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Camera / Laptop Backpacks Camera / Laptop Backpacks

Load up, strap on and test out the newest, most innovative photo/laptop bags on the market.

My backpack collection started simply enough; a JanSport backpack for carrying my college tomes to and from the library. When I took a class in photography, I bought an SLR and a holster in which to carry it. Each additional piece of equipment brought a new, larger pack into my life. I soon had a backpack for professional shoots (when all the lenses come along), a pack for day trips and a rolling carry-on pack for air travel. Then I brought home my first laptop, which justifiably needed its own collection of messenger bags and backpacks. Soon my closet began to resemble a backpack museum – a clear indication that a pack fulfilling multiple needs was in order.

Backpacks are a necessity for the digital age. Photographers need a convenient, stylish and safe way to transport a growing assortment of cameras, lenses, flashes, laptops, cell phones, GPS systems and mp3 players – and let’s not forget the accompanying cables and chargers. For years, backpacks were made for either school, travel, laptop or photo-specific needs. The modern photographer, however, wants all four of these needs to be met, requiring a convergence of designs.

Here at PhotoMedia, we thought we’d take a look at some of the new hybrid packs on the market from the leading manufacturers, including Kata, LowePro, Mountainsmith, Tamrac, National Geographic, Case Logic, Tenba and Crumpler.

We looked specifically for packs that were designed to carry a laptop and DSLR, yet would still have room for our other gizmos, lunch and perhaps a jacket. We found eight packs that fit the description, loaded them up and took them out in the field for several months, using them the way photographers, journalists and computer geeks would; we even carried a few books in them.

The following is a compilation of our notes, highlighting a few of the features we admired, those we found lacking and the innovations we were surprised we never thought of ourselves.

Function Junction

When searching for a camera/laptop bag, you are essentially looking for versatility. While no bag is perfect for every situation, the Kata DR-467 ($79.99, kata-bags.com) comes close. It has a feature to handle just about every circumstance we could think of.

This modestly sized pack has a surprisingly large capacity, yet doesn’t feel bulky on your back. It holds an assortment of professional-level photo gear (camera, two lenses, flash and cords), all protected by Kata’s special TST Rip padding that can be rearranged into several configurations, with room in the top compartment for extras.

An additional feature we liked was the inclusion of a CD pocket; the DR-467 was the only pack reviewed to include one. This overlooked feature is great for holding and protecting CD-Rs and DVDs. The laptop compartment is plenty big – more than roomy enough for a 17-inch notebook – and comes with a rain cover for stormy travels (although we would have preferred the cover to be built into the bag rather than loose inside).
The DR-467 is made with an extremely bright yellow interior fabric, allowing you to easily find that errant memory card in the bottom of your bag. Interior fabric may seem like a minor consideration when purchasing a backpack but, during the testing, we quickly grew to love the packs with bright interior colors for the ease of finding contents – not to mention the fashion statements they make.

Quick Draw

If you’ve ever watched the perfect photograph come together, only to see it pass while freeing your SLR from its pack, surely you will appreciate the LowePro Fastpack 250 ($119.99, lowepro.com). Although side-loading SLR backpacks are nothing new for professional camera bags, LowePro was the only laptop/camera backpack manufacturer we reviewed that offered a “quick draw” side compartment, an option we found preferable to clamshell compartments.

The Fastpack 250 is a conventional-looking pack targeted at urban photojournalists and nature photographers. In addition to side-entry laptop storage (a perfect padded fit for a 13- or 15-inch notebook), the pack’s features include ballistic nylon fabric, durable stitching and hardware, and customizable padding for your gear. With so many good features and quality built in, we were disappointed by the omission of weather-sealed zippers, a rain cover and a sturdier waistband. We recommend the Fastpack for general day shooting, urban tourism and travel shooting.

Strap it Down

One of our pack peeves is how a gear-heavy bag jostles while walking. Though a minor annoyance on a short walk, additional weight and distance can lead to a bruised back and broken gear. Mountainsmith, an innovator in camping and hiking equipment, has brought its experience to the digital photographer with the Borealis AT ($189, mountainsmith.com).

The Borealis AT’s unique features make it the most versatile bag we tested, and the best for comfort and stability with heavy gear. The pack features a substantial hiking-style waist belt and cleverly arranged compression straps for load stability. Even better, it includes tuck-away compartments for the waistband and straps (hiding them for light use), has a dedicated tripod mount capable of carrying a professional-sized tripod, and features a rain cover with its own built-in storage compartment.

Before purchasing a pack, you’ll want to examine the handle on the Borealis AT, a feature that clearly outperforms the handles of other packs reviewed. Mountainsmith’s molded-rubber handle is well suited for even the heaviest pack and fits comfortably for those with large hands. Comfortable handles are an often-overlooked feature on backpacks, an annoyance that quickly becomes apparent with use.

Wild Kingdom

National Geographic’s Earth Explorer Backpack 5162 ($198, nationalgeographic.com), the only pack tested that was not made of ballistic nylon, offers a retro alternative to the modern pack style. It is made of a high-quality canvas with many pockets, reminiscent of the traditional photographer’s vest. This pack will surely get you noticed, having a unique look, feel and individual style that would make Jack Hanna proud.

The Earth Explorer Medium fits a 13-inch laptop and a small camera kit. It comes loaded with features: specialized straps that allow a walking stick or small tripod to be tied on; pull-out side pouches for water bottles or a hat, a quick-snap buckle for easy access, a rain cover and a large upper compartment with a camping-style pull-tight flap – a feature we’d like to see on more bags. Despite the many good features, we did find the computer compartment hard to access, as though its classic styling could not accommodate our modern gear. The pack also could use a few ties to hold the many dangling straps.

Professional Grade

If the word “professional” applies to you, the Tamrac Adventure 9 ($169.99, tamrac.com) is the camera/laptop backpack you’ve been looking for.This innovative pack was made for photographers who need extreme durability for the most challenging environments and shoots. Adventure 9 is the largest of the packs we reviewed, providing ample room for your telephoto lens, a professional camera setup, your jacket and necessities too. Tamrac’s legendary innovations designed for photographers include its Strap Accessory System for additional phone, card and knickknack pouches, as well as the Memory & Battery Management System, which uses red flags to identify the state of use for available accessories. The pack also includes an instant favorite feature of ours: the “windowpane-mesh” pop-off pocket for organizing filters, cables and chargers.

A simple and obvious feature we grew to appreciate was the Adventure 9’s inclusion of a heavy mesh pocket capable of holding a full-sized Nalgene bottle. Although other packs had smallish bottle holders, the Adventure 9 was the only pack with a pocket that could do the job right. 

Take it From the Top

New to the camera/laptop arena, Case Logic’s SKU-SLRC-4 ($99.99, caselogic.com) comes with a unique top-loading SLR pouch. This arrangement allows for quick and surprisingly functional camera accessibility, plus an additional level of protection for your DSLR. To complement this feature, Case Logic has created an impact- and water-resistant base that protects equipment from shock. In the field, I found this design to be very convenient for a simple reason: When you set the bag down, it doesn’t slump over.

The Case Logic is a gear-only bag – too small for extras or a jacket, but perfect for a day shoot. It has removable shelves and flexible walls, providing your equipment with a snug, customized fit and a unique tripod mount (for smaller monopods or tripods) on either side of the pack. The bag is comfortable when loaded, but could use a sturdier waist strap and a sternum strap for stability on the move.

Packing in the Details

Satisfaction is in the details, an area in which the Tenba Gen-3 photo/laptop backpack ($183.95, tenba.com) excels. Its specialized clamshell design – large enough for a professional DSLR kit, accessories and protective laptop storage – offers features that both pro and amateur photographers will appreciate.

Primarily a shooting pack (there’s no room for a coat or extras), it is well organized, and the only pack reviewed to include a media wallet and phone/audio case attachable to the shoulder straps or in the top compartment. The Gen-3, made from high-quality, weather-resistant materials, includes massive, #10 size YKK zippers and a flat bottom, which is great for shooting on the go.

Unique to the Gen-3 is a moisture-wicking, ventilated, mesh-padded back with an integral self-stowing cover. By enclosing the harness system, the pack is easy to sling over one shoulder, making it perfect for airline travel.

G’day Style

Sacrificing style for functionality is a compromise that the Sinking Barge ($180, crumplerbags.com) does not make. This original pack, from the offbeat Australian manufacturer Crumpler, immediately draws attention with its sleek urban styling (not to mention its bizarre, seemingly random name). The look is a welcome contrast to the standard mountain-assault style of its competitors. The bag does appear overstuffed when loaded, but distributes weight comfortably without unsightly compression straps. For general around-town use, the Sinking Barge proved a comfy pack and received the most attention from strangers. In the course of testing, we were frequently stopped for an inquiry about the pack’s maker and design.

The Sinking Barge features a foldout clamshell construction, with ample room for gear and extras. This design was somewhat less optimal but functional, providing the largest secondary compartment of the reviewed bags. The Sinking Barge has our preferred bright interior fabric, room for a 15-inch laptop, configurable dividers and a security-mesh top over the camera compartment. A unique feature of the Barge is the removable chest and waist straps, providing a simpler look for light use while still offering comfort for a long haul.

Richard A. Huston
Story Author: Richard A. Huston

Richard A. Huston is a professional photographer, web developer, writer and surf bum with a unique enthusiasm for the simplicity of the iPhone camera, quality camera bags, dogs and all things outdoors.

Website: www.lekaidan.com