Most of my bag purchases are made with roughly 60% desire, 30% practicality and 10% what is available with limitations imposed by the price/need equation. This has led inevitably to lots of bags for lots of situations but no right bag for just "getting everything there and being organised".
This latest quest started innocently enough. I am off to Japan in April and thought I might come across a special, bespoke version of one of my favourite bags, so some refresher research could be a good idea, you know, just to see what is out there. No harm.
The thing that kept coming up was that of all the bags I have, there is not one I can work from with everything I need properly compartmentalised and ready to go. I had some of these work bench” bags, such as the biggest Lowe Pro, Pro Messenger, Domke F832, or Billingham Hadley large when I had full frame Canon*, but they drifted away as the gear reduced. To be honest none were ideal anyway.
What is the point of a bag that theoretically holds everything, but only in it's "broken down" configuration (most brands are guilty of glossing over this when advertising, but what we photographers need to know is the real capacity for a working bag with useable kit). I do not want to have to fish out a flash from under three other things, have no where to put a lens during a change over or have to change and re-change lenses/hoods etc rather than have them ready to go. You want to be able to just drop things into their assigned spot without that very unprofessional look of not having enough hands.
One of the beauties of M43 gear is that you can carry that SLR kit you always wanted to have, but could not comfortably lift. My work kit is usually an OMD (+JB grip) with 12-40 Pro mounted, OMD (+JB grip) with 40-150 Pro mounted, 2 primes (25/75) with the option of one these being on a third camera, 1-2 flash units with controller, the little Olympus flash, flash modifiers and the possibility of adding 1 or 2 more lenses (75-300, 45) for long days (imagine carrying that in Canon or Nikon). I also need my cards and batteries organised and easily accessible and space for a note book, keys and a decent size diffuser/reflector that is preferably outside of the main compartment.
I also would like the bag to hold it's shape when full. Picky much?
This bag came out of the blue. I had rarely even looked at the F8xx series other than an ill advised purchase of an 832, which was way over sized for my kit and really did not understand them that well or even overly like the look of them. Another issue is, they all look the same in the photos, but are hugely different in reality.
The thing that made this Domke superior to all other contenders is the size of the outside pockets (frikkin' huge, ideal for dumping even big lenses in a hurry) and the ability to add two (or more) accessory pouches when needed (optional extras that as it turned out, I already have). The bigger pouch can hold something the size of an older Nikon 80-200 f2.8 and the smaller one easily holds a big flash or a soft bag protected 75-300 zoom.
As you can see, nothing is cramped. The cameras are smaller than the average SLR, but the big lens, flash units and other stuff are all full size. The flash guns can still fit in their protective cases or two can fit in one pocket! The Pen can go into a soft case for protection (Domke bags are tough, but not super thickly padded) or they can be mounted with a prime lens in the main bag and a second prime in the same pocket (again in a little padded bag).
No doubt my entire kit (the above plus another OMD and optional Pen mini with two more primes) could fit to get from A to B, but as a working kit everything above has its “ready-to-go” place.
One of the other bags that came up during my research junket was the Tenba Messenger. The bag was good, but it lacked the needed pockets and I was more familiar with the Domke feel and durability. The insert (Pro 2) was, however available on its own for peanuts ($21 U.S.).
If Domke had made this insert for this bag it could not have been a better fit.
The length and width of the insert is ideal and gives the bag a more rigid shape. The height is just right for my gear although I think big SLR cameras might sit on top of the insert if mounted on a longer lens. The flap-eared dividers allow two bodies to sit on top, protecting the central section and the internal small dividers allow a few arrangement choices (I have one hard up against the end of the insert to hold a few filters or a cleaning kit and the second splits the middle section to separate the two primes.
Anything taken out, goes back where it came from.
The slim front pocket, between the front pockets and main compartment, can hold an ipad or medium sized fold-down diffuser, a newspaper or even a small laptop and there is one on the back slightly larger. Because of the soft canvas materiel of the bag, the front pocket flexes to hold some quite large items.
The top flap protects all of the internal area with weather resistant canvas (already tested at a swimming pool where I knelt on the top flap, laying on a wet floor and the water "beaded" off well). The flap is split into two halves, each big enough to put a clenched fist into. Watch this flap though as on my first day using it, I forgot to zip up the battery side and the contents dropped quietly and perfectly into the big back pocket. I only discovered them after frantically searching back at the shoot site.
One thing I was not sure of and could not find any evidence of online was the possibility of attaching of the two pouches I had already (901/902) even though Domke says they can. Yes they do. The two velcro strips are placed to be a good, tight fit on the side part of the "all around the bag" shoulder strap and the bag has a clip on the side to keep it's profile slim that can be clipped onto the supplied metal ring for extra security. The small pouch fits within the profile of the bag, the bigger one is very slightly wider.
The bag is not as hip-hugging as say an F3x, due to the hardened top panel, which is about 2” wide, but is still comfortable and the panel helps the bag keep it’s shape (something the Filson Field camera bag could do with).
I went for a green one over black (or tan) for the following reasons;
It is a cooler colour (in temperature that is - fashion I will leave up to you).
The less obvious Domke logo matches the bag, where on the black one it is red, drawing more attention, although they pick off easily.
The black canvas fades at a different speed than it's straps, giving a dark grey bag/yellow brown strap look as they age, while the green tends to age evenly from all evidence. I have been through that with my old F2, but it did take 10+ years before it became obvious.
The green does not scream "computer or camera bag", indeed it looks a cross between a casual satchel and army surplus bag re-tasked.
I already had two matching green pouches that have never been used.
The "perfect" M43 bag tends to be small, as the original premise (and promise) was for a light weight travel or street system. As more and more people are starting to use mirrorless gear professionally, the reality is you will get the odd (relatively) larger lens. Remember, an empty space weighs nothing, so more room is seldom a waste.
You can still make the most of the overall smaller form factor to comfortably carry your ideal large kit, configured how you want and take handy things like spare clothing or a book as needed (the front pockets will hold a rolled-up shirt!). I once owned basically this kit in Canon*. No way could I carry it all comfortably or with it "ready to go", so I would usually limit myself to 2-3 lenses and hope for the best.
When full of the above M43 gear, the bag is not overly heavy and it holds it's shape, to the rigid top panel and the insert. The smaller cousin to this bag, the f803 also has the rigid top, which I feel I would not like on that smaller bag, but on one this size, it is a real boon. It stays slimmer than the usual box shape bag and is easy to access. People have even commented on it, not realising it is a camera bag.
Another cool thing is the price. $135 au from Photo Video Extras (Australia), delivered in 3 days or $99 U.S. from the usual suspects. This makes it cheaper than any other option except the basic Tenba satchel, now discontinued.
A final word on Domke bags, especially the “magic” of their design. They are the only brand of bag that I actually look forward to wearing in/out. The older they get the better. Like an old pair of jeans, they fit like no other and become an old friend, even dirty marks become like earned battle scars. The Domke’s seem to look even better with wear sometimes, where some damage seems a shame on the Billingham’s in particular.
The issue I had with Billingham bags, was the 10-15 year “breaking in” period. They seem too well designed for staying “nice” for too long. They looked dirty easily, but not worn in/out. Filson bags come a little worn in already, which is great except some of the bags history is not yours.
*Full and crop frame body, 17-40L, 35L (this would now be a 40mm saving considerable weight), 50 macro, 85 f1.8 (or 100 macro), 135L and/or 70-200 F4L, 400 f5.6L.