Gadget Bag: Photo Backpacks

Modern materials coupled with innovative designs provide more choices than ever

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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.

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

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.

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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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 12.6x10.2x18.5 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.

(800) 223-2500
Kata (Bogen Imaging)
(201) 818-9500
(800) 800-LOWE
(800) 551-5889
Naneu Pro
(321) 281-8135
(800) 662-0717
Think Tank Photo
(866) 55-THINK


    The tape covering both top and bottom zips are badly designed and ineffective. They act as a scoop for the rain, and channel it onto the zips, causing dampness within the backpack compartments. The zips are prone to being fouled by the tape coverings. The carry handle bounces on the back of the neck, and channels rain down the wearers back.

    Most camera backpacks are surprisingly heavy and it would be useful to have a comparison of weight across bags (maybe a table comparing weight, size, strap type, etc). Serious travelers/hikers usually need a padded waist strap and go for the lowest weight possible (without compromising durability and features). I expect that a company that produces lightweight, well constructed bags for the serious traveler/ hiker would make a lot of people happy and capture a big part of the market (even if it cost more).

    I’m a little surprised to see the LowePro Slingshot on this list for hiking. It’s a great bag for urban work or where quick access to the camera is required, but it’s a terrible bag for a hiking trip. The single-strap design does a terrible job with the weight on a longer trip.

    I use either a Tenba Shootout or the LowePro Primus on my hikes. The Primus takes priority if it’s a multi-day hike.

    The Think Tank Airport Antidote V2 is one of the best backpacks for airline travel when carrying allot of pro equipment and a Macbook 15 pro, it is however heavy when loaded…the MRock Canyonlands is best for general hiking (works as a slingbag or a backpack according to your preferred setup). It has stunning access options and is fairly weather proof. Another great bag I have used around the world is the National Geographic medium backpack but it has issues holding a pro sized body or a DSAL with a grip. (not very deep). Has a ton of pockets and nooks!

    Ditto on the Think Tank Antidote V2…this bag is almost perfect for travel…a bit lacking in for serious hiking…but certainly doable. The quality of this bag and careful design puts it far ahead of the average backpack. It is my personal favorite especially for foreign travel. It is SWEET!

    Think Tanks for sure built tuff and intelligently for pro’s they are famous in design, ruggedness and professional stature. IMO they are timeless and I carry exclusively Think Tank and Domke…trust me they will satisfy your needs.

    (built like tanks…designed by photographers)

    I have tried many many camera bags, and the Gura Gear Kiboko bag actually gets awesome reviews and I would love to buy one. When looking at the specs, the 4lb weight is very very appealing, even though it isn’t a small bag.

    I am suprised to not see the f-stop Tilopa on this list, it truly is an AMAZING bag. Interchangable camera units provide enough variable amounts of storage for any traveling photographer. Compartment access is simple and secure with plenty of room for various pieces of equipment. One of the few bags that is framed and it is very comfortable on an extended trip.

    I think they were trying to hit a happy medium with this article and trying to indicate bags for each specialized field trip. Overnight and you want a bigger back pack to carry personal items and camera gear. Day trip the Lowepro Slingshot would do the trick etc. Each bag listed has features for different sorts of backpacking experiences.

    I have the Lowepro 220 and it is perfect for me and what I shoot. I have reached the age where roughing it is a Motel with only 20 channels. If I drive long distances or fly. I* have a metal case with pluck foam that all my gear fits into. Lockable for airflight (which I don’t do anymore)or car travel with suitcases stacked around it. So everyone has a favorite that fits their needs. That is what the article is trying to cover, just whatever fits your needs.

    Can someone please explain why you would want to backpack into some backcountry locations and haul a 15-17″ laptop with you? Without hauling a portable generator or extra batteries (weight) what good would it do you? I just don’t get it. I don’t understand the technology minded young people of today. Digital is great and it has lightened the load since you no longer have to carry multitudes of film. 1000 pictures does not make your camera weigh any more but 100 rolls of film would. I am not knocking anyone that does that I am more curious than anything else. When I first looked at the Lowepro 220 slingshot, I thought, “There is no place for the laptop.” Then I laughed at myself since most if not all of our travel is by auto. I have never had any problem finding enough space for the laptop back with charger, mouse, etc. Again I am not knocking anyone but just curious about the thinking behind that?


    I like to carry a light laptop with me on multi-day photo excursions because at night I can review what I have gotten during the day. This way I know if I need to go back and reshoot something because my clients are unlikely to pay for me to go back “in country” to reshoot. Yes, the extra battery weight is a pain, but having to reschedule and return to an out-of-the-way location is a greater pain.

    I’m with Larry on this one. And the thing with all of these bags, in fact, a serious flaw with any photo backpack, is the lack of space available for storing food, water, extra clothing, and the other items necessary for hiking in the backcountry.

    I’ve found that a multi-day pack designed for backpacking offers more usable space and a better fit, for less money than these photo backpacks.

    For a day hike, a photo backpack may be valuable in the way of holding equipment in a padded/secure manner, especially when you are carrying telephoto accessories which can be longer. A non photo oriented multi-daypack in most cases does not have a padded inner shell which would leave larger or sensitive equipment exposed to pressure. I myself have rigged a lowepro camera bag to the back of a Kelty rucksack for use of my dslr with smaller lenses, but if you get in the range of up to 500 mm lenses, you need the protection of a larger photo backpack. Some have zipper access areas and side pockets which can hold some extra materials. If you are out for a day, you can usually dress accordingly with the climate and weather conditions and not be badly disappointed. Dedicated backpacking is dedicated backpacking, and dedicated photography is dedicated photography. Specialization buying is the point.

    I love the Tamrac Adventure 10 Model 5550 backpack model because this is completely made for me. This is a backpack for the DSLR photographers. I have recently bought a camera and now, I am looking for a safe backpack for trip. However, finally, your blog gives me the thing I wanted for. Now, I will research more about the backpack to make a final decision. Thanks admin!

    None of the bags reviewed have a hydration bladder facility. As a regular wearer of camera backpacks this is a necessity for me. Water bottle storage just doesn’t cut it, you have to take the pack off to get a drink. The only bag that I have found with a bladder is a Kiesel. I don’t carry a laptop in my Lowepro Photo Trekker, I put a bladder in there. Any serious backpack should have a bladder.

    No thanks on the bladders. Ever have one break? I routinely carry 6-8 liters of water with my old MT Smith Paragon pack. Get creative. I put one on each shoulder strap and I use a slim profile chest pack that easily connects via clips. Camelback makes great water bottles with the bite valve option and accessory hose.

    Your photo on the main page shows a large green backpack between the Tamrac and the Dryzone. Is that just pretty graphics or a real photo backpack? As far as I can tell no company out there has built a true back-country photo backpack.

    On the day-pack and serious travel side, folk should take a look at the Gura Gear Kiboko. Lightweight, rugged, and built for airline travel, this pack has won me over.

    Still need a true multi-day outback photo backpack, though.

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