Bagged Out


You know you’ve reached a new level in your photography when you no longer care what your bag looks like.

I mean, no camera bag looks like a camera bag anymore, does it, we’ve all fallen for the “it’ll get stolen if it’s obviously a camera bag”, despite the fact cameras are cheaper than ever and pretty well anyone who wants one, at least in the Western World, can buy one if they want one.

So we’re into style, making sure the bag suits your style, be that closet photojournalist, unadmired portrait shooter or wannabe paparazzi, I’m shocked at the amount of people I see with camera bags which really don’t suit the job they’re being pressed into.

Having recently bought a bag adorned almost entirely in elastic straps, I think I’ve proven (to myself at least) that I really don’t care what a bag looks like.

It’s a LowePro backpack named StealthyJamesBond or something. The marketing shots have 20-somethings doing parkour jumps with them on their packs and peeking around garage pillars like they’re be shot at, rather than doing the shooting. Quite Naff, really.

But incredulous marketing aside, I really like my new bag, which I’ve just noticed, thanks to the handle label sewn onto the back, is the ProTactic 350.

Although I reckon the designers had APS-C sized gear in mind than m4/3, it works pretty well with the smallest format gear – while I haven’t had the chance to try filling it with Full Frame gear, I’m confident in saying it wouldn’t be suitable – three of the access point aren’t big enough for easy access using a big DSLR.

You read right, it has four – count ’me, four – ways to get into the bag. The main opening is behind the backpack section, just behind the straps. Two big, thick, quality zip heads open the bag up and give access to everything except the two side pockets.

Three quick-access pockets – at the top and down low on each side as you’re wearing the bag – are the other ways to get into it.

By swinging the bag off one shoulder, each side pocket can be accessed without putting the bag on the ground: by placing in on its base the top flap can be opened… by about 95% of the time I’ve used it so far I’ve put it on its back and opened it fully for access to all my gear.

If I decide something’s worth a shot, it’s probably worth shooting with multiple lenses, or a flash, or a polariser… pulling out a camera to get a shot and getting going again isn’t usually the way I roll, but more on that a bit later.

How I work my bags

My favourite bag of the years is the Domke F2. Jim Domke was a photojournalist, and he decided to build bags which would work for him – quick access without having to put the bag on the ground, effective but minimal protection for the gear (cameras and lenses are tools, not heirlooms) and construction which can take the knocks.

The F2 was a shoulder bag designed to sit against the hip and actually fold in a bit there, sitting snugly against the shooter as they move around. The top flap was simply canvas with a pocket and two clips to hold it in place, and you could fold the flap back over itself 270-degrees, (so it would be pointing straight down). Then put the bag on and you’d have an open camera bag with direct access to nearly everything.

If you’re on the move and shooting what’s happening around you, it’s still the best designed bag I know of.

But for travel, the F2 isn’t perfect – I demand a bit more gear protection (tools yes, but around airport trolleys, overhead lockers and desert sandstorms, I’m looking for something better than heavy canvas and clips) and a backpack design for transporting the gear – my back gives me troubles, and I put that down to carrying too much gear too often on a single shoulder…

So for this trip I needed a backpack.

Backpacks and camera gear

I have a love-hate relationship with camera backpacks – they are awesome for getting gear to a job, awful to work with once you’re there. Back in the bad old days they opened on the outside edge, which meant you had to put them harness side down in the dirt to get anything out.

But they were good for carrying gear from point-to-point, and for this trip that was a priority, so I was back in the backpack market – and my new m4/3 gear wasn’t going to fit efficiently into anything I already had.

I was attracted to the ProTactic bags but my underlying ambition to be James Bond, so it was a no-brainer really… but there are other feature which I can use to justify the decision to purchase, to myself, anyway (and you gentle reader, although if you’ve gotten this far I suspect you suffer from Camera Bag Imperfection Syndrome too).

The elastic straps on the outside are there to hook on more stuff. Because we always want to carry more stuff. But seriously, I need to carry a tripod these days, and in this trip I actually have to shoot pieces to camera – videos of myself talking to the viewer – so a tripod is essential.

The ProTactic comes with a pouch which straps and velcros on to hold a tripod or monopod leg and other straps which can hold the top of the gear in place. It’s also got a waterproof rain cover which folds out from the base.

It was also supplied with a simple pouch – big enough for my Leica D-Lux (typ 109) – and a water bottle holder.

Given that part of this trip will be hiking into and shooting Bryce Canyon, Zion and Yosemite National Parks, I reckon the fat belt strap will be carrying the 10kg of bag, gear, tripod and water a fair distance.

However, for my motorcycle part of the trip I’ve removed the belt strap. It velcros in place through a sleeve, and takes a few minutes to remove – you’re never going to do it by accident, and I reckon some people will give up, convinced it’s sewn in, but it’s now and will come out if you slide your hand in the sleeve and separate the velcro, while pulling the strap out of the sleeve with the other hand.

The bike I’m riding not his trip – a Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited – has a box on the back big enough for the bag, so I’m finding the strap is getting in the way.

For backpacking with the ProTactic, the waist strap has a pocket on each side I’ve found to be perfect for spare batteries, and the shoulder straps have hooks to hang thing off, but I haven’t found a use for them yet.

The ProTactic 350 also has a computer sleeve big enough to swallow the MacBook Pro retina 13-inch I’m typing this on. I would have preferred a much for a water bladder, but I suppose modern James Bond needs his laptop more than he need hydration. Or do we all just backpack around the city these days?

An even better idea would have been to build a system which could do both… hey LowePro, you can have that idea free…

Taking of pockets there is a small pocket on each side of the bag, useful for filters, keys, the microfilm you’re hussling back to MI–6…

Design troubles

One aspect I certainly didn’t think of with the ProTactic before I bought it was the openings restrict internal padding designs – you can put a velcro divider just anywhere, because the flaps need to be able to be accessed.

So I haven’t worked out a way to have a long lens accessible through the top flap without wasting space on either side of the lens (the opening is an over shape large enough for and E-M1).

At the bottom the openings a big enough for larger cameras the m4/3, which sometimes means a slightly sloppy fit.

Conclusion – so far

The ProTactic 350 is working pretty mach as expected – it’s spending a to of time on its back so I can flip the main li open, but I don’t really care if it gets a bit dirty or scuffed. The tripod and water bottle attachments work as advertised, but if you put them on the side you restrict access to the side pockets and side entries in the bag. Put them on the back of the bag and it won’t lay flat… I go with the side, because if I’m carry that much gear I want it off my back for the actually shooting, so it gets laid on the ground.

The LowePro ProTactic 450 is is a larger version. USA dealers are selling the 350 for about $200 and the 450 is $50 more.

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