This is for those of you packin', going "heavy," or otherwise always strapped with awkward equipment such as a camera, laptop, and other assorted pieces of digital hardware that can make your life a living hell.
As a photographer, podcaster, university lecturer, and high school teacher, I gotta lotta jobs, man. All being professions that require either electronic equipment and/or books, books, books – I also could have a lotta bags.
The problem is that if you have more than one bag, you will exhaust yourself much faster than if you have a single, all-in-one solution. I used to solve the problem by carrying what I think to be the best equipment bag one could find, the Lowepro Stealth Reporter 650AW.
Now, this isn't my bag, baby, but you get the point. You've got multiple compartments for whatever you want to put in there, a laptop pouch in the side, and it purposefully doesnt' flash the fact that it's a "camera bag" to random jokers to come and steal. It's soft and crumply on the outside, but has firmness on the inside, so it's a good balance. You can get a slightly smaller version that makes it look even less "camera baggish." By the way, there's a hidden slot that holds a rain cover. When you're in monsoon season in Korea, that really comes in handy. Also, the thing that was the kicker for me, and what you can see in the right-hand picture, is a zipper on the floppy top.
For those of you who are constant shooters, having to open your camera bag's top all the time is a major pain, which ends up making you leave your bag open, which is majorly stupid in the event that you fall, or are in a crowd and can't always pay attention to your bag. The top flap is just that – a flap – so the top of the bag is pretty unprotected. But for those of you on the go and in the know, you already realize that compromising on the top is fine. If you want to ship the bag – but you'd never do that anyway, since why on God's green earth would you ever check your camera bag through as checked luggage?! – you'd get another bag. For street shooting, being able to go "zip" and pull out your piece in a split second and then "zip" it closed to you can concentrate on what you're doing – man, there's nothing better.
Now, I hate saying anything bad about this bad, because there's really nothing bad about it. The only thing is that it's a camera bag, and not designed for anything else. So it's not the bag's fault. But I started needing to carry around a lot of books and papers after around 2004, so suddenly, I felt the need to ditch the 2-bag, ad-hoc solution I had come to. And I had also developed a knot in the lower right part of my back, which grew up from having the bag always hanging from my left shoulder. Ouch.
So I went around looking for the perfect backpack solution. Problem is, most photo backpacks are made for trekking and keeping your equipment warm, dry, and safe. I didn't need that; I wanted relatively safe, accessible, and laptop-ready. That was a tall order. I went around Chungmuro looking for just the right bag, and my old trusty place – which has a LOT of bags, by the way – didn't have what I was looking for. But because they're the BOMB, they recommended I go to another store that they said would have just what I needed.
When I did, I was bemused to find myself staring at another Lowepro Stealth series bag, but this time in backpack form. Not only did it have a main zipper that allowed the entire bag to be opened like a clamshell (meaning you can access it, by adjusting the two zippers, at any point along the sides and top of the bag), but there was a full-protection laptop case that is removable and usable as a standalone laptop case, with included strap. Fuckin' A.
It might be hard to see from the picture, but you can see the laptop case that sits at the bottom of the bag, on the lower layer of two, with three open pouches sitting atop it. It's attached via Velcro to the three pouches sitting atop it, so that it becomes one unit, important so that things don't shift around. I never take the laptop pouch out, but it's a nice feature and a moneysaver in case you will occasionally lug equipment around but are in need of a laptop case. The case is minimal, meaning it's a semi-hard case that's just big enough to hold a standard 15" laptop, but nothing more. Feels tight and light under the shoulders.
On the second, upper layer of the two is a space I use for books, documents, and other flat objects. It's made a flat space by the shape-defining laptop pouch beneath it, and it's nice to have a who separate layer to use. Now, the outer part of the laptop is just the material of the bag itself, meaning no padding, that it's soft and crumply. This is a good thing, since I think the designers knew that you generally aren't bumping into stuff hard enough to damage anything, and that if you are, you shouldn't be using this bag, anyway. I keep my accessories (digital recorder, wires, clips, mics) in the outer pouches and have never had a problem. I get bumped by the occasional ajumma or sometimes find myself in a crowd, but I've nevr been bumped hard enough to even think about my equipment. I do, however, treat my pack with care when I sit it down by putting it down upright and leaning the front part of the bag against the back of the seat (so it's not exposed); I never lay it down on the bag's face; that's just stoopid.
It's got serious pockets, for film cases and whatever you want on the inside – the film pocket is a little thick and stiff, which makes me suspect: x-ray protection? Haven't looked into that, but why would a photographer – if you're still a dinosaur shooting on film like me – ever not check film separately in an airport security check, anyway? Right? RIght.
By the way, that little flap on the upper part of the bag actually does flip up, is lined with thick plastic, and is just big enough for a phone battery, extra memory card clips, or business cards. Don't have to go digging around in the bag! And the very, very well-made straps can be connected across the front and they each have a small strap to which you can attach additional Lowepro accessory pouches. Smaaaaart. But on the extra pouches – you'll look like a dork. I have two and have attached them (cellphone, auxilary point-and-shoot, one on each strap). But you WILL look like a dork. I got all trussed up and looked in the mirror and immiediately proceeded to take off the accessory pouches. They also get caught in weird ways when you are taking off and getting back into the bag. Unnecessary.
In my bag (the picture above isn't mine), I've got, at right this very moment, the reading packet for my 외대/Waedae class, around 6 DVD's, a packet of documents for my visa (just got it renewed today – yay!), my 35mm Canon with large wide-angle lens attached, a digital camera, hairbrush, cologne, iBook and adaptor, several dime novels I'm showing to the class, packet of bankbooks, passport, and iPod in the outer pouches, as well as exposed and unexposed film. In the mini-pouch, I've got business cards and extra cellphone battery. I'm packin', baby. Also, there's a secret rainpouch on the bottom that doubles as a bit of padding. Smaaaaaarrrt.
And even when I've got this much equipment on heavy days like today, the weight distributes very nicely – it's one of the most ergonomically well-designed backpacks I've ever owned – and I've owned and abused a lot of bags. My first Lowepro (the shoulder bag) still hasn't developed a rip or tear, and the metal rings have seen enough wear that they're worn halfway through. There's a lifetime gurantee on these babies, and I've pushed them as far as they can go. I wore the shoulder Lowepro every single day for three years – I even went to the bathroom with my baby when I was outside – and it's still pumping, although in partial retirement because of it's newer backpack relative.
The cool thing about the backpack is that I can have easy access to the laptop by sliding the zipper open just enough to access the laptop pouch opening (reference the upper picture to see what I'm talking about), so it's ZIP, SLIDE and I'm laptopping and SLIDE, ZIP and I'm out da do'.
Even if you're not a photographer or gadgetronic gearhead, if you carry a laptop and other pieces of equipment, you might think about this pack. Also, going backpack and using both the straps is the best thing you can do for your body if you're going to be carrying around that weight anyway. The more evenly you can distribute the weight and the closer you can get that weight to your body (without a bag hanging on one side and wanting to swing its weight around such that you have to unconsciously hold it), the better off you'll be.
Seriously – having all your crap and two free hands is like a blessing from the gods.
And a preemptive no I offer any surly, cynical readers – I don't work for Lowepro, own any stock with them, nor benefit from singing their praises in any way. I just appreciate smart, well-thought out design. These people are helping to save my back!
I love you, Lowepro!
(And yeah, that's my first Lowepro shoulder bag helping cast the shadow in my logo at the top of the page!)