Photographers tend to churn through camera bags like underwear, we’ve got a bag for everything. The only competition I have is my wife’s purse collection. Unfortunately, photography is also one of the most expensive hobbies/professions out there. A great camera bag easily tops $100 and features nifty perks like tiny SD card pockets, a pull out rain protector (a piece of waterproof material stitched to the bag the tucks into a pocket usually hidden at the bottom of your bag), and small pockets elsewhere for all your ND filters, polarizers, hard drives, etc.. These bags are often functional and look like… Well, camera bags.
My all time number one dedicated camera bag is still the Lowepro ProTactic 450: Reviewed here.
Let’s take a minute to talk about exactly why you’d want to turn an everyday bag or backpack into a camera bag or backpack, aside from simply wanting to save some Benjamins/pesos/family goats. Criminals that target photographers usually know what to look for. Sadly, camera bag manufacturers still believe putting their name on your bag is more important than your safety, but the names act as a bullseye. In fact, criminals are happier you are wearing your camera bag than you are… You take all the guess-work out of their job. This is one of the primary reasons camera bags/backpacks (like my favorite one above) should only be used to transfer your gear long distances (I’ll expand on this later) or in the backcountry where the risk of running into a lazy criminal is slim to none.
Protecting yourself from criminals is one of the biggest reasons I advocate using a bag that does not advertise you’re carrying thousands of dollars of camera gear with you, but there is another reason that is a huge bonus: Weight! Utilizing a non-camera bag causes me to pack just the essentials as opposed to a bunch of gear I rarely use just because I have the space for it. My non-camera bag usually contains an extra SD card, tripod, ND filters, battery, business cards, sometimes an extra lens.
Finally, if I’m traveling for fun and I don’t need my Nikon D810 I’ll simply leave my LowePro at home and take my non-camera bag. I always feel liberated when I travel like this as it is far lighter than a full LowPro. I’ll use my bag as an additional carry-on and pack my kindle on the top so I have something to read between chasing my son around the airport and waiting for our flight. My tripod goes in my carry-on roller that gets stowed in the overhead baggage bin.
For the sake of time and ease I’m going to refer to camera backpacks and bags as simply camera bags. Please understand that this article applies to everything from a school bag to a full fledge camping/hiking, external/internal, frame backpack.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you like people to jump to the point. You ain’t got time for beating around the bush and wordsmithing… So, here you go. If you look at the image below you will see I simply added a camera insert I bought off of Amazon to turn this bag into a camera bag. Easy right? And guess what?! You can stack the inserts one on top of the other to accommodate lenses and other cameras if you need to. My normal setup in the camera insert you see below is my camera with the lens attached, a tripod, and an umbrella if there is a chance of rain. If no rain is in the forecast I may take an additional lens.
Did I blow your mind? It really seems simple and straight forward. Oddly, it took me years and many camera bags to realize that the perfect solution is a bag like the ProTactic mentioned above, to transfer gear long distances, and a bag like the Herschel (shown in the pictures) for use once I hit my destination. When I’m photographing around my home town I almost never carry a large dedicated camera bag, you’ll always find me with a discrete bag that looks nothing like a camera bag.
Lately I have been traveling a lot for various commissions and personal projects. When I travel I always use the ProTactic (shown near the top of the article) to transfer all my gear to the hotel or house I’m staying at. Once I’m situated I will transfer just the gear I need for whatever project I’m tackling at the moment. For instance, I don’t need to carry all my chargers, laptop, and every lens with me at all times… That’s just stupid and a waste of energy. I like to pack light and blend in to the crowd wherever I am.
Getting my bag, that I’ve converted into a camera bag, to my destination is easy. I simply take the camera insert out, roll up my shirts, shorts, and pants, and stuff them into the insert. Then I place the insert and the rest of my clothes in my carry-on (I don’t check bags) and I place the actual bag overtop everything and then zip my suitcase shut. Done!
If you only take one thing away from this article please let it be that you don’t need to shell out hundreds for a new camera bag just because it is a “camera specific” bag. You can turn an everyday, seemingly ordinary, already owned bag into a camera bag with an investment of less than twenty dollars. Further, a non-camera bag may be the best fit if you’re looking to pack light, stay discreet, and look good (with the exception of Ona bags, camera bags aren’t known for being fashion pieces).