Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Perfect Camera Bag?

The perfect camera bag does not exist. Everyone has different equipment, different needs and different tolerances for how much they like to drag around. There are even popular web writers who sneer at the very idea of a bag. "A camera should always be in your hands, ready to use!" they declare, as if you never need to travel from one photographic destination to another.

I will take it as a given that a photographer does need a camera bag. In this article I will present one that is (nearly) perfect for my needs. I trust this information will help others in the predicament of having to evaluate the hundreds of models on the market. (If it helps you, please donate!)

When I started looking for a camera bag I already had two I commonly used. The first was a "man bag" into which I can fit a Pentax digital body with a small prime lens. This is often all I need, especially when I have no shooting planned but want to have a camera on hand. (Which is all the time.)

I then purchased a shoulder bag in messenger style which can hold two additional lenses plus spare battery, cards, remote, filters, etc. This is a Crumpler "Pretty Boy XXXL". Never mind the size designation, this is only moderately large. However, I find it rather bulky for what it holds, and it doesn't balance well on a bike. This is perhaps because it is wider than it is deep, at 20cm. It protrudes quite a lot from my body no matter how you carry it.

A third option is a "sling" style bag that can move from your back to your side, ready for you to take out whatever gear you might need. But that does not suit me. Having instant access to different lenses is not the problem I am trying to solve. So what are my criteria?
  • I need to carry gear day-to-day and also when traveling by plane.
  • I would like to optimise my carry-on allowance.
  • The bag should not be overly heavy, as that eats into short-haul flight allowances, not to mention my spine.
  • The bag should be comfortable even when fully loaded.
  • I need to carry two cameras with lenses attached, plus two additional lenses and all my accessories.
  • I also need room for a rain jacket, notebook, some digital recording gear, etc. In other words I want one bag to hold all my stuff, not just camera gear.
  • The ability to attach a tripod would be nice.
  • Of course decent padding is essential.
  • The bag must be weather-proof.
To clarify the size issue, some carriers now restrict carry-on to 10kg and 40 x 20 x 55 cm. To expedite airport travel I don't check camera gear. So I need to be able to carry all my tech stuff plus clothes and toiletries in one bag. (For longer trips I will check luggage.)

The only type of bag that will meet all those criteria is a backpack (or rucksack as the English like to call them). With the field narrowed that much, I set about researching manufacturer websites, reading every scrap of info I could on Pentax Forums, and my other favourite sites. Finally, when I was in Canada, I got a chance to visit a well-equipped photo store (Henry's) and could try out bags in person.

Some say you cannot choose gear without examining items in the flesh, but I have become quite good at it, out of necessity. There are no well-equipped camera stores (or audio stores, or computer stores, or...) within several hours of where I live. In this case, it turned out that the bag I preferred in person was the one I had picked as the front-runner from web research. This fact was not obvious at first, since the branding was different.

Meet the Kata DR-467. DR stands for Digital Rucksack, which is a bit silly since there is nothing digital about it!

Kata DR-467 outside
This bag has an outside dimension of 34 x 21 x 45 cm. While technically this is 1cm deeper than allowed as carry-on, I do not think in practice this would ever be a problem. I found no appropriate bags less than 20cm deep; they were all much too small.

The bag weighs 1.42kg, leaving 8.5kg for what you will pack inside it.

The outside styling is simple. Zippers are decent and recessed so as to protect their action. The material is not irritating to the touch. (I cannot stand the feel of some plastics.) There are not too many different annoying straps and fittings. The bag is made to sit vertically when removing gear. Like so:

Kata DR-467 compartments
One cool thing about the Kata is that the internals are a bright yellow. It is impossible to lose lens caps, filters or other small object inside. The dividers are plush and provide ample padding. There are not too few nor too many of them. Some bags divide up each interior into so many pockets, pouches and holders that there is little room left to actually hold anything. I also dislike having zippers and other sharp items inside compartments where they can scratch gear.

Kata DR-467 bottom compartment

The bottom compartment is 33cm wide, 15cm high, 19cm deep. I have included a Pentax FA43 lens (with caps and hood) for scale. It practically disappears in the interior volume. Here's a more likely configuration, containing the FA43, DA12-24, Vivitar Series 1 105mm (a large lens), battery, etc. In the centre would normally rest the K20D and FA77, but that camera took this picture! Even with all of this, the compartment is not especially cramped.

Kata DR-467 loaded
Note that if you had a long fast zoom it would be too big for the bottom compartment with fittings. But you can remove the interior walls if you prefer.

Kata DR-467 top compartment

The top compartment is 33cm wide, 27cm high, 10cm deep at its maximum. Here is where you would fit a body with large zoom, horizontally. Instead I might carry a second body plus rain jacket. Or a couple of books if I do not need two cameras. This is also a great size for a digital recorder and two microphones, if you are so inclined. (The picture shows the tiny Olympus LS-10 in a pouch, but I have carried a much larger Fostex recorder.)

Kata DR-467 laptop slot

The laptop compartment is 31cm wide, 39cm high, 4.5cm deep. It is also handy for carrying papers or a portfolio. A shirt and trousers/skirt might fit nicely, providing a change of clothes for a weekend getaway.

Kata DR-467 middle centre compartment
There are three compartments in the middle section, accessed by vertical zips. All are fairly small but useful. The middle slot is the largest and has a piece of webbing at the bottom of prevent items from spilling. Nice touch! Also evident are the protectors that enclose the zipper handles when they are fully closed. Kata shows real attention to detail here.

Kata DR-467 waterproof cover
The left-most slot is reserved for the protective rain bag. Although the Kata is not weather-proof itself, this bag can be put over the entire back exterior to keep out rain or dust. I have already used this several times; it really works and deploys quickly. The alternative would be to buy a waterproof camera bag, but those are heavier, larger and twice as expensive. I think this system is the best compromise.

Kata DR-467 middle right compartment
The right-most slot is handy for filters, spare batteries, cleaning utensils and so on.

Kata DR-467 water bottle web
The Kata DR-467 has several thoughtful features that are not evident at first glance. For example, a small webbed side pouch is designed to hold a water bottle. It also makes a good base into which to stick a monopod or tripod foot, especially as there is a strap further up the bag that one can use to keep it in place. This may not be ideal, but it has worked for me. On the downside, the web is too small for larger water bottles, which is a pain.

Kata DR-467 handle and cable run

A small outlet on top of the bag allows you to feed a headphone cable through from the top compartment. This does provide a point of entry for water, however, so don't listen to tunes in this way if it's raining! In the photo I've stuck a lens pen through the gap so you can see where it is.

Besides the padded shoulder straps an adjustable waist-strap helps balance a heavier load. I find the Kata moderately comfortable when heavily loaded. I have encountered better bags in this respect, but those were backpacking models with wire frames. I think the comfort is also limited since the bag requires a perfectly straight laptop compartment.

Kata DR-467 trolley grip

There is a strap on the back of the bag you might not notice. I don't mind admitting it took me several weeks to see it! This strap can be placed over a trolley handle, for ease of transportation in an airport.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Pentax Canada made an excellent choice when they decided to brand the Kata DR-467 as their backpack. While there are small areas that could be improved (comfort when fully loaded, larger water bottle mesh), this is by far and away the best camera bag I have found. Yes there are larger bags but they will not be allowed as carry-on. There are bags that can hold more camera gear but they leave no room for personal items. And there are more expensive and heavier bags that have might have better build quality. But this bag makes all the right compromises for me, and comes in at $130 Canadian or 75 pounds sterling.

This may not be the only bag you need, but it is the best of its kind.

P.S. I think the only difference in the Pentax-branded item is the embroidered Pentax logo and the Canadian maple leaf. I'm not so keen on the logo advertising the fact it's a camera bag, but I am happy to have the red leaf emblazoned on my back.



robin said...

I should note that the insert in the bottom compartment is held in by velcro... very yellow velcro! So this can be removed or even replaced with other barriers should you want to reconfigure the space.

Martina Tycova said...
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Unknown said...

Robin - This bag looks excellent and just the part. However, any idea if this bag is suitable for Ryanair's tight restrictions? I frequently fly between the UK and ROI.

robin said...

Marcus, it does indeed. I fly Ryanair and needed a bag they would accept. Several months on I am still very happy with this bag.

robin said...

It's 2015 and the thing is a little stained but otherwise in perfect shape.

robin said...

OK it's annual check-up time. The bag is still in perfect shape in 2016.

robin said...

2018 and all is well with this bag. I use it for location recording trips. Holds a Zoom F8, battery pack, stereo mics, small stand, cables, alongside a small photo kit (body and two lenses).

robin said...

Unfortunately Kata was bought out by Manfrotto some time ago. Most of their offerings are TOO BIG for carry-on, even though they might state otherwise. The width of the bag is the problem.

The best approximation to this bag I can find is the Advanced Camera and Laptop Backpack Active II. Yeah, Manfrotto should really change their naming scheme.

robin said...

11 years later and I am still using this bag, having lost the rain cover some time ago. Otherwise, it is still in great shape!

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