When you think about camera gear, what comes to mind? A camera bag might be an afterthought, but I think it’s almost as important as the camera itself! Think about it – what good is a high-quality camera if you don’t have a good way to carry it into the field? As a wildlife photographer, I find it critically important to get a bag that’s suited to field work. In this article, I’ll highlight the most important features I believe the ideal camera backpack must include for wildlife photography.
What makes a good camera bag?
The best camera bag is spacious, lightweight, comfortable, convenient, and protective. It’s challenging to get all these things right in a backpack, which is why most camera bags aren’t ideal.
Unfortunately, this also means some of the best bags can become pricey, easily over a couple hundred dollars. That being said, I think your bag is among the most important places to put your money as a photographer. A good camera bag makes everything run smoother, and the photography process much more enjoyable.
Without further ado, here’s what I consider the “must-have” qualities and features of a bag for wildlife photography.
The most important aspect of a camera bag is how comfortable it is. An uncomfortable bag is an easy way to make wildlife photography a miserable experience. Here are some features that improve the comfort of camera bags.
Keep it lightweight
There is no reason for your camera bag to add extra weight to your already heavy gear. Look for a lightweight option to make your life easier. Most camera bags designed for use in the outdoors will be as light as the manufacturers could manage, but there are some stylish photo bags that I could never recommend because they aren’t suited for carrying all day.
Get a backpack with a waist strap
A waist strap takes weight off the shoulders, making carrying heavy gear a breeze. For wildlife photography in the field, I would never purchase any camera bag that didn’t have a waist band. Photography gear, especially with large telephoto lenses, can quickly become very heavy. Carrying the weight solely on your shoulders is completely unnecessary.
I would also recommend ensuring that the waist strap is properly padded. This way, the weight can be distributed most effectively, avoiding pressure points. I see a lot of bags that have a ‘waist strap’ which is merely a strap and no padding. The difference is like and day, I could never go back to carrying the weight of my gear on my shoulders.
Make sure the camera pack is breathable and padded
Cheaper bag options tend to skip padding, and they rarely use breathable material. I don’t know about you, but I sweat a lot while out hiking, and I am very grateful my bag allows a lot of air to still flow in between my back and the bag.
Similarly, there should be sufficient padding on the backpack to fit comfortably on your back. It is probably worth trying on a bag before committing to it, to make sure it’s comfortable.
Maximizing space is key for an effective camera bag. Not everyone may need to fit an 800mm lens in their bag, but it’s still nice to have extra space for more layers, food, and so on. When going out into nature, I usually need to carry more than just camera gear, and you’re probably the same way.
This is a feature most camera bags have today that I love. Be sure you can customize the pads and compartments in your bag to make the most out of the space. Each photographer has a different set of lenses, and each of us will organize our bag differently.
Huge pockets with no dividers is a great way to have gear clang against itself and break. If you get a classic hiking backpack (great for comfort and space) just make sure to get an insert from a company like F-Stop or Shimoda to hold your gear safely.
It’s important to make sure that the camera bag you buy has pouches for water bottles on the sides. Preferably each side would have a pouch. As a wildlife photographer, I’m sure you’re out in hot and/or dry conditions where you can get dehydrated quickly. I scratch my head when a bag only has one pouch for water, or worse, none.
Especially for wildlife photographers, it’s important to be able to have your camera – or any gear you need – at the ready so as to not miss a shot. A camera bag should be designed to give you immediate access to everything you may need.
Flip easy access
One design for instant and easy access to your gear I like is the flip easy access some bags offer. The idea is that you keep the backpack on your waist, but swing it around in front of you so that you can open the bag without taking it off your body and putting it on the ground. I find this design to be extremely convenient, especially when in wet, muddy, or sandy environments.
Not too many pockets
For whatever reason, bags seem to like to advertise how many compartments and places they have to store gear. I’m not a big fan of having lots of different pockets because it can make it harder to access gear you need. Having only a couple large compartments and some smaller pockets store gear is plenty. More compartments just adds weight with the extra material.
A tripod can be tricky to affix to a bag that isn’t designed with tripods in mind. I would double check a camera bag is designed with a mechanism to easily attach a large tripod to for long hikes.
A camera bag also needs to protect your gear from the elements. That should go without saying, but I’ve seen wildlife photographers in the field with some bags that are nowhere near weatherproof. It’s a good recipe to damage your gear or deal with fogging issues.
Many camera bags come with small rain covers that can be pulled over the bag in case of showers. This is super important to me because I often find myself caught in the rain. Generally these rain covers work pretty well, but I recommend always carrying a poncho too when there is a chance of rain. Doubling up can keep your camera gear dry even in the hardest of downpours.
Water resistant material
Better than just a rain cover, some bags are made of entirely water resistant material. This is the best option for truly waterproof bag. If you pair a poncho with a rain cover on a water resistant bag, you can conquer any storm!
This becomes more important when traveling in areas where petty theft is more common. If your bag’s compartments are in a spot that’s tough to pick-pocket, it’s reassuring. I feel much better when the zippered main compartment to all my gear is right against my back.
5. What bags have all these features?
The perfect bag that has all of these features probably doesn’t exist, but I’ll go through a few bags from various companies that hit most of these features.
Lowepro Flipside Trek
First and foremost I’ll share the camera bag I have used for a while. The Lowepro Flipside Trek is a very admirable bag that hits most essentials mentioned in this article. (In large part, I based the article upon describing this bag because it has served me so well.)
I find the convenience of the flip design to be a major selling point. On top of that, it is lightweight (3.1 lb / 1.4 kg), spacious, and comfortable. It is also quite affordable considering its various features.
Of course, there must be a catch. Unfortunately, it is not the most durable bag. In only three years, I have had to repair the seam that connects the backpack straps to the bag twice. The breathable mesh lining to the padding has also already worn away where the bag sits on my lower back, exposing the foam pad. That being said, I still love my bag, and I’ve been able to deal with the repairs for myself so far.
Also, the Lowepro Flipside Trek is not the most spacious backpack. It works for all my Micro Four Thirds gear combined, but it would be harder for a full-frame setup with a huge supertelephoto lens. You could still make it fit, but it wouldn’t be a luxurious ride. One of the following bags may be a better alternative for wildlife photographers with particularly big lenses.
- Flip easy access
- Extremely lightweight at 3.1 lbs
- Water holsters
- Rain cover
- Comfortable with padded waistband
- Very Reasonably priced
- Limited space for 600mm lens
- Cannot fit tablet/laptop
Lowepro Flipside Trek BP 350 AW for $199 from B&H
Gitzo Adventury Camera Backback
Gitzo (yes, the tripod company!) has a series of camera bags with large capacities that remain lightweight, comfortable and weather-sealed. The Gitzo Adventury Backpack comes in a 30 liter size, plus a 45 liter size to accommodate long telephoto lenses. These backpacks are built do be comfortable and pack a lot of gear.
One nice feature is that the top of the bag has a rollup compartment for fitting more outdoor gear. Two side pockets can accommodate water bottles or snuggly holster a tripod. Notably, the backpack lacks small compartments for storing camera accessories without entering the main compartments. Only one small front pocket is available if the side pockets are used for carrying water.
This bag is not designed with easy flip access to reach the main compartment without removing the bag from your body. But it can get close, so if you’re just dealing with smaller pieces of kit near the top of the bag, you probably don’t need to take off the pack.
- Spacious and lightweight (30L and 4.52lbs; 45L and 6.83lb)
- Rollup top compartment spacious for non-photography gear
- Comfortably padded
- Inside pocket fits laptop
- Water resistant fabric plus rain cover
- Lack of small compartments for organization
- Might have to take backpack off to access gear (no easy flip access)
- Relatively expensive
Gitzo Adventury Backpack for $326 from B&H
MindShift Gear BackLight Backpack
The MindShift Gear Backlight Backpacks check a lot of the boxes that I find important. This includes the pockets, water/tripod holders, water resistant material, and flip access.
The bag comes in 4 size options: 18L (3.53 lb), 26L (3.97 lb), 36L (4.85 lb), and 45L (7.05 lb). This puts it a bit on the heavier side, but it’s still a comfortable bag, and it has a low profile.
If I had to upgrade my camera bag now, I think I would go for this offer. It is also reasonably price for its versatility, even though the Lowepro bag is less expensive.
- Spacious with lots of organizational options
- Flip access
- Water resistant fabric, plus rain cover
- Designated water and tripod holsters
- Arguably too many pockets and compartments, adding weight and complexity
- On the heavier side
Remember, a camera bag is one of the most essential pieces of your camera equipment that makes it possible to get to photographic locations in the first place. Although I gave a few specific recommendations above, the more important part of this article is the list of useful features that I covered at the start.
I hope this article has highlighted what to look for in a good camera bag, and what to avoid. Also, keep in mind that there are a million camera bag companies out there, and still no perfect bag! Did I miss any of your favorite features or bags? Let me know in the comments below.
The Shimoda Action series or Explore series are excellent packs.
Most important for me is that I can access exterior pockets for filters, cleaning supplies, memory cards, etc. without having to open the main compartment with my bodies and lenses. Along thes lines I want to be able to access anywhere in the bag without having to first remove the tripod.
Thinner interior padding means more room inside for photo gear.
Bag weights also vary with my Gura Gear Bataflae weighing half as much as my LowePro Trekker AW III backpack. The Bataflae also has a side handle which is very convenient for carrying the bag to a vehicle or when boarding a plane. When Gura Gear stopped making their Bataflaie backpacks I bought two spares as their is nothing comparable today at any price.
I’ve had the Mindshift Backlight 36L for several years. The pack is spacious and has plenty of room for camera gear (600mm will fit if you have one) plus accessories such as jackets, food and so on. The pack has one serious flaw for people with a waist less than 32-33″ – the belt cannot be tightened enough. So the pack drops onto your hips and the weight goes to your shoulders. It makes longer hikes pretty tiring on the shoulders.
I’m a nature photographer with particular interest in birds. I find that there are very few backpacks which can easily hold a full frame DSLR with a long super zoom or long telephoto lens attached. I would find a bag that could hold a DSLR, long lens with lens shade attached to be very useful.
There are some bags that are solely designed for that purpose, they have less space for other lenses and gear, but have a huge compartment for the large lens and body. For example, the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600.
I think you’re missing a buy-through link to the MindShift store
Africa in the future. Size important for those small planes. Which of these lovely packs can fit into the small spaces available for travel to and within Africa?
I can say with experience the Lowepro Flipside Trek is very air travel worthy, capable of fitting in small spaces. Will you be taking long 600mm or longer lenses? If so, a larger pack may be necessary. I’d guess most of the bags listed here are air travel worthy.
Something that can fit a 600mm alongside the 100-400 would be ideal. I’m currently seeing what I can possibly fit given the extremely tight weight and size restrictions when I’m going on a puddle-jumper. Checking $20,000 worth of camera gear is a non-starter.
I can second the recommendation for the MindShift Gear BackLight . I have the 26L one and wore it for 12 hours fully packed (like 14 kg+water bottles) and for a heavy bag it was never uncomfortable which is surprising for a non-hiking rucksack..
I can third the recommendation. for the MindShift Backlight. I have the 26L bag as well. In addition to the camera gear, I can get two large water bottles AND a tripod on the back. The extra side pockets in the camera compartment are great for batteries and filters.
As to the “too many pockets”… I carry bug repellent, sunscreen, hand sanitizer and I like to be able to keep that separate from food and other gear. I like all the pockets. I don’t usually carry my laptop, but it’ll fit back there if I want.
It also doesn’t shout “camera backpack” when you are wearing it while traveling as long as I don’t have a tripod hanging on in. Just a green backpack.
Does the 26 L version fit under (standard) airplane seats?
I would say not. Dimensions are 51.51 x 29.01 x 19.99 cm and that 51cm is too long, but creeps under the 55cm allowed as hand luggage by most airlines.. (just watch the weight aspect..)
One very important thing the author fails to mention, in his endorsement of waist belts, is that the waist belt must sit just at the top of the hipbones. This is a matter of torso length. Packs made for backpacking will have in their specs an appropriate range of torso lengths. Camera bags, alas, usually don’t. You MUST try them on before buying. I have bought a couple of camera backpacks online and found the waist belts uncomfortably go around my midsection and do not sit on top of my hipbones. (How can we get the camera bag makers to be informative about the pack’s appropriate torso lengths? I called Lowepro and they told me they don’t list torso lengths and had no plans to do so.) Fortunately, some camera bags allow the user to adjust the torso length and thus the position of the waist belt.
I tend to hike on my own in very remote places, so have to be prepared for anything. I have a Mindshift Rotation 180 which has plenty of room for non-camera gear like food, extra clothing, first aid kit, headlamp etc. etc. The rotating belt compartment lets me change lenses without taking the bag off and that is a huge plus. Also it has a compartment for a water bladder and clips for the tube close to my mouth, which I find far preferable to water bottles. It is the best built and most comfortable bag I have owned. Highly recommended.
Excellent! Another good recommendation. The flip easy access is so convenient!
For me there is nothing better than the Gura Gear Kiboko line, I have a 22L of the old version – the one with a plastic logo with yellow letters – which is better for its construction and quality of materials than the current ones since the brand changed owners. Its biggest con – as with all brands – are the unreasonably expensive prices – even so, it remains my favorite brand.
Looks like a nice bag! Paying several hundred dollars for a bag is definitely a tough call, especially when there is other more tempting gear to purchase with a similar price tag!