The world of fashionable photography bags isn’t unknown, but it’s not all that vast, either. As much as everyone might want to be fashionable, that desire simply isn’t as compatible with the necessary practicality we need from our gear... or is it? Can a bag look quite good while being quite practical? Or better yet, can a strict adherence to a bag’s fashion appeal aid its practicality? Is this bag even "fashionable"? The Filson McCurry Sportsman is certainly a "cool" bag. But as far as standing up to the test of practicality, we’re about to find out.
I’ve always been curious about Filson’s photography bags. As an outdoors-oriented company, there’s no question they know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean I trust them to make a photography backpack or shoulder bag that would be right for me. No, for that I’d gladly go back to Lowepro or Think Tank.
But my curiosity peaked when I fell upon a Filson Steve McCurry Sportsman bag in an Austin fashion boutique, By George (those interested can see more about the store here). This is a bag I had seen online before, but I had yet to see it in person. Not one of my frequented camera stores in Los Angeles, Orange County, or San Francisco ever had one on display. And it just so happened that I was looking for a more compact alternative to my trusty but heavily aging Tamrac shoulder bag.
My first reaction to bags with “famous names” attached to them is that they’re always going to be overpriced. And at $425, the Steve McCurry bag is without exception in this regard. But forgiving the price for a moment, it might be possible that Steve McCurry may have some experience and knowledge that would help him design the perfect photo bag (not to mention that the bag can be found for a bit less if you’re willing to look around… hint: eBay). And for the perfect photo bag, how much is too much? It was certainly worth a shot.
In [Quick] Defense Of The Shoulder Bag
This will be quick, but many might want to shrug this off in favor of a backpack. The backpack is much more supportive, more easily worn, arguably more ergonomic, and potentially fits more than your standard shoulder bag. But when you’re traveling, you need to carry as few bags as possible. When I’m actually shooting, I want to be able to have a bag on my shoulder right by my side that makes it easy to get in and out of with a quick lens change or an additional filter, etc. The shoulder bag is just that bag, and since I’m not about to pack an extra empty bag just so I can have a backpack through the airports and the shoulder bag while walking around new cities, I’m stuck with just one option.
The elusiveness with which this bag had escaped my eyes for all these months (it’s been over a year, now) is impressive. The McCurry bag had already held my interest for so long that holding it became a special prize in and of itself In fact, I went from one store location to another across town just because I heard it was in stock there — and this was during my vacation — all for a bag I didn’t really need, but that I thought I might really want. And yes, I was risking an earful by having to drag the girlfriend along to watch me gawk.
So naturally, I immediately fell in love with it. But upon further inspection, its size scared me. There was no question the materials were fantastic — and it certainly looked the part, whatever “the part” is. But I knew that coming from my obviously larger Tamrac shoulder bag would be difficult, if not impossible, without some serious work. And there was the big question that went unanswered in the hours and hours of review-reading and research on this bag: could it fit my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro?
Without my computer with me, I still couldn’t quite figure it out. It would certainly be close. And yet, I couldn’t drag the girlfriend back to return to the store with the computer to make sure it would fit. So that settled it. Naturally, I had to buy it and simply take a leap of faith that I could get it all to work.
Upon Further Inspection
As soon as the bag arrived, I took it out of the box, placed it next to my Tamrac, and transferred everything from one bag to the other. Amazingly, it fit, which meant two things: of course, the Tamrac could have fit a bit more, and the McCurry bag couldn’t exactly fit much of anything more. Still, the transfer was impressive. Of note, however, is that the pockets are rather narrow as configured. I could hear the Velcro begin to stretch as I pushed in the 85mm f/1.4G's hood. But in the end, it did still hold despite a little bulging of the inner pocket.
I had a Nikon D750 with an 85mm f/1.4G attached (hood reversed), the 85mm f/1.8G (for a comparison I’m working on), and a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art stacked on top of each other (that barely worked), several small pocket books/notebooks, sunglasses, three magazines, an extra portable USB battery, chargers, memory card readers, etc., all inside the main compartment of this surprisingly small shoulder bag.
The only thing was that the laptop was still upstairs.
At this point, I knew there was simply no way to get the laptop to be completely covered inside the bag. That was obvious. The larger Tamrac bag didn’t even allow for that exactly either (see photo below). But I only need the laptop to survive in-bag from the car to the plane and then back to the car and hotel (repeat in reverse for going home from a trip). Apart from that, it’s on my desk or in my lap. So as long as the bag can support the laptop in a reasonably safe way, I’m a happy man.
Sure enough, in just one pocket, the 15-inch slipped right in and stood tall — very tall. Yes, the laptop fit, but I thought it wouldn’t be good enough. Even horizontally, the laptop’s height exceeds that of the bag by about an inch or two. But after some experience, even with a completely empty bag, the laptop didn’t cause the entire setup to tip over. It stayed in the front, long, normally-button-closed pocket snuggly enough to convert me once and for all.
Now, if you’re skiddish about the possibility of your gear getting marked up just a tad, this may not be for you. If you’re a supporter of those ultra-plush-lined laptop sleeves (I used to be one myself), this is likely not for you: the laptop is just too exposed to the potential knock of the bag on a side of a wall or back of someone’s chair.
But I’m a careful person, and I’ve simply stopped caring as much. It works just fine as a carrier, and that’s all that my laptop or I need out of my bag.
For those of you that don’t require 15-inchers (forget 17 inches or the thicker 15-inch laptops), I took a few photos with a 13-inch MacBook Air in various pockets of the bag. This works very nicely.
All said, there are some rather unique quirks to this one. First, the configuration is very basic. One main, top-loaded pocket indicative of the shoulder bag style seals with a giant, strong, leather-lace-tasseled zipper that keeps its U-shaped flap shut. On the inner side of the flap is a small, medium-length, flat zipper pocket perfect for documents like a passport and some boarding passes. Opposite, however, the main compartment is filled with two completely removable, square, two-by-two dividers to form a two-by-eight grid that you can customize… sort of. For whatever inexplicable reason, apparently McCurry didn’t require Filson (and he could have done whatever he wanted or simply pulled his name from the project) to make the entire surface area of the dividers out of a Velcro-compatible material. Instead, while you can remove a divider’s connection from one plus-shaped (+) side, you can’t make a more diagonal connection that is secured on the other end. Likewise, because each divider block is its own square, there is no way to have a long one-by-four compartment on one side for a longer lens or, as in my case, for a Fuji GX617. I don’t need to be able to put the 617 beast in here, but it sure would be nice to be able to. That lack of flexibility is disappointing, but it’s not a deal-breaker. But even McCurry’s D4S would have to go in body-only for this bag to work. Because of the lack of configuration possibilities, even that wouldn’t fit with an attached lens unless you were willing to give up the entire “block” (or half of the interior space). On the other hand, at least the bag is tall enough to fit my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II with the hood upside down, but with the tripod collar still attached (it sticks up only millimeters past what would be a "perfect fit").
While the lack of true modularity was disappointing, it did end up being okay. I’ll simply be upgrading to “Version 2.0” whenever that comes out.
Luckily, that’s the only “bad” surprise out of the entire bag. The materials are absolutely superb. The leather pulls tied onto each zipper are simple and incredibly basic, but just what you need. The zippers don’t travel quite as smoothly as some others, but that’s because they’re obviously rugged and at least won’t scratch your gear when you’re pulling it out or throwing it in. Filson at least did us a solid with their leather tabs that help to hold onto as you’re zipping in the opposite direction. Several pockets appointed along the sides and edges of the bag allow for depositing quick-access items like iPhone cables/chargers, documents, ear buds, and magazines. Each is tight — the entire bag is rather stiff — but you get the feeling that it will loosen up a lot over time as it ages and settles in.
Finally, the main strap is non-removable, but is a thick and heavy duty — if basic — canvas/cotton strap. A smaller, short, removable quick-grab strap isn’t exactly comfortable or meant for use as a handle, but just what you need when you’re sitting somewhere or have it resting on the ground and quickly need to swing it across to another side of you, pass it up to someone on a bus, etc. It’s just an all-around, easy-to-use, and extremely practical no-frills strap that stows easily when you don’t need it.
How The McCurry Bag Did Me A Favor
In all honesty, the McCurry bag is not a replacement for my Tamrac bag. Yes, I’ll be retiring the Tamrac now, but it doesn’t perfectly replace it. Instead, I did have to do some rethinking on my life and the amount of gear I need with me on every shoot.
I’ve missed too many things not having my gear with me that I now always make sure I’m not without my camera. I have at least some camera in my bag, in my car, or on my person at all times; always within a 30-second walk. But that led me to overthink my travel packing for far too long.
The McCurry bag has since caused me to really think about what I need. I still have room for a few extras, but being slightly more limited is, in fact, not really limiting so much as it is liberating. My bag is much smaller, quite a bit lighter (because of the excess and needless things left behind), and I’m a much happier and more agile traveler for it. That’s a big favor I did for myself (or that the bag did for me).
If I have a bigger shoot, there’s no question that I’m still bringing my Think Tank Airport Security V2.0 along as my “big” carry-on. But the Filson will always be by my side. Meanwhile, I love getting to the hotel, dropping of my bags, taking out some of the extra gear inside the Filson, dumping the laptop on the bed, and running out with one body and two extra lenses in the McCurry Sportsman bag with plenty of working room to spare.
For those that have even less gear or plan on day trips from time to time, it’s incredibly easy to take out a divider, throw in a lunch, jacket, and some sunscreen, and still have padded protection for a few shooting essentials. That’s the nice part about removable divider sections.
Price And Other Considerations
I touched on this briefly already, by the McCurry bag is anything but cheap at $425. Part of that price is the Filson name. You can then tack on an additional 10 to 30-percent surcharge for the McCurry and Magnum names (this is one of four bags out of Filson’s Magnum line that came from a collaboration with Magnum photographers Steve McCurry and David Alan Harvey who each designed two different bags for the line). Add an additional surcharge for being the only bag like it, really, and we’ve now arrived at our $425 price (for which you could get the massive and extremely worthy Airport Security V2.0 that I discussed earlier and still have enough change for two liters of beer at a German beer garden).
Some might consider getting the regular Sportsman bag (there’s a regular one that does not have padding or dividers, but that is really meant for camping/hiking/traveling on day or weekend trips). Let me save you the trouble, however, by saying don’t think I didn’t try that.
The lack of built-in padding makes for a less structured bag that is just too floppy to be a realistic option for a practical camera bag. Buying additional third-party dividers doesn’t help much, while it does an equally successful job of addition to the expense (not to mention no third-party dividers fit as nicely as the ones made specifically for the bag). Moreover, the zippers are a tougher metal that likely won’t repel water quite as well while posing a greater threat to keeping your gear scratch-free. Finally, even though it wouldn’t have worked for those reasons, I made the mistake of getting a version in the waxed finish (you can get dry or waxed material, the latter for better water resistance), which leaves an oily residue on your fingers after handling. I don’t want to know what that looks like on my gear as it goes into the bag. And then my hands are oily/waxy from the bag, and that gets on my gear even more. I feel like I can get just as dirty as the next guy (or girl). But that’s just gross. My gear plus oily residue equals gross; no exceptions.
You do, however, have one more option. It won’t save you a ton of money, but it is a bit cheaper at $395, a bit roomier by about an inch or so in most directions, and more flexible with its divider setup. The Original Sportsman camera bag is slightly larger and features an interior, two-strip lining of Velcro material that stays permanently. Removable dividers can then be configured any way desirable for a truly modular alternative to the McCurry bag. The slight increase in size may also be beneficial for those looking for just a little more wiggle room. The only thing you can’t get that you do get with the McCurry bag is the dark “otter green” color. But that may be unimportant to many (I find it less conspicuous than the lighter “tan plus otter green” or “tan” alternatives with bright orange interior top flaps). All considered, it just might be a better option for you, however.
Meanwhile, I found a deal on my McCurry bag and will stick with it. I really do like it (and it doesn’t hurt that the color is more understated and more to my taste, while also featuring the name of a photography icon for which I have the utmost respect — a less useful feature, but one nonetheless). If you're with us in the Bahamas today or throughout the week, feel free to ask to check it out if you're curious, as I'll have it on me all week.
What will you do? Do you have a favorite bag or a similar experience about how a bag changed the way you pack and prepare for trips?
Also, on occasion, I have real trouble finding answers to certain, specific questions I have about gear. You shouldn't have to go through that, either. If there's anything I missed or if you have any other questions, just ask in the comments section. I'll do my best to get back to you with an answer as soon as possible.