Camera Backpacks; Practical Choices With Style

I love photo backpacks. They support the load by means of a shoulder harness system, usually aided by a chest (sternum) strap and often a waist belt so you arrive at your destination no worse for wear. They're great for nature hikes as well as general travel.

I decided to test out a number of them to see how they would fit and perform for the traveling photographer. This meant, for purposes of traveling, modest-size packs that fit in the average airline carryon bin and that can hold one compact or conventional 35mm SLR-style camera (a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II might be a tight fit in some bags), several lenses, and a flash, plus sundry items. In fact, all the bags tested let me tote a complete Canon EOS 5D D-SLR system (minus my 300mm f/4 lens).

Adorama's Mary Farace daypack was loaded with a Canon EOS 5D with a 24-105mm f/4L IS attached plus a 17-40mm f/4L, 100mm macro, 70-200mm f/4L, and 1.4x extender.
Naneu Pro's Alpha carried a Canon EOS 5D with a 70-200mm f/4L attached, 24-105mm f/4L IS, 100mm macro, fisheye, 1.4x extender, and flash.

All but one of the bags tested will accommodate a tripod in one fashion or another; the exception requires optional straps. For comfort and ease of use, I limited my expectations to a compact tripod under 5 lbs, with ball head.

The bags selected come from Adorama (the compact contender), Naneu Pro, National Geographic (Bogen), Tamrac, Tenba, and Think Tank Photo. I could have included Lowepro in this test group, but I did a rather extensive review of a backpack of theirs that matches the specs here in our November 2006 issue (to read that review go to and type "Lowepro" into the Search box), and I thought including it here again would be redundant. I have included them in the contact list at the end of this article. And for a more complete discussion on photo backpacks you can also refer to my article on carryon photo backpacks in the April 2004 issue (also available on the Shutterbug website).

National Geographic's Earth Explorer medium backpack was filled with a Canon EOS 5D with a 24-105mm f/4L IS lens plus fisheye, 100mm macro (with hood for a snug fit), 70-200mm f/4L, 1.4x extender, with the flash in an outside pocket (to which I added padding).

A Closer Look
In testing the bags, I loaded the camera section of each pack up to capacity and took each bag on a brisk one-mile walk and up-and-down a couple of flights of stairs--I know in the first 5 minutes if a bag is a good fit or not. In dual-section bags, loading the pack involved only the lower padded compartment, except for the Think Tank, which held camera gear top and bottom. In each bag, I rearranged the dividers to suit the gear. In some instances, dividers proved superfluous and were removed or were used in layering items or to cover the lens attached to the camera for a snug fit. In certain instances, I may have added a pad beneath the camera body for a better fit.

Interestingly, of the bags compartmentalized into top and bottom sections, none reviewed sported the more traditional clamshell design. The upper tier is usually for sundries, with the lower padded section (with adjustable dividers) dedicated to camera and lenses.

Tenba's Shootout small backpack easily held a Canon EOS 5D with a 70-200mm f/4L lens attached plus a 24-105mm f/4L IS, 17-40mm f/4L, 100mm macro, fisheye, 1.4x extender, and flash.
Think Tank's Rotation360 split the load, with the belt pack carrying a Canon EOS 5D with a 24-105mm f/4L IS plus flash and fisheye, while the upper tier (right) held a 100mm macro, 17-40mm f/4L, 70-200mm f/4L, and 1.4x extender.

Access to photo gear on the Tamrac Adventure 9 and National Geographic Earth Explorer packs is by way of a front panel, with the Naneu Pro Alpha and Think Tank Revolution360 adding their own twist. Naneu Pro provides rear access away from prying hands; Think Tank gives you a front panel on top and a pull-out belt pack on the bottom.

Tamrac's Adventure 9 ported a Canon EOS 5D with a 24-105mm f/4L IS plus a 17-40mm f/4L, 100mm macro, 70-200mm f/4L, 1.4x extender, and flash.