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Digital SLR Camera Bags: A Beginner Friendly Buyer's Guide
There are lots of digital SLR camera bags on the market. I mean lots. Gone are the days when you could basically choose between a few simple variations of a rucksack or shoulder bag. So I want to try to keep things as simple as possible, and help you work out how to choose the right bag.
The Digital SLR Camera Bags I Own
I'll just introduce some of the main categories of camera bags by mentioning the specific bags that I own.
Crumpler Muffin Top:
The first bag I ever purchased was a simple Crumpler Muffin Top. This is a shoulder bag, with one strap for slinging over your shoulder, and a flap that opens from the top with 2 buckles. I use it all the time. It's great for quick access and changing lenses/memory cards/batteries mid-shoot.
Crumpler Muffin Tops (and the latest equivalent in their range, the 4 Million Dollar Home Camera Bag. I know, wtf?) are very popular; you see photographers with them everywhere. They're robust, weather resistant, include movable padded compartments and a section for general bits'n'bobs. More on shoulder bags in a moment, but for now I'll just say that I bought my first backpack camera bag when my shoulder kind of died!
So, I then got hold of a Lowepro Flipside 200. My body thanked me for not lugging around my camera gear on just one shoulder any more. It had more space, but zipped open from the back, which was a slight nuissance for quick lens changes, causing me to take the whole thing off, lie it down, open it up etc. etc.
I still use my Flipside 200 a lot, especially for long photography walks. It's pretty slimline, considering everything that can be stored in it, and looks more or less like a standard backpack.
So with a rucksack and a shoulder bag, I had everything I needed right? Well no, not really. Whenever I travel I take both my camera and my laptop computer with me. After an encounter with a stupendously petty and officious check-in girl at an airport (I'll spare you the account!), I realized that I needed a bag that could be the ultimate all-in-one travel bag.
This led me to the Lowepro Fastpack 250, which is basically a rucksack, with a better opening system (that allows you to access gear whilst still wearing it on one shoulder), a cool slot at the back for a laptop and a big section for filters, cables, batteries, memory cards, flash units and bags of Haribo.
Shoulder Bags. Basic Pro's and Cons
Shoulder bags, like the Crumpler Muffin Top/4 Million Dollar Home, are basically the convenience option. They're also cheaper, and a great place to start if you're new to DSLR photography (and likely don't have that many lenses that need storing. My Crumpler bag houses a beefy camera body with lens attached, plus 1 spare lens. It also has a front pouch for accessories and so on. Here are the basic pro's and con's of shoulder DSLR camera bags:
Backpacks: Basic Pro's and Con's
I purchased my first backpack camera bag for several reasons, including the fact that my shoulders couldn't take a one strap bag any more! There are dozens of options to suit every possible requirement. But here are the basic pro's and con's of these bags:
Alternative Digital SLR Camera Bags
There are plenty of alternative designs out there, designed to fill a need that conventional shoulder bags and backpacks don't quite manage. In fact, it's worth looking out for little tweaks to 'conventional' bags, like the side access system on my Fastpack 250 (below), which allows me to access equipment whilst still wearing the backpack.
A quick glance at the product ranges of most manufacturers shows categories such as: backpacks, shoulder bags - (no confusion so far) - sling bags, rolling cases, toploading bags, modularitems and beltpacks! So what are those last 5 things?! Well, each fits into a certain niche which is perfect for a certain kind of photographer:
Sling Bags (e.g. the Lowepro Slingshot, right) are backpacks with one strap. The strap goes across your body diagonally, distributing the weight better than a shoulder bag. Slingbags are easy to swing around, like a shoulder bag, and quickly access equipment. So they're a kind of half-way house.
Rolling Travel Cases:
As for rolling cases , they're just camera bags with wheels and extendable handles for ease when travelling. Obviously, these are big bags for storing a lot of equipment in, otherwise the 'rolling' feature would be kind of pointless. Ostensibly these are for travelling professional photographers.
Toploading bags have one strap and are fairly similar to shoulder bags. But they can sometimes store a whole lot more gear, and they've been sepcifically designed for enthusiast/pro photographers who demand very quick access to gear and a high level of protection. They're often worn on the chest, with a larger backpack on the back.
Modular items are things like belts, vests and pouches. The kinds of things that get designed directly as a result of feedback from pro photographers who have very detailed requirements when shooting. Generally, this stuff is not for the beginners or enthusiasts.
The clue is in the name with these. But what's not so obvious is that beltpacks typically double up as shoulder bags! In other words, they can sit conveniently around your midrift, like a belt, or be slung over your shoulder. Very handy for pro's who need a quick access 'bag' in addition to a bigger one.
Having More Than One Camera Bag
One of the biggest mistakes I made as a beginner photographer was not investing in a backpack camera bag sooner. Even though I badly needed something to supplement by Crumpler Muffin Top, something made me think, "2 bags? That's just over the top! I'll save up for a new lens instead."
But eventually I realized the error of my ways. I couldn't go on using a shoulder bag for long shoots, travel and everything else. Similarly, if you own a backpack, you might like to think about getting hold of something for quick access. You could go for a shoulder bag, a toploader or a slingshot.
In fact, if you own a shoulder bag, but don't feel like splashing out on a big backpack, there are some great small options available like the Kata DR-461 Digital Rucksack For Small DSLR Systems. That would at least take the strain off your shoulders on a long photography walk.
What If Your Main Concern Is Looks?!
This doesn't apply to most of us. Camera bags are practical things, and it's their specifications that count. But, since we often wear them for a long time, it would be nice if they could be just a little bit cooler. It's quite hard to find digital SLR camera bags that are actually good looking. So, for the more image conscious among you, here is a suggestion for a sexy camera bag manufacturer: Billingham.
Billingham bags are great looking, very similar to other canvas travel bags that you see. They do match their appearance with excellent functionality and practicality too. But these things aren't cheap I'm afraid. Maybe when I get that call from National Geographic I'll think about purchasing one!
Share your opinions on the subject of digital SLR camera bags in the comments below, i.e. tell me about the bags you've owned and what you liked/disliked about them.