With several camera bodies, numerous lenses and an endless array of accessories, it's no wonder most photographers love those cavernous camera bags. However, lugging around a heavy, bulky load is often inconvenient, if not impossible or even dangerous.
When you want to travel light, a small bag is sufficient to hold your SLR, one or two lenses and a few accessories, and can save you a lot of hassle at the airport. If you plan to shoot a specific subject and you only need one lens, bringing all of your usual gear to the location is unnecessary. A compact, lightweight bag can be more comfortable to carry on long hikes and is safer when scrambling over rocks to that prime location.
It's useful to have one or two smaller bags in addition to your spacious carry-all for situations like these. Look for a bag that's made of light, but durable, weatherproof material—it should withstand sun, rain, wind and almost anything else you might encounter while outdoors. Water-resistant exteriors can keep water from penetrating the bag if it gets splashed, but rain can still seep inside through porous zipper openings. Flaps that go over the opening often help lessen the chances of this occurring. A highly effective solution to both rain and dirt is a rain-proof cover that stretches over the entire bag and can be used when necessary.
Comfort is key since you'll most likely be carrying these bags around for longer periods of time. It's preferable to have several options available so you can adjust the position of the bag to fit your needs. Padded shoulder straps are comfortable and let you move the bag around with ease, allowing you to put it down as you please. You can shorten or lengthen the straps to suit your needs, sling the bag over one shoulder (but there's a danger it could slip off) or loop it diagonally across your chest for a more secure hold.
Waist belts or belt loops are very convenient when you want to fasten your gear around your waist and not have to worry about your bag swinging into a rock while you're hiking. Distributing the weight around the waist is often less cumbersome than carrying a bag over your shoulder. When a shoulder strap and waist belt are available, use both to maximize your comfort and the security of your equipment. Because your bag isn't likely to be extremely heavy, non-slip hand grips are another option for carrying your bag. Some bags can be converted into backpacks or chest packs for further versatility.
Pockets and customizable interiors can help organize your gear so you can get to it quickly when photo opportunities arise. How the bag opens, typically by zippers or buckles, also affects the accessibility of your gear. Zippers offer a tighter barrier against water and dirt, but other types of fasteners, such as buckles and straps, facilitate faster opening and closing. A tall, narrow bag will rest comfortably against your body, but your photographic tools may be harder to reach if they're stacked on top of each other. Conversely, a wider bag will spread out your equipment, but may jut out awkwardly.
Extra features to consider are mesh pockets, easy-to-clean fabrics and D-rings, or similar attachment points, where you can secure a water bottle and fold-up reflectors or pack towels and additional lens pouches. Below is a sampling of compact bags that offer many of the functional qualities mentioned here.
The Slinger is a multi-purpose bag that can be worn as a sling bag, backpack or waist bag, and features a foam-padded camera cradle that allows an SLR to fit snugly with its lens attached, leaving room for a couple of lenses, a flash and other necessities. Several internal and external pockets, including a special zippered security pocket, provide plenty of space for smaller items. Other features include an extra-wide padded shoulder strap, four D-rings for clip-on accessories, and a water-resistant exterior. Dimensions: 10 (l) x 10 (h) x 4 (w) inches. List Price: $39.95.
Billingham Bags (RTS)
Designed for smaller SLR cameras, the L2 is a protective carrying case ideal for all-day use. The dual-laminate, waterproof canvas exterior and side weather flaps shelter your gear from rain, wind and dust. Instead of zippers, a solid brass bolt and leather harness secure your camera, and the quick-fold top allows for easy access. With the Superflex partition system (dividers included), interior back pocket and gusseted front pocket, you can efficiently organize your equipment for a day in the field. Dimensions: 10.5 (w) x 7.75 (h) x 5.75 (d) inches. List Price: $245.
Made for the traveling photographer, the PRO BAG 4 is a slim bag featuring two large side pockets, a removable film holder, tripod straps, a built-in weather cover and a multi-pocketed front organizer section. The customizable interior, with padded modular dividers, has room for a pro SLR with attached lens, additional lenses, flash, light meters and other accessories. A two-inch-wide shoulder strap, with a skid-proof pad, ensures comfort and protection. Thickly cushioned on all sides with waterproof fabric, this bag helps protect your gear from all kinds of damage. Dimensions: 12.75 (l) x 9.75 (w) x 8 (h) inches. List Price: $128.
The versatile F-5XB Shoulder/Belt Bag can be used either as a camera bag slung over your shoulder or as a belt bag worn snugly around your waist. By removing the included Gripper Shoulder strap and sliding your belt through the tunnel on the back, you get an instant waist pack. With seven compartments and pockets, it comfortably fits one SLR or rangefinder camera, one or two lenses, filters, film and accessories. The main compartment is surrounded by soft knit fabric over padding and includes two movable/removable cushioned divider walls. Dimensions: 10.5 (l) x 4.5 (w) x 6.5 (d) inches. List Price: $79.95.
Lightweight and compact, the Nova Mini AW is well-suited for those days when you want to travel light. Its capacity is one SLR with one to two lenses or a flash and extra lens. Accessory pockets provide all the space you need for your film, batteries and other essentials. The All-Weather Cover keeps out rain, sand and dust, while the water-resistant outer fabric prevents further damage from moisture. A pressed-foam shoulder strap, padded handle and belt loops add to the convenience of this recently redesigned bag. Dimensions: 6.5 (w) x 3.5 (d) x 6.5 (h) inches. List Price: $35.99.
The Grand Canyon accommodates all styles of SLR camera bodies with room for two lenses and a flash. The removable lens rest and adjustable dividers help organize the interior space, which is lined with ultra-soft, non-abrasive material. Three pockets afford extra space. In addition to the oversized top flap, a protective jacket that covers the entire bag defends your equipment against inclement weather. Two padded, adjustable shoulder straps can be used to carry the Grand Canyon as a shoulder bag, backpack or chest pack. Dimensions: 6.75 (h) x 9.5 (w) x 4.75 (d) inches. List Price: $56.
Part of the Soft Sided Series from Pelican, the PCS140 is easy to carry and makes for a hassle-free travel companion. It neatly stores one SLR with two lenses and accessories in its divided main compartment. For quick access to your gear, you can open the bag from the top or the front side. Multiple pockets on the outside allow you to keep miscellaneous items close at hand. The adjustable fanny-pack belt tucks away and the shoulder strap is removable. Dimensions: 11.5 (w) x 9 (h) x 5.5 (d) inches. List Price: $69.95.
With its distinctive winged outer-pocket configuration, the Podzilla is easily recognizable as a useful tool in transporting your photography equipment. You can fit a full-sized SLR in the padded main compartment and plenty of other accessories in the 20 or more pockets. An exclusive, one-piece segmented divider panel can be fastened in a variety of positions within the main space. All materials are water-repellent, and further protection is afforded by the oversized, dual-closure weather flap. A padded, moisture-wicking mesh panel behind the belt loops provides added comfort when wearing the bag as a waist pack. Dimensions: 9.25 (l) x 9 (h) x 6.5 (d) inches. List Price: $69.95.
As the name indicates, the Superlight 2's main feature is its very light weight. Made to hold just the essentials, the bag uses pillars to support an SLR with a zoom lens attached so that you're ready for any photo opportunity. A mesh pocket in the top stores filters, lens caps or cleaning materials. You can keep film, maps and personal items readily accessible in the front zippered pocket and back open pocket. An adjustable shoulder strap and an EasyGrip handle provide convenient carrying options. Dimensions: 8.75 (w) x 6 (d) x 9 (h) inches. List Price: $41.95.
Made of a waterproof, rugged material that's non-abrasive and easy to clean, the comfortable P503 Traveler is perfect for a day of shooting outdoors. A two-inch-wide adjustable shoulder strap, lined with non-skid material, makes it easy to carry for hours. A quick-closing, rainproof top and a zipper top that resists snow, dust and sand provide two layers of protection. When traveling by airplane, you can store your film in the "Airport Express" removable pocket. Four D-rings allow you to attach accessories to the bag. Dimensions: 9 (l) x 7 (h) x 4.5 (d) inches. List Price: $90.