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Do You Have a Carry Permit?

I know you thought this was going to be about handguns.  Sorry.  I have occasionally engaged in deceptive titles to get you to click in.  And I am talking about “carrying,” so I hope you will  read on.  I  have spent (and you can read in numerous places elsewhere) a considerable amount of time talking about my personal shift to smaller, lighter, more travel-worthy gear. I have spent little time talking about how I transport my gear.

Millions of dollars have been expended in the photo bag industry – by manufacturers and designers alike. Names like Lowepro, Domke, Tenba, Tamrac, Think Tank, Crumpler, Case Logic, and many more, flock the internet. In those ever diminishing instances where you can find a retail photography shop, they take up substantial floor space (and I suspect are a drain for the shop-owners because of their inventory cost). Every photographer I know has a collection of old bags (including me, unfortunately) from the venerable messenger-style bag, to photo backpacks, slingbags, and rolling photo duffel bags. Some of us have several different bags we actively use for different purposes. But I’ll bet most of us also have several bags in a closet somewhere that haven’t been used for years.

There are basically two configurations; shoulder bags and backpacks

I am going to espouse an unconventional view here, but here is my personal take on some of the bags out there:

Some General Observations

Special purpose photo bags are designed to be used, essentially, solely to house and carry photo equipment. There have been many designs over the years, but there appear to me to be two basic configurations; shoulder bags, and backpacks. Most bags are a variation on one of these. The interiors of all the bags incorporate a system of padded dividers, often with Velcro edges to “customize” them.

Too Much Bulk. One of my “issues” over the years is that the padding creates a great amount of bulk in these bags, making them uniformly bigger than necessary. Of course, sellers and designers will point out that the padding is necessary to protect the hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear being transported. But I am not sure I agree. Maybe it is, if you are going to check a bag on the airlines, or ship it. But then you should probably have a specialized container for that. Most of us are not going to check our valuable cameras and lenses. Nope. No way. We are going to carry them on.

For the most part my own carry style, described below, gives me more than enough padding and protection for my gear. I am always cognizant that I am “carrying” (to borrow a concept from the gun folks), and am probably more careful about banging around, when I have the gear with me. In the field, I carry towels in case of rain or wet conditions, and they can be used, where appropriate, to pad and protect gear. You can also pack clothing items in and around them.

Too Limiting. Another issue for me is that most of the customizable divider systems don’t set up the way I would want my gear organized.

Not Limiting Enough. Fundamentally inconsistent, right? 🙂 By “too limiting,” I meant in terms of design. By “not limiting enough,” I am making reference to my comment above about what we think we need in the field. My carry style makes me think clearly and carefully about what I really need in the field to make good images. Because most of these bags are big, and because we can, these “designed” photo bags often motivate us to cram them full of all of our gear.

Shoulder and Messenger Bags

My Tamrac wide messenger bag serves as a storage bag and works well for shooting out of my car, when I am home-based. It is the only dedicated “camera bag” I own.

But it doesn’t carry well, or travel well. My experience with a shoulder style bag that is large enough to carry all of the camera gear you think you are going to need in the field, is going to be heavy on the shoulder, and unwieldy to carry in the field.


There was a time when I thought photo backpacks were going to be my solution to carrying in the field. They weren’t, and I ended up giving my LowePro photo backpack away. Then there was a time when I thought the combo backpack-travel case was going to be a good idea for me. It wasn’t, and I have a nice Think Tank Airport Express bag that takes up space in my basement (like so many similar items, I cannot get a fraction of what I paid for it, even though it is in like new condition, and I am too stubborn to let one of the reseller buy it for pennies and then make a profit on it). I looked at the slingbags and concluded they were really not that much more functional (for me) than a backpack. For travel, there are even roller backpack and duffel style bags these days. But since I will always carry on my expensive camera and lenses, this just makes them even more bulky and heavy.

For me, backpack style bags aren’t convenient to use in the field. If you want something out of them, you essentially have to take them down, set them on the ground (or on something), rummage through them, and put them back up. And, because they are made for our camera gear, most of us have a tendency to load them with everything we think we might need in the field. That makes them heavy, and therefore difficult to put on each time you have to do so.

I have, more recently looked at some of the smaller, messenger style shoulder bags. I think that if I was doing street shooting and wanted to be inconspicuous, I might use one of the newer style ones that are made not to look like a camera bag on the outside. But I probably won’t.

My two essential carry accessories: a vest and cargo pants or shorts

My Personal “Carry” Solution

This is my personal criteria. I want a simple, accessible, light and comfortable carry solution. I don’t want a dead weight either on my back or my shoulder. I want to be able to have quick and convenient access to the gear I need at all times. I would like my in-field accessories and gear to pack easily and lightly. That translates, for me, to two essential items: a vest, and cargo pants or shorts.

The Vest. I have made numerous references in my blog, my website and occasionally in these blog posts, about my “dorky” vest. And make no mistake, they are dorky. When I see someone walking around with one of those “travel vests,” even though I acknowledge their great functionality, I think they look dorky. But they are functional.

One of the best features of a vest is that it distributes the weight of your gear around your body. There is simply not the fatigue that I have experienced when carrying a heavy bag. And secondly, as I referenced above, it has made me think (and choose my vest accordingly) about what I really need to carry in the field. I try to carry only the things I am going to use. Over years of carrying everything in a heavy bag, I have enough empirical evidence to know that there are many items I own that I won’t use while out hiking around, and some that I rarely enough use that I don’t really need the bulk. Which all might beg the question: “if you don’t use it why do you have it in the first place?” And that is a topic for another blog. 🙂

I don’t wear mine for travel; I pack it. I only wear it when I am actively in the field. I might wear it on the street, but probably not. These days I travel a lot out of the U.S. and pickpocketing is the norm in many of the overseas cities I have visited. I would think wearing a vest in one of those places would be much like wearing a placard that says “tourist; lots of pockets to pick.” I am not sure what the pro shooters who travel in these cities do. I have gone to such small gear for 99% of these excursions that I am able to do without any outer form of carry. My weapon of choice has been my Sony RX100iv, and it really doesn’t need much carry space.  When I travel, I pack my gear in one of several different kinds of standard luggage, including a messenger style carry-on, or a small, nondescript carry on bag.  The larger gear, including tripod and accessories that I don’t think will be stolen, or I can live without, will get checked in a standard luggage rolling duffel bag.

But the majority of my shooting other than travel and cities, involves dedicated trips and primarily outdoor and nature shooting. I carry more (and larger) gear in those circumstances.

So I use a vest; but not a “photo” vest. You can find and purchase a dedicated “photo vest.” Much like the bags described above, they are generally somebody’s idea of the ideal carry solution for all photographers. Problem is, we aren’t all the same. We don’t all shoot the same way, and we don’t all carry the same gear. Most of them are woefully overpriced, while being under-functional (if I can use that word).

I have learned by trial and error that the best vest for me has a limited number of small pockets and several large pockets. The large pockets work well for lenses and larger accessories. The small pockets work for small accessories, with a caveat. Too many pockets means working from the vest will become inconvenient and confusing. You need to be able to quickly access the item and remember where it is.

I have two vests that are both generic and fit the above criteria. Once was purchased years ago at a Woolrich (ironically, it is cotton) outlet store for $24.00. The second one (my reason for purchase was lighter, more modern and breathable fabric) was purchased at an Eddie Bauer outlet store for $35.00. The dedicated vests start at around $85 and can be found for upwards of $300, and aren’t as functional.

Cargo Pants/Shorts. Use of these for photography “carry” was pretty much an afterthought. Everyone who has used them knows the utility of cargo pocket clothing. My own use of them developed from a desire for convenient travel clothing. These days, I travel using the modern-day nylon and similar dry-tech type fabric for pants, shorts and shirts. I have a closet full of Columbia and North Face clothing that is made from these lightweight, breathable, and washable fabrics. They are comfortable, look reasonably presentable, can be hand-washed and hung to dry overnight, and are great for packing and travel. They are extremely lightweight. For cooler situations, it is easy to layer underneath them.

But the additional advantage to the photographer is that the ones that have the cargo style pockets are an additional place to stash gear and work from.

Something to remember is that this is a blog; indeed my blog. So I am not suggesting here that my way is right and yours is wrong. But I do get to express my opinion here. I also recognize that there is a reason for chocolate milk and white milk. So do what works for you and helps you get out and shoot. But it is worth giving some thought to what you carry and why.

Thanks for reading………….


3 Responses

  1. Bags are an impossible topic. It’s way too personal. Here’s how it goes around here. I have a closet full of unused bags. Prior to the storm and when RCCL was first getting used to NOLA, she went out into one of our out buildings. She saw a military foot locker. She asked what was in it. I asked her to open it. “Oh my, a box full of bags.”

    Nothing is ever perfect or close to it. I use some to transport gear. Other s, from which to work (don’t ask me how I managed to drop that s). Since I hate to schlepp gear through airports, in the past four years or so I’ve switched to Anvil cases and stuff everything in them. They go in checked luggage. Hopefully everything and everyone will arrive at the same time.

    On the street, using a second line parade as an example, I carry nothing in bags. One or two bodies with two lenses over my shoulder. Since the bodies are likely Sony, maybe 4,586 spare batteries stuffed in my pants pockets. And, a couple of extra of SD cards as well as the usual — money wrapped around a credit card and driver’s license, business cards and phone.

    I never wear vests although I have a couple, including one from the 1984 Olympics which RCCL washed and dried. It now is small enough to fit a cocker spaniel who is never amused when I try to share it with her.

    There you have it.

  2. Interesting topic, Andy. I may have to blog on the subject myself at some point down the road.

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