Choosing a camera bag as a photographer can seem like a never-ending task, with no single model ever seeming to fit perfectly for all types of occasions. As wildlife and nature photographers, we are outdoor people. So predominately a backpack certainly makes the most sense in terms of getting our gear to the location, in a safe and comfortable manner, while also freeing up our hands for shooting or negotiating tough terrain.
Of course, a decent bag is essential when carrying and transporting heavy and expensive equipment. Protection is a key consideration, not only for the expensive gear, of course, but also for your back! Poorly designed packs that lack adequate padding and harnesses can be real torture on a long hike. If fitted wrong, long term that can manifest as back problems, something none of us want to increase our risks of getting. So picking a good camera bag is certainly worth spending some time on.
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself when choosing a camera bag or backpack is about the load capacity. How much photographic gear will you take, how much personal stuff do you need, do you need a laptop, or other items as well as your main kit? These are all considerations to think about.
A good way to gauge the size of bag that you need is to lay out your camera gear as if it is going to be in a bag.How would you like it to fit, what cameras would you want to kit up in which combinations? Laid out on the floor, it will give you a good representation of the size of camera bag you’re going to require and what sort of size main compartment you’ll be in need of to house your core gear.
If you use long telephoto prime lenses, often you’ll find you need the largest of packs in order to fit them all. Especially if carrying additional lenses and back up bodies is something you require.
Customize the Inside
Of course, for those of us who work with a variety of kits, from large lenses to smaller landscape packs, customization is also a factor. If a bag is solely focused on telephoto shooting, and maximizing on camera gear, it can seem cumbersome on days when you only require a single camera and pair of short lenses. To handle this issue, bags that have flexible inserts can be a great feature. They have the ability to swap out camera gear for personal gear, or just strip down the bag for a smaller load.
In regards to the internal compartment’s design, most camera bags offer movable, custom dividers. These allow you to make sections within the main pack for housing and organizing your gear while protecting it from knocking and banging around while in transit.
In some models, the dividers are thinner to maximize gear space, with others offering more protection. However, I often find that due to the fact most companies use a velcro system (hook and loop) for repositioning the dividers, you can mix and match to get that perfect setup across bags. Yes, this is because you’ll probably end up buying a few camera bags.
In addition to simply considering the capacity of a new camera bag for your gear, it’s also important to consider the size for travel. If you’re planning to use the pack when flying, be sure to check that it falls within the airline’s maximum allowance for carry-on luggage. There’s nothing worse than potentially having your bag gate checked because it’s too large.
Companies such as ThinkTank have a range of options for those who fly regularly, but for wildlife photographers, they are less practical for field work, once at your destination.
Another great option from the F-stop range of packs is removable inserts which then allow you to check the main bag, taking out the photography gear within the insert and safely storing it on board. A great best of both worlds solution. However, in my experience, camera bags with a noted reference to airline carry-on compatibility are rarely a problem.
The carrying system is one area I can’t stress the importance of enough. When you are carrying heavy loads (my pack can often be over 20kg / 44lbs) having a comfortable and supportive back system is key to aiding in comfort and protecting your back!
With heavy loads, a padded waist belt is a must. When carrying a fully loaded kit, you’ll want the weight to be taken by your hips and not your shoulders. Waist belts can range in padding from thick to thin, with the former being great for longer hikes and heavy loads. However, the latter is better when traveling and pushing your bag into an overhead locker on a flight.
Good systems will have a strong buckle. Some even feature pockets on the waist belt that are handy for fast-access gear, such as a compact camera, trail snack, or a spare battery.
In regards to the shoulder straps, padding is less of a problem as long as they fit well (as the weight should be taken by the hips). Personally, I find straps that are too wide with too much padding uncomfortable. So I prefer the thinner, hiking-style designs of the more outdoor geared packs.
Companies such as F-Stop and LowePro offer good options. However, they are still not up to the perfection of true outdoor packs such as Osprey. In addition, some packs offer the customization of the back length. That is key to getting a perfect fit, adjustable heights in the back system means less stress pulling over the shoulders, again reducing fatigue on the trail.
If you hike a long way, these added features really make a difference. When testing the harness systems you’ll need to do it in person. So take your gear to your local camera store, load the bag up with weight, and get it fitted properly. Adjust the length of the back (if you can) to your height, so the waist belt is just above your hips and the shoulder straps come neatly over without pulling upwards, keeping tight, but not strained to your frame. Adjusting the sternum strap will keep them in position and aid in fit.
In addition to the main compartment and harness, there are also a number of extra features to look out for.
Rain covers are great for working in the elements as they add extra protection, from rain dust and sand, as well as also being handy to pull out and use as a dry/clean place to set your bag down on the ground. I prefer the type that is sewn into the pack, as they are less likely to be lost or forgotten and also are always there when you need them!
Of course, in addition to camera gear, we photographers also need personal supplies. External pockets are important for additions like spare layers, coats, as well as food and water to keep us going.
Of course, you most likely haul a tripod on location, so having a decent attachment system on your pack is extremely handy for carrying your three-legged friends any extended distances. Lots of packs have options to carry a tripod on the side or back of the bag, depending on your preference. Having this ability to free up your hands when hiking is brilliant.
If you work on your laptop or travel a lot, a compartment to store or protect a laptop is an important addition for when you’re on the road. Some bags include padded sections designed for a laptop at the front or rear of the bag. Those that have them close to the harness area can make bags seem stiff and uncomfortable for any length of hiking, so are best used only when getting through an airport.
Hydration Pack Compatibility
For an extended hike, a hydration bladder is extremely handy for re-hydrating on the go. Packs that feature sleeves to keep the bladders separate often have them water sealed to help protect your gear from leaks. However, I always place mine in an additional dry bag for added precaution.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just can’t find the perfect camera bag or one that suits your style, needs and fit. In that case, another option to think about is that of customizing a regular bag for use with cameras.
Take a well-designed hiking bag with many of the features you need (good harness, lightweight, the right size, and ruggedness) and team it up with a way pod protecting your camera gear inside. This could be through the use of an insert, such as those made by F-stop bags or Tenba, or through the use of simply wrapping gear individually in padded camera wraps, to store your gear safely.
This is a super option for when you want a high volume of personal gear for hiking, traveling, and exploring but still want to carry a DSLR with a number of lenses safely. I’d also recommend looking into a small organizer case as well for organizing any miscellaneous items such as batteries and memory cards.
Overall, choosing a camera bag for wildlife photography can be tough. With so many options and requirements, in many ways, there will never be one perfect bag. However, by working through the list above, deciding on your most important and specific needs, you’ll certainly find a great option. One that suits you and keeps your gear safe on location for all your photography adventures.
A backpack is a simple essential for wildlife and nature photography. Spending time to make the right decision choosing a camera bag will be something you’ll certainly be glad you made the effort to do!