The Camera Bag Problem

When I bought my first SLR film camera, I didn’t give much thought to bags. I needed a small bag to fit the body and two lenses that I had bought, so I went to the store and picked out the smallest Domke (the F-5) which seemed to be big enough. It could fit the camera ready to shoot and the extra lens, and it wasn’t that big. I could get the camera in and out without putting the bag down. When I got a few more lenses, I bought a slightly bigger Domke bag (the F-6) that had extra room for the lenses. That was the last time I was happy with a camera bag.

Once in a while, when I’m bored, I indulge in one of my periodic surveys of the camera bag landscape just to see if anything new has come along. What I always find out is that:

1. Something new has always come along.

2. The something new always sucks.

More than any other part of the industry, the camera bag world is populated primarily by designs that completely fail in one way or another. This is especially true when considering bags for travel. In my mind, the failures are usually for the same basic reasons.

Too much Padding

Under the conditions in which most of us work, you don’t need a lot of padding to protect a camera. When I take my camera to work to take the odd snapshot, I put a towel into the main compartment of my laptop backpack and rest the camera there. That’s really about all you need if you aren’t heading out into a war zone.

People who make camera bags don’t think this is true. They think you need a thick layer of closed cell foam around the outside of the bag, and then they think you need to fill the bag with about 5 pounds of little closed call foam dividers. This exercise in keeping the foam industry in business means two things for your bag:

1. It’s huge and heavy.

2. You can’t get anything in and out. This is especially true if the foam inserts are designed to fit snugly around the lenses. If the fit is too tight you can’t get your hands in there to take the lens out. Brilliant.

The Domke bags don’t have this problem. They use thin canvas and thin foam. It’s too bad the nice little inserts are just a bit too small for my new fat zoom lenses.

Vertical Camera Placement

This seems like a good idea in principle, but in practice it never works out. The idea is to store the camera with the huge zoom lens on it in a “ready to shoot” position by jamming it into the bag vertically. I’ve never used a bag where this worked well. Here is what happens. You push the camera into the bag and it’s all going well until the body of the camera hits the mouth of the bag. Then mouth of the bag is never quite wide enough or tall enough or deep enough or something so that you can clear it, and the foam and all the zippers and get the god-damned camera back in the bag. At this point you give up and throw the bag in a river.

I realize that there are some who will argue that the whole idea of holding the camera in the bag ready to shoot is stupid. You should have the camera out and about if you think you are going to be taking pictures. I understand this point of view. But as an amateur poseur on vacation, I tend carry the camera more than I shoot with it. I need the camera around for when opportunities arise, but I simply can’t function in a mode where the camera is hanging off of one shoulder or around my neck most of the time. That makes things like chasing family members, buying drinks and snacks, and other every day activities impossible. Therefore, what I need is a bag that can store my camera with the lens on it, and make it easy for me to get the thing in and out when I want it.

Vertical bags make the in-and-out hard, and to make up for it storing the camera stuff I’m not using now (flash, short lenses, etc) is also hard because the vertical orientation tends to waste a lot of space. Avoid.

Holds only Cameras

Camera bags are designed around the idea that if you are really serious, you are willing to carry a bag that is dedicated to nothing but camera equipment. While this is a noble sentiment, in these days of limited carry-on capacity it’s not that practical. I want a carry-on bag that can hold my cameras along with all the other stuff I need on the plane (laptop, music, books, kid stuff, extra clothes). You don’t get a lot of extra space in camera bags for this sort of thing because the designers assume that if you had extra room, you’d put more camera stuff into it. So all of that extra room is filled with more closed cell foam compartments that are great for holding another lens or that third flash, or a power supply, but are completely useless for anything else.

Too small and too big

On a related note, most camera bags are both too big and too small at the same time. This is related to the padding problem. Many bags are so full of padding divider “systems” that they don’t actually have any room inside them for the equipment. The result is a bag that is (say) 14 inches long and 9 inches deep and can still only hold a single body and one extra lens in a way that is actually comfortable to use. As a result, you end up buying a huge bag in order to be able to carry all your stuff to where you are going, but once you get there the bag is too big to actually carry around.

The camera backpacks are the best example of this problem. Almost all of the camera backpacks I’ve looked at make the same basic mistake. They provide you with a single 5 or 6 inch thick layer of closed cell foam compartments in which to put your camera gear and nothing else. Therefore, you end up with a pack on your back that is a constant 7 or 8 inches thick (remember, outside foam too) and yet holds nothing but a camera body and a few lenses.

If you want to take more stuff, you have to buy a bigger pack. But then the bag is much too big to actually wear around when you get where you are going. When I travel in Europe I already have a complex about being a badly dressed fat American. Wearing an expedition-sized backpack around isn’t going to make that better.

You need two bags

I ultimately came to the conclusion that you want to carry two bags, one to get to the location and one to work out of once you are there. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked out which type of bag should fill each role, and I’m still not clear on how to avoid needing to carry both bags on the plane.

I think what I’d really like is a small camera bag that I can stuff into a larger rolling carry-on. Unfortunately, all of my small camera bags had fallen out of favor in the last year when I started to use messenger bags for both cameras and other incidentals. My beloved old Domkes were sitting on the floor of the closet holding the film cameras that I have not yet sold.

This whole exercise had its start because I needed a small bag to take on a trip and my new D200 won’t fit into the smaller Domke bag in which I carried my original one camera and two lens kit. It kind of fits, but it doesn’t really want to go in and out. I looked all over the net and could not find a bag that works as well as the Domke while being only slightly larger. Well, there is actually one. The original slightly larger Domke that I used to for my old film camera and four lenses. The larger body and the bigger zooms don’t go into the old bag quite as well, but it should be usable. And, the bag is very small and light compared to the messenger. I should even be able to stuff it into the rolling carry on bag for the trip over so I don’t have to figure out how to carry on the camera bag, the carry-on bag and the computer bag.

So I have come full circle, and I can end all of this by resurrecting my old rule:

If you can’t fit it into a Domke F-6 camera bag, you don’t need to bring it with you.

It has served me well until now. Hopefully it will continue to do so far into the future, now that I’ve given it a new lease on life. I never should have sold that second F-6. On the other hand, it was blue. That’s not a good color for a camera bag.

As a final note, I did find one company that seems to be designing bags that avoid some of the normal stupidity. ThinkTank photo makes a series of products aimed primarily at photojournalists and professionals that seem to be well designed and well made. They don’t seem to be too big, and they seem to be able to hold a lot of equipment. I’m going to try one of their new shoulder bags to see if it handles as well as the Domke. I want to try it because the bags appear to fix my main complaint about the Domke: the shoulder strap is replaceable and more adjustable. My hopes are high but my expectations are low.