A Photo Backpack Sampler: Evaluations & Recommendations
Whether hiking in the wilderness or traveling to foreign shores, my bag of choice is a photo backpack, leaving me little worse for wear at the end of the day. Unlike a shoulder bag or sling bag, which puts all the stress, respectively, on one shoulder or your neck, the backpack distributes the weight evenly across both shoulders.
Photo backpacks may be entirely dedicated to photo gear and fully padded or they may devote space more or less equally to camera gear (fully padded, customizable section—usually on bottom) and personal items. They normally include numerous pockets inside and out, including a water bottle pocket (often mesh), and maybe a sleeve for a tablet and/or laptop somewhere on or inside the bag, with allowance for a tripod on most (on the front or side). Some packs use a removable camera insert that can be carried separately, owing to a zippered front panel and handle (or added strap), making room for clothes and such in the pack when used as an airline carry-on.
While most bags in our evaluation are carry-on friendly (not exceeding 45 linear inches = 22 + 14 + 9”), some may be a tight squeeze in an overhead bin. Straps, handles, wheels, and outer pockets all enter into the equation. One final note: backpacks are designed around an archetype, generally a male of medium build and average height. My advice: try it on for size.
We’ll look at photo backpacks in all shapes and sizes, addressing the serious hiker to the casual and trendy tourist. All are newly introduced or newly modified, grouped as follows: Technical Packs, Standard & Dual-Tier Daypacks, and Fashionable & Compact Daypacks. We’ve selected one bag per manufacturer. Manufacturers may offer other backpacks or the same pack in different sizes and colors, so check out their websites, listed at the end of this article. My observations are necessarily subjective, but I tried each of these bags out, actually filling them with gear and carrying them around to get a feel for their comfort and performance.
For our purposes, a technical pack features a technical harness (fully adjustable, padded shoulder straps), chest strap, padded waist belt, compression straps, and an internal aluminum frame. These features are all designed to help you shoulder the load with utmost stability and without undue stress while trekking over rough, uneven terrain. The bag is durable (made of ripstop or other lightweight nylon fabric) and weather-resistant, with a rainfly added for insurance against torrential downpours. Often it’s just an unpadded shell, with room for all the necessities of a daylong hike. Plus the pack accommodates a padded, customizable camera insert (sometimes optional) that may be entirely removable and carried separately, or the camera bay may be an integral component. Some of these technical packs are slightly oversized for airline carry-on.
Clik Elite Obscura ($195); 22.3x12x10”. Water-resistant nylon shell; technical harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; internal frame; integrated thinly padded camera/lens pouch inside pack plus direct-access lightly padded zoom lens bay at bottom; airflow back panel; 15” laptop sleeve; tripod caddy; hydration bladder sleeve; roomy pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: In keeping with the philosophy of maintaining light weight in this pack, the camera/lens sections are necessarily minimally padded, so I’d recommend adding bubble wrap (or something similar) for added protection; I like the pouch placement toward the top, for stability, though I question the practicality of adding a laptop. Inviting price.
MindShift Gear rotation180˚ Professional Deluxe ($499); 22.5x13.5x10.5”. Water-resistant nylon shell; technical harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; internal frame; airflow back panel; rotating belt pack (customizable and fully padded, removable); hydration bladder sleeve; tripod caddy; spacious pockets; rainfly; Deluxe edition includes fully enclosed, fully padded camera insert for top section (access through back and top panels), letting you carry more camera gear (when empty, this section is used for personal items).
Evaluation: This pack is truly ergonomic, albeit a bit bulky and heavy; I love the concept and the bag: it makes a world of difference when you can simply rotate a section of the bag to access gear, instead of having to take it off your back—all without adding an accessory chest pack for this same purpose. Pricey, but not having to put the pack down in mud, snow, and slush makes it well worth it.
Naneu Adventure K4L v2 ($279); 21.5x14x10”. Water-resistant nylon shell; hybrid technical design (look and feel of a technical bag minus internal frame and load-lifter suspension straps in harness); chest strap and padded waist belt; airflow back panel; fully padded, modular camera insert (belt pack) can be carried separately using the tuck-away belt and shoulder strap; tripod caddy; 17” laptop sleeve; roomy pockets; hydration bladder sleeve; rainfly.
Evaluation: Ergonomic; cleverly designed and stylish, the pack is invitingly lightweight and, with the limited amount of camera gear in the belt pack, you’ll be light on your feet on even the most demanding trails; the belt pack can also be clipped to the pack and used as a chest pack, which I found uncomfortable, but you may like it. Very good value, and practical.
Standard & Dual-Tier Daypacks
While they rarely feature an internal frame, these packs should fit as comfortably as a technical pack, and often employ a fully adjustable technical harness, chest strap, and padded waist belt. These bags may be suited for everything from sightseeing to demanding nature excursions lasting much of the day. Most hold lenses of limited size, although a few easily carry a 300mm f/4 or longer lens for wildlife photography. Another feature that may appeal to you: a laptop and/or tablet sleeve. And occasionally a wheeled backpack pops up in the equation.
Crumpler Karachi Outpost (Large) ($265); 20.5x15x9.8”. Water-resistant, heavy-duty field twill outer fabric encasing the removable dedicated, reinforced, and customizable camera section with rear-panel access; top access to personal items (separate small space); fully adjustable, lightly padded harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; airflow back panel; sleeve for tablet or 11” MacBook Air; spacious pockets; tripod caddy; rainfly.
Evaluation: This backpack uses a novel system for customizing the interior and it appears to work well, holding gear in place; however, I found the backpack suspension system uncomfortable—stick to short hops and you’ll be okay. A good value, and stylish.
Gura Gear Bataflae 26L ($399); 18x14x9”. Fully padded, water-resistant nylon shell; stowaway technical harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; fully dedicated to camera gear; dual access (via left/right butterfly panels or fully open); airflow back panel; tripod caddy; spacious pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: I like the butterfly concept—makes it easy to see what you’ve packed and to better organize the pack; unfortunately, I didn’t find the backpack harness to be that comfy. A tad pricey, but worth it.
Manfrotto Professional Backpack 30 ($199); 17.1x12.2x10.2”. Fully padded, reinforced, water-resistant nylon shell encasing the customizable camera section top to bottom; sleeves for 13” laptop and tablet; fully adjustable harness with chest strap and waist belt; top access to cradled camera (unzip fully to access all gear); tripod caddy; several pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: While the bag is very protective, it’s not very comfortable when fully loaded, owing to thin padding in the shoulder harness and a narrow, unpadded waist belt; also, it lacks a water bottle pocket needed on a nature outing. Despite some shortcomings, overall, a good value—easy to work out of.
Mountainsmith Borealis ($209); 22x13x9.5”. Fully padded, water-resistant nylon shell with rain flaps over zippers; dual-tier design (reinforced, customizable lower section for photo gear); technical harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; sleeves for 17” laptop plus tablet; tripod caddy; roomy pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: Ergonomic and solidly constructed; a definite improvement on the earlier Borealis AT, although the camera section is no longer removable; likely a tight fit for the overhead bin, so be careful not to overfill; fit my 17” Gateway laptop with protruding battery but made the bag a bit hard on my back. A very good value.
Norazza Ape Case ACPRO3000 Maxess DSLR Backpack ($179); 21x13.5x9.5”. Fully padded (except for zippered roll top), water-resistant polyester shell; dual-tier design (upper for personal gear) with two camera bays below (side access plus rear access); fully adjustable, padded harness with chest strap and waist belt; tripod caddy; several pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: Solid and comfortable; easy to access camera through side panel. An excellent value.
Pelican ProGear S130 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Divider Pack ($178); 18.5x13x10”. Water-repellent nylon shell with reinforced front panel; two-tier design, with fully padded, customizable camera insert (in bottom of bag) usable as separate camera bag; built-in watertight, crushproof laptop case (15” max.) with pressure equalization valve to prevent vacuum lock; fully customizable padded shoulder harness with chest strap and waist belt; airflow back panel.
Evaluation: Solidly built but on the heavy side; while especially handy when protecting an expensive laptop or valuable papers, the hard case could be hard on your back. An excellent value: you get two soft bags and one hard laptop case.
Slinger BigBag Video Backpack BBV1 ($129); 23x14x12”. Reinforced, fully padded, weather-resistant polyester shell; padded, contoured harness with chest strap and tuck-away waist belt; fully customizable interior dedicated to camera gear; padded exterior pockets; 17” laptop sleeve; tripod caddy.
Evaluation: Comfortable harness system; sturdy and spacious, but you may want to add some extra cushioning to fill in some of the spaces; weather-resistant zippers are a nice touch; my 17” Gateway laptop with battery fit snugly, but did not impact comfort. You can’t beat it for price and utility.
Tenba Shootout Backpack LE Medium ($199); 18.5x15x10”. This is an updated version with lighter-weight materials, featuring a reinforced, fully padded, water-repellent nylon shell; technical harness with chest strap and padded waist belt; airflow back panel; customizable interior wholly dedicated to camera gear; tripod caddy; padded exterior pockets; 15” laptop sleeve; rainfly.
Evaluation: Very solid and comfy, even with a full load—kept gear snug (although a few extra dividers would have helped further). Great value, with ready access to all gear.
Vanguard Heralder 51T Rolling Backpack ($299); 22.6x14x11.6”. Reinforced, padded polyester shell; four-wheeled backpack with telescoping trolley handle; tuck-away padded, fully adjustable harness with chest strap and waist belt; airflow back panel; removable, customizable padded insert; tripod caddy; sleeves for tablet and 14” laptop; padded outer pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: I can easily appreciate a four-wheeler at airports and on city streets, especially since the pack is hard on the back and lacks padding in the waist belt; a great bag to work out of on assignment, but laptop sleeve may not be adequate for most. Very good value for the added utility.
Fashionable & Compact Daypacks
These bags are generally stylish and small, intended for leisurely sightseeing, for a day in the park, or as an everyday tote. In any event, you’re not expected to be wearing them for hours on end or carrying a tripod, though they may surprise you with a few convenient features. Many have few straps and adjustments, but should still be comfy on your back, while a few are better equipped to handle more rigorous outings. They’re not intended to carry the kitchen sink, but should be spacious enough for the gear you occasionally need.
Select packs are geared toward women, but some are for men or both. Owing to their lightweight and compact size, it’s tempting to tote such bags over one shoulder, making them easy prey for a snatch-and-grab—so play it safe and use the harness as intended. These bags may be small enough to be carried as a personal item and should fit under the seat on most aircraft.
Booq Python Slimpack ($145); 16.1x10.2x8.3”. Heavily padded, water-resistant nylon shell with rubberized bottom surface; ergonomic harness, with chest strap and waist belt; fully dedicated to camera gear in customizable, padded section; airflow back panel provides access to main section, while top panel offers access to cradled camera; tablet sleeve; tripod caddy; several pockets; rainfly.
Evaluation: Solidly constructed but best suited to sightseeing and nature walks (deduct points for lack of water bottle pocket). Semicircular design is slightly restrictive, possibly forcing you to stow lens shades separate from lenses. Best value in this group.
Elite Brands Isaac Mizrahi The Kathryn Camera Backpack (for women) ($299); 15x12x5”. Not to be confused with the all-leather mini version of the same name, this bag is made of water-resistant canvas with leather accents; removable camera insert (fully padded, customizable); backpack straps; tablet sleeve; several pockets.
Evaluation: Attractive and engaging design; several measures are used to keep the bag closed and secure from prying hands, but that also impedes fast access—top access to camera can be quick if not fully secured; backpack straps leave something to be desired; top flap should serve well in keeping contents dry in a light shower. A good value for the fashion-forward woman on the go.
Epiphanie Sydney (for women) ($165); 15x13x4”. Water-resistant, padded, soft synthetic leather with customizable interior entirely devoted to camera gear; strap converts to backpack/sling/shoulder carry.
Evaluation: Practical as a camera bag, although the pliable nature of the bag makes it difficult to get in and out quickly; lacks an organizer pocket; for your personal comfort, don’t overload it. Worth the price so you won’t have to use a regular handbag as a camera tote, without sacrificing a sense of style.
F-Stop Millar Smoky Mountain ($125); 16.5x12.6x5.1”. Weather-resistant nylon shell with leather accents; dual-tier clamshell design with removable padded, customizable camera insert; several pockets; rainfly optional.
Evaluation: A comfy bag for sightseeing and practical as an everyday camera tote; a tasteful vintage look. Appealing price, inviting design.
Jill-e Jack Collection (for men) Hemingway with optional Jack Backpack Insert 15” ($224 combo price); 16x12.5x6”. Main bag: leather with nylon, partly padded; customizable, fully padded nylon camera insert; 15” laptop sleeve; several pockets.
Evaluation: Surprisingly roomy, though I doubt you’ll want to fill it to capacity; the problem is, there is no quick way to access or return gear, since you have to pull out, then unzip the insert. The supple leather has the feel of luxury, and, if appearances are more important than practicality, you’ll like this bag. Pricey, but worth it, if you’re as much about fashion as photography.
Kelly Moore Bag Chapel Convertible Backpack (for women) ($229); 13x11.5x4.5”. Water-resistant, synthetic exterior with removable padded, customizable camera insert; multiple pockets; supplied with separate straps for backpacking and shoulder carry.
Evaluation: I like the bag’s sophisticated styling, but I’m disappointed by the failure of the top flap to fully cover the interior. Pricey, but if you want a smart-looking, dual-purpose bag (convertible to handbag), go for it.
Lowepro Format Backpack 150 ($49); 12.9x9.5x5.5”. Fully padded, weather-resistant polyester shell; fully dedicated to camera gear; tablet sleeve; several pockets.
Evaluation: Eminently suited to sightseeing and nature walks, but avoid rough handling owing to its pliable shell; tiny enough to fit inside your carry-on or a technical pack; I was pleasantly surprised I could fit my D600 with attached lens, a center-attached sling strap, and more without stressing the bag. Amazing value!
Ona The Bolton Street ($369); 15.5x13.5x6.5”. Handcrafted from water-resistant waxed canvas with leather accents; fully padded, with reinforced floor; padded shoulder harness; dual-tier design (main camera/lens section plus quick-access dual-entrance camera/lens bay on bottom—each customizable); 13” laptop sleeve; modified airflow back panel; several pockets; rain flaps over zippers.
Evaluation: I’d avoid carrying too much, owing to the lack of waist belt and chest harness (leave the laptop home, and limit yourself to compact zooms besides the one attached to the camera); shoulder harness is difficult to adjust on the fly, but if you adjust it once, you’re good to go. Pricey, but a very classy bag, and one of my faves in this group.
Tamrac Mirage 6 Photo/Tablet Backpack, Model 5456 ($119); 16.5x10.5x8”. Fully padded, weather-resistant polyester shell; padded harness with chest strap and tuck-away waist belt; dual-tier design: small upper section and fully customizable camera bay below, with access to all gear via front panel and side panel for quick camera retrieval; tablet sleeve; modified airflow back panel; several pockets; tripod caddy; rainfly.
Evaluation: Sturdy construction and a good fit, although backpack straps are difficult to adjust on the fly; side access was easy to use, even while wearing the pack. Appealing price for a very practical bag.
Timbuk2 Sleuth Camera Backpack ($139); 19.7x12.8x5.9”. Dual-tier design; water-resistant nylon shell, with reinforced, padded lower camera section; adjustable harness with chest strap; modified airflow back panel; laptop sleeve; rain flap for upper section; optional rainfly (recommended).
Evaluation: Ergonomic and stylish; plenty of room in the top section; keeps camera gear well protected against bumps; however, I found the divider system for camera gear poorly designed, although I did make it work. A good price for an all-around backpack.
As noted, these manufacturers have numerous sizes, styles, and types of bags. Visit their websites for more information and options.
Adorama (Slinger): www.adorama.com
Clik Elite: www.clikelite.com
Elite Brands (ISAAC MIZRAHI): www.elitebrands.com
Gura Gear: www.guragear.com
Jill-e Designs: www.jill-e.com
Kelly Moore Bag: www.kellymoorebag.com
MAC Group (Tenba): www.macgroupus.com
MindShift Gear: www.mindshiftgear.com
Norazza (APE CASE): www.norazza.com
Pelican PrOGEAR: www.pelicanprogear.com