I did not expect much other than an ordinary photo backpack when I received my review unit in the mail. After all, I didn't know anything about it -- only that it was a medium-sized backpack and that I wasn't supposed to talk about it until today. As soon as I opened the package, however, I think I actually experienced some butterflies. For such an average-sized bag, there's a lot to talk about, which is already your first good sign. The ProTactic 450 AW certainly looks the part. And it doesn't disappoint.
From the moment you pull it out, you know its going to be a different experience. Naturally, the loops all around the backpack gets you excited. They are literally everywhere. While you can use Lowepro's handy attachments that are available to hold additional gear, a tripod, etc., you can just as easily imagine working custom solutions with carabiners, your own heavy-duty velcro straps, a leather shoelace in a pinch... It instantly becomes apparent that the options are endless. And that's important for someone like me who goes from packing my Nikon D4 for a portrait session and a wedding, to shooting a news assignment the next day, and finally to shooting fine art work during a night shoot with medium format film gear -- all in the same week.
In addition, Lowepro touts the ProTactic 450 AW's four access points, which really do push the limit for flexibility in how you can access your gear. With two side flaps that zip open, the ProTactic gives the flexibility of a shoulder or cross-body-type bag in a roomier and more practical backpack form. Likewise, a topload, semi-hardshell-protected zipper flap (more on that later) allows access to a "main" area where you're almost certain to keep your main body (or a backup, assuming one is out of the bag around your shoulder).
Finally, the bag lays on the side facing away from the body to open with total access for complete loading of the bag. This is great for two reasons: 1.) The bag can easily be thrown of the shoulder and set down on the side that it actually wants to fall on without needing to flip it as you place it on the ground, and 2.) More importantly, this keeps the side that rests on your back clean. I cannot tell you how many times that lovely African red dust has settled on my shirts early in the day just because it transferred from my camera bag. That won't happen with this one.
While I was skeptical of Lowepro's excitement over its so-called "MaxFit System" (the fact that the company names its dividers is itself an indication of pride), I've grown quite fond of them. The supposed benefit of the system is that the velcro tabs are sewn slightly more to the inside from the edges of the divider so you can actually bend them back more easily to allow for smoother positioning within the bag. This was great, but its the fact that they're also so thin that really gets me -- in a good way. "Thin" inevitably sounds like "not all too protective," naturally. But more often than not, you just don't need a massive pad between two lenses or a couple teleconverters taking up space in your bag when my infamous use of socks and briefs does the trick just as well. Don't worry, they were always clean...unless, perhaps, returning from longer stints in areas like West Africa, in which case I can only hope the dirty laundry served as a theft deterrent.
Despite the thin MaxiFit system pads, the bag has quite fantastic protection. The primary internal dividers are still quite substantial (similar to my favorite-of-the-industry ThinkTank system's bulky dividers). You do need some of those, and these do the trick.
The accessible top semi-hardshell flap under which I can easily stash a body with a decent-sized lens attached (for me, a D4 with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art with the hood out) is a neat addition. It really assures me that should something drop on the bag, my $4000+ body will survive the rude awakening.
Overall, the bag itself is quite rigid, too. It's softer than the specifically hard top, but I have no doubt that the rectangular shape that gives the bag quite a bit of its style won't ever get worn in to the point of becoming rounded -- it's a sturdy bag.
The ProTactic itself seems as though it'll last longer than your gear would if you were to actually keep it until it died rather than until the next upgrade cycle. For most Canon and Nikon systems out there -- that's a lifetime. Strong zippers have loop attachments that you can pinch in a traditional sense but that can just as easily be pulled through with a single finger. More often than not, running your fingers along the zipper line is enough for one of the loops to grab one and start unzipping the bag practically "for" you. Thankfully, the loops are thin enough and don't add unnecessary bulk and are even rubber-coated for comfort.
Lowepro claims the ProTactic 450 AW can fit 1-2 pro-level DSLRs (one with up to a 70-200mm f/2.8 attached), up to eight lenses OR speed lights, a 15" laptop, a tripod, and various accessories. Below is a list of what I could fit while still somewhat comfortably being able to close it (more on that later):
- Nikon D4 with Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art with the hood pointed out/in position (a 70-200 f/2.8 would indeed have fit perfectly)
- Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 (alone in this configuration), 35mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8G, 2x teleconverter, SB-900 speedlight, a pack of accessories that come with the bag (takes up as much as a wide-angle zoom lens would)
- 15" Retina MacBook Pro
- Extra dividers, a few small backup cables
- In the small accessory pockets on the side of the bag: SanDisk Firewire 800 CF card reader w/ cable, Pelican waterproof 4-compartment CF/SD card hard-case
- This was all fit internally and/or in some external zipper compartment where noted -- none of this included expandability with attachments on the outer loops
Where Does It Fit?
This bag is an EASY carry-on. You'll never have an issue taking on any plane in the U.S. or internationally. On a Southwest flight, it sticks out just a little bit, but no more than your average backpack does anyway. It's an easy fit without any stuffing necessary no matter where you go.
Likewise, for what you can fit in it, the bag has a fairly lowprofile (get it? Yes, I just covered my own eyes in disbelief at that one). Without ever having the chance to try one, I've always wondered about that ThinkTank ShapeShifter bag. This certainly can't come close to being that compact, but it does take away the urge I had to look further into it. The combination of the ProTactic's size and rigidity gives me a firm sense of how far it sticks behind me at any point -- and it's not far. I'm definitely comfortable wearing it in any crowd.
How Does It Fit and Look?
Overall, I'm quite pleased with how the bag fits. It sits up wonderfully on the upper half of my back without resting on the -- let's face it -- ever-sweaty small of the back that is always the first reason you take your pack off during the job. I'm not one to buy into any of the mumbo jumbo about airflow and special vents. Again, let's face it: no bag can magically whisk away sweat or be so open to outside air that it doubles as dual-zone AC after the first 30 minutes of wear (let alone six hours). But sitting up a little higher is really the best solution to staying just that much cooler.
I do have quite a bit of heavy metal and glass in my bag, no more than the next guy. The straps are great at first glance, but could be just a little more supportive or cushioned, even at the expense of just a little clunkiness-control.
Finally, the bag does look pretty good (at the risk of alienating political-correctness Nazis -- oops, twice -- guys may agree on that more than you ladies). The attachment loops and overall rigidity offer a unique look that certainly does echo the "urban style" that we all know is supposed to mean "cool-to-city-folks-style" anyway. But, hey, at least it does the part while adding to the level of comfort that comes from putting your mind at ease about your gear's protection.
All the Little Things
Lowepro seems to have thought of everything in a very Apple-like sense. A waterproof cover hides away on the bottom of the bag in a way that technically, if anything, provides more cushion. And of course, this means it's not taking up room within your bag. Why all bags don't yet feature a "built-in" rain cover is one of the most perplexing questions in the last seven generations, second only to the question of why it took us so long to reconsider the ethics of posing soldiers' bodies in photographs during the Civil War.
I can actually describe sliding my 15" Retina MacBook Pro into the laptop compartment as one of my enjoyable experiences this month. It was obviously made 100% for a 15" Retina MacBook Pro. Would smaller laptops fit? Of course. While the slightly thicker standard 15" Unibody MacBook Pro would be a tighter fit, I imagine it would still fit as well. But I have no doubt Lowepro measured the Retina and said, "Make it that big."
I've already rambled about the amazing looped zipper pulls, but they are indeed worth yet another shoutout, so now that's done.
For longer trips, I may consider using one, but honestly, the waist strap (great job on using the space for additional small accessory compartments) has never been a favorite of mine. I ripped mine out of this bag, but that did make me appreciative of the fact that it was removable. While it can be removed, however, the velcro holding it in is so prevalent and so unbelievably strong that I wouldn't wish it upon anyone to have to change out the waist strap regularly. That's not a negative -- it would rotate and shift and be generally unsupportive if it weren't so. But do make your decision, and stick with it.
UPDATE: Those chest strap buckles slide up and down that section on the shoulder straps to adjust a good five to six inches. While I don't make use of chest straps as often as I should, this should be great news for the female photographers out there! Thanks to Jennifer in the comments for asking the question!
Almost, But Not Quite
A bag is a very personal item. I'm quite particular when it comes to my gear: I like my things just the way I like them, no better, and no worse. And that's all the hand-holding and explaining myself I'm going to do in this section:
The entire bag, with all its greatness, does have some minor flaws for my use. First when I add the laptop into the mix with all the other gear, the bag becomes quite stiff (the laptop side is the one on your back). Some could consider it firm on the back, but everything was just too tight for my comfort. All that would be needed is a quarter-inch reduction in the height of the dividers. But as-is, closing the bag already puts enough pressure on everything to make me slightly uneasy. On the other hand, a MacBook Air would probably be fine.
Additionally, the top-loading hard shell flap area is JUST big enough for my D4. With the D4 in place, the somewhat rounded semi-hard shell top even bent a bit to accommodate it (which I guess is okay...who really cares? You can see it a bit in the Southwest photo above). Some lenses even have to be shifted slightly, again, so that the laptop can fit to a level of pressure I'm comfortable with.
And finally, the bag's style and accessible flaps on virtually all sides dictate quite a specific arrangement of the primary dividers. You can adjust a few things, but they really are best the way they come. While its a fantastic setup that I would normally be delighted with, again, the dimensions in a few areas are just a little small for my preferences.
Among the Best and Ready for the Next Step
Do take a certain amount of all of that with a grain of salt -- a bag is always a very personal thing (there I am explaining again...and the same thing). Part of me wants to wish for a ProTactic "550" AW, but I honestly think I'd be better off simply wishing for the next generation of the 450 to be an inch longer in each dimension. That would solve the laptop/lens/divider, D4, and general comfort issues all in one step.
For those laughing at my wishes and begging for something smaller, Lowepro does offer the slightly smaller ProTactic 350 AW that is identical in every way, yet slightly shrunken down (count on room for closer to six lenses and two pro -- but not full-sized -- bodies like the Nikon D750).
When I look at everything, despite its shortcomings for my own needs and although I'd only use it as a backup bag (for a smaller job), I must say this is undeniably my favorite photo backpack. It looks anywhere from decent to wicked depending on your tastes, gives full protection, and offers more flexibility in a way that acknowledges the variations in our industry than any other bag out there. From the sliding chest straps female shooters will love to the little attachment loops and even to the change into the semi-hardshell top -- they've thought of EVERYTHING. When you really think about it, the name fits: the ProTactic is everything you'd hope after simply reading the headline.
Right now, you can order the ProTactic 450 AW for an easy-on-the-pocket (did I mention it's quite affordable?) $249.95. The ProTactic 350 AW comes in at $199.95 and is likely also the best bag you can get in that size at any price.