What bag?

Choosing a camera bag seems to embody all the frustrations of selecting equipment with little of the fun. When I joined the digital photography age I no longer needed or wanted to tote a kitbag with two bodies, half a dozen lenses and all the paraphernalia of film photography.

What I needed was a more compact bag to accommodate my new Fuji ‘mirrorless’ system, one that did not have the geeky photo-tourist look (I can look quite geeky enough without buying accessories to match). At first reading, the Think Tank bag range had something for everyone and appeared the brand of choice for the scores of US photo-bloggers. I tried the company’s fashionably un-photo Retrospective range but the ‘5’ model I bought was too small – you could only get the stated amount of kit in if you didn’t mind the risk of it clashing in the bag. Further, there were few zipped compartments (just one, for a tablet?) and it relied on my pet-peeve – noisy-stick-to-everything-Velcro – to secure the compartments. Using the famous TT ‘Velcro Silencers’ just means disabling the Velcro completely so you risk your kit rolling down the street if you put the bag down for a moment. Despite these shortcomings, it was still the favourite and I was about to buy the Retrospective 7 until…

 I got the LowePro Pro-Messenger 160AW. I had previously avoided LowePro as my impression had been that its product always had that ‘I’m a photographer’ look that no photographer wants. However, the new LP PM range is similar to and surely influenced by TT’s Retrospective range. It has a few refinements: when the Velcro is silenced the main flap is more gently and quietly held by a hidden magnet closure. The second compartment is closed by a zip too. It loses some points to the TT Retrospective range by not providing a dedicated compartment for a tablet but I think one might be stowed in the zipped document pocket of the main compartment or better the zipped second compartment (smaller tablet only there). I prefer the fatigued look of the TT’s canvas to the LP’s synthetic canvas but I don’t think either range of bags is as soft and conformable as other commentators have suggested. It might yield with age and wear but it is so strongly built, that will take a lot of my light use.

For accommodation, even the smallest 160 size may be too big for the small kit I now have but I seldom travel without a handful of other accessories; variously a 1TB portable hard drive, smartphone, something to read, map and compass, a drink, assorted chargers and the paraphernalia of digital photography, so the space gets used easily. Sadly, there is no place for my Velbon monopod I always like to have to hand and that saves many a low-light shot at a concert, but the bag is too small: I may see how the bag or strap can be modified to carry it on the outside. None of the available bag options can ever be ideal, and it takes some time to load a new bag such that everything has a place, with – in my case – much cursing at the Velcro-secured dividers (I much preferred the more lightly secured but protective full lens pockets of my old Billingham but I wanted a change from the gone fishin’ but lost my rod look) but for now, this one is as close to the ideal as I have found.

As a cautionary note if you are reading the scores of overly positive online photo-blog reviews, be careful to read between the lines and question that which is left unsaid: many, even most, US blogs are on a ‘click from this site’ direct buy kick-back, a practice that surely mitigates against product improvement. There is no such here and I have tried to highlight some points often overlooked in the unrealistically glowing reviews.

Andy Craig