7 Features every Photographer Needs in their Travel Bag
- Bigger Straps
- Multiple Camera Access Points
- Secure Quick Access Pockets
- Accessory Points
- Multiple Carry Handles
Links to the Backpack's Mentioned on the Episode
So, last week we got to have an incredible conversation with Ian Millar, founder of Shimoda - one of the best adventure photography backpack makers on the planet. We talked a lot about the release of their new travel-focused backpack, the Explore V2. And I fell in love when I saw that backpack and the features it had. Which got me thinking. What do I look for when I'm picking out a photography bag for travel? And that reflection led me to today's podcast, which is all about the 7 features I look for when picking a travel backpack.
Now, we won't talk about things that I think are critical in any adventure photography bag. So, things like the size of the bag, an internal frame to help with weight distribution and a waist belt aren't being talked about here. I'm talking more about the features that make me happy to use the bag. These are typically little things that, when done right, make a huge difference.
Alright, let's not waste anymore of your time. Here we go with #1.
#1 - Bigger Straps
I like my straps to be a bit bigger with a medium level of padding. I find most backpack straps are a little bit thin, which makes them dig in when carrying heavy loads. My favourite straps definitely go to Shimoda as they wear more like a harness than backpack straps, which I find much more comfortable. They are a bit thicker, a bit wider, and hug the body closer, making it feel like the weight is more evenly distributed across your torso rather than your back taking the brunt of the work.
If you find your shoulders or your back hurting when using your current backpack, look at what the straps are like and where they are sitting on you. This may be as simple as tweaking the fit to make it feel better, or the straps may just be wrong for your body. (You could also be loading your backpack wrong, but that's for another day).
Look at the straps on the bag you're considering and remember - you're wearing this all day, every day for a long time. Don't get thin, unpadded garbage. Get your shoulders - and the rest of you - something comfortable and luxurious.
#2 - Multiple Camera Access Points
I had a backpack years ago that - for all its faults - had amazing camera access. I could sling the bag and get access from either side, I could set the bag down and get access through the front panel, or I could top load everything and reach in to get my gear. This really helped when shooting on the fly or shooting with different sizes of gear. As I had all the access points I could ever need. I found this incredibly helpful while shooting in different situations. If I could stop for a while, I'd lay the bag down to get in, but if I was running and gunning or in a tight situation where putting the gear down was impractical or impossible, I loved the side access. This was great while shooting on trains or busses where space was tight as well.
Then, I went for years without having side sling access and missed it greatly in certain moments. So, I went hunting for a bag that gave me that variety of access points back again. And I love it. I use the side access constantly while shooting fast. Just having the choice is huge because you encounter so many different situations while travelling that you need a bag that provides flexibility in your shooting choices.
When looking, think about how you will get your equipment in and out of it and if it's practical for how and where you shoot. Personally, I'd get one that is super flexible.
#3 - Secure, quick access pockets
Travel typically involves a lot of documentation. Passports, tickets, maps, letters, there's just so much documentation that we need to have easy access to. But it also can't be so easy that someone else can get to it. So, I love having a secure hidden pocket that is easy for me to access and no one else. This makes travelling through airports and high-security areas much faster and easier and, honestly, far less stressful. When picking out your next bag, think about where all your important papers will go and whether they will be secure and easily accessible there.
#4 - Flexibility
I need a camera bag that gives me flexibility in how much gear I'm taking. Some days I need to fill a backpack with nothing but cameras and lenses. Other days, I need just one body and a couple of primes along with a lot of cold-weather gear. So, I need flexibility in how much camera and non-camera equipment I can bring. Too many travel backpacks have set photography spaces, leaving you with no room for anything else. And we need room for jackets, food, water, and day-to-day necessities.
This comes in various styles right now, with the most popular being the internal camera boxes. These are boxes that vary in size that you drop into a backpack. These boxes are where your equipment goes, so the gear is protected on the inside. You can choose boxes that take up a whole backpack all the way to just one lens attached to a body. Check out Shimoda and F-Stop Gear, as they are two companies doing this very well right now.
Atlas Backpacks also has an incredible accordion divider system that I have yet to try but looks very cool theoretically. The interior compartment is split up with these accordion folds that can move around, giving you more camera space and less other space or vice versa. It's a very cool idea that you'll have to watch a video to fully understand. I'll link to Atlas in the show notes.
Flexibility is a dealbreaker for me. I don't care how comfortable a bag is, how cool its other features are. If I can't have flexibility in how I use it, I won't buy it.
#5 - Compactability
I hate a backpack that is always big, bulky and takes up room everywhere. Even when there is nothing in it. I want a backpack that I can compress down (via compression straps) to help reduce its size and make it nicer to carry. Big backpacks are just more cumbersome. They carry better if you can reduce their size.
I also love a bag that has stowable side pockets. I didn't think I'd love this feature when I got my backpacking bag that has it, but it's awesome! I don't always want a tripod, water bottle, or something else on the side of my backpack. But, even when you take those items out of their side pockets, the pocket is still there to get caught on things, ripped, and be a general nuance. Especially if the pocket is bigger, I've seen them get torn so often while travelling (thankfully, always to someone else's bag). So, look for a bag that lets you tuck these side pockets away to streamline your bag.
#6 - Accessory Points
I have seen so many great backpacks foiled because they didn't think about the fact photographers - and adventure travellers - need to put big items on the outside of their bags. They either forget outside accessory points entirely, or they are such an afterthought their almost useless. I need a bag that lets me put poles, tripods, or adventure gear on the outside of the bag - all dependent on the adventure. This goes back to the flexibility. I need a bag that will let me do a variety of things in different situations. This is why I love the accessory straps on the Action X series from Shimoda. They are a special type of material made to stick better to skis, snowboards and tripods while also being more durable so they don't break easily.
I can't stand a backpack that doesn't let me hook things up to it.
I also need to see how I can strap a camera to the outside of the bag. This is typically done with my Peak Design capture camera clip. I need a spot where that clip can go to have fast access to my camera while exploring.
So, think about what you will need to put on the outside of a bag. Tripods, picnic blankets, cameras, whatever it is, and make sure that your new travel bag will be able to take on that challenge.
#7 - Multiple Carry Handles
Mostly, I carry a backpack on my back with its shoulder straps. But that isn't always practical when travelling, especially in tight situations, on crowded transit, in overhead bins and when moving from spot to spot shooting. Sometimes, you just need to carry your bag another way. This is why I always look for extra carry points on my travel bags to make that experience much nicer. In particular, I look for bags with a side handle, allowing briefcase-style carrying, which is much nicer than carrying the bag via the top handle while running through airports.
One of the new features I see crop up on travel bags - and the Explore V2 from Shimoda - is a base handle that allows you to carry the bag flat or pull it out easily from stacks and overhead compartments. This is an awesome new feature that, for photographers, means no more juggling an open bag. You just pick it up by the top and bottom handles and walk a few feet to your next shooting spot. So, look for how you will carry the bag besides on your shoulders, as this happens more than we would like while travelling.
And that's it! Those are the 7 features I look for in travel bags. Some of these are dealbreakers, meaning that I'm not buying if the bag doesn't have them. And, you need to know what these deal breakers are for you. Because you don't want to buy a new bag and then find out it doesn't have something critical that you need. So, think carefully about every small feature you could want and then go and find the bag that matches that. For travelling, I'd start with looking on Kickstarter at the Shimoda Explore V2, the Peak Design Travel Backpack, F-Stop Gear's Mountain Series (for adventure travel), and Atlas Packs. These are all great places to start as they are some of the most respected camera backpack makers on the planet, and you should get a good idea of what you like - and don't like - about backpacks fairly quickly.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.