The Tactical Camera Bag

Camera bags suck.  I've owned and handled a bunch of them and it seems like it's always close, but just not exactly what I want.  The bags I've owned have been compromises, always lacking in some feature that is just enough to really annoy me over time.  Recently, I purged myself of every dedicated camera bag I have with the exception of my Thinktank Streetwalker.  It is still the best bag I have for toting around my DSLR kit with a 70-200 lens.  The majority of the time though, I'm toting a much smaller kit and I've gone anti-camera bag for that.

Some time back I wrote about my shoulder bag solution at the time, my first tactical camera bag.  For the Olympus m4/3 kit I used to own, it was a good solution - at least for a while.  Over time it became a little too bulky and cumbersome for me.  I like to travel light and even that moderately size bag was just a bit too much for what I needed.  This was especially true when I got out of m4/3 cameras and went to carrying just my Fujifilm X100.  The original tactical camera bag was replaced with a Domke F-803.  It was an adequate bag for carrying around my X100 and iPad as a daily bag and I used it for a little over a year.

Equipment and needs change over time and I recently decided to get a Fujifilm X-E1 and a couple lens for a more versatile compact camera kit. The F-803 bag was no longer adequate and it was time to look at camera bags again.  Ugh!  Before setting out in my quest, I made a list of what I considered absolutely essential for my next bag to carry:

  • Fujifilm X-E1 with lens mounted

  • At least one extra lens

  • Lens cleaning cloth

  • Extra batteries

  • Memory cards

  • Flashlight

  • Business cards

  • Filters

  • Remote shutter release

  • Notepad and pen

  • Water bottle

  • Sunglasses

I'm lucky enough to live in a city that has a large camera shop, Precision Camera.  They have a huge selection of bags on display and I spent a good part of an afternoon combing through them.  In spite of the plethora of choices, I just wasn't seeing what I wanted.  Right size, but no way to carry a water bottle.  Nice layout, but too big.  Not enough pockets.  I didn't want to compromise this time around but it was looking like I might be leaving the store in defeat.

I was just about to call it quits when I found something on the shelves that got the gears in my head churning.  It was a small insert for turning any old bag into a camera bag.  I had used something similar in the previous tactical camera bag incarnation.  This was the first time I had seen one in a compact size like the small Crumpler Haven that I held in my hands.  The size looked to be just right for a shoulder bag that I had all but forgotten about back in my closet at home.  I took a chance and brought the Crumpler insert home.

Years ago I purchased a Maxpedition Jumbo Versipack.  It was an impulse buy that I picked up during a sale.  I loved the bag's layout and used it for various things over the years.  It has served as a small range bag and a day bag for short motorcycle trips.  I had wanted to use it as a camera bag and I looked for a suitable insert over the years without any luck.  As it turns out, the small Crumpler Haven is a perfect fit!

The Haven nestles into the Versipack snuggly.  A couple of Velcro attached dividers are provided with the Haven and I was able to configure it to comfortably stow my X-E1 with an attached lens and a spare lens.  The compartment is large enough that I can optionally carry a SLR film camera like my Nikon F2 and spare lenses.  The Haven is well padded without being bulky and like other Crumpler products I've seen, very well made.

Maxpedition makes great stuff.  Their bags are very durable, water resistant, and have plenty of well organized places to put things.  Perhaps most exciting to me is that they have a real water bottle compartment that will hold a 32oz or greater container.  When you live in a place that is triple digits all summer, this is a huge deal.  A front pocket holds all my small essentials and a hot shot shoe flash if I want.  A side pocket opposite the water bottle side is large enough to hold a small lens or a light meter. A rear hidden "concealed carry" compartment is just big enough to slip an iPad into.  On the top is a long, narrow compartment that is perfect for sunglasses.

The Jumbo Versipack holds a lot of stuff.  However, it is designed to carry close to your body so it doesn't feel big when you wear it.  The shoulder strap attaches to flaps that sort of wrap around your waist and help the bag conform to your body.  The strap is wide and distributes weight quite well with a generously sized pad.

Is the Jumbo Versipack the perfect camera bag?  Time will tell for me.  If it's not, it's certainly the closest I've come to so far.  Camera bag manufacturers would do well to take note of Maxpedition's rugged and utilitarian designs.  

The Tactical Camera Bag

I quickly discovered that in the world of camera bags, there is no one perfect bag that covers all usage scenarios. I'm sure I'm not the only photographer with more than one bag. As of this writing, I'm up to three. I have a Kata DR466 backpack that works well for times when I want to travel fairly light (one camera and a couple of lenses) with a notebook system or a portfolio binder. Another backpack, my Think Tank Streetwalker, is probably my favorite for general photo outings. It caries my DSLR, my micro 4/3 body, and a few lenses plus other odds and ends. I'll probably write more about those bags in the future. Today I wanted to discuss another option that I recently found.

Why another camera bag? Well, the thought first came about when I bought my Olympus E-PL1 a while back. My other bags were overkill for this little camera and an extra lens or two. I wanted something smaller that would be easy to tote with me on a daily basis. Now, I'm really picky about bags. I tried out a bunch in all the area stores and left unsatisfied each time. The storage wasn't right or they just looked "wrong." A lot of the bags in the size I was looking for were just too purse-like. Can't have that.

I started thinking about my shooting range bag. One of my other interests is competitive pistol, rifle, and shotgun shooting. My range bag is laid out perfectly for its usage with handy pockets all over the place to store the various things needed at the range. Why can't a camera bag be set up like that? Then it hit me. Off in the corner of my garage was a small tactical utility bag that I'd gotten for free with a promotion on some other stuff I bought for the range. It was about the size I was looking for, but it wasn't configured for camera usage. I knew I was on to something though. I took some measurements and after a little online research I found an insert that I thought would work. As luck would have it, one of the REI stores in town had the insert in stock. A quick trip to the store confirmed that I found a winning combination.

The bag is called a bailout bag. It's currently a popular tactical bag for police gear or a range bag for shooters. I've seen them sold under a variety of brands, but the best source is LA Police Gear. They usually have it on sale for $19.99 This bag is built tough. The cool thing is all the pockets on the outside. There are plenty of handy places to stash stuff. I use mine for quick access to a pen, flashlight, business cards, memory cards, flash drive, my glasses, a table top tripod, etc. There are also big end pockets, designed for police radios, that are perfect for water bottles. Rugged carry handles are on top and it comes with a sturdy strap with a nice no-slip shoulder pad. The bag measures approximately 14" x 10" x 6".

Large pockets on one side

Small pockets on other side

Bailout bag with Canon 5D and 17-40mm lens for size reference

To complete my camera bag, I chose an insert made by Mountainsmith. The insert is called a Kit Cube. I paid $29 for mine locally. I just folded the cover down on the outsides of the insert and stuffed it in the bailout bag. It fits a little snug, but it is just about the perfect size. There is plenty of clearance to zip up the bag over the insert. The insert comes with standard velcro attached dividers to break out the compartment into three sections. I usually keep it set up in three sections to carry my E-PL1 and a couple of extra lenses. With a little rearranging I can carry my DSLR and maybe an extra lens instead of the E-PL1. I've found that my DSLR with a prime lens will fit well with my E-PL1.

Bailout bag and Mountainsmith insert

Bailout bag with Mountainsmith insert installed

Bailout bag with Olympus E-PL1 and 2 extra lenses

For about $50 you can build out a capable camera bag that is probably more rugged than a lot of dedicated camera bags on the market. It has a utilitarian look that doesn't scream camera bag. The pocket layout is great for keeping the things you use most close at hand. I find it easy to carry every day during the work week so I've always got a camera with me. The small size means it fits well in my motorcycle's small trunk or saddle bags. I'm happy with my choice and this is a setup well worth considering if you're looking for a way to tote a small camera rig.