Let’s be honest: one of the main problems, especially when we are just starting out in the photography world, is how to take our photo equipment around with us. As soon as you buy your first DSLR or mirrorless camera with a lens, you will probably think, "how will I carry it around with me?”
The next step of your shopping venture will likely be into the maze of camera bags and you’ll soon discover that choosing what bag to buy for your gear can actually be harder and more complicated than actually buying your gear. Should you invest in a shoulder bag or a classic backpack? Sling bag or holster? Or maybe a hard case? You probably already know how hard it can be for you to make a decision, unless you already have some clear ideas about what you'd like in a bag. So, please: let me help you extricate yourself from this maze and make things a little bit easier. In this guide, you'll find out exactly which kind of bag will best suit you for your needs.
Camera bags need to be tailored to suit what type of photography you do. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
As I already hinted in the introduction, there are many types of camera bags. Depending on which photography genre you practice or the gear you need to carry around, you may find some of these types completely useless and others just perfect for you. That’s why I've decided to make a list with all the different types of bags and their pros and cons.
Let’s start with shoulder bags. These are probably some of the most commonly used types of camera bags, as they are very easy to put on or take off and you'll have fast access to all your photographic gear. On the other hand, you’ll have all the weight on one shoulder and if you’ll be staying out for a long time, it can be quite uncomfortable to carry a shoulder bag after a while.
My recommendation is to go for a shoulder bag if you only need to bring one camera with one or two small lenses at most; if you have some heavy gear with you, then you should opt for a different type of bag that will allow you to distribute the weight better on your body.
As an outdoor and landscape photographer, I find that the backpack is by far the best option for me. When you need to bring a lot of gear with you (camera, lenses, tripod), a good backpack is the best way to carry all the equipment around.
Obviously, you can choose between different sizes and shapes, so you can select the one you are most comfortable with. On the other hand though, every time that you want to take a photo, you’ll need to take off the backpack, maybe take out the tripod and then you’ll finally have to access the camera and the lenses.
The point is that it will take a lot more time to get ready to take a picture compared to having your camera in a shoulder bag, so if you practice street photography or other photographic genres that require you to be ready to “capture the moment”, the backpack might not be the camera bag you are looking for.
Sling bags are a mix of the two previous types: they try to give you the comfort of the backpack with the accessibility of the shoulder bags. As such, you can decide where to have the weight of your gear.
A sling bag can also replace a shoulder bag but it won’t replace a backpack, especially if you need to carry a lot of gear with you. The fact that all the weight will still be on one shoulder, even if better balanced, will still be uncomfortable after a while.
If you are travelling super light, a nice holster and/or pouch might be the most comfortable option for you. All you have to do is to tie the holster to your waistband and attach the camera (or the pouch with the camera inside) to it. It’ll be really easy and really fast to detach it from your belt and start shooting but keep in mind that if you need to walk a lot, it will be a pain for your legs to feel the weight of the camera at every step. Oh and don’t forget that you’ll have all of the weight on your waist: as a consequence, it is fundamental that you have very light camera gear in order to use these kinds of camera bags.
If you travel a lot with your camera and feel the need for an “ad hoc” bag to store all the equipment, a roller bag could be a winner for you; they seem a lot like a normal suitcase, but they are made to fit all the camera gear inside with specific compartments.
However, the limits of these bags are quite obvious: they are generally heavy, big and it can take some time to access to the equipment inside.
This type of camera “bag” (I wouldn’t define it as a bag anymore) is very peculiar, made for those photographers who are seeking the best possible protection for their equipment. If you need to face some rough travels where your gear might be at risk, then this type of bag will protect it from whatever may hit it or fall on it.
Of course, they are really heavy and not made for walk-around photography.
You probably wouldn't bring a hard case to a location like this. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Until now, we've examined the different types of camera bags but I haven’t said anything about how to go through the selection process. So let's look at some general parameters that you can use to pick out your next camera bag.
Are you looking for portability or ease of access? Do you prioritise lightness or protection?
Assuming that if you are in the market for a camera bag because you actually need to carry your gear around and not just put everything in it and then let it sit in your room, portability may be a crucial parameter when buying a new camera bag.
What photographic genre are you practicing the most? If you need to walk long distances or around busy places like cities and towns, then I recommend something like a backpack or sling bag (based on how many pieces of equipment you need to carry with you) so that you’ll be able to better distribute the weight of the gear across your body.
If you travel light and you don’t need to walk a lot or for a long time, then shoulder bags or holsters and pouches might be your top choice.
Our choice: Think Tank Turnstyle 20 v2.0
Think Tank Turnstyle 20 v2.0. Photo by: 'Think Tank'.
Space Organisation inside the bag
Possibility to include laptop and accessories inside
You’ll feel all the weight load on one shoulder at some point
Security is a fundamental factor when choosing your bag and it needs to always be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, camera theft can happen all around the world but with the right attention and the right bag for the occasion, you’ll be able to reduce the chances of losing your gear.
When traveling in busy places (e.g. airports, train stations or even cities), the first rule for me is to have all my most valuable items where I can see them and never lose sight of them; I’d never recommend a backpack for this, so if you want a sling bag at all costs, then be sure to wear it in the front and not in the back.
Instead, if you generally find yourself in the wilderness or places where the chances of losing your gear are really low, you may easily opt for whatever kind of bag you prefer.
Our Choice: Peli 1510 Protector Case
Peli 1510 Protector Case. Photo by: 'Pelican'.
Portability: with the wheels it can work also as a roller bag
Plenty of space
Quite big if you don’t have a lot of equipment to bring with you
If you are an “indoor” or studio photographer, then you can probably skip this parameter and go straight to the next one. However, if you find yourself shooting a lot outside, then how your bag will protect your gear from difficult weather conditions (e.g. rain, snow and humidity) might be a very important factor to take into consideration during the selection process.
Of course, the hard-case ones will be by far the best in the field; there are also some nice backpacks though that can protect your gear nicely for a fair amount of time. Many backpack manufacturers also offer waterproof solutions for their products. I’d try to avoid holsters and pouches, since they won’t offer you a lot of protection from bad weather conditions.
Our Choice: Mountainsmith Tanuk 40L
Mountainsmith Tanuk 40L. Photo by: 'Mountainsmith'.
Designed and Tested by the famous travel photographer, Chris Burkard
40L might be too much for someone
Let’s start by stating that the durability of your camera bag will mostly depend on how you treat it. If you take care of your bag, it will be your trusted partner for many years, while if you treat it badly, it could give you some headaches after a short time.
Having said that, always keep in mind that for obvious reasons, the soft cased bags (made with fabrics) have the tendency to be less durable than the hard case ones.
Our Choice: Boundary Supply Prima System
Boundary Supply Prima System. Photo by: 'Boundary Supply'.
A bit too big for the use it’s made for
As a landscape photographer, my best choice has always been the backpack; my main photographic genre is generally slow, I always have the time to arrive on the location, take my backpack off my shoulders and start assembling all the equipment. A few times though, I have found myself in some situations where I have needed to “capture the moment” and due to my backpack, I haven’t been able to do that very quickly. Instead, I have had to detach the tripod, put down the bag, open it to get to a lens and mount it on the camera body.
I can deal with losing a few shots over many years but this example was just for you to understand that if you need to be always ready to shoot and/or have easy access to your gear, then a backpack is not ideal. Neither are the hard cases. For easy access, I would probably go for a shoulder bag, a holster or a pouch.
Our Choice: Peak Design Everyday Messenger 13” V2
Peak Design Everyday Messenger 13" V2. Photo by: 'Peak Design'.
Fast and easy access
Not made for long walks
Some camera bags are specifically made for light or small equipment, like holsters and pouches, sling bags or even shoulder bags. If you need to carry just a camera with one or two lenses, then I wouldn’t look at getting a backpack or hard case.
However, if you have some heavy equipment that you'll need to bring with you, with some big lenses or multiple camera bodies, then your only choices will be big backpacks, roller bags or hard cases.
Our Choice: Tamrac Anvil 27
Tamrac Anvil 27. Photo by: 'Tamrac'.
It fits up to 7 or 8 lenses and 1 or 2 camera bodies
Extra space for laptop and accessories
Slow access if you have the tripod attached
Personally, I find the backpack the most comfortable kind of camera bag, since you have the weight on both your shoulders and not just one; if you don’t have some heavy gear to carry around though, a sling bag may be the top choice for you if comfort is what you are looking for!
Our Choice: Lowepro Tactic 450 AW
LowePro Tactic 450 AW. Photo by: 'LowePro'.
Designed for a great comfort
Four access points
It might be too big if you have a lighter build
Quite heavy and bulky
Some types of bag just aren’t made for light traveling, while others are made for it. For maximum lightness, I suggest picking a holsters or pouch, sling bag or maybe a small shoulder bag. When travelling light, there is no need to consider backpacks or hard cases of any type.
Our Choice: Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW II
Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW II. Photo by: 'Lowepro'.
Light and small
The included rain cover sometimes can be quite tricky to use
Not much space
If you need to fly with your camera bag, then you will need to think about the maximum dimensions allowed on the plane. You should probably opt for something small and not bulky. Check your airline website to know more about the allowed carry-on sizes.
Our Choice: Manfrotto Reloader 55 Roller Bag
Manfrotto Reloader 55 Roller Bag. Photo by: 'Manfrotto'.
It is allowed as carry-on luggage on most airlines
Plenty of storage for equipment
Extra space for laptop and accessories, side attachment for a tripod
Too big and heavy to use on a daily basis
In some cases, you might need some extra space besides your photographic gear, such as clothing and food. There are some big backpacks, hard cases and roller bags that have this kind of space, so that you can pack more than just your photographic gear.
Our Choice: Manfrotto Advanced Travel Backpack
Manfrotto Advanced Travel Backpack. Photo by: 'Manfrotto'.
Lot of space both for camera gear and extras
Fast access through the side pocket
You may need more space if you’ll travel for many days
If you generally go for day trips with your camera along, there are many cool bags of all kinds (sling and shoulder bags or even backpacks) that will allow you to store your smartphone, laptop and a few other personal items safely inside the bag.
Our Choice: Billingham Hadley Pro
Billingham Hadley Pro. Photo by: 'Billingham'.
Perfect for day trips
Limited space if you have some big pieces of gear to bring with you
Sometimes, it’s hard to find a bag which is great both for photography and hiking. If you don’t have to walk a lot, then even a sling bag or shoulder bag can be fine, otherwise the only real choice that you'll have is a backpack.
For multi-day hikes, you can adapt many “normal” hiking backpacks to photo-hiking bags, simply by placing an internal camera unit (ICU) inside. These are padded contraptions made specifically for holding camera gear.
Our Choice: F-Stop Tilopa 60L
F-Stop Tilopa 60L. Photo by: 'F-Stop'.
Modular architecture to organise it as you want
Great for multi-day hikes
Comfortable during long walks
Too heavy and big for day trips
ICU is sold separately
When you have to work with elusive subjects (well, unless you are shooting some very weird people, obviously we are talking about animals), camouflage is a crucial factor. It's better to go for a tactical wrap rather than a fluorescent-coloured camera bag if you don’t want to be spotted from miles in the distance and make your subject run away.
Our Choice: WANDRD PRVKE 31L
WANDRD PRVKE 31L. Photo by: 'WANDRD'.
Available in dark green for camouflage
You might need more space for telephoto lenses
The eye wants its part, right? It doesn’t matter what kind of camera bag you are looking for, there are some very cool and stylish ones out there for every different person! From vintage looking leather bags to minimal and elegant bags, there is one for everyone!
Our Choice: Gillis London Trafalgar Rucksack
Gillis London Trafalgar Rucksack. Photo by: 'Gillis London'.
Stylish and beautifully designed
Perfect for everyday use
More expensive than other similar bags
You probably already know the best choice for this parameter at this point of the article, don’t you? Of course, the hard case bags are by far the ones that will offer the best possible protection for your camera gear!
Our Choice: Vanguard Supreme 53D Hard Case
Vanguard Supreme 53D Hard Case. Photo by: 'Vanguard'.
Waterproof up to 5 metres
Perfect to protect your camera gear against shocks
Difficult to carry around
With a little bit of research, you'll find a bag for you in no time! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
As you've probably learned by now, there are a many different types of camera bags out there and with so many models on the market today, you’ll more than likely manage to find the perfect bag for you!
There’s not such a thing as the “best” and “worst” camera bag, so before you start reading reviews and scrolling through websites to find the one you need, always keep in mind that the ones which work for you may not work for someone else and vice versa.
What kind of camera bag are you currently using? Are you in the market for a new one? What kinds of features suit you and what you do? Leave a comment below!