Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
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…
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I did a lot of searching of Lowepro bags at a large camera store in person. Many seemed to come close but none had everything this back from USA Gear has http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005J09OXU?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o03_s00
Many of the bags the have the tripod on top of the bag make it cumbersome to use. I have a manfrotto mid size tripod so I leave it in a locker until later when I watch an afternoon parade and then get it out of the locker. Everything is very intuitive and I use both straps but still it is easy to sling it around to get my camera out of the side zipper compartment. I enjoyed the organizing tips of others. I am around a wet ride or it is sprinkling, I like to use a medium binder clip for my lens cap attached to one of the straps going over my chest. I find the elastic ring around the lens is distracting. Thanks again for the great photo tips Tom.
Thanks for the small Ape case suggestion! It is like you said very small ..too small to carry much more than the camera. Perfect!
I am a serious photograper but often I only want my camera and kit lens. This bags meets all criteria!!
1. not much bigger than camera but well padded.
2.long strap option for across chest..this protects on rides and when walking no worry of camera falling off shoulder…thus hands free.
3. Affordable! 16.99 on amazon!
4.Nice looking and well made.
…..For those considering check measurements carefully!
Glad it worked for you, thanks for the feedback!
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I currently use the Lowepro Slingshot 202AW, and while I see your point on choosing the Flipside, for me the Slingshot was the only way to go. I often change lenses and filters while walking (what can I say, I hate standing still) and the slingshot design allows me to do that quickly and easily. I can take my shot, remove my lens, set it in the bag, and put the new one on all in about the time it takes me to walk from Alice to Mr. Toad in Disneyland. If I got a backpack style bag I simply wouldn’t be able to do that. Since I shoot a D7100 with a grip, and usually want to pack at least three lenses and a flash with that, the 102AW was simply not big enough for me. I can easily fit it at my feet on all rides even with a tripod attached, and use my little bit of extra room to hold those miscellaneous items we always seem to need (ponchos, keys, wallet, that type of thing). I’ll admit, there is an absolute trade off with this bag, but for me the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Great post though, thanks for all of you helpful advice!
Hey Tom. Love your reviews. I’ve been using the 102AW my last couple trips. I just got the MeFoto RoadTrip tripod and just not sure that the tripod holder on the 102AW will be sufficient. Considering upgrading to the Flipside as it looks like the tripod holder is a little more substantial. What do you think?
p.s. I was with those “disney fans” at Epcot that you met at the bus stop in May.
I’ve always taken our smaller point & shoot cameras to WDW but recently purchased a Canon T3i and heading to WDW again in September. I have the square bag which holds the body, 3 lenses and other stuff but looking for something smaller for our trip for day-to-day use for the body and standard lens. We have two girls (8 & 6) so I usually take a backpack with me to the parks for ponchos, snacks, sunscreen etc., so ideally would like something not took bulky that would also fit into my backpack and give it some protection. Does anyone have any suggestions?
I’m new to the DSLR world. I just purchased a D3200 and am going to Disneyland in August. Have you (or anyone else) had any experience with the LowePro Passport? I am looking at it and it seems like it will fit my body and 2 lenses, but I want to make sure it will before I purchase.
Under the “Pack Mule” section of your article, you mentioned that the Flipside 300 is “the largest personal item you can carry onto an airplane.” I have the Flipside 400, and I was wondering if you knew what the actual maximum dimensions were (the plan is to just remove equipment if need be).
I believe they usually describe the maximum size in linear inches, but I have not been able to find an actual measurement anywhere. Thanks for your help!
Update: I was able to bring my Flipside 400 onto a Southwest Airlines flight. Granted, it wasn’t packed to the gills (I had my filters, battery chargers, etc packed in my carry-on), but there seemed to be plenty of space under the seat in front of me for the bag plus my size 12 feet.
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Question for you on the flipside 300. Do you take this bag on all your travels, even non Disney destinations? I’m looking for a camera bag to travel with me no matter the destination. Do you worry about the bag standing out as a camera bag when traveling around the world?
Normally I’m not concerned about my bag considering there will be enough other things causing me to stand out as a tourist or photographer, especially if I’m bringing a tripod along. Seems more and more people are suggesting nondescript messenger style bags or something similar. Just looking for your thoughts on traveling nonDisney place with your bag and gear.
I carry this bag everywhere, but you’re right that a nondescript bag for urban use would be nice.
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Love your site….I have 2 questions. Where did you get the Mickey camera strap you have on in the photo and how do you ride rides with all your gear? Does the bag get it’s own seat? Thanks!
Camera strap is from eBay. As for the camera bag, it stays on the floor of the attraction or between my legs. Never had an issue, although it’s a tight squeeze on Space Mountain! 🙂
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I’ve greatly enjoyed your site. As a relatively new inductee into the world of photography, your advice on gear, technique, and strategy within the parks has given me much to work with as I try to improve.
I’m hoping to replace my bag soon with something along the lines of the Flipside 300, but I worry about fitting it on some rides. What do you do with your bag on rides such as ToT, MS, or RnRC?
I am enjoying many different aspects on your site. We have many similar view points. I am interested in your opinion for just a pack mule type pack to travel with all my equipment. I have my camera and my old one my daughter uses. I have a D5000 and D60 with 18-55 x2, 55-200, 18-200, 18-270 and 70-300 lens. Not to mention all the extras; batteries, charger, cards, mini-tripod and whatnot. I have a hydro-pack that I bring into the parks and usually carry my camera on that pack with optech straps and lens cases strapped to the pack for spare lens. I have used this set up on three trips and it has worked well for me. My problem is getting all of this stuff to WDW. My little sling bag and hydro pack are jammed pack full and I can’t carry anything else. I doesn’t look like the 300 will fit all my stuff but I might be wrong. We are counting the days to our first Christmas time trip and I want to make sure I have all my stuff. What would you recommend?
I have the 15L Sport and love it. I think my gear lineup is pretty similar to yours, and I’m able to fit *almost* everything in. I’ve got:
D600 + Nikon grip
Tamron 70-200 VC
Assorted filters/cleaning supplies/other accessories
I can fit all of that minus one inside my 15L no problem. It’s basically a question of do I really need the Sigma 50 and the SB-700 that day? One of those will get left behind, usually the SB-700.
The thing I love most about the 15L isn’t its waterproofing (although that has come in handy), it’s the fact that because it’s made for active photographers, the strap material and the back of the camera bag (the part that rests on your back) is made out of a breathable mesh. It definitely makes it a little cooler and more comfortable to wear, especially in WDW in the summer!
Thanks for the great post! We head to Tokyo in 3 weeks and my husband has been going back and forth on backpacks for the trip. I’m going to have him read this and I think we’ll end up with the Flipside. I did have a question; did you use the metro/rail system in Tokyo much and if so, did you have any issues with the crowds and your gear? I just discovered your blog last night and haven’t had a chance to get through all the Tokyo trip reports yet so I apologize in advance if you’ve already addressed this. I look forward to digging in to your blog this weekend!
We used the metro and rails extensively, and never had an issue with bags. Sure, it’s crowded on the rail, but the bag doesn’t take up too much space, and there’s absolutely no issue with crime. In fact, I’ll bet you could leave your bag unattended for an hour or so and no one would take it! (Not that I’d recommend trying this.)
We are leaving for our 1st Disney trip in 2 weeks. I currently use the Lowepro Adventura. It is very bulky and I’m looking for alternatives especially for travel. I like the look of a sling bag. Thinking it may be more comfortable and will feel more like a handbag.
I currently shoot with a Nikon D90 and really only plan on taking maybe 2 lenses and my speed light. Love the looks of the Lowepro Passport Sling. Love the size. I’m a small framed female — and do not want to carry a bulky backpack while chasing 2 small children. I like the features of the Slingshot 102 — the AW feature — but worried it is just too large for me. Any other recommendation for a smaller bag. (DSLR camera, 1-2 lenses, and a speed light and maybe my wallet). More concerned with some of the water rides.
Any advice? Someone mentioned the ape case — -but I don’t see that it is weather proof. What do you do on water rides? I don’t want to have to rent a locker.
It sounds to me like one of the Lowepro Sling bags would be perfect for you. Have a great trip! 🙂
As a woman, I have to admit that I hate lugging around a backpack too. My cousin bought a Think Tank Retrospective 7 Shoulder bag (much like a messenger bag). He suggested I look at Think Tank. He said they are great quality bags. I am debating about getting the Sub Urban Disguise 30. Not bad at $85.00 price. I have a huge backpack style that I often take all my equipment on the plane with, but I would never carry that thing around in the parks. I pick and choose what I want to take with me for the day and put that in a smaller bag. Trying to pick something and order it to get it in time for Photo Magic 2013!
Camera Bags. I’ve been reconsidering some things as of late.
I think I have the Tamrac bags. I had a smaller one I could stuff a DSLR, large telephoto lens, and a few smaller items (chargers on the side, a gorillapod on top and even stuffed a P&S or Video Camera at the top of the bag. Then wanted a bigger bag as I was taking along a Infrared DSLR, and more stuff. I opted for (I think) Tamrac Expedition 6 Series…or close to it. It is a large boxy clamshell. I can easily stuff it with 2 DSLRs, a P&S, all chargers, extra lenses, a flash (later removed) and it has a laptop/iPad sleeve. This is great for Transporting on long trips. And I was using it for shorter, in-park trips to Gardens, Amusement Parks but found it cumbersome for shorter day trips too.
With 2 kids and a stroller, I began just taking one camera inside places and sometimes throwing a lens in the stroller storage underneath. I am tempted to use my recent work Laptop Backpack, the Ogio Metro to use at Disney. I can easily stuff a few things in that bag and it is easy to carry. I know have a 28-200 and 35mm lens. Not sure if I will take the infrared (wife is actually saying I should). On a recent Harbor day-trip I took a smaller Ogio backpack and simply threw an extra lens in there and a few filters. I have a sling-strap Camera strap (Joby) and love the weight feel on shoulder/neck.
Where I once wanted to carry everything, I now feel like carrying few things and stuff my cargo pockets with filters and stuff.
So, I do like reading about it all here. I feel I was a Pack Mule but going more middle ground. Having children makes wanting to carry more stuff less ideal but also having the stroller makes me feel like using that if I will push something around anyway.
Yeah, I can see how things would change once you have kids. Thanks for offering your take on those bags!