Camera bags are relatively straightforward, but there are a lot of them, and personal preference plays a huge part in their selection. Look for solid construction, thick padding on inner compartments, professional stitching, zippered or Velcro pouches, and numerous places to put things.
And don't worry if you think you'll need more than one bag. All the photographers I know have several, each for a different shooting condition or job.
As with all the bags, there are plenty of great manufactures to choose from, and they've each got bags at a variety of price points. What works well for one photographer is a lousy choice for another. The best way to pick a bag is the same way you'd choose a coat: go to a good store and try it out. A good camera store will have dozens of bags, so spend some time putting them on and seeing how they feel. There's nothing worse than having a poorly made bag digging into your side for a week of travel.
The most popular type of photographic carry bag is the shoulder bag, even though they're often cumbersome and put a lot of pressure on your shoulder (Figure 2.11). Ranging from pocketbook size to monster bags you could use to smuggle children, their advantage is that they rest comfortably against your noncamera side and easily flip open for access without having to remove them as you would a backpack.
Figure 2.11. Shoulder bags are a popular way to carry camera gear because it's easy to get into them without putting them down. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Shoulder bags come in a variety of materials, from canvas to ripstop nylon (that thick black nylon found in sporting goods). All provide some means of top-of-bag access to photographic gear and pouches.
Regardless of the bag's size or capacity, straps should be well padded and wide. Interior sections should have sufficient padding to protect several expensive glass lenses. And there should be enough storage space for whatever type of packer you are. There's nothing more dangerous for your camera gear than throwing it all together inside a cramped bag.
Depending on their size, shoulder bags are great for daytrips and photographic excursions lasting from a few days to a few weeks, but the longer your trip and the more gear you're taking the heavier they become. On an extended voyage, consider taking a small shoulder bag as your day bag, while packing additional photo gear in one of the other types of bags.
Less popular but sometimes more practical than a shoulder bag is a photographic backpack, which offers greater support for heavy photographic loads at the expense of easy access (Figure 2.12).
Figure 2.12. Some photographers prefer to work out of a backpack, and simply set it down when they want to take photos. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Backpack bags are essential on any trip that involves extended hiking, cycling, or climbing. In the small shoulder bag arena it's OK to pick a noncamera bag for your gear as long as it's well padded, but in backpacks, look for products designed for photography. Most come with moveable dividers to perfectly cushion your gear and with zippered bag access spots, clip-on points for additional bags, and other camera-only features you'll come to rely on.
The best photographic backpacks are made of waterproof materials and have built-in rain covers for extra protection. Thickly padded straps are a must, and a waist level cinch belt can help stabilize the bag on long walks.
Rolling Camera Cases
For the ardent plane traveler, the rolling camera case is a boon, a traveling office that can be pulled by a collapsible handle or picked up and carried like a briefcase (Figure 2.13). Some also have backpack straps tucked behind a zippered pouch, making them even more useful.
Figure 2.13. If you're going to be moving the cases around yourself, look for models that have wheels built-in. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
The internal plastic or metal frames required to add stability to the rolling bags often make them feel less portable than a backpack or shoulder bag, and they tend to weigh much more than either other option even when they're the same size. But they're a great choice for long-weekend photo jaunts because of their flexibility and the amount of carrying space. Many of these bags also feature laptop pouches, enabling you to carry your camera gear and computer gear in the same pack.
When it comes to weeks-long photo trips or any situation where your camera gear will get thrown into a plane's cargo hold instead of transported safely in the overhead compartment, turn to a hard-shell case (Figure 2.16) constructed of durable plastics or metals.
Figure 2.16. Large shoulder bags allow a photographer to carry a second camera as well as other accessories, like filters and a digital wallet. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
These cases feature oversized latches, and come with either moveable padded inserts or foam called "pick and pluck" that allows you to customize the configuration of your box. Of course, if you change your gear setup, you'll need a new set of foam.
Pelican has long been a trusted name in hard-shell photo cases, and while it's not the only player, its containers are the ones to measure others by. Some models now come with wheels and handles, making them much more transportable.
Figure 2.14. For shipping large amounts of equipment, it's hard to beat the hard cases, which are designed to protect your gear from the rigors of travel. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Can't take it with you? Insure the heck out of your camera gear and ship your equipment to your destination by overnight delivery.
While they aren't the most visually stunning accompaniments to your wardrobe, hip packs are a good way to extend your storage options without bolting things onto a camera bag (Figure 2.15). Stash small, frequently used items in your hip pack so you don't have to disturb the contents of your shoulder bag. Or head out with a camera over your shoulder and some memory cards in your pouch for the ultraminimalist approach.
Figure 2.15. Some photographers prefer smaller bags that can be worn on the waist, taking the weight off the neck and shoulders. (Photo by Dick Whipple)
Since you can't see behind you, fanny packs are a more theft-prone solution than hip packs. Try wearing yours with the pack in the front or use it to store a light raincoat or gloves, but don't put in expensive camera gear if it's exposed.
When shopping for a bag, be sure to consider your computer needs. If you're traveling with a laptop you'll either want to carry it in its own padded bag, or chose a style of camera bag with a compartment for computer gear. These models are usually designated as being for photojournalists (since news photographers need to take both a computer and camera at all times), but they work for anyone.
If your computer is going in a separate bag, keep that in mind when picking your photo bag. No mater how you try, you can't wear two backpacks. If it's going in your camera bag, remember to pick a size large enough to accommodate it.