On using non camera bags

I have a problem.

I love buying camera bags.

I am not alone.

There is no cure.

Some could define a pro photographer as one who has "x" number of cameras, or makes a certain amount of money or simply calls themselves a pro. I think another gauge could be their history with the never perfect, but eminently purchasable camera bag. Some people buy one and use it forever...weird huh!? 

Myself? Shamefully too many to count. Some stayed longer than others, but many were bought and shelved almost immediately, until a lucky friend claimed them or they were sold off heavily discounted.

The advent of mirrorless cameras has created a new thinking for many, especially with serious "life style limited photographers", not the least is in bag choice and design. Even the camera bag makers is starting to change, often mimicking regular bag designs, but why ignore those regular bag alternatives?

Buy a bag, but don't look at just camera bags.


Because they have some real advantages.

1) They don't look like a camera bag. One of the realities of camera bags is, the manufacturer cannot help but put their name on their product somewhere. Thieves word wide can often identify a bag from any of the major bag makers, and many of the newer brands give away their intent simply by design. Of the bags I own, the name logo is either as low profile as I can fine or removed if practical. Occasionally a bag is devoid of overt signage, but they can be hard to find (some olive Domke bags have matching olive name patches rather than contrasting ones, their black ballistic bags are patched in grey, Filson bags, Think Tank and Lowe Pro, Pro Messengers are also good).

2) Choice. Camera bags by definition tend to start from the same place, assuming that the bag has to fit set SLR dimensions, often making the bag "boxy", especially when over padded. I have been shopping lately and many bags are coming up short in the front to back depth dimension or the picture shows a squat little box that will not hug the hip and stay out of other peoples way. In my experience, over padding achieves little unless you fall over on top of the bag, putting all of your weight directly on your gear and even then there is no guarantee you will not have some casualties. Domke have made a name for themselves with effectively unpadded bags, even their dividers are sparse, but they work fine. Mine are padded to a lesser extent in the bottom with a rolled up scarf or bit of cut foam, but nothing else. 

3) Better general usability. if you have switched to mirrorless lately, you have no doubt discovered the huge size benefits that these CSC's offer, but what about the empty space in your bag? Unused compartments in a regular bag are not the most versatile. They are usually a tube shape, limited in height and length and overall size. No Camera bags are designed with non photographic use as a priority, but non photo bags can often be converted to camera bags for a light SLR or mirrorless kit fairly easily and can even supply some fixes not thought of before. Photo back packs are especially guilty as they are usually very photo gear centric and more important things like survival and comfort are secondary. Most look to be for expeditions where a porter will carry the essentials of life while the image maker worries about the gear alone. From what I have seen/read, most find this impractical and use a normal pack with smaller bags inside it, exterior bags attached to the outside, a waist belt or their camera simply worn on the outside. I use a Lowe Pro Inverse 100, with the attached belt strap removed (un picked), allowing me to slip my actual hikers back pack belt strap through it, also with the option of using the supplied shoulder strap when travelling light. The belt strap makes the bag unusable with a serious back pack as they both share the same waist line!

4) Price. All things photographic have a photo gear price hike, that has been around since the dawn of the medium. A glorified kitty litter tray ($3) turned into a darkroom chemical tray ($30), or a windscreen sunlight protector ($10) turned into a reflector/diffuser ($40-150) and a cheap neoprene drink bottle holder ($5) becomes a bespoke lens bag ($30). Bags are certainly no exception. Well made bags are going to be expensive in any form, so an extra 10-50% for a function specific bag is acceptable (Filson photo specific bags are actually no more expensive than their regular bags, feature for feature), but cheaper bags can be up to 200% dearer than another, non photography ones. Bags that may very well be more attractive, better made, more practical, less obvious, more comfortable and often bigger.

5) They can look smarter. Top end camera bags are getting ever more attractive, but a truly dressy event bag for semi formal occasions is either impossible to find in a form that suits, extremely expensive for little actual protective benefit or is far too nice to use normally, meaning you have to purchase an expensive bag just for those one or twice a year events.

6) Fit and feel. They often avoid the stiffness associated with many camera bags, usually due to over padding. I love a bag that hugs the hip like an old friend. One brand that failed here for me was ONA that I feel are over priced compared to American (Filson, Domke), Australian (Crumpler) or English (Billingham) made bags and felt too rigid and crowded due to over padding.

How do you choose a non camera bag for your gear?

The bag must be big enough to easily hold both your gear and perform any other intended tasks, also it must allow for any padding you may want to add. For example, when travelling now, I like to have at least one large compartment that can hold a large book or similar while shopping. There is nothing worse than trying to take images with a plastic shopping bag in one hand.

Padded inserts are available quite cheaply ($10-30) from Amazon and ebay or you may even be able to repurpose inserts from an old camera bag. Be sparing. You only need enough to separate items. Protection can also be supplied by clothing or other items (an ever useful scarf for instance), small bags or even internal partitions. I have found that front to back depth is rarely an issue for mirrorless kits, only big SLR's sitting face down cause problems with bag depth.

The correct look is obviously important and is part of the beauty of using non camera bags. Choosing a bag to match a purpose or look you are comfortable with is much easier when you don't limit yourself to just camera bags. Want a nice leather satchel or a very plain, low profile canvas sack? Buy them and make them work.


Some (roughly shot) examples above.

The leather satchel is ideal for a dressy occasion. It is elegant, slim lined and capable of taking a 2 camera/2 lens kit without looking over stuffed. The green Tokyo Porter bag (short listed for the next trip) is actually bigger in total volume than a Domke F2 bag. It holds a thick A4 folder, rain coat and short umbrella, large lap top and a camera kit (it actually holds the whole kit in the front pocket, leaving the entire, larger rear pocket for other stuff). When empty it lays flat and it is rubber lined for some weather proofing. The third image shows one of the internal dividers in the smaller front pocket easily holding my 75mm lens with hood on. Next image shows an assortment of dividers and inserts (the orange one is re purposed from an older bag). Domke are especially good with dividers as their own bags are the least conventional "photo bag" designs around. The next image shows a couple of the little weather proof cloth/corduroy bags my wife made for me years ago and the last image shows the Filson non-camera field bag with an insert.

For some ideas and inspiration, check out the Japan Camera Hunter "In your Bag" posts. It is amazing how often the well loved and used gear is carried in a bag unsuited at first glance.

If you can find a dedicated camera bag that suits, please go ahead and grab it, but please don't discount other options. I have a disgraceful collection myself with a mix of genuine and "pressed into service" options, each with a role or mood to fill.

I may buy more and find some excuse to keep them. Thats ok, I know there are white coated lab techs out there somewhere working on a cure.

I can wait.

Shop a bit while I wait.