Photography & Video Shoulder Bags, Sling Packs, Backpacks, Waist Belt Systems and Rolling Bags - 2009 Product Roundup Review - Part 2
M-Rock - Description: Consumer quality belt packs, waist sytems, backpacks, shoulder bags, pouches and a couple of sling bags which look like good Lowepro clones but with a couple of extra features not found in Case Logic, Kata, Lowepro and Tamrac models. The line also provides moderate padding and moderate, reliable weatherproofing. Very few changes over the past year. Verdict: The newer M-Rock sling packs (the Arches in particular — one of our favorites) are real challengers to the Lowepro SlingShot, Tenba Shootout Sling & Convertible, Tamrac Velocity and world's more functional than Kata's T-series sling packs. The smaller M-Rock holster styles offer good protection and versatile access, but zippers are sometimes awkward to use. Otherwise, the M-Rock products work well and make economic use of space in their moderately compact designs. Weatherproofing is very good as demonstrated by eight days of walkabouts on the streets of London (UK) in May 2008 during some really wet weather (the Arches kept all our gear dry and secure). Things aren't perfect though because we found some stitching and zipper pull problems with an Olympic and an Arches sling pack and stitching which opened up on the front storage pocket of a Sierra 512 top loading holster model, so check your selection very carefully before buying in-store. Still, M-Rock is well worth considering and very competitively priced. Lots of models meet international air travel carry-on bag size restrictions. Overall good value. Recommended.
Naneu Pro - Description: Interesting designs, above average consumer quality and some semi-pro models including extremely versatile backpacks, shoulder bags and sling bags, with moderate to good padding, moderate to good weatherproofing, and very reasonable pricing. Verdict: As mentioned in the 2008 listing, we're still having a hard time tracking down actual owners and users, and the bags are only slowly increasing in popularity. However, a lot more U.S. dealers are now carrying Naneu Pro — smaller dealers in particular. Carry and comfort levels are quite good and the interiors are versatile. The few quality and wear reports we've received are quite good. In & out access to some of the shoulder bag models is restricted, resulting in camera edges catching on the bag opening. The Alpha-L backpack is well designed, tough and cleanly made. We're also fans of the Military Ops Lima, Sierra and Tango messenger style bags, with their distinctly spec-ops looks & feel, with good functionality. Tie off the top carry handles on the messenger bags because they intefere with quick in & out access to the top main camera compartment. All of the messengers, a couple of backpacks and several other models meet international air travel carry-on bag size restrictions. Very good value. Recommended.
Pelican - Description: The first name in weatherproof, impact resistant, weatherproof hard shell cases used all over the world to carry, protect, store and ship camera gear of all kinds. Recently acquired Hardigg Industries, one of its prime competitors. Verdict: Anybody who has to regularly check their camera gear on an airplane, train or bus, or who has to move gear from location to location needs to consider a Pelican, Lightware or Versa-Flex case or set of cases. Pelican offers a huge range of water tight, dunkproof, weatherproof, highly impact resistant, extremely well padded cases in tiny sizes all the way up to large suitcase and crate models. For good reasons, these are the cases most pros turn to for shipping and project travel. Quite a few soft bag makers offer models sized specifically to work on their own and also fit perfectly into specific Pelican cases. For example, the Lowerpro OmniSport shoulder/waist bag is a perfect fit inside the Pelican 1400. There are at least a dozen other examples. Pricey, but worth every penny. If you have to check-in pro photography or video gear at the airport, stowing it in a padded Pelican case is the best way to ensure it all arrives safely. Highly recommended.
Petrol Bags - Description: an extensive line of professional shoulder bags, rolling bags and medium to large custom bags for photographers and videographers, offering good weatherproofing, moderate to good padding, very good construction quality and high prices to match. Verdict: Petrol is a new maker on our horizon who is gaining respect and popularity for good design and good looks. All the designs we've seen make economical use of space and operate quietly. Semi-hard bags like the Dr. Petrol PDRB-3 offer superb protection, excellent carry comfort on a shoot and meet international air travel carry-on bag size restrictions. Most of the line has gained traction with serious amateurs, enthusiast, semi-pro and photographers and videographers. That's a vote of confidence in the value. The Pro Backpack PMCK-1 is another case in point because it's a difficult clamshell backpack design that is contoured and comfortable and offers excellent shape retention. Very well made, functional designs which have obviously been thoroughly field tested. More video than still photography oriented, but everyone should give these ones a good look. Recommended.
PortaBrace - Description: Similar to Petrol but with competitive feature additions, similarly large model line, primarily for videographers, providing professional quality with prices to match. Verdict: we haven't used PortaBrace products extensively, but even occassional use has made it clear that these bags provide pro video shooters with good products. Materials and overall designs are somwhat different from competitors and a number of products are offered which accommodate specific cameras and associated gear. We did manage to spend a weekend in October 2008 hiking and shooting video with some broadcast gear in the shield rock hills north of Lake Superior using the HK-1 Hiker Backpack. It's a huge, purpose built, totally weathproof, tough pack which is ideal in rough environments. We also worked with a town crew in Thunder Bay, Ontario who flew in with, among other things, a pile of gear stowed in a PB-2850F Wheeled Vault Hard Case. It's serious, pro gear which rivals the best from Pelican. Quiet, well padded and structured designs offering secure closures, extreme weather resistance and good access. If you fly with a lot of gear, consider checking in with PortaBrace hard cases. Recommended.
Promaster - Description: Below average quality consumer camera shoulder bags, pouches, backpacks and rolling bags, all for occassional use, and offering only light weatherproofing and light to moderate padding. Verdict: Don't let the company name fool you—this stuff isn't pro quality and we actively dislike products which are so aggressively named and which fail so thoroughly to meet the standard set by the name. Alright — we shouldn't be so rough on them. But there's not much new here and in our view most of the line is strictly for budget conscious wedding and event shooters. The bags, rolling bags and hard cases don't stand up to extensive travel. Most Promaster models — the L400 Professional Series is an example — are undersized compared to competing models from other makers, with depth and height dimensions more suited to middle-aged 35mm film gear. Not recommended.
Sumdex - Description: Consumer camera shoulder bags and belt/shoulder pouches, with light padding and surprisingly good weatherproofing, but only average quality construction at average or below average prices. Verdict: Companies like Sumdex just can't get any traction with retailers in the face of huge store footprints occupied by established players such as Lowepro. The quality of Sumdex products can vary significantly from sample to sample. Right up there with the lower end Case Logic and Promaster stuff. Inexpensive outer layers of nylon, polyester & nylon and various other synthetics don't hold up against abrasion and repeated use. Not recomended.
Tamrac - Description: Lots of variety with almost as much choice as Lowepro, good to excellent weatherproofing, moderate padding, average to good construction and remains the photographer's or videographer's choice when the bag you want from Lowepro or Kata is just a bit too expensive. Verdict: Tamrac has found a busy niche just below Lowepro, Tenba, Think Tank and Kata, and seems happy to own its particular segment. Some new shoulder models (e.g., the Adventure Messenger 4) seem like near-perfect, relatively simple, low-key designs which just work well and are lighter but just as basically functional as the excellent new Lowepro Classified AW series (one of our favorites). The Messenger 5534 is a deceptively simple and remarkably functional shoulder bag with an excellent strap & sliding shoulder pad which works on the left or right shoulder, distributes weight extremely well, carries very stable, and protects your valuable gear. The whole Tamrac camera/messenger line is a home run as far as we're concerned. The Velocity sling bag series was successfully revised in 2007 and several new models (the 9x and huge 10x) have been added in recent months. They're a different 'take' on the sling bag design and work well (and infinitely better than the aging Kata T212 & T214 design), offering the same good general construction quality as the M-Rock Olympic & Arches and Lowepro SlingShot models. Tamrac construction quality can be somewhat variable although the line remains generally quite good. Minor sewing quality problems noted last year seem to have been cleared up in all the store samples we looked at recently. Tamrac offers almost as many models as Lowepro, which means that you'll find a bewildering array of choices. The new Explorer 100, 200 & 400 shoulder bags take direct competitive aim at Lowepro's excellent consumer and enthusiast Rezo series and Nova series, and the Tenba Xpress models. If you can't find a model that suits your needs, you're either too picky or you just don't like conventional bags. Lots of rolling, backpack, shoulder and sling models meet international air travel carry-on bag size restrictions. Recommended.
Tenba - Description: Offers a good selection of enthusiast, semi-professional and professional camera backpacks, shoulder bags, sling bags and rolling bags rivaling the wide selection from Tamrac (but not the truly massive selection at Lowepro), with moderate weatherproofing and moderate padding. Verdict: Tenba seems to be a very good maker that needs to find some way of gaining greater traction in the marketplace in order to get more of its products into more retail stores and in front of amateur photographers. Lots of pros and semi-pros know and use Tenba bags of all kinds. Construction quality seems consistently good-to-excellent from bag to bag. Designs are relatively quiet. Tenba offers a range of capacities to suit a variety of needs. The Shootout Convertible sling bag models compare very well to the excellent Lowepro SlingShot, M-Rock Olympus/Arches and Tamrac Velocity models, offering a very versatile shape and the option to remove all interior pads to create a long lens bag. We noticed that the excellent Small Messenger and Large Messenger series 638 bags are almost identical in size, and their otherwise really well thought out design is marred by a really terrible shoulder strap. Please — wide, countoured straps are not versatile and this one is particularly wide and awful in our opinion. All of the other Tenba bag straps (shoulder bags, backpacks, etc.) are very good, so we're mystified about the bad decision with respect to the messenger bag strap. In our admitedly brutal water/weather resistance testing, we found that Tenba generally does a slightly better job of waterproofing and zipper sealing than Lowepro, Tamrac, Kata and Think Tank (noting also that all the top ranked bag makers all still very good). Tenba has a complete set of carry-on compatible bags which meet international air travel carry-on bag size restrictions and is the only company to offer a carry-on compatible category on its web site featuring the Shootout Daypack, Shootout small & medium backpacks and rolling bags, Air Case Transport, and Roadie series. We've been using a Shootout Mini Backpack (series 632) on & off for several months, mainly for day trips to regional conservation areas. The backpack is well designed, carries well and broke in perfectly. Secondary storage in all models is very good. Consistently good quality control means that Tenba products are a safe bet when shopping online. Recommended.
ThinkTank - Description: Specializes in waist and harness mounted camera bag systems as well as a superb line of rolling camera bags, backpacks and shoulder bags providing professional quality, excellent features, moderate to excellent padding and very good weatherproofing. Verdict: Think Tank products are going head-to-head with Lowepro, Tenba, Tamrac and other makers and winning quite a few battles. The Airport International v2 rolling bag is rapidly becoming a standard piece of gear for all serious photographers who have to fly internationally (not that there's anything wrong with our trusty v1 on which we've put about 50,000 air miles). Generally higher priced, made in the U.S, finish quality is generally excellent and the results of field testing and customer feedback seems to regularly influence design improvements. The waist belt & harness systems offer terrific versatility, the swing around (Rotation 360) model in the backpack line is unique and highly functional, and the rolling cases offer superior features including security and real considerations for the needs of travelers. The carry-on legal line of rolling bags and backpacks—the Airport series—are extremely well made and extremely well thought out, making them perfect for the needs of many different traveling photographers. The Modular Speed Belt was being sold with size labels that just didn't make sense and Think Tank has recently corrected things. The Modular/Modulus system remains a very popular choice, but the newer Skin system (lighter weight, less padding) is also gaining traction. We tried a Skin Set and liked it a lot for urban and event shooting. The Urban Disguise shoulder bags continue the excellent quality construction while also providing anonymous versatility. Like the Lowepro Classified, Crumpler Million Dollar Home, Tamrac Messenger, Naneu Pro Lima/Sierra and Tenba Messenger series, the Think Tank Urban Disguise models don't look like traditional camera bags. Unfortunately, long urban walkabouts using various Urban Disguise models aren't initially very comfortable because the bag bodies are just a bit too stiff and need an extended period to break in. Position a new Urban Disguise carelessly and it will readily chafe back & forth on your hip. Life is good once they break in though and we actually really like the Urban Disguise 40 for its quality and versatility. All models of all lines provide generally very quiet operation because Think Tank has wisely ignored the tempation to bow down to the velcro gods. Very good quality and very good value. Highly recommended.
Tough Traveler - Description: The company is based in Schenectady, New York and does all its design and manufacturing there. Quality, materials and design work are excellent. We're most interested in their small range of camera and video bags, but Tough Traveler also makes an extensive line of bags for travel, backpacking and many other needs. Verdict: Tough Traveler has been in business for many years and its attention to detail shows. The model 481 Camera Bag actually features an ultralight, internal aluminum tubular frame which prevents the bag from ever deforming no matter how you load it up. Made in the U.S., lots of durable Cordura, liberal use of top quality zippers, well designed padding and good weatherproofing. Several models, including the Waycam backpacks, are not quite roomy enough to easily carry a full size digital SLR kit. Recommended, as long as you check sizes carefully before you order. Recommended.
Versa-Flex, Inc - Description: ATA style professional photo cases, rolling cases, tripod and custom cases, all of which provide excellent padding & protection along with good to excellent weatherproofing. Made in the U.S. Verdict: Cordura nylon outer shells with wraparound multi-density foam padding covering steel rim frames basically describes Versa-Flex products. If you're doing location shooting—photo or video—and you need to move gear quickly and safely, these cases are an investment worth considering. An excellent alternative to hard shell designs from Peilican and PortaBrace. Highly customizable interiors, padding and foamed reusable packing fittings make packing and unpacking on location quite easy. Quiet operation and secure handling. Mainly for pros, production houses and touring companies. Highly recommended.
Vested Interest - Description: Professional quality photo and video carry vests with lots of built in features and surprisingly competitive pricing. Verdict: If you like photograpy vests, particularly if you prefer a vest as your main carry method, you have to consider the Vested Interest line. Design and construction, weather resistance and durability consistently work to provide a wearable carry that's attractive to people such as journalists who have to move fast in difficult and dense environments. Especially useful for photojournalists at events where security restrictions prohibit the use of camera bags. Pocket closures are velcro, which makes operation somewhat noisy, but in the typical busy urban and event locations for which these vests are best suited, noise isn't much of a factor. We used the Khumbu model for two different tech exhibition/event shoots and never once missed our sling pack or shoulder bag. Well designed neck/collar yoke that doesn't dig in when the vest is loaded. Stylish they're not, but if you need one of these there really aren't a lot of vest manufacturers from which to choose. Recommended.
NOTE TO AIR TRAVELERS: Carry-On Camera Shoulder Bags, Backpacks, Sling Packs & Rolling Cases. Think Tank used to be the only maker that took direct (marketing) note of carry-on size restrictions. Times have changed. Almost all of the top 10 makers in this round-up offer shoulder, sling, backpack and roll-on camera bags which meet both international, Transport Safety Administration (TSA) and regional aircraft carry-on size restrictions. If you're purchasing a camera or video bag for carry-on use during air travel, compare the bag's outside dimensions to the size restrictions imposed by the airlines you'll be using (as listed on various airline web sites). Never, ever believe a salesperson's opinion about any of this. Never, ever check-in any camera bag that isn't hardshelled, heavily padded and designed to withstand being accidentally tossed around in the hold of an aircraft. Carbon fiber tripods may be allowed on board, but forget about metal tube tripods. In any event, all tripods can represent a minor safety hazard in the cabin, so our advice is to pack tripods in checked luggage.