Camera Bag Buyer’s Guide

We’ve spent the better part of a week covering various types of camera gear, and now you’re going to need a place to store all that swag. After all, camera equipment seems to multiply quicker than a hutch of randy rabbits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. But you’re going to have to find something in which to store and/or carry all of that stuff, and that’s where things get interesting. There’s no one size fits all solution. After all, it’s not just about finding something that fits everything; it’s also about whether it fits you, and fits your style of travel and shooting.  Here are the most common types of camera bags, with a handful of specific recommendations thrown in for good measure.

Duffels: If you got one of those camera “bundles” that had a camera, memory card, and a few extra doodads, chances are that one of the extras was a camera bag branded with the company’s logo. These generally provide enough space for the body and a couple of lenses, along with a few other things. The problem — at least in my experience — is that their bulk belies a startling lack of space on the inside, and makes them a bear and a half (metric) to try to carry, since they tend to protrude and bounce if you’re using them with a shoulder strap. Add to that the fact that the company logo screams, “EXPENSIVE GEAR FOR YOUR THEIVING PLEASURE!” and you may want to consider other options. However, there are other duffels – like those made by Domke – that provide ample space, thoughtful design, and even a touch of style.

Waist/Holster Packs look like an oversized, tricked-out fanny pack. Some, like Tamrac’s 5515 Adventure Zoom, look very much like fanny packs, in fact. There are also bags like the LowePro Toploader, which have a longer, less discrete profile. Then you’ve got holsters, like the Think Tank Digital Holster 10, which bear a passing resemblance to a pistol holster (and, in the case of the Think Tank, have an expandable zipper at the bottom to accommodate bodies and lenses of different sizes). Most of these can either be worn on a belt or a specialized carrying system, and most will also allow you to attach a shoulder strap.

Satchels/Messenger Bags are great for the times you’d rather not call attention to yourself or your gear. The designs tend to place a premium on style and stealth rather than padding, so they’re not as well-suited to, say, a long hike. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to blend in on a city street, a satchel is just the ticket. Typically, you’ll be able to fit your camera (with lens), at least one spare lens, plus batteries, memory cards, et cetera. Crumpler’s Million Dollar Home series are beloved by many photographers for combining function with stealth, and Kata’s bags perform well also.

Slings shouldn’t be overlooked. I own a Lowepro Slingshot AW202, with which I’m quite happy (though it’s starting to get a bit cramped). Why? Better form factor than a duffel and better protection (and, in the mid- to large-range, more room) than a satchel, plus better weight distribution than either. While they’re not quite as comfortable as a backpack, they do provide much easier access to your camera and gear.

Backpacks work best when you have a lot of gear — a multitude of lenses, speedlights, batteries, bodies, laptops, etc. – and absolutely must carry all of it. Yes, they’re heavy, and bulky, and it can be a pain in the ass getting your camera in and out to shoot quickly. But they’re also better designed for the weight and bulk, and distribute it better on your body, making them ideal if you’re in the habit of schlepping a lot of gear, on foot, over long distances. Some also come with wheels for the times when you’d like to give your back and shoulders a break.

Hard Cases are worth considering if you’ve got to check your gear on a flight, or you’re worried about dust, water, shock, or any number of other occupational hazards. They’re padded generously, built like armored cars, and heavy as a baby rhino when they’re loaded (when the bag’s loaded, that is; stay away from drunken African fauna). They’re generally water-resistant (though some are billed as being waterproof). They’re also expensive, but much less so than having to replace your gear if it gets wet or terribly banged-up. Pelican makes some of the most-respected hard cases in the industry, though you can also get by with less-expensive alternatives from Promaster or relative newcomer Nanuk (whose cases, rather than being targeted at photographers, are touted for their flexibility for everyone from paramedics to geologists).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (and at the risk of looking silly given that the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, in the interest of full disclosure), I don’t suggest buying camera bags online unless you’ve checked them out in person first (and if you’ve done that, for Pete’s sake, support your local camera shop, unless “your local camera shop” is a Best Buy in a strip mall on the highway, in which case feel free to buy wherever).

The differences in size and layout may look — and might even be — miniscule between one bag and another, but there’s no substitute for loading a bag up with your gear and seeing how it feels around your neck, shoulders and back. It’s not that different than buying shoes, actually, because a bad fit can lead to all sorts of discomfort when you’re schlepping your gear around for the day. The amount of room available varies from one to the next, so you’re going to want to give a lot of thought to what you’re carrying (and why), and what will be the smallest solution possible for that amount of gear. Besides checking for fit and finish, I also suggest checking out the bag’s degree of weather/water resistance. Messenger bags tend to be downright lousy in this respect (since most are open at the top, and still have significant gaps even with the flap down). Many bags have rain-repellent covers that you can deploy (especially from LowePro and ThinkTank), but check to see how much coverage they provide, and how easy it is to get them out of their pouch or compartment and over the bag.

Any suggestions, or personal favorites, when it comes to carrying a bag that’s stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey? Sound off in the comments below!

Postscript: If you’ve found the perfect bag and it’s not a camera bag, don’t despair. Head to for tips on converting it into a serviceable camera bag. The same thing can be done with a hard-sided case or laptop bag, with the only difference being that instead of using the padded inserts found in most camera bags, the easiest thing to do is go somewhere that sells upholstery or fabric and buy thick, dense foam. You can then cut it to size, and cut inserts in the foam for lenses, flash, camera body, and anything else you’d like to squeeze in there.

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