Shouldering the Load: A Rugged Camera Bag That Won’t Break the Bank by Tamia Nelson

My camera hasn’t put on any weight, but my collection of lenses has now grown until I can no longer get everything I want to carry in the smallish lumbar pack I use for camera gear. So I started looking around for something bigger. The search proved frustrating. Few large lumbar packs are designed with photographers in mind, and purpose-built camera packs are mighty pricey, as well as unnecessarily bulky. (I often carry a rucksack when I’m in the field, and my camera bag has to coexist with that.)

After several fruitless weeks of desultory catalog shopping, however, I decided that it was time to get serious. And I began by listing my requirements. My new bag would have to…

  • Be large enough to hold all my kit.
  • Give me quick and easy access to all my lenses and accessories.
  • Be sturdy.
  • Be reasonably priced. (Er… Cheap.)
  • Be inconspicuous. (Bright colors have their place. Not here, though.)
  • Be easy to reconfigure.

The first thing I found that seemed to fit the bill was a Military-Style Operator’s Bag from Sportsman’s Guide. This rather quirky outfitter isn’t the first one to spring to mind when I’m looking for gear, I admit, but while I don’t have much use for a walking stick fashioned from the “actual reproductive organs [sic] [of] a full-grown bull”—de gustibus non est disputandum, right?—let alone a “factory new” 75-round AK-47 drum magazine, I often find something of interest on the Guide’s virtual shelves. The Operator’s Bag is a case in point. Though I was pretty sure I wasn’t the kind of “operator” the catalog copywriter had in mind, the bag’s description promised great things. It…

  • Is just the right size (14 inches long by 6½ inches wide by 834 inches high).
  • Has a single large compartment, with…
  • Full-length interior mesh pockets along each side, plus…
  • Twin zippers and a wide top flap for easy access.
  • Is built with heavy-duty polyester fabric and nylon webbing.
  • Has a padded adjustable shoulder strap, plus…
  • Hand grips that join up with a hook-and-loop fastener, and…
  • Webbing loops for attaching pouches (similar to the military PAL System).
  • Is basic black, with no day-glo logos.
  • Has a refreshingly modest price tag (USD20).

Have a look:

Basic Black Sack

The adjustable shoulder strap comes off if I don’t need it. And while the bag isn’t quite rigid enough to stand on its own, the reinforced bottom keeps it from collapsing into a shapeless sack. Still, I figured I could improve on this by cutting a narrow strip from an old closed-cell foam sleeping pad and placing it inside the bag so that it lapped up against the end walls. (The raised internal seams hold the foam in place.) This did the trick. The empty bag now stands up without slumping. There’s a bonus, too: The yellow foam makes it easy for me to find things inside, even in low light.

My Pad

Despite the coated polyester fabric, however, the bag’s not waterproof. But the good-sized flap over the double zip should keep light rain or swirling mist at bay long enough for me to get my gear under cover.

Zip It Up

That flap actually posed a bit of a problem. It’s impossible to peel it open without making a hell of a racket: Velcro is notoriously noisy stuff, and the flap is anchored with a lot of it. But I found a simple workaround. Just thread the webbing zipper pulls out from under the flap (see Photo 1, above). Then you can open the pack in (almost) total silence, without having to peel back the Velcro.

Of course, all this would mean very little if the bag couldn’t carry the load. It’s up to the job, though—and more, besides. See for yourself:

Light Kit

Odds and ends (spare batteries, polarizing filters, remote shutter release, bandanna) get tucked into the zippered mesh pockets, while my camera (with one lens already fixed in place) and two supplementary lenses fit neatly into the main compartment, which I’ve partitioned using more foam scraps. And as the next photo shows, there’s plenty of room for more:

Heavy Brigade

I’ve added a third supplementary lens (for a total of four lenses in all, including the one on the camera) plus a Raynox DCR-150 closeup converter. And there’s space left over for a small umbrella, a wind shell and hat, and a hearty lunch. No water bottle, though. It would fit, but all water bottles leak sooner or later, and I like to keep my Pentax dry.

How does the loaded bag carry? As comfortably as any shoulder bag I’ve ever owned. I just sling it over my neck like a messenger bag if I’m not carrying a rucksack. After that, it rides against the small of my back until I need to get something out, at which time I slide it round. (I also carry it against my stomach in thick brush and on crowded streets.) When I have a rucksack on my back, the messenger bag carry won’t work, however. Then the camera bag goes under the rucksack’s flap. It’s not as easy to get at, of course, but it rides well there.

Shoot Lots

The bottom line? My new bag does the job I wanted it to do—and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg, either. That’s some smooth Operator, eh?

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

This entry was posted in Eye & Hand: Draw, Photograph, Paint, Write on by .


For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.