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

Previous comments
Adam Ottke's picture

That's an interesting idea, but unfortunately, no: there are no loops on the waist strap that could be used like that. I suppose you could use it on its own for the two little pockets there, but that's about it.

If you've seen any of the ThinkTank (or similar) waist straps/belts for actually attaching gear, you'll notice they're all quite a bit thicker and of a different form, generally -- all the main manufacturers seem to have agreed such belts need to be a little beefier to actually carry equipment effectively. I'm afraid this one is on the thinner side -- great for support in a backpack, but not so much for attaching gear to. The thin strap would probably bend and/or twist with heavy lenses attached...

I hope that helps.

thanks for the fast reply. A different question (unfortunately no store in Switzerland has it in stock and I don't want to buy it online without trying it in real life first) that bugs me: officially the bag is 27cm thick, however most airlines only allow 25cm (or even worse 20cm for some low-budget airlines) thick hand-luggage. Can this bag be reduced to 20cm if I carry no laptop in it and remove the waist belt?

Adam Ottke's picture

I'm not sure about that. First, I know budget airlines in Europe can be incredibly strict (they make their money by being ridiculously strict). However, in my experience, bags like this are generally looked at when you walk on the plane and easily glanced over. It doesn't look like a big bag at all, but instead like a somewhat normally sized backpack. So don't rely on my testimony if you run into a flight attendant with a mission to make your life miserable. But definitely in the U.S. I would NEVER have a problem with it (I've never even had a problem with my relatively massive ThinkTank Airport Security V2.0 as a carry-on (it's my "big" carry-on, though). But I hope that helps.

As for actually reducing to 20cm, the bag is actually semi-rigid. I don't know if you know what the case for the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 headphones is like, but that's the closest thing I can think of. It's hard-isn, but can still be squished in if pressed hard in an area. So I don't think removing anything will decrease the bag's size. Sorry... Likewise, however, it's quite difficult to INCREASE the bag's size, too, because of this, unless you add additional gear to the outside of it.

Alternatively, I reviewed the largest bag in this series. There are two smaller "sister" bags that are identical, shrunken down versions. Perhaps those may suit your carry-on needs.

This isn't MOLLE spec. The webbing isn't 1½in. spacing. This means some of my accessories bag will be off-center or unattachable if they're of the double-strap loop variety. My stuff from Camelback, Arc'Teryx and Mystery Ranch may not fit how I want. Small finicky detail.
The removable hipbelt is fantastic, as many others could slide in to give more support!! And love the rear access. Was considering a F-stop Loka, but this may suit better.
Thanks for the review!!

Adam Ottke's picture

I've thought about the F-stop Loka, too, and would be interested in trying one some day, but never quite have. This is definitely different, but it's quite good. Again, though, a slightly bigger version of this bag would just be killer.

Michael Langford's picture

Is there a way to secure the zippered access points? They could mean easy access for a robber in a crowd...

Adam Ottke's picture

Maybe I'm naive not to worry too much about things like that with a side-access compartment. But that's a smart worry... The side pockets have just one zipper instead of two, so you can't put a single lock through two loops, hypothetically. But you could technically take a string and just tie tightly from the closed zipper loop to one of the accessory loops on the outside of the bag...

Phil Newton's picture

I love mine. Holds a heap of goodies and feels good and comfy on. Gone on every plane I've been on during a trip as carry on and is 9.5kgs fully loaded (which most airlines overlook as it's under 10). I'd recommend this bag to anyone.

Will a pro-body like the D4 or 1DX with an L-Bracket attached fit in this bag??

Adam Ottke's picture

I didn't specifically have an L-Bracket on my D4 at the time, but yes, it should fit. However, if you have a laptop in there, it might start getting really tight (as I mentioned the entire bag gets pretty tight to close with gear AND a laptop inside...something I wish would be better in a second version down the line by expanding the bag just by a 1/4 or 1/2 inch).

would 15.6 inch laptop fit inside this bag?

Adam Ottke's picture

That depends. My 15-inch retina macbook pro fits perfectly. I think an ever-so-slightly thicker laptop would, too, maybe. But I wouldn't push it. The bag overall was a bit tight for me when I had the laptop in it as it was... But it does fit. So if you need that to be able to travel and take it through security for the airport, etc., you should be covered in most cases. Just don't plan on fitting a laptop that's an inch thick (even a half-inch is pushing it...that probably wouldn't work, in fact).

Looking more at the product images, that's either a 13-inch or a 15-inch standard macbook pro that's in there (or so it seems). So I'd use that thickness as your limit.

i'm actually about to purchase the bag. although, i'm afraid that my laptop might not fit. it's 15.6-inch and 31.7 mm thick. i'll also be carrying a D7100 with grip with an attached 70-200 f2.8, D5100 with an attached 24-70 f2.8 and 2 speedlights.

Adam Ottke's picture

Given that you have smaller bodies in there (and nothing like a D4, etc.)...that all helps. But 31.7mm is on the thicker side these days... If the laptop works for you, great. I'm not saying you should get a new one, nor am I trying to knock your laptop. My only point in saying that is to point out that many camera bag manufacturers have stopped allotting so much space for a computer because of how thin they've gotten... So that's something to consider, too...

Jan Iveta's picture

Ive been waiting for something like this, even thaught on sewing molle straps on my existing lowepro

There's a problem with SlipLock tripod holder; you can't put it in the dead center of the pack, it's allways off-centre because if in center the webbing is sewn too narrow. Also when you try to attach tripod holder to the sides, it's the same problem again! Tripod is tilted backwards.
Awfull design error!! EDIT: I guess the you are supposed to mount the a tripod leg that's most off-centre and then the tripod body would be centered.
Perhaps a military ammo clip pocket would solve this problem, because they have narrower "hooks" that fit the narrow belt positions.

So, you can't strap the tripod to the center back of this tripod?