Gadget Bag: Photo Backpacks

Modern materials coupled with innovative designs provide more choices than ever
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Adorama
Adorama Slinger Safar

There was a time when choosing any camera bag meant making a compromise. Not so long ago, we were forced to decide between how well the bag protected our gear and how easily our equipment could be accessed. This was particularly true with photo backpacks. But today, the combination of durable, lightweight synthetic materials and innovative designs means we can choose a backpack that perfectly suits our needs.

Besides accessibility and protection, there are five other characteristics to consider when selecting a photo backpack. They are: capacity, comfort, durability, cosmetics and, of course, price. Think about how and where you plan to use the backpack, and it will be easy to decide which of the features are most important to you. Remember, there’s no such thing as the perfect backpack, but there are packs that are perfect for a specific purpose.

Capacity
Many photographers carry a notebook computer along with their camera gear, so capacity is a good starting point. If you pack a 17-inch laptop, your choices are more limited than the guy who carries a single camera body and a few lenses. Carefully consider what your normal cargo inventory will include, otherwise you may end up with a pack that’s too small. And don’t forget to allow space for your flash unit, light meter and things like binoculars, a GPS navigator and a mini-tripod.

The flip side of capacity is size. If you buy a bag that’s too big, you’ll wind up leaving it at home. Most airlines limit the size of carry-on bags to a combined length plus width plus girth of 45 inches (usually something like 22x14x9) with a weight limit of 40 pounds. If you travel internationally, other rules may apply.

Comfort
Comfort is important, especially if you’re one of the many ardent photographers who suffer from nagging back or neck pain. How much does the bag weigh empty? Look for a backpack that has wide, padded straps. Many bags have a sort of harness that interconnects across the chest or waist and allows you to redistribute the load to achieve better balance. A properly balanced load helps prevent one muscle group from becoming more fatigued than the others, and that means greater comfort.

Lowepro
Lowepro Vertex 200AW
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Mountainsmith
Mountainsmith Borealis AT
Kata
Kata HB-205 Hiker
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Tamrac
Tamrac 5587 Expedition 7x
compare prices

The final factor shaping the state of digital memory is cost. Digital memory cards continue to become more affordable. Standard-performance 1 GB SD cards cost less than $10, while 2 GB cards can be routinely found for less than $20. Even high-performance cards are quite reasonable, because intense competition for market share among card makers has kept street prices artificially low. The next time you shop for memory cards, check out the new crop of card readers. You can’t fully realize the benefits of faster cards if you’re still using a slow card reader. SanDisk, for example, offers a nifty FireWire-compatible card reader that’s capable of read/write speeds up to 40 MBps.

Durability
Stick with a name brand, and construction quality will never be an issue. Major manufacturers often use a nylon-derivative construction material because it’s strong, lightweight and somewhat water repellant, but not all ballistic nylon is created equal. The linear mass, or “heaviness” of the fabric is graded in denier—higher numbers are better. Snaps and zippers matter, too. Look for heavy-duty hardware that looks like it will withstand significant abuse. Many popular backpacks come with rain covers that provide substantial protection when caught in a downpour—you won’t need them until you need them—and then you’ll really appreciate them.

Cosmetics
All sorts of styles and color choices are available. Some backpacks resemble military equipment, some appear downright preppy, and others sport a streamlined mountaineering look. It comes down to personal taste, of course, but it’s prudent to think ahead. You probably won’t want to carry that camouflage pack while wearing a business suit, and you really don’t want a backpack that screams: “I’m full of cameras! Steal me!”

Protection Vs. Accessibility
By definition, backpacks position the gear behind you. Depending on the design of the bag, it can be hard to reach a lens or accessory when you need it most. Sling-type packs overcome this problem to a large extent—without sacrificing protection—because the payload can be quickly swung around from your back to your front. If speed and accessibility aren’t your first requirements, you have more choices.

Internal organization is an important element of both accessibility and protection. Every photo backpack provides some means to create adjustable internal compartments, usually by shifting around those familiar hook-and-eye fasteners to secure the partitions. Often it’s these padded walls that protect the equipment from impact trauma and other damage. Be certain that the pack you buy includes good, padded dividers.

The Adorama Slinger Safari photo backpack combines high-tech military styling with highly functional storage solutions to deliver a pack that’s as handsome as it is useful. The upper compartment will stow a jacket or other personal items, while the padded lower compartment, which is accessible by a zippered front opening, features a set of modular dividers that separate and protect camera gear. The computer pouch will accommodate a 15-inch notebook PC that can be quickly extracted for TSA inspection. Altogether there are seven exterior pockets and pouches that hold miscellaneous items of various sizes.


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Naneu Pro
Naneu Pro Adventure K5

Kata bags are based on the same science and research that produces protective gear for those who are involved in armed conflict. Heavy use of futuristic materials keeps Kata bags light and flexible—and cosmetically attractive—without sacrificing their toughness. The Kata HB-205 Hiker Backpack, for example, weighs only 5.5 pounds but will hold two or three D-SLRs and up to eight lenses (including a 400mm ƒ/2.8). Big brother HB-207 offers even more load capacity. Both utilize TST, or Thermal Shield Technology, a unique synthesis of material and engineering that provides maximum protection in all situations. The outside surface is an abrasion-resistant, ribbed-fiber product that’s waterproof and dustproof. Underneath, a closed-cell foam shield provides protection from impact, moisture and temperature extremes. Bottom line, the Kata HB-205 and HB-207 Hiker Backpacks are brilliant examples of modern-age solutions, produced through the application of high technology, to age-old problems.

The Lowepro Vertex 200AW looks like a stylish, conventional backpack but opens up to reveal enough space to accommodate a pro-size digital SLR, several lenses, a notebook computer (with 15.5-inch screen) and other accessories. Its proprietary Adjustable Glide-Lock system facilitates the attachment of a tripod (or monopod) or any Lowepro Slip-Lock-compatible expansion pouch. The “AW” in the name stands for “all weather,” as evidenced by the included rain cover and overall water-resistant construction. Available in smaller and larger versions, the Vertex 200AW measures about 12.6×10.2×18.5 inches, so it easily meets FAA regulations for carry-on baggage.

Nikkor 400Transcend 32 GB CompactFlashmm
Think Tank Photo Rotation 360

Mountainsmith is famous for building durable, functional bags that weigh next to nothing. Tipping the scales at a scant four pounds and 10 ounces, the Mountainsmith Borealis AT Backpack has a load-stabilizing compression system that makes carrying easier, and a convenient side-access, padded laptop compartment that will accommodate a computer with a 16-inch LCD. According to Luke Boldman of Mountainsmith’s product design and development department, the Borealis AT is a “multifunctional pack that has all the attributes needed for photographing outdoor pursuits, even in wet weather, but can easily be converted into a regular day pack for other uses.” Features include top- and side-mounted rubber-molded handles, contoured shoulder straps and a padded tuck-away waist belt. There’s also a rapid-access tripod mount and a removable rain cover.

Naneu Pro has been offering innovative backpacks for some time, but its latest, the Adventure K5, brings new meaning to the notion of modular design. This backpack truly has a split personality. It can be used as a conventional backpack or, by adding the supplied insert, a highly functional photo pack. The camera insert can even be used separately, when carrying a full pack is undesirable. Fitted with heavy-duty hardware and water-resistant construction, the K5 is built to perform under even the toughest foul-weather conditions.

The Tamrac Expedition series includes several models, but the Model 5587 Expedition 7x is the champion of high performance. Inside, you’ll find all of the generously padded dividers and other organizational elements Tamrac is famous for, plus a front pocket that will accept a 15.4-inch notebook computer. The new Dual Hinge divider system adjusts to allow two SLRs to be carried with lenses attached. A pair of handy “wing” accessory pockets open to stow memory cards and other mission-critical accessories. And attaching a tripod to the Expedition 7x is a snap, literally, thanks to Tamrac’s QuickClip attachment system.

The harness system that’s used to support the Expedition 7x is worthy of special mention. It’s designed to provide a wide range of adjustment to ensure maximum comfort. It also features special padding that helps keep the wearer dry, even during long treks in humid climates.

The Rotation 360 from Think Tank Photo is one of the most unique backpacks you’ll ever encounter. It’s worn like a traditional backpack, but it has a horizontal hole that runs through the lower third of the main body and allows a medium-sized belt pack to travel from its rear resting position, through the opening, and around the wearer’s waist. At rest, the smaller bag is actually the bottom part of the backpack. But when it’s rotated into action, it’s transformed into a functional belt pack. As a result, the weight stays behind you when not needed, and in front when you need access.

RESOURCES
Adorama
(800) 223-2500
www.adorama.com
Kata (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500
www.bogenimaging.us
Lowepro
(800) 800-LOWE
www.lowepro.com
Mountainsmith
(800) 551-5889
www.mountainsmith.com
Naneu Pro
(321) 281-8135
www.naneupro.com
Tamrac
(800) 662-0717
www.tamrac.com
Think Tank Photo
(866) 55-THINK
www.thinktankphoto.com