Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Camera Bag-gery

Camera bag choice seems to be a very personal thing. I read around the web numerous stories of how photographer x has tried all sorts of bags and has finally landed up with Brand Z as the acme of bag perfection... Or the equally numerous stories of how photographer z has tried every bag on the market and still can't get one that works. Bags are clearly a minefield, strewn with the exploded remnants of discarded backpacks, shoulder, messenger and waist bags, harnesses and so on.

My preference in the "old days" of 35mm was for a semi-rigid shoulder bag. I had a brand x model I'd picked up from somewhere for my edited kit, and big, blue Lowepro for the complete outfit. They are gathering dust in the loft now, and look amazingly dated, although similar bags can still be purchased. In fact my E500 kit came with a sort of black version of the brand x - predictably with "Olympus" printed on it in big white letters. As far as I can remember, I have always hated product labels, and especially on things like bags and neck straps. On bags, I think you might as well have a sign saying: "Hi! I'm a camera bag! Steal me NOW!". In any event, why should I advertise Olympus's products for them, when I don't even get a discount for doing so?

Returning to serious photography in 2006 meant having to address the bag issue, especially as I had always hated lugging that big blue Lowepro around anyway. In fact, with my OM system, I could usually get by with a couple of lenses stashed in pockets or a bum bag for most things. However, as my DSLR outfit grew, I quickly realised this wasn't an option any more - everything was bigger and heavier for a start.

Travelling abroad made me recall that I hated looking like a tourist (nothing winds me up like being greeting by a peddler in English in the middle of Florence), and with the theft issue also in mind, I resolved to look at non-camera bag bags if at all possible. Looking around, I liked the look of the messenger bag concept, and particularly the somewhat eccentric offerings of Crumpler. Once I started looking, I saw a good many of them around, looking refreshingly un-camera bag, but reassuringly robust.

Once I decided the sort of thing I wanted, a visit to eBay was in order, and I ended up with an olive green Crumpler Geekstar. As invariably seems to happen, I was delighted with how spacious it seemed: "plenty of room in here," I thought. "No way will I fill this up!". Wrong - as usual! The Geekstar fits my E510, plus ZD 14-54mm standard zoom, with my ZD11-22mm, Sigma 105mm and EC-14 teleconverter in the top. My ZD 7-14mm lives in the bottom "secret compartment". The ZD 50-200mm fits vertically in the side. There's also room for a selection of Cokin filters, leads and remote, cleaning gear, a small beanbag and memory cards. The whole caboodle weighs in at around 16lbs - OK for short distances, but that's all. The 50-200 was the last straw here - the diminutive Sigma 55-200mm is not in the same league optically, but does score on weight!

I needed something that would carry a bit more, a lot more comfortably, and tried the Lowpro Slingshot 300AW. Smaller versions of the bag with less weight may be OK, but full, it made me feel distinctly lopsided, and I could feel in doing my back in with every step - despite using the waistbelt to take the majority of the load. Also there was nowhere to fix a tripod or a monopod (nearly resulting in an accident on the Farne Islands last year). As a replacement, I settled on a Tamrac Expedition 7 - lots of space, good build and good, wide straps! There's also space to attach a tripod and locations for essentials like water bottles. I have only used this loaded a couple of times, and am not at all certain about it, although it will probably have to do for this year's Farnes trip in June.

However, I am still hunting for the elusive "ideal" bag. As well as the above kit, I need something that will also accommodate my E1, my Sigma 135-400mm and an FL50 flash, and preferably a few other accessories like a light meter, a bigger beanbag and so on. I should be able to get these in the Tamrac, but I need to completely re-arrange the interior, and haven't had a chance to do so!

I would also like something a lot smaller than the Crumpler for day-to-day use. It's tempting to carry everything, but it's just getting too heavy. Realistically, a body, lens and one extra lens are all I really need. Simply taking stuff out of the Crumpler is one option, of course, but a smaller bag will enourage me to edit! I'm currently looking at options suggested on the Olympus UK E-System User Group including the Billingham Hadley Pro, and the Naneu Pro Lima. Unfortunately, I've only been able to find the latter through Fotosense, and I would like to try before I buy! There are also Crumpler options, but I need to go and check them out in a store. It's actually very difficult to visualise a bag as an object, I find, and they always seem to be larger in practice than on paper.

If anyone out here ever does make the perfect bag, I think they'll be killed in the rush, but at the moment, I really don't think it exists!

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