Best camera backpack: 10 tested
25th Apr 2012 | 08:00
Keep your camera kit safe and snug, and carry it in comfort
Photography backpacks explained
Backpacks distribute weight more evenly and naturally than a conventional camera bag: you'll not only be carrying the load with both shoulders, but much of it will be supported on the rear of your pelvis.
You'll also avoid a single strap's tendency to slip off your shoulders, which can be annoying at best, and a calamity at worst.
Huge backpacks for massive kit collections tend to be expensive, and have other drawbacks too. For example, they're often too large to take as carry-on luggage when flying.
Here, we look at sensibly priced options at about £100 or less. They're big enough to stow a lot of kit, but small enough to take anywhere, whether you're travelling by trains, planes or automobiles.
Which type of backpack?
Just how much camera kit do you have, and how much of it do you need when out and about? It's the first thing to consider when choosing a backpack, because designs fall into two main camps.
For a camera with several lenses and accessories, you're best off with a backpack that devotes its entire main compartment to photo gear. Good examples are the Lowepro Vertex 100 AW and Tamrac Expedition 6x. These have cavernous camera compartments with a wealth of adjustable dividers.
They're capable of accommodating one or two DSLRs (both with attached lenses) plus several other lenses, flashguns and photographic accessories. Once fully loaded, they should still be small enough to fit aeroplane carry-on criteria, but you'll need to keep an eye on the weight.
Some airlines are quite stingy with their carry-on weight allowance while others are much more relaxed, stipulating only that you must be able to lift the bag into an overhead compartment by yourself.
Growing hugely in popularity, the other option is to go for a split backpack, which has a smaller photo section (generally at the bottom) plus a separate compartment for stowing all your daily essentials.
They're great for a day out, but you'll typically need to limit the camera kit you take to a DSLR with attached lens, two or three other lenses and a flashgun.
Some backpacks, such as the Crumpler Cupcake, are available in both full photo and half photo options, to best suit your needs. We're reviewing the full photo bag in this group test.
When you're away for a day or two, a laptop computer comes in very handy and also makes the ideal tool for reviewing and editing your shots. Many airlines only allow one item of hand luggage and, even if you're just staying on dry land, it makes sense to keep all your valuable and fragile kit in one place.
All but three of the backpacks on test feature a separate laptop compartment. In most cases, this can accommodate a 15-inch laptop. Disappointingly, though, the specifications only generally allow for 15-inch laptops with an old-fashioned, 4:3 aspect ratio screen, so if you have one of the more popular 15.6-inch widescreen designs, it's not going to fit.
Front, back and sides
For hiking and climbing, it's useful to go for a design that features additional chest and waist straps for firmly securing the backpack to your body. Otherwise, the backpack can move around and catch you off-balance.
Either way, one of the frustrations of many photo backpacks is that you have to take them off your shoulders and lay them down on the ground in order to remove your camera. It's time consuming and the back of the backpack can get muddy in mucky conditions, right on the surface you wear on your back.
Some newer designs of backpack make life easier, with a side opening for access to your camera and attached lens. This makes access much quicker and you'll sometimes be able to easily grab your camera after just slipping off one of the shoulder straps.
Another idea, as featured on the Crumpler Cupcake Full and Manfrotto Veloce V backpacks, is that the main compartment unzips and opens at the rear of the bag, instead of on the front, so the surface that you wear remains uppermost when delving into the bag. It's neat for clean-freaks.
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It's easy to think that if something won't fit in your backpack, you'll have to leave it behind. But it's often easy to attach bits of kit to the outside of the bag. For example, all the bags here but the Crumpler Cupcake and Tamrac Adventure 9 have fasteners for lashing a tripod to the outside of the bag, so you can carry one while still having both hands free.
The Manfrotto bag (as you might expect from a company that's famous primarily for tripods) features both internal and external tripod carrying facilities, plus a pocket for the tiny Manfrotto MP3-D01 camera support.
The Tamrac Expedition 6x really goes overboard with its MAS and SAS (Modular/Strap Accessory System) extras. The former enables you to fit large items such as lens pouches to the sides of the bag, while the latter is good for adding small pouches for mobile phones and so on to the straps.
Even without these add-ons you can often hook a pouch onto a bag strap, for a monster zoom lens or other accessory that won't fit inside. It's especially useful when you only occasionally want to take a big lens with you, instead of lugging around an extra-large bag all the time.
Crumpler Cupcake Full
Crumpler Cupcake Full - £95 (about $150)
Seemingly taking its design cues from a turtle, the Crumpler Cupcake Full is, design-wise at least, a very well-rounded affair. The upside of this is minimal risk of catching the edges of the bag on people or objects in the close quarters combat of a rush-hour commute.
The downside is that, even in this 'full photo' version where all of the main section is given over to camera kit, stowage space is quite shallow around the sides and top of the main compartment. Even so, you can squeeze in a large 70-200mm f/2.8 lens along with your camera and kit lens, plus a further couple of lenses and a flashgun.
There's no slip-on rain cover, but Crumpler's '1000d Chicken Tex Supreme hyper performance fabric' is tough and very shower-resistant, and there's also a waterproof internal lining. Access to all compartments, including camera and laptop sections, plus two organiser pockets, is via a single zip that runs around the back of the bag.
A secondary mesh cover zips over the camera section, to minimise the risk of camera kit falling out accidentally, although this does reduce access speed. All in all, the Crumpler Cupcake Full is a well enough constructed backpack, but its outright volume unfortunately ends up being compromised by that curvaceous design.
Hama Katoomba 170RL
Hama Katoomba 170RL - £70 (about $112)
Uniquely among our test group, the Hama Katoomba 170RL uses a 'slingback' design, featuring a single shoulder strap that you wear across your body, in the same style as a messenger bag. A neat trick is that you can slide the shoulder strap to one side or the other, depending on whether you prefer to dress to the left or right.
Carrying weight feels reasonably well distributed between the chosen shoulder and your lower back, and stability is further aided by a secondary chest strap. Even so, when the bag is fully loaded it lacks the comfort offered by a conventional two-strap backpack.
Divided between a lower camera section and an upper multi-purpose compartment, space for camera kit is always going to be a bit limited. It'll take a DSLR with kit lens, a further three lenses and a flashgun, but that's all you'll squeeze in. Anything bigger than a typical 70-300mm f/4-5.6 won't fit.
One bonus point is that the side-opening photo compartment makes it very easy to slide the Hama Katoomba 170RL around on your shoulder and gain quick access to your camera without having to take the backpack off altogether. There's no laptop compartment here, but little extras include a couple of memory card holders and a slip-over rain cover.
Kata DR-467i Digital Rucksack
Kata DR-467i Digital Rucksack - £80/$80
Curvy but not quite as rounded as the Crumpler Cupcake, the Kata DR-467i is a bag of two halves. The lower segment happily plays host to a DSLR with attached kit lens, three additional lenses and a flashgun.
As usual, you can substitute the flashgun and pack an additional lens, the maximum size of any lens being a typical 70-300mm f/4-5.6. The upper half is a hold-all for day trip essentials, but it's larger and more accommodating than that of the Hama 170RL.
There are three additional external pockets on the front of the bag, for bits and bobs, plus a laptop section at the rear. The latter has its own zip, so you needn't open any of the other internal or external compartments in order to get at your computer. The divider between the lower and upper main sections can also be unzipped and removed if required.
One of the things we like most about the Kata DR-467i Digital Rucksack is that the photo section at the bottom hinges out after you've undone its zip. This makes accessing all your camera kit particularly quick and easy. The back of the bag is quite hard, with relatively little cushioning, so it's not particularly comfortable to wear. At least it's compatible with the Kata Insertrolley frame, giving the option of rolling it around on wheels.
Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 250 AW
Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 250 AW - £80/$120
One of the newest backpacks in Lowepro's well respected range, the Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 250 AW is a split camera bag and daypack. The upper section is capacious, with some useful organiser pockets and a removable soft pouch for stashing battery chargers and for organising cables.
Down below, there's quick side access to your DSLR and whichever lens is currently attached. Open the flap fully and you can reach in to grab three additional lenses and a flashgun. But the flashgun section is very slimline, only suitable for a bounce-type model with its head in the upright position, so you can't fit in an extra lens instead.
By removing the central divider, you can just squeeze in a body with a chunky 70-200mm f/2.8 lens fitted, but there's only enough depth for separate lenses of up to 70-300mm f/4-5.6 in size.
As with most of Lowepro's 'AW' bags, a waterproof rain cover extends from the bottom of the bag. Even without using this, the bag is very shower-resistant. A tripod carrying system comes fitted on the side and, unlike many other backpacks, the laptop compartment can accommodate a 15.6-inch widescreen model. It's a top-quality item, comfy to carry and great value at the price.
Lowepro Vertex 100 AW
Lowepro Vertex 100 AW - £100/$200
Well suited to wet climates, the Lowepro Vertex 100 AW has weatherproof zips on its camera and laptop compartments, plus a slip-over rain cover that stows away in the bottom of the bag.
The camera compartment runs the full height of the bag and is big enough to take two DSLRs with fairly small lenses attached, plus up to four other lenses and flashguns. As usual, the laptop compartment annoyingly isn't quite tall enough for a 15-inch widescreen device.
Unlike the Lowepro DSLR Video Pack 250 AW, there isn't a side-opening system for quick camera access - but a plus point is that there's a sliplock system loop on either side. These make it easy to add Lowepro's lens pouches externally, for carrying extra lenses or other accessories as and when you need to. A simple Velcro locking system is easy to use and very secure.
The tripod attachment system is similarly robust, using a pull-out fastener at the top and an additional loop you can slide up and down the front of the bag. For even greater security, there's an extra tripod foot holder, which you can loop onto the bottom of the bag. Two external pockets on the front make it easy to organise the loose ends or your kit, one of which has a memory card organiser.
Manfrotto Veloce V
Manfrotto Veloce V - £90/$100
An intriguingly versatile piece of kit, the Manfrotto Veloce V works equally well as a split daypack and camera pack, or as a full photo backpack. If you choose to use the top section for your camera and attached lens, rather than for assorted travel paraphernalia, you get the bonus of quick access via a top opening section.
This is secured with a zip and large secondary metal fastener. You'll certainly know if you've left the latter undone, because it bounces around and makes a noise rather like a cowbell. By taking out a couple of internal dividers, the Veloce can accommodate a DSLR fitted with a large 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
Put your camera into the lower section and it benefits from an additional flap that fits into the body's handgrip, keeping it firmly locked in place during transit. As well as being able to take up to four regular sized lenses, a full-length inner section offers ideal space for a long super-telephoto lens - or one of Manfrotto's smaller tripod models. You can't sub-divide this space, however, because there's no Velcro facing for attaching dividers to.
The Veloce's build quality is very good but, as with most of the backpacks on test, the laptop compartment is just not big enough to take a 15.6-inch widescreen model.
Tamrac Adventure 9
Tamrac Adventure 9 - £90/$150
A capacious backpack, the Adventure 9 combines a separate daypack and photo section, but you can knock these through into one large compartment by undoing the Velcro-fixed central divider. In regular two-section mode, the bottom half has plenty of room for a DSLR with fitted 70-300mm lens and four other lenses (or three plus a flashgun).
The compartment is noticeably deeper than many, and has no problem taking a big body, such as a Canon EOS 7D, complete with attached battery grip. Small models, such as a Canon EOS 1100D, can actually feel a bit lost.
For those who like to be compartmentalised, there's a wealth of memory card and battery organisers, built into the internal sides of the cover flaps, plus a 'pop-off pocket' ideal for mains chargers and cables. Straps are available for lashing a tripod to slots on the underside of the pack, but these have to be purchased separately.
Another clue as to the larger-than-average build is that the backpack has an extra section for a 17-inch laptop, which can easily take 15.6-inch widescreen models. With its well-fitting harness, complete with chest and waist straps, the Tamrac Adventure 9 lives up to its name. There's no slip-on rain cover but it's very water-resistant, right down to its weatherproof zips.
Tamrac Expedition 6x
Tamrac Expedition 6x - £110/$220
Big, beefy and rock-solid, the Tamrac Expedition 6x is supremely sturdy - although it's twice as heavy as some of the backpacks on test. There's room for a DSLR with fitted lens, plus up to a whopping 10 other lenses, flashguns or accessories. It's equally suited to carrying two DSLRs (both with lenses attached) along with a smaller range of extras. The provision of eight Velcro-attaching dividers makes the possibilities almost limitless.
Size isn't so generous when it comes to the laptop compartment, which can only accept compact models with screen sizes up to 14 inches. However, there are plenty of other small compartments for stashing memory cards, filters, batteries and the like.
The tripod attachment system on the front of the bag is particularly effective, and straps are available for carrying it underneath instead, if you prefer.
Like the Tamrac Adventure 9, there's no rain cover supplied, but water resistance is very good, coupled with weather-proofed zips on smaller compartments and weather flaps that cover the zips on the larger sections. With plenty of padding and wide-ranging adjustable straps for shoulders, chest and waist, the backpack is comfortable to carry even when fully loaded.
Think Tank Photo StreetWalker
Think Tank Photo StreetWalker - £100/$150
Ideal for travelling time lords, the Think Tank Photo StreetWalker seems bigger on the inside than the outside. Despite a refreshingly slimline, lightweight build, it has masses of room for a big camera body and large attached lens, such as a 70-200mm f/2.8.
For more normal configurations, the Velcro-attaching partitions accommodate a DSLR with attached standard zoom, an additional seven lenses or flashes and small accessories. Two internal organiser pockets are supplemented with four external pockets for life's little extras.
Build quality is supreme, and there are neat design flourishes. Tripod attachment straps and the waistband are removable, so needn't dangle down when not in use. There's also a camera strap available as an optional extra, so you can hang the weight of a heavy camera and lens combination from the shoulder straps instead of around your neck. Carrying comfort is exemplary.
Because the bag is designed to neatly fit a large lens mounted on a camera, if and when you want to use that option, one side of the main section is wider than the other. This also ensures an equally good fit for both thinner and fatter lenses (complete with lens hoods).
Vanguard UP-Rise 45
Vanguard UP-Rise 45 - £80/$140
Some clever trickery has gone into the design of the Vanguard UP-Rise 45. Not only does the backpack feature a partition for separating the camera kit area from the upper compartment for everyday stuff, but you can move the divider up and down to make more room where you need it most.
There's also a large, separate front compartment and, if you still need extra room, a handy zip enables the bag to extend in the same way that's often used in carry-on luggage bags. This gives you an extra 6cm of depth in the camera compartment for unusually bulky lenses.
The camera section opens at the rear of the backpack, but there's also a quick-access opening at the side, enabling you to grab your DSLR and whatever lens is currently attached. The opening is sealed with a zip, Velcro panel and a locking clip, which appears to be a belt-and-braces approach, and then some. Despite all this, however, the seal isn't good enough to keep out grit in a dusty breeze.
There's a full range of additional features, such as a waterproof cover, tripod fasteners and waist belt, all of which stash away neatly into pockets in the bag's overall construction, so they're kept tidy and out of sight when not in use.
Verdict: best photography backpack
Before we reveal which photography backpack we like best, let's recap five points to remember when buying a camera kit bag:
1. Chest/waist straps add stability and security when hiking or climbing.
2. A slip-on rain cover is useful if you're out in heavy rain for long periods.
3. Side-access systems make it easy to get at your DSLR and attached lens.
4. You'll generally need to remove one or two dividers if you want to pack a big lens such as a 70-200mm f/2.8.
5. Main openings at the rear, instead of the front, of the backpack are great if you need to put the bag on muddy ground.
For full photo backpacks, the Tamrac Expedition 6x offers the most space and versatility of all the photography rucksacks we tested here. It's well made and so is our top choice overall, although the laptop compartment is small and you have to buy the rain cover separately.
For a smaller camera kit collection, our second and third choices are the slimline yet roomy Think Tank Photo StreetWalker and the chunky Lowepro Vertex 100 AW.
For split backpacks that can accommodate photo gear and travel items, it's close between the Lowepro DSLR Video Pack 250 AW and the Tamrac Adventure 9. Both can take 15.6-inch widescreen laptops. The Lowepro's design features a neat side-opening system, great protection in foul weather, and is fantastic value at £80 in the UK and $120 in the US.