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dudler’s latest blog : in search of the perfect camera bag

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In search of the perfect camera bag

16 Aug 2020 8:39AM  
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Phil Taylor reckons there’s no such thing as the ideal camera bag, and his favourite isn’t even a bag. And it’s always a pleasure to be able to produce a blog full of somebody ele’s opinions – not to mention Phil’s telling reprotage pictures – which, of course, provide him with a reason for wanting a really functional cmaera bag.
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Way back in the post war era, all the way into the 80s, no camera was complete without an ‘ever ready case.’ Pretty much always in leather, nobody bothered about a meat free option back them, they ranged from the beautifully engineered ones on the twin lens Rollei, with built in springs that tucked the cover out of the way, to the lovely fit like a glove saddlery of the Pentax Spotmatic version. Back then 35mm SLRs were fitted by default with a 50mm standard lens, which many photographers never moved on from. The Japanese made it an art form, even designing cases with long noses for short tele lenses, but they never explained what you did with the other lens you removed. Behind the Iron Curtain things were different, the Krasnogork Mechanical Factory’s Zenith came in a famously malodorous case that seemed to have been styled by the designers of the Kalashnikov, and Dresden’s Prakticas were little better.

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By the 1980s manufacturers such as Olympus were advertising their cameras in the hands of famous photographers such as Terry Fincher, David Bailey and Terence Donovan totally naked; and you can’t really see Don McCullin ever having kept a camera in any kind of case Cameras were now being marketed as durable enough to look after themselves without a leather jacket in any weather. I can vouch for that, as when shooting a 24hr, 24 locations documentary, at 4:00 AM my Pentax MY fully manual camera packed in during a downpour. The film refused to advance, being wet, and glued to the guide rails. The film was ripped out, and the lens removed, the body was gaffer taped to the heater vents in the Mini Metro, and the camera left to warm up, as water poured from the motor drive socket. Try doing that with modern kit!

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Of course, as part of a system, you would start to accumulate a collection of lenses, a flashgun, cable release and several lurid coloured Cokin filters collected magpie fashion. Camera shops started to see the upselling potential, and before long the market was flooded by soft nylon cases with way too much padding, little weatherproofing, and so light that they were forever slipping off your shoulder. Then there were the inevitable zips, and loads of Velcro that meant getting anything out of the bag was accompanied by a loud RRRRIIIIPPP. Of course, the ‘pro’ alternative was the aluminium case, lots of little compartments that you made yourself with pick and pluck foam. I once lugged one around whilst photographing a bike race. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my jeans had a huge black patch from wearing away the thin aluminium skin. As storage at home they were perfect, and if you worked in a studio setting, they were great to leave open on the studio floor. For wedding and portrait photographers they were an instant stool that you could sit brides on. Few of them were as robust as they looked, as I found out when I used one laid flat to add a few inches to a lady in a portrait group; after a few seconds I could hear the sound of splintering wood, and feared the worst for the medium format system inside, then it got worse, as my assistant for whom English was a second language exclaimed, “I think you had better get off, you are rather ample.”

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Then along came the archetypal British camera bag of the 80s, the Billingham. My early version arrived on the week of the Chernobyl disaster, and got christened in a day’s fell walking in torrential rain, laced with radiation. It was so bad, the bag was never opened, but everything was bone dry, having been protected by the canvas and rubberised layers, like a Barbour with a shoulder strap. Watch any news footage of the period where a Conservative politician, union leader etc. is being pursued down a street by a pack of journalists, and you’ll see a Billingham bag with the hand strap dangling down. They were not without their faults, for modern large lenses the original inserts are too small, the webbing shoulder straps shred into tatters, and that signature hand strap with tooled leather handle always catches on the gear lever/handbrake if you have had it on the passenger seat, when you try to leave the car with it. Then, if left loose, the handle made a rhythmic thump on the underside of the case, announcing your presence. They last for ever, and it’s a badge of honour to still have an ancient one with battle scars. I still have mine, and it’s even been used into the digital era, with a netbook (remember them) tucked into the side pocket. Of course, you can’t wash them, so they resemble a pair of Hells Angels’ originals over the years, after 10 years of restaurant review photography, a chef took one look at the stains on mine, and reckoned he could make a stock with it.

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I’ve never really understood the trend for backpacks, although I own a large (everything including the kitchen sink) Lowepro one. Although with my specific one, you are supposed to be able to put on the waist belt, remove the shoulder straps, and lower it down by your waist, and change lenses, it doesn’t work for me. Then. With many, there’s the risk of simply being robbed by unzipping the back on many models, or forgetting to zip up- I’ve seen a cascade of L glass fall onto concrete that way. Canon CPS in early digital days made a perfect backpack, with laptop storage, screen sunshade, where at least they had listened to the target audience. Of course, ultimately, in most situations, you have to stop what you are doing, unless working from a fixed location, take it off and put it down on probably damp, muddy ground I’m afraid that most manufacturers seem to be fulfilling a need in some ‘athleisure’ market, where there’s a need to access stuff from the side or the top, store wet kagoules, a water bottle and probably space for a yoga mat, when you fancy a bit of hilltop exercise silhouetted against the sunset on a mountain top for Instagram.

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Of course, for me, finding the perfect camera bag has been like finding the Holy Grail, with as much success as Monty Python’s knights. There’s no ideal camera bag, and so much depends on genre, location and physical fitness. There’s the solid plastic case that stays at home/in the studio/car boot, the lightweight day bag, the carry everything shoulder bag, the rucksack, and the novel bag that somebody innovative has designed for a need that doesn’t exist. Bag manufacturers like to aim their products at a market that they reckon appeals, the outdoor type who roams the hills after wildlife, which might make the bird on a twig Ephotozine crew happy, but doesn’t work well outside that.

The phrase ‘going digital’ won’t mean much to any younger photographers, but nearly 20 years ago, it required a major rethink. Suddenly everything got big and heavy, there was a need to carry stuff- cables, chargers, memory cards, batteries, and on many jobs, a laptop. Billingham stuff had suddenly got very expensive compared to the competition. Few cases had the space to take modern larger lenses, then there was the weight problem, a backpack has saved many a pro photographers career from ending, the late Sally Soames reckoned that heavy equipment caused much of the ill health that dogged her later years. For me, an interim solution was a Tenba copy of the classic Domke bag, space for 4 fat lenses, 2 bodies, side pockets for all the electrical gubbins, and two large end pockets for the flashguns, one pocket even had a cutout for the aerial of your mobile phone to peep out (stop laughing at the back, at one time they really did have walkie talkie aerials). All the weight however was borne by one shoulder, and you would be constantly shifting it from side to side. One day, after a walk across town, shifting my heavy Windows 2000 14” laptop and bag from shoulder to shoulder, something had to give.

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I think I finally found the Holy Grail of camera bags, Lowepro had looked at what photographers in a particular field needed, and came up with the perfect reportage camera bag. It was the Tony Blair era, so they must have held a focus group. It might have been aimed at reportage, but I reckon it’s ideal for anyone carrying two bodies and three or four fat lenses, a couple flashes and a laptop, the Lowepro Stealth Reporter D650 AW. Why do I love it?

1. Waterproof covers, rarely needed, if as, I recommend for all bags, you Scotchgard it;
2. The lenses are stored vertically, so after opening the top ‘slash’ zip you can pull them out of a pretty much sealed case in light rain, and drop them back in;
3. It takes the Street and Field utility belt, at last, the weight is now distributed between waist and shoulder, and if you really must carry more, you can add lens pouches;
4. It has a sleeve to store a laptop- irrelevant nowadays, but useful back in the day (You won’t believe it, but you couldn’t get much in the way of Wi-Fi outside of BT Openzone and McDonalds, and you needed a paid for account too!);
5. Best of all, you could walk and work from it, at an event, in a crowd, it could stay on your body, and you can work out of it without putting it down.
Lowepro even listened to users, and added even more waterproofing, kept all the cable and widget pockets, made it single clip opening, but spoiled it a bit by adding a bright orange logo rather than the grey embroidered one. Maybe they have done the same for those who need a yoga mat and incense burner compartment too, it’s not my market.

Unfortunately, Lowepro have discontinued the Reporter series, and don’t seem to take on board the need for its return in a modern form, OK ditch the laptop in a shoulder bag, but please give us a shoulder saving belt.

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So, where does that leave us in the 2020s? Camera manufacturers are telling us that cameras are showerproof, have tougher casings, are dust sealed etc. I can vouch for their toughness, having dropped a Canon 7D2 onto a cow shed floor, dented the mode dial, and 8 months on it’s still going, and dropped a 5D Mk3 onto tarmac last month, the only damage being a tiny chip in the paint on the battery grip. Water resistance is a moot point, but then, 13 hours of Storm Ciara unprotected was pushing it, and the £400 mainboard repair was unwelcome. There’s a Think Tank waterproof cover in the car now, as I do a lot of wet weather reportage, it’s inconvenient, but it’s better than weeks waiting for a camera to be repaired.

Is there a place for a form of the ever-ready case to return? There might be a case (if you’ll excuse the pun) for those neoprene rubber camera sleeves, especially if you work with two bodies constantly rubbing against each other. Personally, I think I’ll spare the cameras having to wear something that resembles rubber bondage gear with cutouts for the focus point nipple. The coloured versions tend to have a bit of a Fisher Price look to them. The camouflage sleeves, I reckon do have a purpose, as they protect the paint on those expensive white lenses, but I understand a touch up paint is available in the Canon catalogue.

There’s the modern trend for high quality compacts from the likes of Fuji, and the ‘nifty fifty trend, so maybe the ‘never ready case’ might be due a comeback.

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So, whilst I wait for Lowepro to reinvent the Holy Grail for reportage work again, what am I using? Well, back in the early 2000s, before me and lenses got fat, I started doing a bit more reportage. I bought myself a cheap, green, canvas fishing jacket, one camera and lens round my neck, a small 70 to 300 in a big pocket, a wide angle in another, a flashgun, mobile, wallet, AAs and film distributed in all the smaller pockets. The advantages were that like the Lowepro Stealth, you could walk and change lenses, it stayed strapped to your body, and best of all, the weight is distributed. The drawback is that it’s not waterproof, but that’s easily solved by putting a jacket over the top. In reality, most outdoor reportage doesn’t need more than two lenses, with plenty of experience I reckon I can envisage what’s needed in advance on a job- but the 70 to 200mm f2.8 won’t fit. But, those pockets can be painful, I remember being on the floor at an open air concert with the Halle orchestra, having crawled on the floor to look up at the horn section, just as they opened up the microphones, just in time for the desk to ring my mobile- ever tried finding a phone in 10 pockets simultaneously?

So, if I hadn’t been confined to the house by NHS Track and Trace, my ready to go bag would be by the door, as discussed in the Method, Method, but the tripod, Think Tank waterproof, and now tattered jacket simply lie in the boot of the car instead of a yoga mat.

The future, well maybe we are going backwards to cameras the size of the Olympus OM1, mirrorless APS C certainly seems to be going that way.

Anyone got any thoughts on what my next Holy Grail camera bag should be?

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