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Camera rucksack group test

CamerasFeatures
by Cliff Smith, 11 Nov 2012Features

A good camera rucksack is an important accessory for any landscape or wildlife photographer. You have to be able to carry a camera, a couple of lenses, a tripod and several other bits and pieces of photographic kit, possibly over several miles of rough terrain, and a rucksack is definitely the best way to do this. However, if you’re going out in the wilderness you will also want to take some other things with you, such as a waterproof coat, map and compass, a packed meal and something to drink. Oddly there are very few camera rucksacks that include any space for these items, but I’ve managed to find five examples, so let’s check them out and see which one is the best choice for a day in the countryside.

First, let’s take a look at the sort of kit that I would normally take with me for a day shooting landscapes. As you can see (above), it’s nothing too extreme; a digital SLR and a couple of lenses, a sturdy lightweight tripod, a gradient filter kit, a couple of polarising filters, cleaning kit, a spare battery and a few memory cards.

I’ve also included a flashgun, because you never know when it’ll come in handy. As well as these items I have a waterproof jacket, a warm hat and gloves, a map and compass, a simple first aid kit, a torch, a pocket knife, a packed lunch and a flask of coffee.

What I’m looking for is a rucksack that can take all of this lot, keep it safe but accessible, and be comfortable to carry over long distances. 

You’ll notice that I don’t include a laptop computer in this list, although several of the bags in this round-up do include room to carry one. There are some more expensive camera rucksacks on the market, as well as a few cheaper ones, but I’ve deliberately kept to a sensible price bracket. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the contenders. From left back to front right we have the:

  • Tamrac Adventure 10 (£144.95)

  • Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW (£169.95)

  • National Geographic Earth Explorer NG 5160 (£169.95)

  • Kata 3N1-22 DL (£124.95)

  • Tenba Discovery Large Photo/Laptop Daypack (£119)

The Tamrac Adventure 10 is by far the largest of the five bags I’m looking at today. It measures 36 x 27 x 64cm on the outside, and is made from a tough ballistic nylon with a full lining throughout. Unfortunately this sturdy construction does make it the heaviest of the group, weighing in at approximately 2.4kg, so the bag itself is the heaviest item you’re carrying. The bag is divided into two compartments, separated by a padded partition that is attached with Velcro and can be removed to give one large single compartment if required.

The lower camera compartment is huge, measuring 29 x 14 x 28cm, and is plenty big enough for a full-frame DSLR with telephoto lens attached, as well as a large array of extra kit. It’s certainly more than big enough for all the camera gear in my sample kit, and deep enough for my 55-300mm zoom lens to go in end-on.

The sides and internal dividers are thickly padded, and the edges of the compartment are also stiffened to provide some crush protection. The inside of the lid has a large mesh-reinforced pocket, as well as pockets for memory cards and batteries, with Tamrac’s useful tag system for keeping full cards and empty ones separate. The upper compartment is also large, measuring 28 x 17 x 30cm, and is big enough for the extra gear I detailed above. It features a removable internal pocket with a transparent front. There is also a laptop compartment that runs the full length of the back of the bag, big enough for a large 17in machine.

In terms of carrying comfort, the Tamrac is adequate, but I wouldn’t want to carry it too far fully loaded. It has broad well-padded shoulder straps that spread the load well, but the hip belt isn’t particularly comfortable, and the rough fabric used for the back padding is quite abrasive through thin clothing.

Of the five bags, the Tamrac certainly provides the greatest protection for the largest amount of equipment, and has plenty of room for other essentials, but it does have one serious omission that will put off many serious photographers; it has no provision for carrying a tripod. There are a couple of strap lugs on the bottom of the bag, but any decent tripod will be far too long to carry there. There are no other places on the bag to attach straps, so you’ll have to carry your tripod separately.

Pros: Large size, good protection, very sturdy

Cons: Heavy, no tripod straps, uncomfortable for long trips

Score: 7/10

Manufacturer: Tamrac

Price: £144.95 inc. VAT

As one of the two most expensive bags in the group, and one bearing the illustrious Lowepro name, we’d expect great things from the Photo Sport 200 AW, and to be fair it does deliver. It’s the second largest of these five bags, measuring 27 x 17 x 49cm externally, but it is made of lightweight waterproof rip-stop fabric so it only weighs 1.3kg. It has a rather unconventional design with some interesting and clever features. The camera compartment is a separate structure within the body of the bag, accessed via a hatch in the side. It’s fairly small, with only room for a camera with lens attached and either a larger zoom lens or a flashgun. Once the camera is stowed inside, the walls of the compartment can be cinched tight with some laces to prevent the camera from shaking about inside.

There’s plenty of room in the body of the bag for other items. In fact, of these five bags the Lowepro provides the most room for general items. Rather than being a camera rucksack with some additional storage space, it’s more like a conventional hiking rucksack with an added camera compartment.

As well as the main compartment and camera enclosure, it has a large external pocket ideal for a light waterproof jacket, a zipped pocket on the top lid for your map and compass, a large side pocket with compression straps to hold your tripod, a small internal zipped pocket with a hook clip for your wallet or mobile phone, additional small pockets on the hip belt, several accessory loops and straps on the bottom to hold a sleeping mat or even a light tent. It has a rain cover hidden away in a compartment on the bottom, and a separate zipped compartment to hold a hydration bladder such as a CamelBak.

The Photo Sport 200 AW is very comfortable to carry thanks to a semi-rigid contoured back and a broad adjustable hip belt. Of the bags in this group this is the one that I would choose for long hiking trips. It may not have the biggest camera compartment but it has the most versatile space, the best rain protection and it has somewhere to hold your tripod. It’s a well-thought-out design with a lot of great features. It may be expensive, but it’s worth the money.

Pros: Clever design, good build quality, comfortable carrying, plenty of room

Cons: Small camera compartment, expensive

Score: 9/10

Manufacturer: Lowepro

Price: £169.95 inc. VAT

The National Geographic brand has been associated with high quality landscape and wildlife photography for over a century, so it’s no surprise to find the name attached to a line of camera bags, rucksacks and accessories. The Earth Explorer range has a very distinctive design motif which could be described as bespoke Tomb Raider. If Lara Croft was a photographer rather than an archaeologist this is what she’d use to carry her kit in, and as an heiress she could just about afford it. This NG 5160 model is the second largest in the range, and costs nearly £170. The largest model is a whopping £360.

Despite its retro-trendy looks the NG 5160 is actually a well-designed and extremely well-made bag. It’s quite large, measuring 45 x 34 x 21cm externally, but at 1.53kg it’s not particularly heavy. The outer shell is a hard-wearing olive green synthetic fabric with a coarse canvas-like weave, and it is lined throughout with a softer fabric, with an antique map print on the insides of the main flaps. It has two main compartments, with a zipped partition between them that can be opened if you need space for larger items.

The camera compartment is large enough for a medium-sized DSLR plus a couple of lenses and other accessories, but it is pretty shallow so your full-frame camera is probably not going to fit. The partition dividers and padding are a bit thin, but the pockets on the sides and the main flap do provide some extra protection.

The upper compartment is a bit small, and I had some difficulty fitting all of my test gear inside, but the bag is covered in pockets including a couple of large ones over the camera compartment and a full-width pocket on the top flap.

There are two large side pockets and a tripod strap, so it can accommodate all of the gear with a bit of squeezing. The only downside to this is that it does become rather fiddly; there are so many pockets, straps, buckles and Velcro patches that it’s easy to lose small items, and then spend minutes opening all the pockets to find them. Like several of the other bags here the NG 5160 has a laptop compartment, which is just big enough for a 15in notebook.

Although you’ll look like an explorer wearing it, I wouldn’t recommend the NG 5160 for serious hiking. The flat back panel isn’t ventilated; the shoulder straps are too close together and the rough fabric will chafe your neck if you’re carrying a heavy load; there’s an annoying coarse-weave webbing belt positioned right wear it will chafe your shoulders if you’re wearing a thin shirt; and there is no hip belt. The excessively long dangling straps are also likely to catch in airport luggage carousels. All in all it’s a decent enough and reasonably practical bag, and it certainly looks very striking, but it’s strictly for the well-heeled posers rather than the real adventurers.

Pros: Versatile design, tripod strap, well made

Cons: Fiddly fastenings, expensive, uncomfortable

Score: 7/10

Manufacturer: National Geographic

Price: £169.95 inc. VAT

The Tenba Discovery is the cheapest bag in our line-up, but don’t be fooled; it's an excellent bag and definitely the bargain of the bunch. Although it looks small compared to the Tamrac and Lowpro models it’s actually surprisingly roomy, measuring 31 x 46 x 27cm. It’s also very light, weighing just 1.2kg. The outer shell is medium-weight nylon, which may not be as hard-wearing as some of the other models here, and the side pockets in particular are a very soft fabric that definitely wouldn’t last long being dragged around in rough country. However, it does come with a fitted rain cover and the bottom panel is a tougher waterproof fabric, so it’s not completely defenceless.

Like most of the other bags here, the Discovery is a two-compartment design, and like the others the dividing partition can be opened and the camera padding removed if you want to use it as a conventional rucksack. The camera compartment is unusual; it opens like a drawer, with the camera and other gear stashed vertically. It’s deceptively spacious, swallowing all the test gear with room to spare - enough to carry a medium-sized DLSR with a long zoom lens attached, as well as several other lenses and accessories.

The wedge-shape design does mean that the top compartment is a bit smaller than it might be, but there’s still enough room for the kit in our list, with built-in organiser pockets for notebooks, pens, or a phone. There are two large elasticated side pockets and compression straps on the sides to hold a tripod or water bottle, and there is also a separate laptop compartment big enough for a 15in notebook.

The Discovery is quite comfortable to wear, although again it wouldn’t be one that I’d recommend for serious hiking. The back is well padded with ventilation channels and the shoulder straps are comfortable with an adjustable chest strap, but the short back means that the waist belt will be too high for most people of average height. The deep shape means that heavy loads tend to pull back on the shoulders, making it tiring to carry for long distances. It’s more of a rucksack for urban travel than the great outdoors, but it is a good practical design that can carry a surprisingly large amount of kit.

Pros: Low cost, spacious design, tripod straps, comfort, low weight

Cons: Durability

Score: 7/10

Manufacturer: Tenba

Price: £119 inc. VAT

The Kata 3N1-22 DL is the odd one out here. While the other four are backpacks, this one can also serve as a sling bag thanks to its three-position shoulder strap system. The idea of a sling bag is that you can quickly get at your camera without having to take the bag off your back, by swinging it around in front of you on its shoulder strap. If you use it as a sling bag the unused strap tucks away into a pocket under the back padding. The Kata is quite a lot smaller than the other bags here, measuring 43 x 25 x 25cm, but this also means it’s the lightest, weighing just 1.03kg.

The exterior shell is a black hard-wearing rip-stop nylon material, while the interior of the camera compartment is lined with bright yellow velour, and the top compartment is lined with soft nylon, also in bright yellow. The colour choice was explained to me as helping to find small items in the bottom of the bag.

The camera compartment occupies about two thirds of the volume of the bag, and is large enough to hold a mid-size DSLR with zoom lens attached, as well as a couple of extra lenses and other small accessories.

The main part of the camera compartment can be accessed from the side of the bag via a simple zipped flap, but to open up the full size of it you have to undo two straps and unzip right around the bag, which is a bit of a hassle. The upper compartment is very small, barely enough for a waterproof jacket or packed lunch, but not both. As with some of the other bags, the dividing partition can be unzipped if you need more room. It has what Kata rather optimistically describes as a laptop compartment, but since this is only 20cm wide it’s only really big enough for a small netbook or tablet. There are two additional small side pockets, but one of these holds the slip-on rain cover.

The Kata bag does have two external strap handles that come with extra straps attached, supposedly for attaching a tripod, but since they only provide one fixing point on either side they don’t really work; your tripod will be dangling from one strap, which is going to be clumsy and inconvenient.

In terms of carrying comfort, the 3N1-22 DL is not really designed with serious outdoor photography in mind, so you wouldn’t really expect it to match up to the serious hiking bags like the Lowepro or Tamrac. It’s more suited for an urban environment, where its uncomplicated and inconspicuous shape will blend in well and avoid drawing unwelcome attention. It will provide a good level of protection for a small DSLR kit and a tablet computer for a day out, but you wouldn’t want to climb a mountain with it. It’s the only one of the bags in this group that would qualify as carry-on airline baggage.

Pros: Clever design, well made, inconspicuous

Cons: Small size, high price, no tripod stowage

Score: 7/10

Manufacturer: Kata

Price: £124.95 inc. VAT

Of the five bags in this group test, my personal favourite is the Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW, because it most closely matches what I want from a camera rucksack. It’s the only one that manages to be a good hiking rucksack and a good camera transport system at the same time. It may be a bit pricey, but it is well made, cleverly designed and extremely practical. It managed to fit all of my sample kit with room to spare, and was comfortable to carry. It’s the only one that I’d consider using for a hike into the mountains.

Of the rest, the Tenba Discovery Large Photo/Laptop Daypack is probably the best choice for general purpose use. It’s relatively cheap, has a clever and practical design and looks good too. It wouldn’t withstand the rigours of mountain hikes, but it’ll be just fine on the tube into town.

The Kata 3N1-22 DL sling bag is also a good choice for urban photographers, especially since it doesn’t advertise the nature of its contents.

The National Geographic Earth Explorer NG 5160 bag is fun, and its unique look will be sure to draw attention, but it’s too expensive for what it offers, and too fiddly and impractical for serious use.

The Tamrac Adventure 10 is a big beast of a bag, offers fantastic protection and acres of space, and the price is quite reasonable considering what it offers; it would have been a contender if only it had somewhere to put a tripod - an oversight that’s hard to believe from a company with such long experience.

For your convenience, here's a shot of all five bags under test:

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