In the Bag

It's said you're not really a serious photographer unless you have a closet full of bags you've decided don't quite work for you. We all strive for the Cinderella bag.

For over a year I've been trying to get the carrying bag for my mirrorless system just right. This has turned out to be trickier than I first thought. Back at Photokina last September I started a concerted effort to figure out the "perfect" carrying system for my mirrorless gear. 

I mention that because ThinkTank will be launching their Mirrorless Mover bags next week. I first talked to them about this at Photokina, and I'm happy to report that they see much the same problem I do. [Disclosure: ThinkTank has sent me three different bags to test, which I'm still in the process of sorting through.] 

What's the problem?

Well, let's assume for a moment that you're not a convenience shooter. Convenience shooters tend to hang their camera around their neck with a big honking superzoom sitting on the camera. In the FX world, that's a 28-300mm (making for a four pound neck weight), in the APS/DX world it's often an 18-200mm zoom, in m4/3 it's a 14-140mm, and in CX it's a 10-100mm. These folks tend to not use a lot of accessories, and they're essentially using their camera as a fixed lens camera, just a humungous fixed lens. They know how they'll carry their camera: neckstrap. And if they want to protect the camera when not in use, they want the old classic drop down camera case—basically a leather or similar shell that unfolds to reveal the camera for use. These folk only put their "system" in a bag for transport between photographic locations.

But you and I bought mirrorless cameras because of the interchangeable lenses, and we think of our cameras as part of a system, and we want that system handy all the time, both when we're engaged in moving from one location to another (transport) and when we're shooting somewhere. Maybe we don't carry dozens of lenses and accessories, but we carry enough that we want to somehow deal with carrying "the system," having it protected, but also having it accessible. 

With my FX DSLRs, my system is almost always in a really large backpack (these days a Gura Gear Bataflae). Indeed, the usual weight of my complete FX system, all encumbered, is typically 30 pounds. What do I mean by "all encumbered"? Batteries, cards, filters, and a host of other odds and ends. Sometimes there'll be a flash or two stuck in, too, which adds more batteries and accessories. I don't count tripod weight in that, by the way, even though while hiking I will strap the pod to the pack.

Typically, I don't tend to carry nearly as much gear when I shoot with my Olympus OM-D E-M5 or Nikon V2. Plus many of the things I might carry, like filters, are smaller and lighter. 

You'll find a good number of generic bags at your camera store (or even Best Buy). For awhile I satisfied myself with some of these, but often their overall quality isn't quite as robust as I need, and their layouts and specifications seem a bit random. There's also the problem of one size doesn't fit all: a Fujifilm X-Pro1 body and lenses are definitely a different size than a Nikon 1 body and lenses, and we've got Leicas that are still bigger, and a lot of stuff "in between." 

I was excited when F-stop produced the Andro series. I happen to like my F-stop Loki hiking backpack. It's well made, comfortable, and while a bit funky in design, works very well for some hiking situations I encounter. One of the things that intrigued me about the Andro was that besides the shoulder strap, it had a removable belt strap that would help secure the bag when I hit the trail. 

As it turned out, the Andro is exceptionally well made. I really can't fault it for that. But it has a trait that I keep finding in a lot of smaller bags: it's tight. The front pocket, for example, can take very little depth in what you stick in it, and has no stretchiness to it. Finding something in the pocket, should you manage to get it in there, becomes a constrained reach. The end pockets are tight, too, as are the pockets in the flip top. On the one hand, this helps hold everything in place and doesn't let it bounce or drift around, but in the end I just didn't like getting my hands into those tight places to dig things out. 

Some of you might actually like the Android, but in the end, it wasn't my cup of tea, especially at the US$170-200 price.

At the other extreme, there's the Gura Gear Chobe, a laptop bag that doubles as a small system bag. This thing is opposite of the Andro: expandable, not constraining. Heck, the thing just swallows my MacBookPro 15, iPad, iPhone, and full Olympus kit. I don't at all feel constrained by the bag. But it's big (as big as 15x11x8.5" —36x53x21.5cm) and it weighs in empty with straps at 3.8 pounds (1.7kg). One thing I like about it (and a few other bags I've tried) is that the internal system area is actually a removable padded "tray" that you can partition as needed. Since I tend to have the need to carry different systems, I can just buy extra trays, load them up, and stuff them with gear, and sub in the tray I need for the trip I'm on. 

But the Chobe is big. Bigger than the biggest ThinkTank Urban Disguise. And so as a portable shoulder bag for walking longer distances (e.g. hiking or perhaps extended travel photography in a city), it's just too big, in my opinion. If I were doing more photojournalism with vehicle support, it might be perfect (albeit a little big for the small systems: I can carry a dual m4/3 system with one heck of a lot of lenses and accessories with the Chobe). 

I'll have a lot more to say about bags soon, once I get done testing the latest ThinkTank ones. The one I had sort of decided was my current urban bag of choice was the ThinkTank Retrospective (a 5, 7, or 10 depending upon which system I'm carrying), but the release of the Mirrorless Movers means I need to do some more testing.

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