ThinkTank and Kinesis. 

The ThinkTank and Kinesis waist bags were designed by and targeted at working photojournalists and sports photographers. All have an amazing number of options and are quite flexible, within some limits. The primary issue with hip systems is that, for most of us, if you put too much weight on the hips, the belts tend to slide off (or you have to cinch them so tight you feel like you're being lassoed at a rodeo). That can be remedied by using a chest/shoulder strap arrangement to steady the position of the belt (hey, suspenders are hip again). 

A secondary issue is probably more important to most: you just got wider. You don't really want to be carrying anything large on the front of the belt systems, as that restricts leg movement, so your 70-200mm is going to be hanging off the side of the belt (if you put it on the back, then you defeat the convenience of using a belt system and should just go to a backpack). Another big pouch on the other side of the belt (you do want the belt to relatively balanced, right?) and you're now a good foot wider than you used to be. 

Surprisingly, that little bit of additional width can be quite limiting. For me, for example, suddenly my access in some slot canyons requires moving sideways. But even simple things like narrow trails with close-in tree branches start to become a pain. 

The final issue with belt systems is that there is a finite limit to what you can carry, and that limit may be under what you want. If all you usually carry is an extra wide angle zoom, a 70-200mm, a flash, and a handful of filters, a belt system probably has enough capacity and you may find it more convenient to work from than a pack. But if you're a five-lens type of shooter, carry extension tubes, lots of filters, multiple flashes, or shoot mostly from a tripod, the belt system isn't going to carry all of that for you.

  • Kinesis: the joy of the Kinesis design is the manner in which their accessories attach to the belt. You get almost total flexibility in putting any of their bags, pouches, and goodies anywhere on the belt you want, and they stay put no matter how much they get bumped or banged. On the other hand, it'll take you awhile to get those things hung on the belt, as the system isn't exactly snap-and-go. Kinesis probably has more options to go on the belt than any other system I know of, and their cases and small bags are all pretty much bomb proof (though not rainproof--rain covers are extra options). The Kinesis belt also can be part of their backpack system. For a year, I used that combo pretty much full time (backpack to travel, belt system to shoot), but the backpack connection was fragile and broke on my Kinesis pack (the design now appears to have been changed, but I haven't tested it). The drawback to the system is that it tends to be expensive as you get your choices fully optioned out (most of the reasonable combos will be significantly over US$200). And figuring out the options will seem like it takes a PhD. My suggestion is to look carefully at their Suggested Systems for a starting point.
  • ThinkTank Photo: I like the ThinkTank connection system less than the one Kinesis uses, but I like the overall system itself better (rain ready, faster to reconfigure, the "racing harness" really does steady the belt, etc.). Again, these can get expensive (the suggested Pro Modulus 12-piece belt kit is US$295). Overall, the quality of the product is high, though, and these systems are used day-in, day-out by a lot of photojournalists and sports photographers. Also, if you're not into the configure-it-yourself belt system and just want a solid belt bag, the ThinkTank Speed Demon, Speed Freak, or Speed Racer should be looked at. For a basic one camera, wide angle zoom, telephoto zoom, flash, and filters carrying system, the Speed Racer is my usual choice. The thing I like about it is that it handles the 70-200mm just fine, but doesn't add a lot of out-from-body depth, allowing me to maneuver in tight spots. Again, though, if you end up on the Think Tank page trying to pick something, you'll be there for awhile (though you only need a Master's degree here, not a PhD like on the Kinesis site).

I'm not going to cover shoulder bags (or slings), as I generally don't use them. Beyond that, there's literally hundreds of options, so I couldn't possibly do them justice. I rarely use shoulder bags as they just don't carry weight well (your shoulders are not designed to carry weight, and having the weight torque at an angle across the body doesn't help things; have you ever seen a serious hiker using a shoulder bag? Well, there's a good reason they don't. It's the same reason why serious photographers eventually give up on them).

One other thing I should mentioned about carrying: there's one special situation that requires a specialized bag. Basically, if you're going to be on water, you need a bag that protects your equipment from catastrophic failure due to dunking. This happens more than you'd expect.

If you go to the Galapagos, for instance—a favorite photographer locale—you'll be in and out of small boats called pangas (or Zodiacs) four times a day or more. Sometimes wading to shore. In the Tetons one of the more popular hikes starts with a boat ride. Many backcountry trails cross streams, and some require serious fording, particularly in Alaska. Photography around waterfalls often is much like being in a rain storm. Perhaps you want to canoe or kayak to a better location. In short, there are plenty of photographic opportunities that involve serious water exposure, and dunking a digital camera in water will be life-ending for your expensive equipment. 

The solution to not exposing your delicate camera equipment to a solution is using some form of dry bag. Regular kayakers and canoe-ers collect dry bags like we photographers collect lens and gadget bags. But a standard dry bag is just that, a bag. It isn't designed to keep camera equipment protected from bumps, drops, or rubbing against each other. You could put a camera bag inside a dry bag, but that's a little cumbersome, I think. 

Fortunately, LowePro has an answer: a dry-bag version of one of their regular packs, called the DryZone 200. Also OverBoard makes a low cost waterproof general backpack (you'd need to configure the inside to protect gear). These are perfect solutions for the Galapagos or similar situations since they also float when full of equipment, but they come with a penalty: access is compromised a bit by the stiffness and difficulty of undoing the main zipper (it, after all, has to be part of a water-impermeable barrier). 

LowePro supplies you a grease that you use to keep the zipper lubricated, which helps a bit, but just don't expect the instantaneous access you get with most photo backpacks. That's especially true since you absolutely need to close the zipper after getting what it is you need, otherwise you have little more protection than a regular pack in the same situation. Still, highly recommended if you need them--they're a near perfect solution for the serious on-water photographer. 

Well, if you made it this far, congratulations, you're almost through with this introductory course. In case you fell asleep during the lecture and need the Cliff Notes version:

  • Backpacks: consider LowePro and ThinkTank. Gura Gear also makes some good backpacks worth considering.
  • Hybrids: the LowePro DryZone works, the MindShift Rotation 180 is worth looking at but make sure it works for you.
  • Waist bags: consider the ThinkTank Photo and Kinesis systems.
  • Shoulder bags: give you shoulder a rest; avoid them. 

Yes, there is yet still more to carrying. I haven't talked about Pelican cases, getting lighting gear from the studio to a remote shoot, or a number of other subjects that would be applicable here. Those will have to wait for a future class, however. Class dismissed; see you next semester... 

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