Packing the Camera Bag: Travel vs. Field

Every photography trip is a little different.  On some, you’re headed out to do landscapes and on others it may be wildlife.  Even most wildlife safari trips are a little different with each trip.  Maybe you have new gear.  Maybe you are going in a different season, or maybe you are going to a park with different topography.  In this case all of the above are true.

In my prior two trips into the bush, I went to Chobe, with it’s wide open pans.  Further, I went in late July, the dead of Winter when brush is extremely sparse.  On that last trip, the two bodies I used were a Canon 7D and a Canon 30D.  Lens selection was a 500mm f/4 with and without teleconverters on one body and a Canon 100-400  on the second body.

On this trip, I will be headed to a camp in Timbavati, adjacent to Kruger in South Africa.  The trip will be May which is basically late fall.  I expect more brush and tracking off road where we will truly be in the bush on game drives.  For this trip, I will be taking along my newest body, a full frame 5d MkIII.  I think the new focusing system will be matched nicely for the setting.  My back-up body will be the Canon 7D, a solid, fast frame per second 1.6 crop body.  Considering the setting and season, I plan to mount the 5D with a light and portable Canon 400mm DO f/4 and will also expect to use the 1.4x teleconverter.  On my 7D body, I will use the trusty 100-400 zoom as you never know what the shooting distances will be.

Equipment selection is very important, but that’s not really the point of this article.  The point is that with each trip, you have to pack a camera bag and with each changing trip you will need to align equipment in the bag in different ways.  Perhaps even more importantly, you need to pack the bag one way to travel on planes/auto/etc. to get to the bush, but you will probably want the equipment laid out in the back a totally different way to use once in the bush.  Regardless of these constant changes, good photos may depend on you quickly knowing where things are in the bag and accessing them.

In this article, I’m going to show some of the basic features of four camera backpacks.  I will also be pointing out how I hope to lay out my bag for easy use in the field.

I essentially have 4 bags to select from.  I have two LowePro bags (the Vertex 200 AW and the older version of the Photo Trekker).  I have Two Gura Gear Kiboko bags (the 30L and the 22L+).  All four are very good bags and have their place.  As you can see from the photos, that makes 2 larger bags and two smaller bags.  Also note that all 4 bags are similarly deep.  I’m not going to get into a detailed review here as simple web search will provide that info, but do want to note that the Vertex 200 and the Kiboko 22L+ also have storage compartments for a laptop.

Four Bag options

For international travel, the Gura Gear bags have a few advantages.  Both sizes way less than 4 pounds while the LowePro bags weight about 8 pounds.  Considering I’m adding 20+ pounds of gear to a bag, every pound you save is valuable, especially with airlines tightening down on weight limits.  Additionally, the Gura Gear back stores the harness system more elegantly for putting into the overhead.  I’ve included a rear view with straps stored for my LowePro Photo Trekker and the Kiboko 30L.

Side View of 4 Choices: Note all have simlar depth

The Gura Gear bags also have an advantage on safari if you are sharing seating rows with other passengers.  I packed the LowePro Photo Trekker with my bigger lens choices to show that they will easily fit, but also to show that to access these lenses, you have to flop down the entire cover.  This takes up some serious seat real estate.  I similarly packed the 30L.  The Gura Gear bags have a distinct “butterfly” opening style (i.e. you open the left side or the right side).  This distinction means that the bag can more easily be accessed on a shared safari bench row.

Wide Open, the length is 42"!

For the reasons stated above, I’ve chosen to take the Kiboko 30L on this particular safari trip to Timbavati.

Butterfly design leads to less space required

There is no perfect camera bag for travel and use on safari and probably never will be.  I know this statement will bug some of my friends, but it’s just not going to happen.  In the field, you are going to want your camera body or bodies mounted to the most likely lens they will be used with and with the lens hoods on.  This orientation wastes a lot of space and just isn’t practical for air travel or throwing your bags in a trunk/boot of a vehicle.

Once one picks the bag for the trip, the real challenge begins: the decision of how to pack the bag.  I haven’t found anywhere on the web where good advice is given on this subject.  I know from experience, I need the bag and it’s compartments arranged very differently in the field vs. when carrying the gear to the airport.    In the field, you are going to want to have your camera body attached to your primary lens choice.  I highly recommend taking a back-up body.  I also recommend attaching that back-up body to the most likely alternate lens you will use.  I’ve found that a little practice with field arrangement will decrease stress in the field.  With the Kiboko, I’ll be able to attach the 400 DO (with or without the 1.4 teleconverter) to my 5D MkIII body with hood attached and have this on one side of the bag.  I plan to attach my 7D body to the 100-400 lens with hood attached and have this ready on the other side of the body.  I have sandwiched two images to show the basic ‘ready to shoot’ layout.  As you can see, I’ve had to leave a few items back at the lodge for the field trip.  Every packing job has it’s compromises.

Bag Layout “Ready for the Bush”

I hope this short article has given you some ideas on thinking about bag packing for travel and bag packing for shooting as two separate layout decisions.  More importantly, I hope following this advice will lead to you getting that ‘winner shot’ we all want on each bush drive.

30L Bag Layout for airline travel and general transport

 

4 comments for “Packing the Camera Bag: Travel vs. Field

  1. April 22, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Great information and thanks for sharing it.

    You and I will be in Southern Africa around the same time this year, but on opposite sides. My lenses are not as big as yours, the largest being a 70-200 f/2.8. My solution for travel is two bags – a Thinktank Airport Airstream, and an Urban Disguise 40. They both fit on small regional airlines and the Urban Disguise serves double duty as a travel “purse”.

    My two cameras are a 7D and 450D. I’ll put the 70-200 with a 1.4X extender on the 7D and my 18-200 mm on the 450D so that I will be able to take landscape photos and have some flexibility with closer (to me) shots in the bush. This is something I have not been able to do on previous trips with only one camera. I heartily agree with you on taking two cameras!

    The Urban Disguise will serve as my safari “bush bag”. And it carries a tripod across the bottom with attachment straps. It also has a shoulder harness to convert to a backpack while on foot. And a water bottle pouch on the side.

    As I have before, I intend to wear both cameras while in the safari vehicle, to be “ready for anything”. It will be dusty, so extra clothing serves as a camera protector against the worst of the dust. The cameras will need a good clean afterwards, and a cleaning kit while on safari is a must.

    • P. B. Eleazer
      April 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Kayla, you make an important point I’ve noted before. Two camera bodies not only have one ready to shoot in different situations, but also helps minimize dust issues. Africa can be quite dusty and lens changes in a vehicle are a recipe for dust on a sensor. Have a great trip.

  2. April 22, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Great information and thanks for sharing it.

    You and I will be in Southern Africa around the same time this year, but on opposite sides. My lenses are not as big as yours, the largest being a 70-200 f/2.8. My solution for travel is two bags – a Thinktank Airport Airstream, and an Urban Disguise 40. They both fit on small regional airlines and the Urban Disguise serves double duty as a travel “purse”.

    My two cameras are a 7D and 450D. I’ll put the 70-200 with a 1.4X extender on the 7D and my 18-200 mm on the 450D so that I will be able to take landscape photos and have some flexibility with closer (to me) shots in the bush. This is something I have not been able to do on previous trips with only one camera. I heartily agree with you on taking two cameras!

    The Urban Disguise will serve as my safari “bush bag”. And it carries a tripod across the bottom with attachment straps. It also has a shoulder harness to convert to a backpack while on foot. And a water bottle pouch on the side.

    As I have before, I intend to wear both cameras while in the safari vehicle, to be “ready for anything”. It will be dusty, so extra clothing serves as a camera protector against the worst of the dust. The cameras will need a good clean afterwards, and a cleaning kit while on safari is a must.

    • P. B. Eleazer
      April 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Kayla, you make an important point I’ve noted before. Two camera bodies not only have one ready to shoot in different situations, but also helps minimize dust issues. Africa can be quite dusty and lens changes in a vehicle are a recipe for dust on a sensor. Have a great trip.

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