No piece of camera equipment says more about its owner than the ubiquitous gadget bag. They come in all sizes and colors, every shape and configuration, and they have been constructed from just about every material under the sun. The best gadget bag designs are born from photographers' needs. Every major bag company has cultivated a network of users who provide real-world input and help refine product development.
Listen To Your Customer
"If we get an e-mail from a guy who wants a bag to carry a Hasselblad and a poodle, it's probably just him," says Ryan Cyr, the man behind the Tamrac brand. "But if we get five, there's probably a market."
The idea for one of Tamrac's all-time best-selling bags, the Super Pro 14 (Model 614), was rejected the first time Cyr heard it. It was during the mid-1970s, and Cyr and his wife Jesselyn, the woman who founded Tamrac, were attending Photokina in Cologne, Germany. "Photokina exhibits were set up like fortresses, and consumers weren't allowed inside a manufacturer's booth. My wife and I chose to meet with consumers while our distributors met with retailers," Cyr explains.
"About halfway through the show, we were approached by two burly Germans—rough-looking types wearing jeans with holes in them," he continues. "We had a bit of a language issue, but they were telling us that they wanted a huge camera bag—actually, an enormous bag. We listened politely, but we told them that the bag they were asking for was too big. A bag that large would weigh 45 to 50 pounds full—no one would carry a bag like that.
"So they told us that they had made such a bag themselves and left," Cyr says. "We thought that was the end of it. It wasn't. They took a train home and brought back their homemade bag—packed full of equipment. We took a close look at it, and my wife and I said to each other, 'These guys are really committed to this bag.' So we developed it for Tamrac."
Adds Cyr, "For many years it was our top seller. I thought no one in their right mind would believe anyone would carry around that much gear. It shows that you really have to listen to your customer."
Crumpler, the gadget bag maker from the land of Vegemite sandwiches and kangaroos, is establishing themselves in the U.S. and rapidly gaining popularity among Americans—young Americans, in particular. Their product lineup includes such interesting models as Thirsty Al, The Sinking Barge and The 7 Million Dollar Home. From a distance, they appear colorful, zany and impetuous. Closer examination, however, shows that the bags are clever, sturdy and creative.
"Crumpler, in general, champions function over form," says Lindsay Cousley, president of Crumpler USA. "We simplify the bags the best we can, but keep them functional as well—not a lot of clutter.
"The designs themselves are created—all of them—by Stu Crumpler and a small design team in Australia," he adds. "Stu is an artist and industrial designer. We'll mull over the customer feedback, then Stu will go away for a week and be creative and come back with new colors and designs.
Explains Cousley, "In the early days of Crumpler, bag design was more a case of 'function follows form.' A bag was conceived and designed, and then people had to figure out what to do with it. There was a time when Stu would design a bag just because he loved to design bags. But right now, our line is pretty dialed in."
Bag Saves Photographer
"Photographers can be passionate about their camera bags," according to Suzanne Caballero at Lowepro, "and that's what our designers are thinking about when they bring a new bag out of the design department."
Talking about Lowepro's long list of innovations, Caballero is quick to describe the collaborative relationship Lowepro has with photographers: "Much of Lowepro's inspiration is sparked by feedback from the top professional photographers in the business. No one is as demanding as a pro who relies on his or her gear to make a living. As the technology, hardware and workflow have changed, it has impacted how photographers carry their gear. Our designers spend time researching state-of-the-art materials and testing carrying solutions with those photographers to ensure that the product we develop exceeds their expectations."
We asked Caballero what was the wildest, most unusual suggestion Lowepro had ever received, and she told us a customer wanted "to be able to dive underwater with his camera bag." Then she told us a story about one photographer who inadvertently did just that and nearly lost her life.
Recalls Caballero, "Brooke McDonald was photographing baby seals in the Magdalen Islands of Labrador, Canada, when she broke through an ice floe. Her DryZone 200 backpack saved her life. In preparing for the trip, McDonald had originally intended to buy a rolling bag, but the salesperson wisely told her it was a bad idea to roll a bag onto an ice floe. Instead, he sold her a Lowepro DryZone 200, a first of its kind, which had just come out.
"Luckily for her, it floats even when fully loaded with up to 65 pounds of gear. When McDonald fell through the ice, because of the buoyancy of the bag, she popped back up instead of sinking beneath the ice and was able to be rescued. Once safe and dry, she assessed the contents of the DryZone and found everything was in perfect working order. Nothing was damaged. Of course, we don't recommend using a camera bag as a life jacket, but we want everything we make to be able to withstand the rigors and unpredictable hazards of professional use."
The carry gear that bears the KATA label belongs to the brotherhood of bags that are deployed in active combat zones. A peek at the military section of the KATA website reveals an array of protective body armor, combat technical vests, military packs and riggings, as well as photo and video bags.
The founders and owners of KATA, Nitzan Kimchi and Dror Tishler, became experts at designing and building tactically functional, lightweight protective gear during their service in an elite combat unit of Israel's military. As one might expect, the bags are strong but extremely light in weight, thanks in part to strategic use of TST, Thermoshield Technology. "The Thermoshield Technology brings a protective rigid structure to a soft case without adding significant weight," according to Kimchi.
But you don't have to wait until you're facing extreme conditions to appreciate the benefits of using KATA bags. They provide high functionality in all situations, such as the trademark yellow interior that makes it easier to find small parts under any lighting condition.
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.
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.