We know, it's another bag review, but we all need to face the reality that camera bags are like Pokemon for photographers; gotta' catch 'em all. There's really no such thing as a perfect bag, as no one bag can really apply to every situation the working photographer can throw at it, but I think I've found the closest thing to being universally useful in the Incase DSLR Pro Pack.
Don't get me wrong, I love traveling light. I love challenging myself by forcing myself to produce more with less. There is certainly something exhilarating and refreshing about leaving the home with nothing more than a Leica rangefinder paired with just a single 35mm lens. I don't even need a case in that case. I just sling it over my shoulder and I am one with the camera and my subject. Heck, nothing wrong with setting out to do some 'gramming with your phone! You know what they say about the best camera is...
But I'm a full time working pro. I shoot primarily weddings and concerts; two situations in which you really never know what sort of gear is going to be optimal until you get there. I live and die by showing up to work with a bride and groom at a place that, most of the time, I've never been in my life. And even if I have been there before, the weather regularly dictates the photo plan of the day. There is, literally, no point in planning anything. You've just got to be proficient at your craft, trust in your abilities, and solve problems on the fly. While concerts are a bit more predictable, especially when you've shot the same venues over and over again, I've been burned more times than I can count by an artist changing our shooting positions at the last minute. There's nothing more depressing than preparing to shoot a show from the pit and then finding out you're going to have to shoot from the sound-board 125 feet back and you didn't bring your long lens. Actually, there is one thing more depressing: planning on shooting from the board and then being told to shoot from the pit. It's hard to use a 400mm lens when the guitar player is close enough to sweat on you. And things become more complicated when you travel. You do not want to risk leaving anything a thousand miles away from your shoot. Chances are any place you can rent from will be closed. Trust me. They'll be closed. They always seem to be when you need them.
The War Chest
So sometimes you've just got to carry a bunch of stuff. I call these bags and cases "war chests," and my war chest of choice for the past five years has been the absolutely wonderful and incredible Think Tank Airport International V2.0. Make no mistake about it, it's one of the best large camera cases ever made by anyone. It's got rollers, integrated TSA locks and security wire, it carries a ton of gear, hard crush-proof sides, and it's sized to conform with international carry-on standards. Aside from rare circumstances, you never have to check your camera gear, and even if you do you can feel comfortable enough that your gear will arrive safely. But as I said before, there's no such thing as a perfect bag. The Think Tank is stiff, heavy, extremely expensive, and without backpack straps is pretty difficult to lug on rugged treks and around stairs. I've always taken the "war chest" concept to heart. For virtually every commercial and wedding shoot since 2010 I have loaded up the Think Tank to bring to the shoot, and then also taken a messenger sling (typically the Incase Ari) that I can load up as an intermediary bag from when I need to travel light on location. It's worked all these years, but I always yearned for an alternative.
I love Incase. The Ari has been my favorite messenger bag ever. It's designed beautifully and is built solid. So you can imagine I was very excited to get my hand on another Incase bag that seemed to show promise in fixing my issue. The Incase DSLR Pro is a backpack camera gear carrier. It's fairly big with enough features to be close to a case, but has the ease and utility of what I'd call a bag. If it had hard crush-proof sides, then I'd be a true hybrid. So here's the crazy thing: the DSLR Pro is smaller in every dimension than the Think Tank, it is one-sixth the weight (2.5 versus 14 pounds), it has backpack straps, and it carries just as much gear! In fact, the DSLR Pro fits a 15-inch Macbook Pro like an absolute glove without having to buy optional accessory dividers like the Think Tank, and sliding the laptop in adds just a couple pounds without reducing any carrying capacity.
Now, let me be clear, while I am comparing the two bags they do have several distinctive designed purposes. While they are both designed to carry a ton of gear, one is designed for traveling from place to place. You're not supposed to "run and gun" with the Think Tank. It's really designed for being relatively stationary and then you work out of it. It's also built to be thrown around airplanes and luggage compartments. But while they have different ultimate purposes, the DSLR Pro backpack has allowed me to reduce the usage of the Think Tank to just commercial location sessions. For the past two months, I have left it home entirely for eight weddings.
Run and Gun
The bottom line is that this bag carries most camera and lens gear the average working photographer needs. It holds two gripped pro-level SLRs, in addition to several lenses and speedlights. It's tall enough to have a SLR at the top, a 70-200 in the middle, and another DSLR at the bottom. In fact, there's a zippered opening at the top so you can pull out an SLR and lens and start shooting without ever having to completely open the main compartment. It's a war chest you can actually work out of on the fly, which is something I've never even considered possible in the past. And it's versatile as anything. It comes with so many Velcro dividers you can rearrange the inside compartment to handle virtually any gear requirements a shoot would require, and you can make those adjustments very quickly.
While the bag does hold gripped DSLRs, it's a tight fit from a depth perspective. Once you get it zipped up, you'll likely find the hotshoes dig into you a bit since the cover is what is between them and your back. This can be remedied by removing the grips before storing the cameras. In most cases there's enough room in the bag to put two grips on top of each other in a single compartment, even with tripod or strap mounts (a la MoneyMaker or Black Rapid). Even a 70-200 with the tripod collar and mounts isn't deep enough to cause any discomfort.
One very clever design function in this bag is that the main compartment is on the back of the bag; the side closest to your back when being worn. So when you need to get your gear out, you slide the backpack off your shoulders and lay the front on the ground. This design provides multiple benefits. The part that rests against your back never lies on the ground, so it doesn't get your back dirty, and since the "lid" is pressed against your back while being worn it prevents certain situations of gear falling out if you may have not zipped it up completely. They actually have designed the main compartment to be accessed by a single zipper that goes all the way around instead of the standard double-zipper design. At first I was disappointed that this slowed me down a second or two, but I quickly realized this prevented having the bottom open if you only zip it up half way. I can't argue with any feature that keeps my from breaking my camera. The absolutely most important benefit of this design though is weight distribution. This design places all your heaviest gear as close to your back as possible, keeping your center of gravity centric. Even with a full-to-the-hilt bag, my wife and I have never once felt like we were being pulled backwards.
Other nice design details include a ton of functional pockets; some zippered, some not. The top front pocket is perfectly sized for carrying a laptop charger and CF card reader with cables. The laptop compartment caries tons in addition to the computer including an iPad, notebooks, light meters, pens, and all that fun stuff. There's a very robust tripod carrying system on the side. While very sturdy, I do wish it had clips for easier removal and attachment of the tripod. The straps include adjustable lateral support clips similar to typical hiking backpacks. I cannot stress enough the quality of the clips and straps. I don't see them breaking, fraying, or pulling loose ever. In fact, the material quality all over is just fantastic. With rugged 480D ballistic nylon covering everywhere, the straps are exceptionally padded without being bulky, and it has interior pockets and the main compartment that are soft-lined. The back panel is also breathable mesh, and the inside of it has large zippered mesh and velcro pockets to carry more stuff.
There's one design element that tends to confuse me, but it's very likely just me, and that is the shape of the bag is slightly trapezoidal. The top is slightly wider than the bottom. Every time I pick up the back to put it on my back I want to pick it up upside-down because my brain wants to think the wider part is on the bottom. And since it's on its back there's no logo to instantly cue orientation. The entire thing is very black so it's hard to see the strap direction as well. I actually asked another photographer friend who owns the bag if she did this as well, but she essentially told me I was crazy. Oh well. It's silly to me, but it's not a deal breaker, but I would actually like to see a logo embroidered on the top of the back panel to remove all question.
For an idea of a great real-world application for this bag, check out this video of a photographer who shoots running events:
- Large carrying capacity with smaller-than-you'd-expect footprint
- High quality components and build all over
- Quite good looking design
- Tons of storage for both gear and accessories including a 15-inch laptop
- Clever engineering, especially for weight distribution and quick-access for a camera
- Price: ~$140 for a whole lotta bag
- Comfortable for long periods of wear, even highly-equipped
- No included and/or integrated rain cover
- About a half-inch too shallow for perfectly comfortable use with gripped pro-level SLRs
- Tripod straps don't clip and are stubborn to adjust
- Trapezoidal shape can be possibly disorienting when trying to pick up from the ground
- Doesn't have rigid side support, so not optimal for potential "crush" situations
What Does It All Mean?
I'm sold. I mean, I'm really sold. This is my favorite overall bag now. I don't always have to load it all the way up, either. There's nothing wrong with half-loading it to go on, say, a family shoot. Sure a messenger-style sling may have a smaller footprint, but I don't feel overwhelmed if it's what I've already got loaded up and I'm too lazy to switch things over to save a few inches. I finally have a case I can take to weddings and make urban and nature treks with the bride and groom and still have every creative tool I could possibly want at my fingertips. I finally have a case I can bring to concerts and not feel silly with. Is it the perfect bag? A thing doesn't exist. I'll continue to catch them all, but this one will always be my favorite war chest.