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Friday, December 1, 2006

The Story Behind The Bag

Camera bag designs are based on very real photographers' needs. Here are some of their stories.


Living on the "sharp end of the rope" has been one of the driving forces behind Mountainsmith bags. Patrick Smith, an avid outdoorsman, founded the company in the 1970s. Many of the bags offered were designed for those involved in ice climbing and alpine mountaineering. The technology the company has developed for climbers is used in their camera bags.

"Consumers and dealers provide input," says Geoff O'Keefe, president of Mountainsmith. "We review new concepts with our sales reps at trade shows and do the kickoff with them in brainstorming sessions. In addition, we speak to pros—a loose network of professionals who we talk to from time to time. But because we serve such a broad audience, we need to listen to all input.

"We're only interested in being unique in a category or being a very strong contender," O'Keefe says. "We're either something special or else we must provide a unique way to solve a problem."

Responding to requests for more color variation, Mountainsmith has added five colors of camera pouches for spring 2007, including currant red, powder blue, lime green and mustard yellow, plus traditional black.


"The bag business is a fashion business," says Michael Hess, the founder and president of RoadWired. The Tenba brand is a joint venture of RoadWired and the MAC Group. "Although we want people to like the material and features, the first threshold is that they have to like the way a bag looks—it's an extension of their personality."

Photographers' needs have changed dramatically over the past 10 years. They still lug around cameras and lenses, but now they also carry computers and LCD projectors.

"The biggest challenge is merging notebook computers with camera equipment," Hess adds. "The two shapes are in conflict. Hundreds of bags have been designed trying to provide an adequate solution."

The company developed the RoadWired Roadster to address this need. Its modular insert allows the user to switch the configuration from a camera case or projector case to regular luggage. The development process lasted longer than two years.

"We think like photographers, but we also think like travelers," says Hess. "We really do go through the mental walk and ask ourselves, 'What could go wrong on a trip?' Little things matter, otherwise it's JAB—just another bag. Air travel is challenging because the small storage places and tight seats work against bag design."

But some customers are impossible to please. At a trade show in Washington, D.C., Hess overheard a customer complaining to the product manager because there was no perfect bag. "I need something to hold cans," the customer said. "Spaghetti cans." And he followed with a 20-minute description of how he includes spaghetti cans in his still-life shots. He was upset because by the time he packed his camera gear, there was no room left for spaghetti.

Achieving Equilibrium

All bag designs must achieve a balance between protection, comfort and accessibility. Doug Murdoch, president and chief designer for Think Tank Photo, has been obsessively pursuing the ideal equilibrium for much of his life. The concept behind Think Tank's latest product, the Rotation 360, has been in development for more than 15 years. As a consultant, and later as a designer for major bag manufacturers, Murdoch has doggedly searched for a solution to the archetypical problem: heavy photo gear must be fully supported, but photographers must be able to get at it quickly.

"Innovative designs come to fruition sooner through the photo industry because there's a real need for photographers to access their gear faster," Murdoch says. "There have been many companies who have made backpacks that are supported on belt packs, but none became a real success because it was too hard to access the gear."

Adds Murdoch, "If the photographer could release the storage compartment on the backpack and rotate into the service position, it would be a great benefit. But the problem with earlier designs has been that when the pack is returned to the rear carrying position, it's too hard to reconnect."

The Think Tank Rotation 360 solves the problem by using a rigid horizontal hole that runs through the bottom of the backpack. This allows a medium-sized belt pack to travel through the opening and around the girth of the wearer. The end result is a carry system that keeps the weight behind you (where your body can best support it) when it's not needed and in front of you when you need it.

Maybe the real reason why bags become so personal is because they carry our "camera stuff." Our gear identifies who we are and how we pursue our passion of photography. Whether it's a telephoto lens, a can of spaghetti or a Hasselblad-poodle combination that we want to carry, we all expect to find the perfect bag with just the right number of pockets and pouches. Gadget bag manufacturers are committed to delivering what we want.



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