Updated: Jun 30, 2018
“Where are you going next”, she asked, “Glacier National Park?” I nodded. “Yep, that is my next photo destination.” What to pack I wondered. Or rather, what to pack it in. Because, like everything else, camera bags have evolved into an impressive collection of sizes, styles and colors (colours for you on the other side of the Pond).
Which camera bag is best? That depends on you and your travel style. In my experience there are three general types of camera bags: Messenger bags, Backpacks and Slings.
But which one is best for a given photo adventure?
I have used all three in different settings and climates. I’ve lugged camera gear on hikes up rocky mountain trails, through thick hardwood forests and Central American jungles. I’ve traveled with my gear on planes, trains and crowded Chicken Buses. I’ve been targeted by pickpockets, bag slashers and grab and run thieves. All but one failed by the way, and those stories are fodder for a future blog.
All those travel adventures convinced me which type of camera bag is best for a given travel style.
Here’s a summary of my findings.
Messenger bags are ideal for shorter hikes and urban-scapes, or traveling in a vehicle. This is the bag I use 80% of the time.
Holds a lot of gear. I’ve stuffed a Nikon D810, three lenses: 24-700mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, along with a battery charger, extra batteries, SD & CF cards AND a 17” laptop with a passbook external HD.
Fits under airline seats.
Messenger bags don’t scream out “photographer with a bunch of expensive gear passing by”.
It's easy to swing the bag around to your front for easy access.
Since it readily swings around to your front the messenger bag is easy and secure to sit with while in a vehicle.
It doubles as a great bag to transport your gear in the back of a car. You can throw the flap open and have quick and easy access to everything.
Made for carrying a lot of stuff over a modest distance.
Heavy with all that gear.
Comes with a single shoulder strap (a few have a handle for your hand).
Some bags have weak flap fasteners.
Not the bag I would choose if I would need to carry it on a long hike (more than a couple of hours).
Hard to stuff a tripod in there.
Backpacks are well suited for long hikes in which you can’t set your bag down. If you plan to hike for a couple of hours or more this is the bag I would use.
Best choice for carrying a lot of gear on an extended hike.
Can carry oodles of stuff.
Some are designed to carry a travel tripod.
Conspicuously identifies you as someone carrying a lot of valuable stuff.
Hard to access your gear. Impossible unless you take it off.
Can be uncomfortable in hot humid weather.
Most Camera backpacks are designed for people under 6’ tall. The straps won’t provide the lift they are designed to give.
Not as convenient in urban settings, public transportation or just sitting down.
Sling bags are also great for urban environments. If I am traveling by car I will take a larger bag with all my gear in it and then load the sling bag with what I need for the shoot. If you shoot mirrorless or a with a more compact DSLR the sling bag makes sense.
Has the advantages of the backpack and the convenience of access of the Messenger Bag.
Rotates to your stomach for easy access to your gear.
Easy to travel with on public transportation.
Perfect for loading up gear for a specific shoot, while leaving the rest of your gear back at your hotel room, vehicle or other secure location.
Smaller size, usually only large enough for a single camera body and 2 small lenses or 1 mid-size telephoto.
Since they have a convenient side or top access to their contents, they are slightly more vulnerable to pick pockets while slung on your back.
Six Favorite Camera Bags
Below are highly regarded bags in each style.
Think Tank Retrospective 30 A real work horse. Holds a bunch of gear and a laptop! $195
Domke M-Metro-RB Messenger Love the rugged style. $380
Backpack Style Bags
Lowepro Pro Trekker 450 AW Backpack Ample space & padding, room for a laptop. $175
Vanguard Alta Sky 51D Add a drone! $230