The Filson Field Camera Bag

Camera bags are my nearly out of control passion. I am pretty sure that my love of photography became linked to the process as much as the results in my early years and some things became intrinsic parts of the process. Cameras are the obvious first cog in that wheel, but I am not alone in sighting camera bags as another. 

Yes I do have a problem. I have tried all major brands, most styles and any solution that seems reasonable to get the perfect balance of form and function (it does not help that I keep changing camera systems and therefore bag needs).

Winners have been the Domke F3/2/6 and various other models, Billingham Hadleys and the odd Kata, Lowepro (Pro Messenger especially) and other "nylon" bags.  My only keeper up until now has been a 30 year old F2 Domke that has had constant but not heavy use, but is always there if I need it (my wife hates it though!). I remember buying it and a Manfrotto 055 when I got my first job in a camera store in the 80's and both are still going!

Taking the mantle into the next period of my photographic life are a trio of bags. A Domke special edition F3 Waxwear in olive from a trip to Japan, a Lowepro Pro Tactic 350 as a transporter bag and a Filson Field Camera Bag. Each has their place and uses. I will start with the most used of the three - the Filson.

Last year, after a bit of a search that included the Web, Japan and all of the suppliers in Australia, I picked one up at a good price from a store in Florida (can't remember the name, sorry). Ironically the store was recommended by Mike Johnson on his blog "The Online Photographer" (a real blog), after myself and others responded to his post about camera bags. He was looking for a bag better than the ONA or Temba he was reviewing, to replace an ancient Billingham (the best sort), and the Filson range looked to be perfect for him. They also filled the criteria of being American made, important for him and reassuring to me.

Filson do a couple of specialist camera bags in conjunction with some iconic National Geographic photographers, but they also do a camera version of their classic "Field Bag". 

In my eternal quest for the perfect bag, I bought a Filson "Field bag" in Olive green a couple of years ago. I loved the "idea" of it, but found it a bit impractical. Others have used them successfully as camera bags, but not me. It serves now as a life long over night or gear spill-over bag and has an interchangeable leather strap that sees some service on the camera bag (more about that later). 

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First up lets look at the features of the bag.

The above image shows the bag, in the caramel tin cloth/canvas twill combo, in its standard configuration. The only thing that is not as the bag comes is the Domke shoulder pad. This pad fixes one of my few complaints about the bag that I will go into below. This one has had about a year's gentle use (I don't see the point in reviewing something that has not been regularly used in its intended environment). The darker front and top flap, as well as the back pocket are  tin cloth fabric. This light and weather proof wax fabric is comfortable and flexible, but can feel a little greasy if you want it to provide the maximum protection. Mine has been let go in that area, so the greasiness is mostly gone, but the protection in heavy rain may be compromised slightly. Domke uses a waxwear cloth that is similar, but Filson's is less greasy, has no musty smell and is a heavier/more rigid cloth and the ONA cloth is a cross between the weight/texture of the Filson Twill and the tin cloth.

The lighter sides and base are made of their heavy 22oz twill to give the bag a longer life as the twill is about twice as heavy as the tin cloth.

The leather is thick, the heavy bridle type, about twice as heavy as Billingham leather and more leather looking (Billingham leather can look a bit "vinyl perfect" for my taste) and it is very pleasant to feel. You really get the feeling of a "20 year+" bag, but unlike a Billingham, it starts out how it intends to finish. Billinghams take a while to get that worn in look, usually about 5-10 years!

The strap is made of smooth and slippery seat belt nylon. It is a good width and plenty long enough to allow wearing across the body. I tried the matching Field Bag leather strap (available separately), but have now gone back to this strap with the added Domke shoulder pad.

This is my "B" configuration. The outside straps are clipped on to the front pockets so they don't hang out the front. The top flap still does a good job of covering the insides. 

The inside is a simple 3 adjustable divider design. This is perfect for my current kit, being 4 prime lenses and 2 bodies as a rule, (and will also take the f2.8 Olympus zooms I now have) but occasionally I switch bags to a Domke F2 or Pro tactic 350 back pack if I carry more to a location. It kind of holds my personal ideal, but sometimes I want the safety net kit for big jobs.

There is a large rear pocket, two small, secure side pockets for keys, batteries etc. and a zippered internal pocket, but that is all. No secret compartments or tablet storage here, just a camera bag for cameras. The internal lining is a smooth and slippery nylon that feels protective and pleasant. I have a bit of a habit of customising bags with assorted bits from other old ones, but not this bag. It actually feels like a real shame to mess with it.

I have always found it hard to reconcile the images or descriptions of what actually fits in a bag comfortably and accessibly with the actual gear being used. I will try to provide a couple of images to help here and follow that up with some context.

Ok. So as you can see above, the bag is fully loaded with my "maximum comfortable kit" for a day shoot. The lack of a fifth compartment is fixed with a little divider bag my wife made for me years ago. I also put the other strap on to show how well it matches. The size of my gear allows a universal switcheroo system (anything in/anything out) and lots of room for scarves as extra padding etc.

The next shot has the same kit out of the bag. To put this in context, an OMD EM5 with a JB grip is about the same height as a Canon 70d or Nikon d7100 body without grip, but not as deep. The 75mm lens mounted on one camera with generic hood is about the same size as the Canon/Nikon equivalent and the 75-300 is much the same size as any other "budget" tele zoom. There is another 2-3" of height to be used here (also note the nylon lining detail). I have placed the big lens on its own in and outside of the bag for more context. The liners do not have the annoying flaps that are always in the wrong place, but this also means you have to be careful when two adjacent things are taller than them and rub together.

Will the Filson hold a 70-200 f2.8 from one of the major brands?

Yes, with the hood swapped out for a small metal screw in or reversed. It will easily take the smaller f4 versions and bulky primes. The bag has plenty of room for my gear, but is designed for approximately a 2 SLR with 3 lens/flash kit, in a "ready to go" configuration or a bit more if some is broken down.

Will it hold a Pro SLR body with a wide angle zoom, hood on?

Yes to that also. It may lose a spot for something else, a 1D with a 16-35L/70-200L/flash and spare prime or second, smaller body could work.

The front pockets hold large items, but it is a bit of a stretch to put in a lens as the pocket will probably not shut. Batteries, a charger/small flash, a compact camera, filters, a phone or a large note book are fine. These are not the gear swallowing Billingham Hadley or Lowe Pro Messenger pockets, but they don't suffer from the over stuffed, finger pinching tightness of the ONA bag pockets.

Likes.

I love the colour, feel and look of the bag. The Filson light tan twill is a bit light for my tastes, but the caramel tin cloth is much more worn in looking. After a bit of use, the bag sags a little when loaded, but never loses its shape (with my gear anyway) and fits comfortably on the hip. How a bag looks is not important. No, that's crap, actually it is, it really is. You may as well like your stuff. It is also elegantly simple.

It's not too "camera/computer bag-ready for the taking", but probably looks plush enough to get taken anyway, so still be careful. The bag lets you feel like a pro, but one that has a casual way of viewing the world. A bit old school, but not too "army surplus".

It is well enough, but not overly padded. Coming from a Domke bag users perspective it feels positively "fat" with protection, but not over stuffed like ONA. The base is lined with something shock absorbent, but I keep a scarf (pictured) in one of the compartments for a bit of extra "drop the bag" confidence. Would it take the drop from shoulder height onto concrete test? Probably not without some extra padding, but not many bags will and those that do have other issues.

Comfort and carrying are excellent. I do not know what makes one bag better on the shoulder than another, but Billingham, Domke and Filson have the secret. I have found myself wearing this one on the shoulder rather than cross body and enjoy the way it sits.

It is made to last. The workmanship is a full level above brands like ONA and on par with, but different to, a Billingham and their support (in the U.S.) is excellent. It will last as long as my old F2 Domke and outlast their newer bags, especially the wax wear ones. There were a few loose threads sewn into the leather trim, but no wonky stitching or poor finish.

(Minor) Dislikes.

A little thing first. I may be missing something here, but why do (many) bag makers put a rear pocket on their bags that is weather proof and then don't bother to put either a flap cover over it or holes in the bottom to let the water run out! Really! Nice bucket guys.

I also don't understand the use of the tin cloth on the back as it will wear faster than the twill (but then the water run off issue will go away, I guess!). Why use the sometimes greasy and thin tin cloth on the only part of the bag that will rub against you all day?

The shoulder strap irritated me. When wearing a light shirt, the strap slipped and rubbed a bit. I thought it was just me at first (I am a delicate petal as my wife always tells me), but after a while it really became noticeable. Having tried the more comfortable leather strap, I switched back to the nylon with a Domke shoulder pad and it is now the most comfortable set up I can remember using.

There is nowhere to put even a small tablet except the exposed rear pocket unless you lose a camera or lens space. Not an issue for me.

One more divider would have been good for small camera users. I am aware that the Filson target market is the rugged Nikon/Canon SLR user and the American market for smaller mirrorless camera systems is still small by comparison, but how much for one more divider? 

Would I replace if it was lost? Yes, absolutely. Does it make my photos better? Probably not, but it provides the best, cleanest and least cluttered work method I have used in a while and it feels good to seen using it.