Lowepro's ProTactic 450 AW Shows Potential to Become the Best Photo Backpack I'll Ever Use

Lowepro's ProTactic 450 AW Shows Potential to Become the Best Photo Backpack I'll Ever Use

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.

This is almost exactly how I used the bag, too. Odds are, you'll want to do the same.

Flexibility

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.

The ProTactic 450 AW is a perfect blend of inconspicuous and stylish.

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.

 

Protection

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.

 

Durability

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.

 

What Fits?

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

I used the bag with only one body in the top and an extra couple small lenses where the second body is. You can't fit the massive SB-900 vertically, but a mid-sized SB-600/500 may fit.

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.

No problem fitting this under the seat in Southwest's first-class-for-everyone seating (I'm in the exit row, here; but as you can see, it wouldn't be an issue if I weren't...I just had the chance and wasn't willing to give it up for this review -- sorry).

Same bag flipped over the way you'd set it down for full access (and for easy laptop access). Again, not problem, though if I had tried just a bit those straps could have been more neatly tucked away.

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'm 6' 1", and I don't know how tall this guy is. But the bag seemed up a little higher on my back...

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.

Comes out of the bottom and stows away again in a jiffy.

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."

In their own image, it does look like a traditional 15" Unibody, so it must fit okay...if a little tightly.

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.

It does come out if you want it to...

...or leave the waist-strap on for more support and a couple extra accessory pockets.

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).

 

Summary

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.

Want more information on either bag? Head over to B&H or Lowepro's own rather impressive site for the bag.

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47 Comments

Great review - It would be on my list if I didn't recently already buy the Lowepro Flipside 400AW (http://store.lowepro.com/flipside-400-aw), which also includes "small" things like the rain cover.
Thing about the waistband is that for example on the flipside you can turn the backback around while it's supported by it and use it as a tray of sorts to change your lens or do whatever other things without having to put the backpack on the ground. (one of the main selling points for me)
Seems like this is also the way it should work on this one.
I haven't had any muddy trips with it yet, but it's definitely a huge plus to be able to operate inside the bag without having to put it on the ground.

Ryan Mense's picture

That removable waist strap is excellent. I have the Flipside 400AW and have to tuck the waist straps behind my back which isn't the most comfortable solution.

Is the chest strap adjustable? As in, can you adjust vertically where it falls on your body without having to adjust the shoulder straps? It looks like it might be in the photo or it could just be a little pocket to tuck them in when not in use. Can't tell. I love chest straps on heavy bags but I do find them tricky for women. I have a small Lowe Pro backpack that I love but if I get the chest strap comfortable my entire center of gravity changes.

Adam Ottke's picture

This is a VERY good point and is certainly something that should be addressed. I'm grabbing the bag right now to get an answer for you. Stand by.

Wow! I'm sorry I didn't check it out (again, I don't use chest straps myself too often). But yes, indeed -- both sides slide up and down BRILLIANTLY along that line you can see in the photos for a good 5-6 inches of adjustment. It's a FANTASTIC system that I haven't seen anywhere myself (but again, I'm not usually looking for it). Way to go, Lowepro! I'm updating the article with this information.

Thank you! I am sold on this now. I've only had the adjusting straps on framed hiking/camping backpacks and it makes such a difference. I have a bad back so having that extra support is vital but not if it throws my center of gravity off. Additionally, the thick straps on Lowe Pro backpacks are really nice but I'm a small framed person so if that chest strap isn't clipped at all, my arms rub against the straps (I practically live in tank tops and hike a lot). I think their bags are designed by men :)

Ryan Mense's picture

They are also removable if that wasn't obvious, you just slide until they come off the track. Lowepro bags are on point.

Dave Elle's picture

ah good to see a bag that fits a D4. Some of the bags don't...even though they specifically say they do

I'm disappointed in this backpack in just the same way as I am about every camera pack— it is only designed to carry photo equipment.

Is it too much to ask for someone to design a camera pack with a place for water bottles on the outside or a compartment I can pack my lunch into? Or am I the only one who would like a back pack that is also a camera bag, and not just a camera bag that you can strap on your back?

Adam Ottke's picture

In your case, you may be more interested in some of the backpacks that are made more for hiking/exploring/being more on-the-go. This "urban-inspired" bag is made more for those traveling and walking in cities, without much need to carry food, though a water bottle attachment on the loop can easily be added.

Personally, I think National Geographic bags are okay...though they don't provide much protection. Likewise, bags like Fstop's line of bags, Lowepro's ProTrekker/Rover/Photo Sport series, and Tenba's Messenger day pack are all decent options depending on your needs...

Thanks for your suggestions. I'll look into those.

I'm actually looking for a bag both to carry around cities when I travel and for the occasional photo hike in natural areas. In both situations, I nearly always carry more than just my camera gear (and I carry only a couple of lenses, a body, and a travel tripod, with a few accessories). Right now, I'm using a regular day pack, but it is either a completely unorganized mess, or I have to unpack the whole thing to get to what I need.

It's been a while since I looked into photo backpacks, however they always seem to accommodate the camera equipment, but never the other things you need on a full day running around as a hiker or tourist. The other problem is they all scream out "camera bag!" which isn't the most secure thing to have on your back.

I have the Photosport series http://www.lowepro.com/photosport backpack and I love it. It has a place for a hydration bladder (which I use for my 13 inch macbook pro also), cinch compartment on top that holds whatever you want, water bottle spot, hiking poles holder and fits all my m4/3 gear. I use it all the time for travel and fits perfectly underneath the seat on the plane. The larger version 30l can carry a TON of stuff, the 200 is perfect for my needs.

Thanks, Paul. That does look more like what I was looking for.

Kevin Hatcher's picture

Hey James, I was in the same boat as you and as Adam (the author mentions) bags are a very personnel thing. I spent a long time looking for an "explorer" type bag for hiking with lunch and non-photo stuff compartment and a photo/camera gear section. I highly recommend the F-Stop Loka (https://shop.fstopgear.com/us/products/mountain/backpacks/loka.html#.VBr...) Its great for a day hike, fits lots of camera gear and space for the all important lunch :) and it can be taken on planes as it is within international luggage size restrictions (although I have also used in on domestic flights around Europe and had no issue). You could also take a look at the http://www.guragear.com/ stuff as it looks very similar to the f-stop gear. (I dont work for F-Stop I just like the bag :) )

Thanks, I will definitely check those out.

Many people seem to be completely missing something incredibly obvious about this pack. It is designed specifically to allow Lowepro's accessory attachment system to be used. The same things can be put on this as can be put on the Lowepro S&F belts. Meaning: Utility pouches, a water bottle holder, lens pouches, etc.

You want to put a water bottle on it? Fine, throw the water bottle holder on it. You want a place to put your lunch? Fine, throw the utility pouch on it and pack your lunch inside. This is the entire reason for all of the loops on this bag. Making it able to be customized for every individual's purposes. The pack is just the base, add on it it as desired.

I appreciate your reply, and it's all good information.

However, I'm not a big fan or loading down a pack with attachments (especially in an urban environment). But thanks for the clarification.

Jason Brietstein's picture

Another option would be to just use a carabiner, a nalgene bottle (or other with a loop on top), and clip it to the outside of the bag.

I know this is an old post, but have you seen the Manfrotto Offroad backpacks yet?

Adam Ottke's picture

I'm sorry, I haven't. But just to clarify, it is a much different style of bag, right? Seems like it, as the style seems to be more mountain-/trek-specific. Even seeing as it has an insert makes me put it in an entirely different category...

I think I was replying to someone looking for a hiking type backpack with a dedicated camera compartment. Manfrotto just sent me the Offroad to review, and that seems to be what they were after.

Adam Ottke's picture

Oh, of course. Sorry! Ha. Sometimes I completely miss the comment(s) above and think this is all the way over as a general comment... Thanks for contributing! And let us know what you think of the Offroad!

I'm so glad that I ran into your post! I am in the exact same boat as you are. I did order the ProTactic 450 today and I hope I won't regret it. I don't see why this bag does not fit your needs. I have a simple Canon 500D with an additional 75-300 lens and I intend to fill all the other compartments with headphones, clothes, and whatever will fit. A trekking backpack is too big for me, but the ProTactic 450 seems to be in a good size to contain stuff for a 24 hour trip and not be too clumsy. A launch, traveling documents, a computer, an extra shirt and socks, and still you have many compartments left to use (depending on your gear, you can't expect a bag that will fit the entire world in it and won't be too huge for urban exploration). Secondly you can remove all the dividers and just use it as a normal everyday backpack, which is to my taste, very wicked in its design. I do prefer to keep the dividers to prevent a mess inside the bag. Some compartments for my camera equipment (I don't have much), other for clothes, food, headphones ecc. I don't know why they don't write the volume capacity of this backpack but it does seem to be enough. I hope I won't get disappointed when I'll get it, but I do intend to use it frequently as an everyday back for traveling, university, etc. It seems to have enough space, quick access (not only for the camera, but maybe for your wallet and passport, rear access so it's harder to pickpocket you, many pockets and compartments, it seems protective, durable, and has a beautiful urban tactical look which looks good with whatever you're wearing (if you're a fashionista). But I would like to know why exactly you don't think a launch could fit in? The dividers can be rearranged. It's not the first time I buy a "specialist" bag for an everyday use. My last one was Picture Organic / Arve freeride snowboarding bag, and it was more than ok to use it for routine non-snowboarding activities, and the ProTactic 450 seems even better. If you are still following this discussion let me know and I'll keep you update as soon as I'll get the bag.

There are hundreds of different sized pouches available in military surplus stores. The military Molle/Pals attachment IS compatible with Lowepro SlipLock system of this backpack. Army surplus is usually cheaper than Lowepro stuff...

I had Flipside 500 which was larger than ProTactic. When comparing these two I find that Flipside 500 shoulder straps and belt feel more durable and stiff, and Flipside has a very large outside pocket (13" laptop or small reflector fits there), but Protactic doesn't have any large pockets. Flipside 500 is also cheaper but it doesn't have any outside attachment points besides one for tripod. Flipsside doesn't have extra openings. I'm not using ProTactic's side opening because I keep my tripod and light stands strapped over side doors.
In my opinion Flipside 500 dividers work better with one camera body, and I have started customising my Protactic dividers to the same setting as I had in my Flipside 500 and Protactic can be customized even more: the waist belt is removable and I'm going to replace it with SpiderPro camera holder belt. That alone could be a game changer!

John Skinner's picture

In looking for a bag somewhat like this I went with a Think Tank Airport Takeoff model.

Less obtrusive backpack straps that are comfortable for the urban short term, holds more gear, better made, INSANE crazy warranty by Think Tank. It has rollers and a handle and other small features only found on Think Tanks like cable lock built in, a stretchy side pocket for anything, a tripod sleeve...

You get the idea..... It's THINK TANK.

http://youtu.be/k6U7TV5A0-Y

FINALLY!! Someone got smart and put MOLLE loops on the blank spaces of a bag. I have been dying for someone to do this forever! It makes it so much easier to add a pouch or something you need quick access for. No more hunting for a strap to tie something off to. There's a reason all the military packs have MOLLE loops.

Speaking as someone with back problems who nonetheless carries backpacks often, this pack is missing one crucial detail. It has no load lifter straps. They're very important for getting a heavy pack properly fitted.Once you have the waist belt properly secured, the load lifter straps allow you to set the load vertically so that the waist belt transfers it to your hips and keeps it from pushing or pulling on your shoulders.

http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/backpacks-adjusting-fit.html

Adam Ottke's picture

That's a good point, and back safety is always important. Still, while you can fill this bag with a good amount of metal and glass, I think it's small enough to be OKAY fully loaded without such extra support. I would imagine such extra support as lifter straps would be more beneficial and/or necessary on larger explorer-type backpacks.

But of course, this is just speculation. And it's certainly good to keep in mind.

Moreover, while my knees can be bad, I'm still 22 and don't have too many issues yet. I'm sure that'll be of more concern to me as time goes...

hmmm nice to see PALS ladders from MOLLE system used but as mentioned still a lot of flaws. The system isn't lowepro attachment but standard MOLLE looking at it so you can use any brand. Plenty of generic milspec gear which is cheaper than branded proprietary styles and as flexible as you'd ever need. I use decent mid size black assault pack with PALS ladders all over including the belt which detaches and every other feature I need, I have MOLLE water bottle pockets on the belt so I can use it on and off bag to hold lenses as I'm working once on location and fastest lens rig I've tried to date.

For short trips I use a helikon wombat shoulder bag with admin pouch and util pouch stuck on. Even managed carrying mini studio setup recently with Li inverter powerpack in m249 200rd ammo pocket secure as hell, big stuff like monoblock, cam, etc in bag, modifiers, lenses, triggers, gels etc and with things like mem cards and batteries in their own small pockets so easy to find and no hunting in the bottom or unloading everything for small item.

Anonymous's picture

I'm glad someone finally put molle webbing on a photo bag to make it more modular!

One question I couldn't find the answer for: Are there any loops on the waist strap to add equipment? Can you use just the waist strap as some sort of S&F-esque belt and add a toploader case to it if you don't want to bring your whole bag?

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