That thing we all wish for but never attain… Not world peace or a flat belly: the perfect camera bag. It should hold everything I want to carry, slightly separated so the bits don’t rub together when I’m walking. A bit of padding so that I can put the bag down harder than I meant to without hearing the crunch of doom. Not so much padding that the bag becomes an inflexible cube: we want the not-a-camera-bag hipster look.
The contents need to be well organised so that the small bits don’t hide under the big bits. There needs to be enough space so that I can put something in the bag before taking something out. Think changing lens.
Weather resistance is good. I might want to put the bag down on a wet surface or take it out in the rain. And something like a zip is good for keeping out sand and dust if I’m in a messy place.
These days the bag might not just be carrying cameras. Mine usually has to fit-in a drink and snacks for the dog, a drink for my partner plus makeup, one or more mobile phones and a wallet. And sometimes it’s just a bag, carrying life’s daily drudgery while trying to send signals of groovy (I’m a commuting wage slave, yes, but you can see that I’m really a totally committed and artistic photographer).
My first bag was so uncool it hurts me even now. It was a rigid black box with a tab and press-stud closure and a black plastic strap. It had a few rigid internal divisions that separated my spare lens from my camera. Not well enough, as it turned out. I had one of those clever multifunction camera clamps – the thing that looks like a G clamp and promises to attach your camera to trees, fences and tabletops. That also was so uncool that the memory aches. So on a motorcycle journey with the bag of geekness strapped to the rear carrier my zoom lens gradually rotated against the G clamp. The result was a ring of bright paintless metal around the barrel of the lens.
Then there was the stylish but useless phase. This was a gorgeous pale tan leather bag I bought in Germany. I have no idea what it was meant for, but it was a rectangular block of stylish leather with no padding or internal divisions. So you accept that the kit is going to rub around a bit or you try and separate it with notebooks, scraps of cloth or old socks. Style darling; who needs substance? The bag gradually acquired patina. We fell out of love for a while while I was going through my middle-manager phase and then we got right back together and got our groove on. It is now the screw-fit bag: it holds a small outfit of M42 screw-fit camera, a couple of lenses and a light meter. I’m so hip with this on that my jeans go skinny and my socks disappear. And no, sorry, there is no room for the dog’s treats and water.
I went through a rather strange phase of trying one of those waistcoats with all the pockets. Just about the worst of all possible options, plus wearing one these days would get you shot on the Tube. This was replaced by an Army surplus belt with pockets. It was probably meant for ammunition or grenades. I thought I looked like Batman. The pockets were too small for anything other than a few rolls of film, so it was sold to someone who did a lot of marching and shouting at the weekend.
Then I got serious and went seriously large. This was the bag that could hold and organise everything. I could carry every lens I owned, every filter, all the extra focusing screens I had found for my Pentax (these were the days when camera shops had bins of stuff they couldn’t sell at a pound a pop). A light meter. Enough film for an expedition. A flashgun. There was nothing that could happen that wouldn’t find me ready. “F8 and be there”? I was there already and had every F thing I needed.
Difficult to carry though. In fact, difficult to lift. And really painful to carry after a few hours, even though it had a waist belt to supplement the shoulder strap. (I was still so uncool – I was the slacks and tank-top of photography).
It did come into its own when I went to photograph some bike racing at Silverstone. I took every long lens I owned and all the doublers and adapters. It was a beast to carry but that was really just between vantage points. I wish it had wheels.
Then it was my desert years of whatever bag came to hand that could carry all the stuff I had to schlepp about and could squeeze a small camera into the corner. It’s a testament to the basic toughness of most cameras that nothing broke or was even damaged beyond the expected dirt and scratched paint.
So I bought a Lowepro bag. This was one of their single-strap rucksacks that you could slide round to sit across the front of your hips, unzip the side of the bag and use it like one of those trays the people use to sell ice cream in theatres. Brilliant idea and execution. And it was on sale. This was the bag I used to take pictures of seals in a sandstorm as it kept all the lens-changing above the main body of windblown sand. It’s the perfect bag for a dedicated photographer-in-action who doesn’t have to carry anything else. Which is why on the hills I use a conventional rucksack with the camera kit sharing space with water, weather protection, navigation and all those other little things that keep you out of the news. Great bag for a dedicated photo occasion though, as long as you don’t mind your partner disowning you.
Then came the bag porn. Lledar in North Wales make leather bags. They have sales. They were discontinuing a model called Bailey. It was mine. This is a bag of such style that my partner will even allow me to carry her makeup, bottle of Coke and hairbrush. A dark leather messenger bag that is getting better with every crease and stain. It has padded dividers and pockets so that I don’t have to empty the bag to find the car keys. My life was complete. Nearly.
Incidentally – messenger bags. I was commuting by motorbike and wanted a tough over-the-shoulder bag that would carry everything. I got one of the big canvas bags that Royal Mail use (or used, they all seem to drive trolleys these days). It was the business: thick strap, big, canvas, large flap over the top to close it. Except when the wind lifted the flap when I was buzzing along at around 60mph. The bag turned instantly into a drogue chute. I now know why military jets use them for braking. (Parachutes, not shoulder bags).
So now I’m in bag heaven. I have the beautiful Bailey that carries a good chunk of kit, or a useful bit of kit plus some of life’s other essentials. There is another Lledar messenger bag that will take a compact camera, a wallet and a few bits. (Did I mention they have sales?). I still have the German bag for screw-mount days. And a rather useful waxed cotton bag that seals with a zip. It’s not an obsession. I could stop any time.