Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel

Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel Photography

Buying the right camera bag for your DSLR and photography gear is about as difficult as buying the right tripod. In both cases, there’s a good chance you will quickly outgrow whatever you buy first, or realize what you’ve purchased doesn’t live up to your expectations. Trust me, I’ve gone through more camera bags than I care to admit and have learned these lessons firsthand.

With these lessons, I’ve learned a thing or two about which camera bags work best for travel, and which don’t. Based upon this, here are my recommendations for camera bags for three different “categories” of photographers (in terms of how much gear each carries).

A few preliminary notes before we start: first, this list is for men. I’ve heard from numerous women, my wife included, that the way weight is distributed in a bag that is comfortable for a man may make it uncomfortable for a woman, and vice-a-versa. I have absolutely no clue whether this is true (since I’m a man, I have no way of testing it), but I want to put it out there as a bit of a caveat. Second, it may or may not be worth it to “test” these bags in a store before buying. I personally do not think it is, as the only true test of comfort is wearing the thing around all day filled with gear and you can’t exactly do that in any stores of which I’m aware. I’ve returned/resold just as many bags purchased in stores as I have bags that I’ve purchased online. Third, and along those same lines, it may be worth buying from a store that has a flexible return policy. I like Amazon (for online retailers) and Costco (for brick & mortar retailers) for this reason. I would not buy a used camera bag.

With those things said, here are my recommendations for the three groups of travel photographers…

Light Travelers

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In photography terms, I’m going to consider light travelers those who carry one camera body and one lens. My wife falls into this category, and we’ve had one heck of a time finding a bag for her. Backpacks and sling bags weren’t comfortable, so we looked at shoulder/side bags. These were much better in terms of comfort, but many were ugly and the better looking ones were poorly designed or had wasted space.

We ultimately settled on the Ape Case Holster Bag because she found it comfortable, compact, and without any unnecessary compartments. She can put a few other personal items in there, but it’s mainly just a one camera bag. It also has a waterproof rain sleeve, which is a big plus. It isn’t the most stylish bag in the world, but it’s not ugly, either. Definitely more utilitarian, though.

While I like this bag and think it’s great for what it is, I have a hard time recommending it. The only people to whom I’d recommend it are those who know they will never purchase a second lens and absolutely must have a dedicated camera bag for their DSLR. Sarah only uses this bag about 30% of the time now, and the rest of the time she throws the camera in another “ordinary” (non-camera) bag. That other bag isn’t waterproof, which is a bit concerning, but she always carries a poncho or umbrella, so it’s not all that concerning. I’d hazard a guess that most of you would be just as comfortable or more comfortable carrying your single camera in a small, ordinary backpack. On the rare occasions that I go out with just one camera and one lens, I don’t carry ANY bag. If I’m going light, I don’t want a bag, period. Instead, I throw a nice drawstring disposable plastic bag in my pocket, and if it rains, I put the camera in that. Not ideal or as safe as a dedicated waterproof camera bag, but I’ve never had any issues.

With that said, I can see why other people might want an actual bag for their camera (and it does hold a few other things), but it just seems like this bag has a very limited audience and any more serious photographer is likely to outgrow it pretty quickly. If you’re even considering carrying additional lenses, look to the other options below.

Balanced Travelers

Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel Photography

Before I got my main camera bag, I swore by the LowePro SlingShot (the bag I use is the 100AW, but it has since been replaced by the superior LowePro 102 AW). It took a lot of searching to find it, but I finally did, and I’ve been a LowePro fan ever since.

The LowePro SlingShot is a great choice in that it’s fairly sleek, yet can hold a camera and three moderately sized lenses along with some other accessories. It also has a rain sleeve, which is great for photographers who find themselves exposed to the elements. The bag is light weight and well padded, and it’s a great option for someone who is just starting to get serious about photography but doesn’t yet have any pro-grade lenses to carry.

Since I retired the SlingShot as my main bag, an update to the bag has been releases that places the straps for the tripod on the side of the bag instead of the back of it. This is an excellent design decision, and if you’re in the market for the SlingShot, make sure you get the newer SlingShot 102 AW. I like my SlingShot, but one of my complaints about it would be that removing the tripod to access the contents of the bag is a pain, and a design flaw on the part of LowePro.

The biggest con with the SlingShot is in terms of design, but it’s a trade-off you have to accept if you want a sling system, and that’s the poor use of space at the top of the bag. This area can’t be part of the main compartment because of the sling, and is sort of like a triangle in shape at the top of the bag. You can put stuff up here, but I feel like it doesn’t hold as much as it could if this same space were in a normal bag. Since the quick access the slingshot provides isn’t important to me, I’d rather have the bag make better use of this space. If the sling access is important to you, this is just one of those trade-offs you’ll have to accept and learn to make work.

As mentioned above, this is a great bag for a casual photographer looking to carry a camera and some additional gear (photography gear or other). It’s a great “starter bag” and the new LowePro SlingShot 102 AW is almost flawless for that purpose. Photographers who are looking for more or want something to grow into probably shouldn’t consider this bag unless they don’t mind replacing it later. The LowePro SlingShot 202 AW is a larger alternative for more serious photographers, but not one that I recommend because its layout isn’t as solid as the Flipside 300 discussed below.

Pack Mules

DSC_0039 as Smart Object-1 copy

I fall squarely into this category and I openly recognize that carrying as much gear while traveling as I do is a little insane. That LowePro Flipside 300 above is my main camera bag, packed and ready for a normal day on the move. It contains 6 lenses, 1 DSLR, 1 flash, a tripod, a whole host of random other accessories (filters, wired remote, extra batteries, etc.), and weighs 21 pounds, 12 ounces.

Despite most of you probably not being crazy enough to carry this much gear, the LowePro Flipside 300 is the camera bag I recommend for most travel photographers. Here’s why.

First, it gives you room to grow. And by grow, I mean buy more stuff. LowePro advertises the Flipside 300 as holding one camera with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached, plus “1-3 additional lenses or flash units.” As you can see, mine is holding a camera with a 70-200mm f/2.8, plus 5 additional lenses, 1 flash unit, and a ton of other junk. Granted, two of those lenses are really small, but the other three are pro-grade full frame lenses. The point is, this bag can hold a ton of gear, and most photographers will never outgrow it. If you don’t have a ton of gear now, you can use the space for other things until you do need the space (and you will need it someday!).

Second, the size is absolutely perfect for travel. It’s not really all that much bigger than the SlingShot (except when you pack it to the gills like mine–a “normal” looking one is not nearly as bloated), but that’s not really the “main” plus about its size. Quite possibly the greatest “pro” this bag has going for it is that it’s about the largest personal item you can carry onto an airplane. This means it does not count as your carry-on item, but instead will fit under the seat in front of you and you can put a rolling bag in the overhead compartment (your tripod will have to go in the roller). Not only will this save you checked bag fees if you can otherwise manage to pack light when traveling, but it will free up space in your rolling carry on for camera gear you might otherwise put in there. I’m able to store all of my camera gear in this bag when flying and all the rest of my junk in a rolling carry-on, which makes getting in and out of the airport and traveling in general sans checked baggage much easier.

Third, there’s no superfluous space in the Flipside and the design is brilliant (it would have to be in order for it to hold all of my stuff and still fit under a seat on a plane!). I know that a lot of camera bags now have space for a laptop and other random stuff, but before you consider one of these bags, think about whether you actually need a laptop or a tablet while you are out and about shooting. Even though I carry a lot of gear, I try to go as light as I possibly can, and that means not carrying anything I think I won’t need. To me, a laptop or a tablet is just unnecessary and extra weight. My iPhone can handle any “computing” needs I have while out and about. I know the iPad makes a pretty awesome camera, but I think you might be able to make do with that DSLR you’re carrying in the bag.

Finally, it’s incredibly well made and can take an incredible beating. The padding on the bag is great and makes carrying all that gear comfortable (or at least as comfortable as lugging around 20 pounds on your back can be) and safe for the equipment. I’ve had my Flipside 300 for over three years, and in that time it has been dragged on the side of mountains, left sitting in the snow, scratched at by wild animals (okay, my cat), and come in contact with just about every surface imaginable in the Disney theme parks (and exposed to the grueling Florida weather). I won’t say it “still looks brand new” because it absolutely does not. It’s faded and cosmetically imperfect thanks to my brutal treatment of the bag, but structurally, it’s still in great condition. There are no signs of weakness anywhere that matters, and if this thing can survive three years of me banging it around, it can probably survive a lifetime of normal use. There’s a reason it costs $100+, and in this case, you absolutely get what you pay for.

LowePro Flipside 300 at Walt Disney World

For all my praise, there are a couple of cons that are worth noting. The biggest is that the bag has no rain sleeve. This is a pretty big deal, especially for Walt Disney World photographers, who are bound to be exposed to an afternoon shower from time to time. Mine has gotten rained on many, many times and the gear inside has never gotten wet, but I still doubt that this is good for the bag. For this one reason alone, I’ve considered buying the LowePro Flipside Sport 15L, but that bag has slightly less space and isn’t as well designed, so I would have to cut down on what I carry. I’m not sure I want to do that. For now, the lack of a rain sleeve is a flaw I can live with given the other great strengths of the bag.

It’s also not as easy to access your camera as the SlingShot, as you actually have to take off the bag to get the camera out. The only time my camera is ever in my bag is when it’s raining, so this doesn’t matter to me, but it might to you.

More of a “sorta kidding” con is that this bag will make it easier to justify buying more gear. When I was using the smaller SlingShot, I thought of new lenses in terms of what would (or wouldn’t) fit in my bag. This kept my buying in check until I set my mind on a 70-200mm lens. Once I got that lens, I was “forced” to upgrade bags, and having the additional empty space of the LowePro Flipside 300 meant additional empty space I could fill with new lenses, which I quickly did. If you’re anything like me, you will find yourself quickly finding excuses to grow into this bag in terms of new gear. I mean, if you have the bag, you might as well fill it with lenses, right? This may or may not be a bad thing, depending upon how you look at it…

Overall, which bag is right for you is a largely personal decision, and there are a lot of other great bags out there, but for the purposes of travel, I’ve never found anything better than these two LowePros. No, they are not as nice looking as a 5 Million Dollar Home or whatever the latest trendy camera bag is, but as a photographer looking for results and not a stylish accessory, I think the LowePro Flipside and SlingShot lines have no equal. Even if you aren’t considering the LowePro bags, I would highly recommend not making the purchase based upon how the bags look, unless the “function” of the better looking bag you’re considering is on par with the ordinary-looking bag.

If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Infrared Photography Guide & Tips
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod

Your Thoughts…

Do you own any of these camera bags? Would you recommend them? If you own a different camera bag, what do you use and what do you think of it? If you have any other questions or comments, please leave them below.

83 Responses to “Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel”
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