Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Revisiting the Lightest Camera Bag

Are you tired of hauling around a camera bag that weighs more than your camera does? Did you spend a lot on lenses, but avoid carrying them because of a sore and sweaty back?

You're not alone. I enjoy photography, but I hate feeling like a pack animal. I also felt dumb traveling with a camera luggage advertisement on my back. Expensive camera inside! That's the last thing I want strangers to think as I explore Barcelona.

I started testing different bags more than four years ago. Camera equipment has changed a lot since then, but the core of my solution remains the same: a light, unpadded bag and separate padding for the camera and lenses. The unpadded bag I use and recommend is the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Courier Bag. My courier bag has traveled the world. Taipei, Boston, Barcelona, Cologne, Amsterdam. It''s still in great shape, and still my favorite container for camera gear.

Over the past few years, the design of the bag has changed, but it still weights very little: only 8.2 oz. There are different colors available, and it appears the there are now two smaller zippered compartments on the front rather than one. Also, the zipper pulls appear to be attached by knots rather than a bit of plastic.

The bag's strap adjusts length with a nylon toggle, and the excess strap feeds into the bag so nothing dangles. The strap is made of a mesh that offers a little padding and allows your shoulder to breath. Breathability matters in the Texas summer. On each end of the bag there are elastic pockets useful for water bottles, sunglasses, or a compact umbrella. The exterior zipper pockets are great for carrying spare camera batteries or memory cards.

The travel courier easily repels a light rain,. A surprise deluge in Venice taught me that a heavy downpour will get through the zippers and seams of the bag. Fortunately my guidebook soaked up most of the rain, sparing my electronics. The new bag claims to be weather-resistant, but I'd still carry an umbrella or plastic bag to protect anything sensitive.

The bag has enough space to squeeze in my camera, two lenses, a jacket, and a pouch containing extra batteries, a Lens Pen, charging cables, and spare memory cards.When I carry a jacket, I put my camera and lenses on top to enjoy a little extra padding. A benefit of a bag without built-in padding is that it actually takes up less space when you carry less gear.

The bag is designed in such way that the main compartment is unlikely to spill while being worn over the shoulder. I often use the interior of the bag to hold my lenses as I change them to reduce the chances of dropping anything on the ground.

If you don't have a pouch for your camera accessories, I highly recommend the Tom Bihn clear organizer pouches.  They're well made and make it easy to find your gizmos without spilling them on the floor. I put all my camera essentials into a medium pouch so I can easily transfer my phone charger, cables, camera batteries, and SD Card Wallet between bags without forgetting anything.

Over the past year, I've sold both of my Canon cameras and most of my Canon lenses. dSLRs are great for weddings and sports events, but the size and weight make travel photography miserable. Recent mirrorless cameras now match or exceed the quality of typical dSLRs, with a fraction of the weight and bulk.

Today I carry a Sony Alpha a7II Mirrorless Digital Camera body with the Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 lens attached. You can read more about this camera and lens combination in my review here. Depending on my plans, I sometimes carry a second lens in the bag - usually the Sony 28-70 lens.

The decision to go mirrorless shrank my equipment weight and bulk. I have plenty of room in the courier bag to add a lens pen,  pocket umbrella, cheap sunglasses, spare batteries,  USB backup batteries, and sometimes a jacket or coat.

My padding has changed with my camera choice. I no longer use the Domke wraps to pad the camera. Now I protect the camera with the LensCoat LCBBLBK BodyBag with Lens (Black). It's a neoprene shell shaped roughly like a camera with lens attached.
LensCoat BodyBag with Lens
The BodyBag has a flap that comes over the top and back of the camera that secures with velcro. Your camera straps poke out of the sides of the shell, so you can still carry the camera over your shoulder. I frequently wear the camera in the BodyBag over my shoulder when it's not in the courier bag. It offers protection from bumps in crowded places and a little shelter from dust and rain.
LensCoat BodyBag with Lens open to reveal a Sony Alpha a7II
Inside the BodyBag, there is a small loop of material that opens with a snap -- a leash to attach the BodyBag to your camera strap. You can see it peeking out of the middle of the BodyBag in the photo above. When you want to used the camera, you just open the velcro, peel off the BodyBag, and let it dangle from the strap. If you prefer, remove the BodyBag completely and stuff it into your pocket.

Inside the "snout" of the BodyBag, the part that sits in front of your lens, the LensCoat folks thoughtfully built a small pocket containing a disc of rigid foam. The foam gives another layer of protection to one of the most vulnerable parts of your camera: the front lens element.

I hate missing shots, so I store my camera setup in the BodyBag with the lens cap off. Who wants to suffer the embarrassment of trying to take photos with the lens cap on?

I store the lens cap in the same pocket BodyBag pocket that contains that disc of foam. That way I'll won't have misplaced my lens cap when it comes time to swap lenses. Please use common sense if you copy this technique. I always have a lens hood installed on my lens,  creating some extra space between that pocket and the front element of my lens. I wouldn't recommend storing anything hard like a lens cap where the glass of your lens might rub against it.

This setup with the BodyBag just fits my Sony Alpha A7 II with the Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 lens. It fits snugly with the lens hood installed in the extended position. It looks like a tailored fit, which I love since this is my favorite lens on my favorite camera. LensCoat offers different sizes of the BodyBag; I suggest comparing your camera measurements to the measurements of the BodyBags. The BodyBags have a small amount of stretch.

To carry a second lens, I've adapted an different LensCoat BodyBag. This one was designed for holding a dSLR body without a lens attached. My 28-70mm lens fits in it fine, but a properly-sized LensCoat lens pouch is probably a better bet if you're buying something new. The lens-specific models feature a disc of hard foam to protect the front glass of your lens. They offer a variety of different size neoprene Lens Pouches.
Patagonia Lightweight Travel Courier Bag with my LensCoat BodyBag with Lens on top
For walking around town, I feel like the BodyBag plus the Travel Courier offers a perfect compromise between convenience and protection. It doesn't provide a half-inch-thick foam sarcophagus around my camera, but it also doesn't weigh ten pounds.

When I travel by air, I empty the courier bag and put it with my clothes (the courier stuffs into it's own interior pocket). The camera and lenses I leave in their LensCoat bags and jam into my well-padded Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise 60 v2 bag. The LensCoat padding works fine for a long hike, but not for getting thrown around by TSA officers, squeezing under airplane seats, and getting rammed by rolling suitcases. That's where you want an expensive foam sarcophagus like my Think Tank.

Once I'm at my destination, I move my camera equipment back to my lightweight courier for exploring.

This camera bag setup has changed my life. I take so many more photos now.


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