The subject of how best to carry your camera equipment is probably one of the most individualised of subjects for any photographer, depending not only on your gear, but how and where you are travelling. and also the type of photography you will be doing. So, I’m definitely not presenting this as a definitive list, but rather some of my own thoughts on what I look for in equipment to hold my gear.
First-off, there is no one, perfect solution to all this, even for myself. However, for me, there are maybe two primary considerations: Protection of my hard-earned and expensive equipment when it is being carried or transported, and ease of access to the gear when I am using it. I guess the logical way to approach this is to look at using the gear first, and then decide how this will work for getting it from A to B, especially when I am flying and there is a fixed space available to carry it on to the plane.
For use, I like to have my hands free to use the camera. OK, that sounds obvious, but it also included not having bags slung across my shoulders that will try to slip off or around my body when I am kneeling or otherwise moving around to get the angle that I want. It is also rather nice to be able to access whatever part of the gear you have brought along, without any fuss. So, I originally tried the camera-holster-and-lens-pouches-on-a-belt system, going back to an ancient CCS camera-holster for my Canon A1, which I had to swap for something a little larger once I got a DSLR, as these are generally larger than the film models. I bought a Tamrac holster, not as well padded as the CCS one, but with more room for batteries and memory cards, and this has been with me on many trips and assignments, with a LowePro lens-pouch attached, with both my EOS 300D and 40D inside. This is still a good system for travelling abroad, with just my Tamron 28-300 lens attached to the camera, and my Sigma 12-24 in the pouch.
Unfortunately, as is the way of things, I have more equipment to choose from now, and once you add more than one pouch to the holster on the belt, it becomes too much of a juggling-act putting it on or removing it safely. Plus, I now use an EOS 7D with the battery-grip attached, which makes for a much more bulky body. Enter the LowePro Inverse 200AW belt-pack, a bit of kit I love and which will take the 7D with battery-grip attached (just, especially with the Canon 24-105 attached, as it is rather wide) plus another lens, with space for a teleconverter and a couple of other accessories in the main body, and a good-sized front pocket where I keep two additional batteries (when needed), rigid memory-card case, lens-cleaning cloth and the remote shutter-release. Now, with the camera body inside, it’s not too comfy to carry, but since I will be using this when I am working, I can take it out, and even add an extra lens if I want to. Plus, there are straps on the sides to allow me to attached a couple more pouches securely, so if I have the Canon 100-400 IS lens with me, this will be slung on the side in yet another LowePro pouch. And the straps underneath take a Joby DSLR GorillaPod, on the occasions I need it, with the head safely in the main body of the pack.
As I said, this is a bit of a tight fit for the 7D plus grip, so I’ve also acquired a Think Tank Digital Holster 40 for the body-plus-grip-plus-lens combo. Not used this brand before, but seems well-constructed and I love the fact that I can extend the end of the ‘trunk’ if I’m working and want to leave the lens-hood attached without reversing it. A a small feature but shows good design. This will also attach to the side of the LowePro belt-pack, so I can have two lenses inside the pack, 100-400 slung on one side, and this holster on the other. This works well for me, as I have all the gear right in front of me (also useful for personal security, as well as access), and the belt-pouch acts as a useful platform for changing lenses. Unless the weather is extreme (rain, dust, or whatever), the holster will probably be in my backpack.
The above is what I have arrived after many years. But why not a dedicated camera backpack? Well, I hike a lot too, either at home or on vacations, so I’ve always used a regular hiking pack, currently either the superb Lowe Alpine AirZone Centro 35+10, which is unfortunately no longer in the current line-up of products, or a smaller day-sack if I am in this country. Either can take extra clothing, snacks, water and – depending what I have brought – some or all of the camera gear too if the weather turns, or I simply want to cover distance (or not announce that I have expensive camera gear with me, of course). The LoweAlpine is great: Well-made and can carry weight comfortably. I’ve even had a full-sized tripod strapped to one side, and still had no problems with it, striding about the Canadian tundra for photos of wild Arctic wolves. Also it can be used as a carry-on when flying. Well … actually, it is just a fraction too tall, and some of the budget airlines force passengers to try their bag in a metal frame for size, before being allowed to board. My solution? Well, if it is strapped on my back, it’s harder to see, especially with my long hair covering it! So, I just present my boarding-pass and stride off to the plane before they can see what is happening. It is rather heavy too, having also got MP3 player, Kindle, glasses, and other fragile odds-and-ends stuffed in there for the flight. Not a problem for me, but I still feel a little guilty about a woman at customs in Poland who didn’t realise exactly how heavy it was, even with my warning! – somewhere around 10-12 kg when flying but I can get it in the overhead bin fine, and always try to board close to the front, to ensure a good space for it.
… this backpack is a bit tighter fit with the belt-pack rather than separate holster-and-pouches within it, so I may sometimes end up either taking the grip off the camera body and packing things separately when I fly, or simply leaving the grip behind and using the older pouches if the balance is more towards hiking than photography. Choices and flexibility, that’s the key for me. And I can still just manage to use the backpack’s hip-belt whilst having the belt-pack swivelled around to the back, also better for hiking.
For work or play closer to home, a larger day-sack is fine: Again, it keeps a few other essentials around and, depending what I have with me, will also take the gear too. Currently using a Berghaus one, but not so fussy with these. This can be useful in an urban environment, where I would rather not advertise that I am carrying camera gear around. That and the need to carry other items, often rather a lot when flying, are the reasons that I don’t buy a dedicated camera-gear backpack. Plus, I can still have the gear around my waist for easy-access when using it. Works for me.
If I am taking the IR-adapted EOS 30D-with-battery-grip along too, I’m happy to slip that into a basic neoprene pouch, within my rucksack (my main gear can be seen here). Ditto any other accessories I need with me.
Another factor in play is that the budget airlines charge for a checked-bag (and sometimes for a regular-sized carry-on too, allowing only a smaller pack for free). Obviously for hiking-type trips, I just have to pony-up the cash, or realise that it is as cheap to use a more reliable carrier such as Lufthansa once all the additional expenses are factored-in. But, for three or four day trips, I have just acquired a maximum-carry-on backpack. Now, this is not as comfy as a dedicated pack, but does offer more space, and although I won’t be testing it for a few weeks, it looks like it will take the camera belt-pack, an additional lens, clothing, travel gadgets, chargers, and maybe a small day-pack as well. Plus, a water-bottle, which is an essential for me. Instead of going with the ‘most popular’ on Amazon, I went for the LoweAlpine option, the TT Carry-on 40; Slightly less broad than some, but this makes it look more like a regular pack rather than a canoe portage-pack! Also, it has shoulder-straps and waist-belt that can all be tucked away, an additional single-shoulder-strap, and sensible smaller pocket for gadgets, tickets, and such.
Do you see a pattern here regarding the brand?! If so, this is entirely due to having used the LowePro / LoweAlpine brand for years, and trusting that they will do what I require of them. Who wants a key strap-anchor to fail, dropping your pack to the ground? If that happened to a regular traveller, they would probably swear. Me, I would be the one standing in silent horror, not daring to see what had been damaged!
This is strictly my own observations, based on my somewhat varied needs and the way that I like to work, plus experience of certain brands. Maybe there is some system that I have missed, some ‘holy-grail’ of photo-gear-transportation still out there! If so, please leave me a comment and let me know. Or simply to query something, or pass on your own experiences. Hope to hear from you.