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How Many Camera Bags Does a Photographer Need?

Every photographer needs a camera bag. Preferably one that not only protects the equipment, but is also comfortable to use. It has to carry at least a camera and a couple of lenses, along with the necessary accessories. Unfortunately, there is not one camera bag that is perfect for every situation.

Camera bags come in all shapes and sizes. Every now and then a Kickstarter project comes up with a new bag that is said to be the ultimate solution for carrying your equipment. But what I discovered over the years is, that a perfect bag for every situation doesn’t exist. What’s perfect depends not only on the situation you’re in, but also on personal preferences.

First of all, don’t go cheap on a camera bag. Remember, it will carry the expensive equipment you own. It has to protect your camera and lenses while transporting it or during travels. The material has to be strong enough and durable. It doesn’t mean a cheap bag is a bad bag. Just be careful when choosing one and don’t get fooled when a perfect bag for everything is presented; It doesn’t exist.

We are using different camera bags, each for its own purpose.

The Backpack

A camera backpack is perhaps the most used camera bag that exists, and for good reasons. In general, a backpack can carry a lot of weight without too much physical strain. A good backpack will let you wear the most weight on the waist. That’s why a good waist belt on a backpack is essential.

The remaining weight is carried on the shoulder, distributing the weight evenly. A good padded shoulder band is important, just like a sternum strap. This way it is relatively easy to carry up to 15 kilograms without a lot of problems. It means you can carry a lot of photography equipment for an extended amount of time.

A large backpack holds a lot of equipment, and even spare clothing, lunch, and hiking sticks if necessary.

This is why nearly every photographer I have met uses a camera backpack. But there is one big downside to a backpack: You need to remove it from your back to take the camera out, or when you need to change lenses. It has to be placed on the ground to reach for the equipment. This takes time and most of all, you need to have a safe location for the backpack to place on.

A backpack is perfect for taking equipment with you on a long hike. But it may not be the best choice in every situation. If you’re photographing on the beach, it's not wise to place the backpack near the shoreline. When standing on muddy grounds, your bag will get wet and dirty. When photographing in crowded locations you have to keep an eye for the criminal that is looking for an opportunity.

The famous Black Beach at Vik, Iceland. Many photographers who placed their backpack down were surprised by sneaker waves. In those places a backpack may not be the best choice.

The Shoulder Bag

There are a lot of occasions where a shoulder bag can be a better choice. This kind of bag doesn’t have to be placed on the ground when you have to access the bag. Just open it while it’s on your shoulder and grab the camera or lens you need.

A shoulder bag can be very convenient. You don't have to place the bag on the ground if you need to change lenses, for instance.

I found a shoulder bag very convenient on a beach, or whilst standing in mountain streams. And you can keep your bag close to your body in crowded locations. But there are downsides to a shoulder bag. Perhaps the most important one is the strain it can have on your body. The weight of the bag and equipment is on one shoulder only.

On the other hand, a shoulder bag isn’t meant for the transport of large amounts of equipment or for hiking. But if you're on location, the weight isn't an issue. Most of the time you have the camera in your hands and the bag will only contain one or two lenses. This way the shoulder bag is more convenient compared to a backpack.

One camera, two extra lenses. Although it may seem heavy, when using the camera the bag isn't that heavy anymore. 

Something In-Between Backpack and Shoulder Bag

There are backpacks that allow easy access without the need of placing them on the ground. With some backpacks, you can remove your arms from the shoulder straps first, and then the backpack can be rotated in front of you. The back panel will allow access to your equipment.

Although this system obviously will work, it is often not a very convenient way of accessing the equipment. Rotating the backpack with the waist belt in place isn’t that easy, especially when wearing a winter jacket. Also, the weight of the equipment will place a lot of strain on the waist belt, and your waist also. Although I have tried, I rather place the backpack on the ground.

A backpack with back panel acces and that can rotate around your waiste can be handy. But it isn't always easy when wearing thick clothing like a winter jacked.

Another solution is presented with a sling bag. Just sling the bag in front of you and grab the camera or lens you need. It works better compared to the rotating backpack I mentioned. But to be honest, it's nothing more than an ordinary shoulder bag. When placed on your back, it’s still hanging over one shoulder.

I have also tried a modular system. A few lens pouches on a belt is a nice idea and it works quite well. You don’t have a bag over your shoulder, while you have easy access to the lenses you carry with you. Still, more than two lenses on your waist can get heavy over time because the complete weight is only placed on your waist. If you combine it with a backpack, the modular system works great. On location, grab the lenses you need from the backpack and store them in the lens pouches. 

A backpack in combination with a modular lens pouch system allows easy access to a couple of lenses without the need of placing the backpack on the ground.

The Trolley Bag

There are situations when a large amount of equipment is needed on location. In those situations a shoulder bag isn’t the most ideal choice, nor is a camera backpack. For instance, during weddings, I often need my lighting equipment. Two flashes, grids, softboxes, and cables can easily be carried with a trolley. I also attach a couple of light stands onto the trolley.

I love my trolley. It holds my lights, together with a camera and some lenses. If necessary I can combine the trolley with a shoulder bag. It sits on top of the trolley, 

This way I can take everything with me without a lot of hassle. If I want, I can add a shoulder bag to the trolley handle also. I only have to take the equipment from my car to the venue, which often has easy access. If I need to use a light on location that is farther away or more difficult to reach, I carry just one light in a dedicated backpack.

Every Photographer Should Have More Than One Bag

Over the years I owned a lot of camera bags. At present time I use a large backpack, a smaller backpack, a couple of shoulder bags, and a trolley. I still have the modular system, but I don’t use it that much anymore.

My two backpacks. One for just a camera and a couple of lenses, the other one for a lot of equipment and spare room for extra clothing and lunch.

I often choose the bag that is perfect for the job. If I don’t have to hike and I will change lenses a lot, I choose a shoulder bag. In that case, I only take one, or perhaps two additional lenses with me. If I go on a hike I will choose a backpack. If I need to carry a lot of equipment I take the larger backpack. If I just need a camera and one or two lenses, or a single flash, I grab the smaller backpack. When I need the complete set of flashes, the trolley is the one I grab.

Two different shoulder bags. These are perfect for a camera and two lenses. Easy access and not much weight, but less suitable for long hikes. 

So, how many camera bags does a photographer need? I think most photographers need at least two bags. One backpack and one shoulder bag. Do you agree?

What kind of camera bag do you have? Which one do you prefer and why? Please let me know in the comments below. I am looking forward to your response.

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36 Comments

Davide Giannico's picture

a peli 1530 air is enough for me.

M M's picture

I have tried quite a few bags but never found one that was perfect.

Best would probably be to have a caddy like golfers have. They hand you the equipment as needed.

J H's picture

Camera backpacks are too obvious and make you look like a weirdo. The best solution is to get a normal backpack and add an insert to protect the camera. Plus only carry one extra lens at most to keep it light. But if you must bring more than one extra lens consider cutting it in half to save space. Tripods are always a luxury that are best left at home or secluded in the privacy of a makeshift studio. I always use a tripod app on my phone instead.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I've found that lenses don't work after they've been cut in half.

Greg Edwards's picture

I'm not a fan of obvious camera bags full stop. It's nothing to do with looking like a weirdo. More about looking like a target for thieves.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Also depends on the location you are shooting or travelling. Some places it is wise, other places it doesn't matter that much

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Curious what a tripod app is and how it works.

Does it work as well as the extra lens cut in half?

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

Let's see... Two backpacks, two, no three shoulder bags, (or maybe four ?) one slingshot bag, oh, I forgot the bag for the flashes. And... Ok, I may have a problem with camera bags...

Jokes aside, I have many bags, because it depends on the situation. Two backpacks in a normal on-site shooting. When traveling, a backpack with me, and a shoulder bag in the check-in bag. And bags I keep at home only to store the cameras and lenses.

Dave Stern's picture

8 backpacks plus other bags, I take this to heart, maybe too much!

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

And I thought I was the only one to have this problem !

Rich Umfleet's picture

You can never have too many bags, tripods, heads, cameras, etc..

Nando Harmsen's picture

Do you live in a camera store?
lol

Chris Summers's picture

I'm retired now from professional work, I mostly worked for advertising and commercial clients. When I started, the norm for a pro was a big aluminum Haliburton case with the foam insert you had to cut out for the gear you owned. Over the years I mostly switched to over the shoulder bags, never did a lot of landscape work where a backpack made sense and a backpack didn't look very good when shooting company executives for an annual report. The good thing was back then I almost always had a photo assistant to carry the bags.

These days I shoot for fun and travel a lot lighter. I like the messenger style sling bags that can be carried with a shoulder strap. I mostly take one fairly compact mirrorless body and 2-3 lenses so this style bag works. Never really wanted the Pullman style bag on wheels but I can see where it makes sense for air travel with a lot of gear although many airlines in other countries are much stricter as far as carryon and that style bag might end up in the cargo hold.

But in the end the bag you choose will really depend on the gear you carry and where you are going.

Michael Dougherty's picture

How many purses does my wife need? (humor)

Nando Harmsen's picture

lol

John Sully's picture

As a photographer you have no right to complain!

Stuart C's picture

I’ve got too many, but still want a discreet messenger:)

Can I also add that there is a notable uplift in comment quality after the recent culling of trolls on here, I don’t need to mention the names but I’m sure everyone can agree that it’s good riddance.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

When I need a discreet messenger bag, I use a "normal" shoulder bag, in which I put padded inserts. Then it doesn't look like a camera bag.

Stuart C's picture

I was browsing the net today and found the manfrotto Manhattan messenger for £38 so snapped it up, it’s nice and discreet with dedicated compartments for camera and lenses… I think that’s a bargain.

charles hoffman's picture

before you ask how many bags one needs, focus on how many cameras, lenses, and assorted tchotchkas one needs
the problem with accumulating equipment is the desire to shlep it along

Nando Harmsen's picture

Fortunately I never have the desire to take everything with me... but I do know photographers who are taking everything they own with them

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I love my Tamrac Zuma 7 backpack. It's very small and holds everything I need just right, mounted and ready to go.

I also have a small messenger bag I use when taking 1 body and 1 or 2 small lenses. Typically for family/friend get togethers.

Rich Umfleet's picture

Just as with all other gear, the answer is: as many as you want!

Fristen Lasten's picture

Like bicycles. Five. The four in the garage and the one I'm planning to buy.

Raul Dederichs's picture

The bags you need = the bags you have + 1

Rich Umfleet's picture

Your math is all wrong!

Mike Dochterman's picture

I have like 25 camera bags of all sorts and sizes... I'll see a bag I know is 200+ dollars at an Estate Sale for 10 bucks and .. I just can't turn it down (don't even start me on tripods...), but now my kid has shamed me into (for the most part) not buying anymore

Rich Umfleet's picture

My sizeable tripod collection is due to discounters who sell last year's (or older) gear and I live in Asia where the stuff is made! My notable bag collection is due to my search to find a hiking bag that can comfortably carry my ever expanding collection of lenses, especially my Sony 200-600mm zoom.

Stuart C's picture

Ah damn, I bought another one today.

Tony Clark's picture

I find that three plus two works for me. The rolling Tenba backpack holds all my cameras and lenses and LowePro backpack fits in the overhead bin for US flights. When I carry two bodies at events, I have a sling bag for an extra lens, memory cards and batteries. Finally, I have two Timbuk2 messenger bags with Snoop inserts for when I want to be inconspicuous.

Roger Jones's picture

I'm retired now, but even back in the day I had 3 bags, 1 Domke for cameras, 1 Billingham for lenses, and 1 lime green canvas bag for flashes and misc. Now I have the Domke from the late 1970's. The Green bag ripped apart, the Billingham is being used by my son and I still use the Domke, ya it still works. I used it for a pillow when on assignment and sleeping on the ground. I watch all the younger group strut around like Peacocks with their pretty bags and all their new cameras jockeying for position to get a shot of a tree, or???????

Anyway one bag, 2 cameras 1 flash, 3 lenses all inside the Domke, and that to much sometimes.

John Sully's picture

Domke bags are durable. I've been using one for a couple of decades. Tough stuff.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

I like to use a photovest. Discreet and holds alot. I then have the camera on my left shoulder and my tripod in my right hand. I always keep the spikes attached to the bottom to deal with freelance socialists - umhhh......I mean thieves.

winzehnt gates's picture

The answer to the question in the title is obviously:
"Always one more than you already own."
;-)

Zdenek Malich's picture

just one ;)