For those of us who insist on lugging our gear out on location, a sturdy backpack is a must-have. As a hiker, climber, and chronically over prepared photographer, I’m used to packing a heavy load up the side of a mountain. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on the 20L Tenba Axis Backpack.
Opening the packaging for this bad boy was a surprise, because the bag itself is kind of gorgeous. It’s dark and sleek with clean lines and not too much fuss. It’s kind of like the little black dress of photography bags. My husband walked into the room, saw the bag, made an "ooh" noise (he’s a serial backpack buyer) and sat down to check it out with me.
The first thing we both noticed was how well made the bag was, and how much attention to detail was given to the construction. The bag doesn’t bunch or shift, even when every piece of gear I own was stuffed inside, and the adjustable load lifter straps mean that I can carry heavy loads high on my back, which makes long treks a lot easier to deal with. Add the 3D mesh padding on the straps and along the back to allow for comfort and air flow, the removable waist belt to keep the weight on your hips, and the adjustable chest strap that keeps the weight from shifting and the shoulder straps from rubbing, and you’re talking about a pretty damn comfortable bag to wear for a day, or more, of shooting, back-sweat non required. It’s even made of a water phobic material, so the weather won’t be much of an issue. If mother nature decides she hates you, though, a seam sealed cover is included to keep the wet off. Keep in mind that this backpack has already seen some outdoor use!
Rather than grabbing gear from the front, the bag is designed so the main compartment is accessed from the back, by unzipping and opening the strap side. The main bonus in this design feature is that you don’t have to lay the back of the bag on the ground when you need to grab something, then put a dirty bag back on your back. The drawback is that you’ve got to move the straps and waist band out of the way to unzip to the main compartment fully, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make to keep my back clean.
My favorite design feature of the Tenba Axis, though, are the quick access panels on the side and top. If you’re walking along and see something that needs to be captured quickly, like an elusive Pokemon, you can slide the bag off one shoulder and have your camera in your hands in a matter of seconds without ever putting the bag down. Because the dividers are adjustable, you can configure the inside compartments to allow whatever piece of gear you need to get on the fly to be quickly and easily accessible from those panels.
Speaking of the compartment dividers, you need to know that these suckers are sturdy. They’re not weak or floppy like my willpower when someone offers me a donut. These dividers are solid and relatively inflexible, so you can be sure even the most sensitive piece of gear is safe no matter how rough the terrain. The inflexibility means it takes a bit of experimenting to find the right configuration for your gear. Despite that, I was able to fit the Canon 5D iii and 7D bodies, a 70-200mm, 50mm, 24mm zoom, speedlight, triggers, an ND filter, color checker, and battery charger comfortably inside. Inside the back there is also has a laptop sleeve that will fit a laptop or tablet up to 15 inches, so it’s protected from the elements.
The front panel is the perfect place to store a small first aid kit (not joking, I believe you should always have one on you) guide books, a shoot log, your light meter, cables, or anything else that doesn’t belong in the main compartment. The quick access top panel also sports a water resistant zipper pouch for things like memory cards and batteries. There is a side panel big enough for a slender water bottle, but I pack around a 32 oz monster so I would use the expandable pouch for other things... like a bit of treasure or the blood of my enemies. Pick your own adventure, there, or use it for your water bottle if you have a tiny one.
The final detail that can’t be ignored are the MOLLE straps. The Axis comes equipped with straps for carrying a tripod, and hidden zipper pocket at the bottom for the tripod feet, but you can use those MOLLE straps for anything that can be attached to the webbing. While Tenba has a set of accessories to fit the bill, carabiners, clips, or other adjustable straps means you can decorate yourself with an adjustable array of photographic goodies and carry your studio around on your back like a photographic hermit crab.
It’s not all tacos and puppies, though. Despite how much I love this backpack, it does have a few drawbacks. The bag is black, which means that you do see the dirt and grime a bit more easily than you might with an earth colored bag, but this is only a con for hard outdoor users. For city treks or traveling, you're likely to see less dirt. The material is also very easy to clean with a washcloth.
While the chest strap is adjustable, the adjustment bar doesn’t go quite high enough to give full comfort for people with boobs. Another inch upward, and there would be much less squishage and more chest comfort. The straps are also rather wide, which is great for weight bearing but not ideal for people with a narrower chest, because the straps end up rubbing the inside of the shoulders when you swing your arms. If you tighten the chest strap to bring the straps in a bit tighter, they rub on your neck, instead. A bit more curve to the inside of the strap, like you find on many hiking daypacks, could alleviate the issue. And while it sounds like a small complaint, it’s one that has the potential to leave your skin raw after a long trek. It would be fair to say that my husband, with a wider chest and broader shoulders, didn’t have the same problem.
Since the bag was designed for serious outdoor use, the small side-pouch does bear mentioning. As someone who hikes at almost 6,000 feet of elevation, having a backpack with a large enough pouch to carry a full-sized water bottle is a big deal. While it’s certainly not a deal breaker, having to carry enough water for a full-day shoot separately from the weight I would already be carrying in the backpack is an inconvenience worth addressing, especially if it can be done without compromising the bag itself.
I do miss the protected memory card slots in my other backpack, but that problem can be solved with a separate memory card case.
The straps are adjustable for most heights, which is awesome, but they’re secured by hook and loop closures that require muscling an included plastic card down the strap hole to break. You do need a bit of elbow grease to get this done. It’s a very minor issue, but it’s worth mentioning.
Here are the specs for the backpack, plus my personal pros and cons.
- Outside measurements: 12in x 19in x 8.75in
- Internal measurements: 11in x 18in x 5.75in
- Weight: 4.4lbs
What It Can Fit
- 1-2 DSLR or mirrorless bodies
- 5-7 lenses
- Up to 300mm lens length
- Up to 15" laptop
- Solid build
- 3 points of camera/gear access
- MOLLE loops for additional gear
- Adjustable height shoulder straps
- Removable hip strap
- Laptop sleeve
- Weather resistant
- Sturdy, adjustable dividers
- Light reflective stitching on MOLLE loops for night safety
- Tripod straps
- Easy to clean material
- Damn good looking
- Chest strap height may not be adjustable enough for all body types
- Wide shoulder straps that may rub
- Side pouch restricts water bottle size
- Black material does show dirt and grime
All in all, this backpack is pretty damn awesome. The team at Tenba has clearly put a lot of thought into making this bag great looking, easy to use, sturdy, weather resistant and, for the most part, comfortable for long-term use by serious photographers. And while the shoulder straps and chest strap aren’t all I could dream of, my body-type doesn’t necessarily represent all photographers who like to work on location, so these are issues that may or may not apply to the individual user. So far, it’s been a fantastic backpack that I’m looking forward to lugging into the New Mexico wilderness this summer.