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The Third Bag

in Product reviews , Wednesday, June 15, 2016

So after the lengthy bag discussion, I decided to throw caution to the wind. The PRVKE just wasn't working for me. Honestly, I think it's just trying to solve far too many problems at once, and some of them don't even need solving. The essential problem is that it doesn't seem to have a primary role. I really don't think you can mash up a camera bag, hiking bag, travel bag, gym/school bag and biker backpack in one and end up with anything sensible. It really doesn't fit my needs as a camera bag. In terms of capacity, the "cube" really makes very poor use of the space available, and as other reviews have mentioned, it's all a bit flimsy and inflexible. As for the rest, well, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not that convinced about the roll top standing up to much in the way of moderate rain. Ok, so there's a rain cover, but still - my experience of roll tops is that they're the bags you put other stuff in to keep dry, rather than the other way around. So, nice try, WANDRD, but I'm afraid if the Perfect Bag TM was that easy to pull off, LowePro or Tamarac or Manfrotto or whoever, with years of experience, would have already done so. The psychology of Kickstarter funding is very interesting - since backers are general early adopters, and have both a monetary and emotional buy-in, I suspect this leads to very uncritical user reviews. Or maybe it's just me. But I still needed a bag. The F-Stop stuff looked tempting, but their obvious epic inability to manage production, and poor marketing and communication left me dubious. Anyway, you can't actually buy most of their stuff, it's all back-ordered for ever. So, what was left ? Well, in the end, thought convergence, some comment by Bernard on the previous entry, and a dose of common sense led me to Bag 3: the Mindshift Backlight 26L. Sadly the green version isn't available yet, and I've got a deadline.
Mindshift Backlight

The Backlight 26L. Actually it looks quite nice in grey.

I did swear I'd never buy anything from ThinkTank again, but I guess I'm let off here on a branding technicality. Anyway, the Backlight is a really nice little bag - a blend of ThinkTank build quality and LowePro wearability. The zips are just amazing - sorry WANDRD, but please take a look at how Mindshift do it - solid, chunky, smooth running zips that you can easily open and close with one hand - unlike your YKK stuff, which may be great for jeans, but honestly doesn't work too well on a backpack. Mindshift have taken a different approach to providing space for clothing etc - the division is vertical. Camera gear goes at the back, and is accessed from the back, and other stuff goes at the front. It's less voluminous that the PRVKE, and possibly marginally less secure, but it is a lot more practical, and clearly defines the Prime Mission as being a camera bag. It wouldn't work very well for overnight trekking - but honestly, neither would the PRVKE. I wouldn't much like to carry much over 10kg on my back with the PRVKE's weedy waist strap. So the Backlight easily swallows all this: Olympus E-M1, Zuiko 12-40 lens, Zuiko 50-200 lens (that would have to stay at home with the PRVKE), Sigma DP0 (very awkward shape) and Voigtländer Bessa III, along with filters, batteries, etc. And there's still space to spare. And it is easily flight carry-on size.
Mindshift Backlight

Come on in, plenty more room inside!

So what to do with the PRVKE? I'm not sure yet. It might still be useful as a "city" backpack, or indeed a travel backpack, but it's a little too large and bulky for that. Or it might end up on eBay. After all, it's had rave reviews, so it should be easy enough to find it a more suitable home.
Posted in category "Product reviews" on Wednesday, June 15, 2016 at 10:16 AM

A Tale of Two (new) Bags

in GAS , Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A quick Google search on the phrase “photographers can never have enough bags” astonishingly yields only 56 results. Astonishingly, because I’m sure I see at least one a week on my forays across a pretty limited part of the blogosphere.  However, slightly less constrained searches immediately give counts heading into several thousand, so that’s a bit reassuring.

While I certainly have enough bags, none of them ever turn out to be particularly satisfying. I have a need for two, possibly three bags. The first would be an everyday bag which can accommodate both work stuff and a smallish camera (Olympus PEN-size at most), but ideally could instead carry a full “street” kit.  The second would be a day hiking backpack, which can carry a workable “landscape” kit, as well as extra clothes, rain jacket, food, etc. Finally, a nice to have but rarely needed third would be a dedicated hiking backpack with full “kitchen sink” capacity.  I have no need for trolley bags, Pelican cases, etc.

Starting with the first category, I do own a Domke F803, which is actually great, and I use it a lot - or at least I used to. But it is too small to carry a laptop, so fails the “every day” criteria.  But as a small discrete camera satchel, it is unequalled in my opinion.  I’ve been through various non-camera messenger bags, but none have really worked or lasted long. And a few years ago I received a gift of the highly lauded ONA Brixton messenger bag: this, for me, is a disaster. Heavy, inflexible, uncomfortable, with front pockets so tight they’re practically useless. And the canvas has weathered horribly in rain, becoming stiff and shiny, unlike the Domke which weathers beautifully with age. Sorry, but ONA is hipster rubbish in my experience.

In category two I’ve never really found much to beat the modest Kata 467. Unfortunately, a nasty little thief in Bogota agreed with me, so I don’t have it any more. And Kata was bought out by Manfrotto, and their evolution of the 467 doesn’t excite me. I bought a LowePro Rover Pro 35L AW a few years back, but it’s just a mess of straps and weird pockets with this removable camera pod thingy which takes up far too much space. I’ve hardly ever used it.

In category three, I have a LowePro ProTrekker 300 AW which is fine, but a little heavy and cumbersome.  I tried replacing it with a ThinkTank Airport Commuter, but this was a total disaster: the removable waist strap (a feature looking for a requirement if ever there was one) removed itself in an Argentinian 737 overhead locker, and the removable tripod straps (there’s theme there) did the same thing a few weeks later. Never used it since. So, possibly I do have enough bags - but not the right ones.

Which brings us to these two:

drm_GR II_20160601_R0000096.jpg

on my left, the $270 WANDRD PRVKE, on my right, the $219 Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Ouch. That’s $489!

This general dissatisfaction with bags, and the apparent inability of mainstream manufacturers to come up with anything really good has left an opportunity in the market. Also, LowePro, Manfrotto, Tamrac et al don’t really seem to have responded to the trend of camera downsizing. Their bags are always quoted as “fitting x DSLRs with x lenses” - sure, that would mean x CSCs with x lenses, but they’d be rattling around in a pointlessly large bag. I’m still not convinced that anyone really caters for this, specifically, but certain smaller manufacturers are trying to offer more focused design, along with less geeky styling, and hipster lifestyle trimmings. For example Peak Design, and WNDRD.

I bought Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger in February, and WNDRD’s PRVKE pack a few weeks back. My reactions so far are a little mixed.

I’ve been using the Peak Design Everyday Messenger almost everyday since I bought it. I take it to work everyday, with at minimum an iPad, sunglasses and a small camera, but sometimes also a 15” laptop, notebook, various accessories, etc. It’s been on various flights, I’ve used it in Hamburg and in Tuscany as a travel camera bag. I’ve carried by hand, over the shoulder, and while cycling.  I can sum my feelings for this bag up quite easily: it is by far the best messenger-style bag I’ve ever used, and I can’t see me ever wanting to change.  At $220 it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.  And you could throw in one of their excellent camera straps while you’re at it.

The Everyday Messenger was designed in collaboration with photographer Trey Ratcliffe.  His photography doesn’t do much for me personally, but he sure knows how to specify a bag. The bag has got a zillion features, but they’re ALL useful and well thought out. Very unusually for a messenger bag, it is also designed to carry a tripod, and my Gitzo Traveller fits just fine. Other great touches include the quick access zipper on the top, and the dedicated, separate iPad sleeve. It also survives torrential rain quite happily. 

On the downside, I will say that it is showing some faint signs of wear, in particular on the excellent, seatbelt material strap, but hopefully it will be long lasting. And there is just a touch of “hipster cool, obligatory beard stuff” about both the company and the bag, but not so much that it goes from background embarrassing to irritatingly contrived.  Which brings us to…

...the WANDRD (pronounced “Wandered”) PRVKE (pronounced “Provoke”) backpack. Well, the names are a bad start. It would be hard to come up with anything more irritatingly contrived, or indeed bloody stupid. It’s a pity their budget for vowels was so restricted, or possibly the beards filter them out? But anyway, the basic premise sounds good - “We are passionate photographers, travellers, commuters, creators, and explorers, and we needed a pack that could keep up with our adventurous lifestyle. But we also wanted it to look incredible, and the perfect combination of style and function wasn’t out there, so we decided to make it”. Honestly, I don’t need it to look incredible, I actually need it to look unremarkable. And in fact, the PRVKE is, in my opinion, more anonymous than the Everyday Messenger.  It certainly doesn’t scream “camera bag”. So that’s a plus point.

Anyway, having been searching for a long time, and with an approaching deadline, and with the only alternative i could see, the F-Stop Loka, looking to be permanent vapourware, I decided to risk the not inconsequential $270 and order it from the US.

My initial impression was not particularly good. For a start, for $270, I would like to have a slightly better user guide. Yes, there is a card providing a link to an online PDF, but that is a masterpiece of prioritising bleeding edge design over clarity. Pretty much all reviews mention that getting the bag setup is not easy.  The PRVKE has endless zips, pouches, netting, straps, extra straps, and so on. Some of these are clearly useful, the others not so obviously. Camera gear fits into a removable (oh dear) “camera cube”. Actually installing this cube is not straightforward, and in my opinion it doesn’t fit all that easily. And worse than that, saying that camera gear “fits” is perhaps pushing it. Rather, camera gear can be shoved in, especially when accessing the top part of the cube, which is partially concealed by the top edge of the opening in the pack itself. The cube can be configured to allow access from a side flap, but as others have noted, this needs to be used with care to stop expensive items falling out.  The dividers are not padded - an approach taken also by Peak Design for the Everyday Messenger, and by ThinkTank, and personally I think this is fine. But they provide insufficient configuration flexibility for the cube layout, and all in all, my impression is that for such a (relatively) large bag, the amount of camera gear you can fit in to the dedicated space is pretty small. You could get more into the considerably smaller, much cheaper (but waaaay less hip) Kata 467.

This is the essential problem I have with the PRVKE - I expect a $270 camera pack to have a little more thought put into the lead mission of carrying camera gear. There are some other niggles: it’s advertised as having “magnetic latching” handles on top. Well, the magnets are far too weak to do the job: the handles just don’t stay together. Compared with the Everyday Messenger’s brilliant magnet-assisted latch, this is a bit pathetic. The doubtless detachable waist strap is not to my liking. There is a rain hood provided, in a pouch at the base of the pack, which is very nice, but unfortunately it tends to fight for space with the camera cube. It is very similar to those in Think Tank bags, effectively a narrow belt which helps to stabilise the pack, but not to shift weight onto the hips.  Great, no doubt, for motorbikes, not so good for hikers. And in fact, in essence this pack does seem to be more designed to for bikers than anybody else. Which is fine, but possibly it should be more highlighted in the marketing.

I’m probably sounding very negative about the PRVKE. I am being quite hard on it, but I have 270 reasons to be so. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, so we shall see if it grows on me.  But if I didn’t have all the endless complexities of Swiss customs to deal with, I’d probably take up WANDRD’s 30 day return offer.

In summary, both of these bags are high on (life)style, and skinny flat whites, and beards. Both where also Kickstarter funded, and both have plenty of rave 5 star reviews by people who don’t appear to have used them. But while Peak Design show that you can be hip and produce highly functional gear at the same time, I’m not convinced that WANDRD have worked out how to do that.  The PRVKE is nevertheless lined up for a trip to Iceland in July, so if I change my mind, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Posted in category "GAS" on Wednesday, June 01, 2016 at 06:54 PM

Sort of about camera bags

in General Rants , Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I bought a camera bag today.

The trickle-like pace at which I post stuff on this blog has recently reduced to a drip feed without the drops. It’s not that I haven’t got anything to write about. I’ve got plenty of ideas in my head, but the effort to actually set anything down in words seems to get harder and harder, and the constant questioning of the actual point of it all regularly resurfaces.

I’m not sure where blogging gets us all really, either as readers or writers. Some blogs have a clear objective, like the fascinating and eminently readable One Hundred Mountains.  But most seem to be mainly about self-promotion, openly or under a thin disguise. Being good at self promotion is pretty much a pre-requisite for being a successful professional photographer, or a well-known amateur. But being an interesting and compelling writer probably isn’t, at least not on the evidence I’ve seen.

I’ve given up on photography bloggers who are basically in it to market their book / ebook / workshop and generally build up their business. Good luck to them, but I’m not terribly interested in endless repetitive marketing wrapped up in tidbits of recycled wisdom. Yes, I know, I should use a tripod. Thanks. Got that. I’ll shortly be updating my blogroll to publicise bloggers who actually inspire me with their words, images, or both. Although I’m open to offers to provide paid marketing links…

WARNING: you are now approaching The Point. Please do not undo your seatbelt until this rant has exhausted itself to a complete standstill

So, a certain prominent blogger recently wrote what presumably was a tongue in cheek, opinionated piece on camera bags. It can be summed up quite easily: anybody who has a Domke bag (or apparently a Leica branded sack… whatever) is a way cool dude, anybody who uses a camera backpack is a mindless, unfit moron who couldn’t tie his own shoelaces.

Well that makes me a cool, mindless moron (etc) because I’ve got both. A Domke F803, which is fab for leisurely wandering, say, the coastal paths and villages of Liguria with an Olympus PEN and a few lenses, but pretty ******* stupid for hiking across a glacier in Svalbard with a DSLR, several heavy lenses and a large tripod (to fight bears off with, you understand). For that I’ve got a pretty good huge, ballistic nylon, super-size-me bag LowePro backpack. As have several million others. I’ve also got a smaller but remarkably flexible Kata backpack for less rugged outings (sadly Kata is apparently in the “super crappy camera bag” category. Oh well.). Of course, if I were a studio photographer, carrying my gear in my big fat SUV to my next air-conditioned gig shooting flawless models in Downtown, USA, I might well use the Domke. Equally if I were to wander the streets of Laredo, coolly dropping in to photograph a perfect cappuccino with the camera I just bought, then, yes, the F803 would do nicely. But if I also had some perspective, I might realise that other people have different needs and compromises to make, and maybe, just maybe, their choice of a LowePro backpack doesn’t make them a total dongle. Or indeed an engineer.

Anyway, the author does of course state in his article that this is all just his own opinion, he doesn’t expect anybody to share it, bla bla bla. Which brings me to the real point. If it really is of no interest or relevance, why bother writing about it? This kind of article might make me question why I dedicate time to reading that particular blog, and whether the author is actually worth my time.  And indeed, what the sum total of this shouting from our metaphorical little islands is amounting to.  One might hope it is in part a building of relationships, and exchange of ideas, a conversation even, but when certain (other) A-List bloggers decided that reading and managing comments is just too tiresome, one must really wonder how relevant they are.

Rob Boyer has a far more convincing blog in praise of Domke bags, by the way.

I bought a camera bag today. It’s small and black, and lets me carry my PEN around on workdays without looking like a total tourist. It’s made by Crumpler and didn’t cost very much.

Drm 2012 05 25 IMG 0682

A small, brand new Crumpler bag, some flowers and a bit of my thumb

Marmalade! I like marmalade!

 

Posted in category "General Rants" on Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at 07:57 PM

The perfect camera bag

in Photography , Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How many articles, blog posts, reviews start off with something like “the search for the perfect camera bag is a never-ending quest” and conclude with something like “the perfect camera bag doesn’t exist”, using this assertion somewhere along the line to justify the confession that the author has an innumerate number of said items ?

Quite a lot. And I’ve read most of them. And I’ve got a lot of camera bags. My favourite so far is the only one I didn’t pay for, an unexpected free gift from Olympus. It’s great for general use and doesn’t get in the way. And I’ve got some heavy duty LowePro stuff for the more epic outings.

But what I didn’t have is a satisfactory combo camera / daypack, and I really, really wanted one for a forthcoming trip to Costa Rica.

I actually hate camera backpacks. They’re a necessary evil, but really, ... instant dork. They always seem so huge, so clumsy, so inflexible.

I spent endless hours looking at catalogs, websites, reviews, etc - because in this neck of the woods, actually getting to see anything other than really basic stuff in the flesh is impossible. I nearly went for a LowePro sling bag. Then a Kata 3 in 1 sling. Then I even considered Domke. And I had a good look at esoteric stuff like Think Tank. But finally I went back for a closer look at a bag I’d dismissed at first: the Kata 467i. And I ordered one. 

And it’s great. A really nice bag which swallows an impressive amount of gear, is comfortable, has plenty of “daypack” space, and can even take a laptop (which I would never use, but the compartment is great for maps and stuff). And it looks really small.

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Here, the lower section of the bag holds the following:

- Olympus E-3 and 12-60 lens
- Olympus 50-200 lens, with tripod collar
- Olympus 50mm lens
- Olympus FL36 flash
- Olympus 1.4 teleconverter
- memory card holder

That’s a lot of gear.

The laptop section has swallowed a filter pouch. The rest is empty, apart from the Kata rain cover in one of the front pockets. Oh, and my Gitzo Traveller tripod is attached to the foldaway tripod holder.

You can close it all up faster than than you can say “cabin baggage - no problem sir”.

Frankly, my LowePro Rover AW, which follows a similar concept, but is much heavier and larger but has much less room, and is much clumsier to use, should be embarrassed. Ok, so it has a more robust harness, but even so… the Kata is hardly uncomfortable.

So, there we have it: at least within it’s particular niche, the perfect camera bag… maybe. Time will tell!

Posted in category "Photography" on Wednesday, April 07, 2010 at 10:45 PM