How Many Camera Bags?

I have to give full credit for this post to my friend Fernando Santos who asked it on the KelbyOne community. He asks such questions from time to time, perhaps to get people engaged, perhaps because he is simply interested. Either way, it’s a question that comes up in its own way on multiple occasions.

Nando proposes that it is possible to have more camera bags than some people have pairs of shoes. Not being a shoe junkie, I will take his word, but over decades of photography, I qualify as a bag junkie. Do I use them all? Nope. Have I sold the ones that I do not use? Nope. Should I make space? Yes, but I have not gotten around to it.

Which raises the question as to how many bags one may have, which is an integer and why one might have multiple bags, which is definitely not an integer or binary formatted answer.

Hence, if you have more than a single bag? Why? This is a question that is often asked by one’s better half if said better half is not a photographer, and even likelier if said better half has no affliction of any kind of whatever acquisition syndrome.

I admit that I have some bags, because they have been provided to me by the nice people at Think Tank Photo. I will go on record that I highly recommend Think Tank Photo products and with the exception of shipping (for which I have Pelican and Nanuk hard cases) and an affection for gear that has aged alongside with me (my old Domke F2) bag, I have only bought one bag that did not come from Think Tank Photo in the last 20 years and that one purchase was a mistake on my part. I have made a minor effort to sell it without success. For those who care, it’s the original version of the Peak Design Messenger bag, a nice piece whose design is completely useless for any of my use cases. But enough about that.

Why do you have more than one bag? In most all cases, the answer is that the bag one is using does not satisfy a specific use case. I know folks who started with a small amount of kit and simply outgrew their bag, but bought a larger version of the same design and discovered that what works for a body and lens, doesn’t work for a body, three lenses, a flash and a laundry list of assorted paraphernalia. The basic shoulder bag is the common qualifier. An overloaded shoulder bag is a pain, literally and figuratively and promotes spinal curvature, grumpiness and annoyed loved ones. I have a few of those and you may as well.

Which inevitably leads to a backpack. Backpacks were created to allow normal humans to carry large weights over long distances while keeping their hands free, other than seeking some form of pain killer medication. And therein lies the problem. A well designed backpack can be laden with all manner of kit, all of which magically increases its mass with each minute of wearing. A backpack encourages the owner to load up everything he or she owns, and if space remains, to head down to the camera store or online to spend money on stuff to fill it up with. This results in a potentially engineered hernia creation opportunity, in addition to a weight loss regimen. Been there, done that, and believe me, it’s worse the second you think that this is a good way to carry a serious video rig.

Aha we think, I can get another bag that by being smaller will force me to be more circumspect in what I take with me, and therefore be light enough not to be a pain. For this use case, we discover sling bags. What have we learned from slings? That no matter what size we choose, the one we have is always just a bit small, and so we pack it carefully, making any change of gear time consuming and a live demonstration of our aptitude or lack thereof for juggling.

We’ve also been well trained that our very expensive gear, much of which is built to be used day in and out by working professionals who in decades past may have had to fall on it, drop it, or use it to unintentionally but successfully divert gunfire (it was a Nikon F2 during the Vietnam war - you can probably find the story on the net) is incredibly fragile and requires copious amounts of padding and protection, even beyond the protection afforded by image destroying “protection” filters. Today we have come a very long way from Greg Lowe’s original series of bags built of tough Cordura and having moveable ripstop nylon covered close celled foam dividers. Now we have special soft cloth inside, and weather resistant, tear resistant, dirt resistant etc materials that drive the cost of a decent bag into several hundred dollars and even cheap badly stitched crap into the hundred dollar range. I still own that first Lowe Magnum 35 with the CME logo on it. It looks frightfully small today, but back 35 years ago, it held two bodies, six lenses, a potato masher flash and the myriad cables needed to get shots made. It’s smaller than a basic Lowe branded (with no resemblance to a real Lowe bag) that is offered for a body, two lenses and a pile of micro fibre cloths.

Looking at the major makers, they are building cameras with lightweight but very tough magnesium bodies and except for the really cheap lenses with plastic mounts and materials more suitable to a sippy cup, really well built lenses. Yet we presume that we must cosset this gear in miles of foam and behind two hundred zippers to keep it safe. Bull. I still see long serving photojournalists going about with two or three bodies on neck straps bashing against each other where the finishes are worn through yet the machinery delivers every single day. Back in ancient times, brassing, the process where the finish would wear away on edges to reveal the metal beneath was a badge of honour. Certainly if someone decided that they could charge more by making cameras look old and beat up they would, the same way that guitar makers take perfectly good instruments and then beat them up so they look like you’ve been playing them in dive bars for thirty years. Fortunately, the relic concept has not hit photography yet, although that it has not continually astonishes me as I count this as a case of when not if. On a side note, I actually argued with the Gibson company that I would only buy their reissue of the 1961 Les Paul Custom did not go anywhere near their relic group which by definition at the time for that then customer antagonistic company was the only way to go. It took six months to win that argument. It’s a lovely guitar and in thirty more years will look like it is forty years old naturally. But I digress.

Good gear, and there is plenty of it, is built well and survives very well. My original Jim Domke bag is made of duck canvas. It has dividers made of canvas. There is no padding in it. The base is reinforced with a piece of what I suspect is thin masonite in a canvas pocket. It has two snap swivels on the top and the only zipper is for the documents pocket. It is lightweight, conforms to your body shape and holds a body with a motor drive, three lenses and a speed light. In years of using it when I was carrying the darn thing every day, my gear was never damaged. I could work from it without taking it off my shoulder and nothing got in the way. I cannot say the same for any other bag that I own today even when they are very well built and designed.

One of the reasons I went with Think Tank so many years ago is that they were designed by working photographers. I still think that they are great, but no one bag solves all my use cases. I have more crap to take with me now it would seem. I do have more gear, the results of decades of G.A.S. which is my own fault, but compared to my film shooting days, everything is bigger now for reasons I do not completely understand. Even when I was shooting weddings with a Mamiya RZ67 camera, it was comparably smaller than my current Hasselblad H4D once it is kitted up.

So we have more bags, because we have more gear. In the olden days, photographers got by with two to three lenses. Today the serious photog’s average is five. I don’t count smartphones in this space anymore than I would count a 126 Instamatic back then. If you shoot with a smartphone and are happy with the results, cool, but you aren’t reading this anyway because your carry bag is your back pocket and despite serious efforts by makers to sell all manner of add-on junk to smartphones in the form of special cases, microphones, clip on lenses and assorted cantilever octopi, such efforts have been for the most part fruitless.

We also have more bags because there are more options. Back in those days, a good camera store, many of which have gone the way of the tyrannosaur and the dodo carried less than a dozen bags. We called them gadget bags back then. Today, many stores have a wider variety of bags in stock than they do cameras and lenses. You may draw your own conclusions on the why’s, but consider a considerably higher margin on accessories than on cameras and lenses as a possibility. Bags also do not age out every six months when a maker replaces the best camera in the world from six months ago with a new best camera in the world. We’ll talk about the pointlessness in camera release cycles for users in a different article.

Social media is also an influencer. In the old days, you would go into a real live camera store with your pile of kit and a patient sales associate would give you some space to allow you to test fit your gear. Now of course, you can buy in store or online and facilitate much easier returns, but I find lots of people who buy online and don’t return that which has not worked out. I witnessed again today a nice person who wanted other people’s opinions on a particular line of bags (that I had never heard of, not a surprise) but who could not articulate what his use cases were. This did not prevent a number of helpful souls make a number of recommendations to him, even though those recommendations possibly had no relationship to the poster’s use cases. If you don’t know why you buy something other than because someone else tells you that you should, and have no knowledge of whether it will fit your needs, you may be the idiot in the room.

In my experience, bags are like tripods. We end up with more than we need. Unlike tripods where the best guidance is to buy your last one first, this may not apply to bags because of very diverse use cases. That said, with some forethought, and a rigid willingness to return immediately something that doesn’t serve you, we can all probably get things down to no more than three bags, perhaps even one. Bag makers and retailers will hate me for this comment, but then of course instead of buying half a dozen pieces of vaguely useless stuff, you might instead spend the same money on one bag that is really awesome.