Hands-on Review: The 12 best photography backpacks we’ve ever tested

Over the last few months, I've tested out 12 different photography backpacks, and I'd like to give a review of the strengths and weaknesses of all of them.

We were looking for a photography bag that fits a tripod and camera gear of any size easily, is lightweight, works as a carry-on for flights, and is durable and protects expensive photography gear well.

The gear I used for these tests include one Canon 5DMkIII, one Canon 7DMkII (both with dual battery handgrip), Canon 70-200 2.8, Canon 24-70 2.8, Canon 16-35 2.8, Canon 50 1.2, Yongnuo flashes, 15” MacBook Pro, and my MeFoto tripod.

I’m sharing my thoughts about the bags, what I liked, and what I didn’t care for. Join Brian on Instagram to see more about these bags as well.

The bags used in this test were sent to me free of charge by the companies to be used in this review, but I was free to review the gear honestly and point out problem areas.   Let's get started…

APE CASE ACPRO1720 DSLR BACKPACK

Ape Case Pro Camera Backpack

ACPRO1720 DSLR Backpack

Just like it’s little brother, the messenger bag, this bag is filled with bells and whistles – and the yellow interior to help you spot things easier.  I always lose little allen wrenches and memory cards in my bag, so this was a nice add-on. This is a very thin bag that does not fit the width of most people. One of the most unique aspects of this bag is that it has three separate sections.

The main compartment holds tons of gear and can be accessed from both the front or the top of the bag. The zipper is covered by a material that makes it a little catchy to unzip. This section easily holds two camera bodies with multiple lenses. A front zipper pocket has plenty of space for batteries, cards, etc. Two drawstring pockets on the sides with straps above them allow you to attach a tripod or hold anything up to the size of a 70-200 lens (but don’t carry a lens in the side pocket). Straps on the front of the bag also allow the tripod to be attached here.

The other sections of the bag include a waist pack (I reject the term “fanny pack”) that is attached to the top with a few straps. This can easily be detached to carry around some small gear the size of a DSLR. Another unique pouch is zipped up on the bottom of the bag. It’s as if they attached a flat bag on the bottom that can be unzipped to carry a pair of shoes or some clothes.

Final Thoughts: This is one of the most unique bags as far as design goes. You can tell a LOT of thought was put into it. It’s fairly comfortable on the back and shoulders, but feels a little odd because of the slim width of the bag. There is a rain cover, but no spot for a laptop. It fits easily in an overhead compartment but seems like a bag geared more towards hiking than traveling.

This bag was one of the most affordable bags we reviewed.  Check the current price of this bag on Amazon.

EVOC CP 26L – $290

EVOC

EVOC CP 26L

If I ever go hiking in the Alps again, this is the bag I’ll take! This bag is designed for travelers that love the outdoors – especially in the snow. Multiple straps are included to attach skis or a snowboard to the bag. A compartment on the side holds a 2L hydration system and an elastic pocket has room the size of a fist. The other side of the bag has zipper access to camera gear. Zipping around the back of the bag accesses the main compartment with plenty of room for two camera bodies and multiple lenses.

There are specified weather protecting pockets inside for memory cards, batteries, etc. These pockets are pretty tight and not the easiest to reach into. Accessed from the front top is a compartment large enough to hold a pair of shoes. In here is a slot for a 17” laptop. I would not carry a laptop here because then it is stored against the outside of the bag with little padding and my 15” MacBook Pro sticks up into the pocket area leaving part of it exposed to the compartment.

Final Thoughts: Great for traveling because the compartment will allow space for clothes if you want to travel light with everything in just one bag. The back padding and straps are extremely comfortable. The zippers could be a little smoother as they get a bit sticky, which makes me wonder how they would do in the cold or with some snow on them. Worried about being stuck in an avalanche? Don’t fret! There’s an emergency plan inside the bag showing you what to do for help.

 

MANFROTTO ADVANCED TRAVEL BACKPACK – $120

Manfrotto

Manfrotto Advanced Travel Backpack

A medium sized backpack, this little guy is great for someone who doesn’t need to carry all their gear. I love the look and feel of this bag! A tripod can be attached to the front or in a pocket that unzips from the side of the bag.

I used the front for my tripod and folded up a jacket in the side pocket. There are two thin zipped pockets on the sides and one on the front top that are perfect for memory cards, batteries, papers, etc. Gear is accessed from unzipping the side of the bag where dividers separate the top half from bottom half. I’m not a big fan of the inside. Dividers can only be used in the bottom half of the bag which means you can’t fit much gear in the top unless you add your own dividing system.

I carried around my 5DMKIII with attached lens in the top where it was a little loose, and a few lenses on the bottom. The bottom can hold a DSLR and a couple lenses if you manage the space well. You can detach the divider and use the bag with one open space. There are a few internal pockets. They claim the bag holds a 13” laptop; however, it easily fit my 15” MacBook Pro.

Final Thoughts: This bag would be great for a hobbyist and is an enjoyable, small bag for a professional.   Its size makes it a comfortable bag to carry around. It’s hard to find a better bag for this price point.  Check the current price of this bag on Amazon.  I think this bag is a pretty good value for the quality.

 

MINDSHIFT FIRSTLIGHT 40L – $330

Mind shift Firstlight 40L

Mindshift Firstlight 40L

Need all your gear on your travels? This Firstlight 40L will hold two camera bodies and probably all your lenses with a flash or two. The slots are deep, which would allow you to actually stack a few things on top of each other. I laid down my 70-200 and placed a flash on top of it to maximize space. I like to carry my tripod inside the bag so there’s less hanging off to catch on things. The dividing padding is just the right thickness to provide protection between gear without wasting space. On the inside of the compartment flap, there are zipper mesh pockets to keep things together.

Externally there is a pocket and straps on both sides where you could carry a tripod, but there’s also straps tucked into pockets on the front of the bag intended for carrying a tripod.   A pocket on top of the bag allows quick access to keys, passports, etc. The front of the bag has two zipper stuff pockets for a jacket or some clothes. They claim one of the pouches fits up to a 17” laptop; however, there is no padding for protection. They recommend you carry your laptop in some type of padded sleeve that you slide into place.

Handles on the top and side allow you to easily lift the bag when placing in an overhead compartment on a plane. The boxy shape of the bag doesn’t conform to your body, but the adjustable padding on the back and straps makes the bag more comfortable than most.

Final Thoughts: This is a great bag to carry all your gear. There’s nothing fancy about the look, but it’s practical. The lack of padding for the laptop sleeve concerns me a bit, but a neoprene sleeve would quickly fix that issue. There’s no quick way to access gear unless removing the bag from your back to unzip it.  Check the current price of this bag on Amazon.

 

MINDSHIFT ROTATION 180° PROFESSIONAL – $389

Mindshift

Mindshift Rotation 180 Pro Deluxe

This was a perfect bag for my trip with Improve Photography to the workshop in Utah/Arizona! This bag was by far the most comfortable to wear on my back. Clearly this was designed for hiking around as it’s curved to shape to your back. What makes this bag so unique? Without moving your backpack you can easily access your gear.

A waist pack on the inside bottom of the bag can be released and slid around your waist to the front of your body to access your gear.  This pouch has enough room for a DSLR with attached lens and another lens. Simply swing the pouch around, grab your gear, shoot, and swing it back around into the pack then keep on hiking!  This pouch can be carried around separate from the backpack if desired. The top compartment of the bag is great for carrying shoes and some clothes. They sell an additional padded insert for this area that can hold another DSLR and multiple lenses – enough for probably all your gear. You access this part from the back of the bag. Keeping the waist belt attached, you can slip the bag off your shoulders, twist the whole bag around and unzip the back to get to the rest of your gear without even having to remove the bag off your body.

There are many other features with this bag that makes it ideal for traveling. A hydration pouch on the side holds a 3L bladder or some clothes rolled up. A pocket on this side with some straps can hold a tripod or attach it to the front with a removable sling. Front pleated pockets can hold a light jacket and some clothes. There are many other hooks and straps and little pouches for things such as water bottles, energy bars, etc.

The “Deluxe Edition” of this bag comes with the padded insert, tripod suspension kit, additional attachment straps, and a thin top pocket great for keys, papers, passport, etc.

Final Thoughts: It doesn’t get much better than this! The bag is extremely comfortable and has straps and attachments to adapt to your desires. The straps allow you to tighten the bag down, and it easily fits in the overhead on an airplane. The only thing this bag doesn’t have is a compartment for a laptop. I must add that Jim has a smaller version of this bag and when he fell against some rocks, it did put a small rip in the material. This bag and a messenger bag both can be carried on to allow you to travel around the world without checking your luggage.  Pick one up on Amazon here.

If you are shooting a crop sensor or mirrorless camera, you'd probably be happier with the slightly smaller version of this bag, which is the one that Jim Harmer prefers and uses as his primary bag.  You CAN fit all your gear AND a laptop in the Rotation 180 Horizon.

 

NANEU ADVENTURE CAMERA BAG OUTLANDER 50L – $239

Naneu

Naneu Adventure Outlander 50L

This bag is tall! Too tall for most airlines as a carry on, this bag is a bag in a bag. Let’s start with the camera gear compartment. This compartment fits inside the bottom of the backpack and is accessible from the side. Inside you can carry a DSLR with multiple lenses. This little bag has straps to carry as a shoulder bag or even a backpack.

With pouches and pockets it can carry batteries, memory cards, etc. There’s nothing really fancy about it, but it can do all you need. Straps on this bag allow you to wear it in front of your body attached to the backpack you’re wearing on your back. This can also help act as a counterweight.

The rest of the bag is a basic hiking backpack. Internally, you could carry a sleeping bag, shoes, and some clothes. A pouch on the top could fit a light jacket, keys, gloves, etc. There are a couple elastic pouches outside the bag that could hold water bottles, gloves, and a hydration slot for a straw. Straps on the front allow you to carry a tripod or attach skis. Compression straps allow you to tighten the bag down. The back of the bag is ventilated for padding and comfort.

Final Thoughts: If you like to camp with your gear, this is good bag. If you’re looking to travel and don’t want to check your bag, look elsewhere. I really like the versatility of the smaller bag inside and being able to use it separately. Pick one up here.

 

ONA CAMPS BAY – $429
Ona Camps Bay Backpack

This is a simple backpack void of any bells and whistles. The top will give you access to an adjustable depth of 4” – 7” great for flashes, memory cards, keys, wallet, etc. This is also where you access up to a 17” laptop. If you have a 15” laptop or longer, part of it will be exposed to the top pocket so keys or anything metal could scratch part of it. There are two pockets outside on the sides that are deep but pretty useless. The top of the pocket is leather instead of elastic so hands don’t fit in very easily. A small zipper pouch in the front allows you to store pens, business cards, memory cards, etc. I would keep my keys in here so not to scratch my laptop. There are also no straps to connect across the chest or waist – something I would find helpful if out and about walking around town for a bit.

I was surprised by how much gear I could fit into this bag. It had a spot for everything I use at a wedding with the exception of a holder for my tripod and small light stands. I tend to carry those together in a separate tripod case anyway. I could fit multiple lenses and a camera body in the main compartment and even squeeze a second DSLR into the top.

Final Thoughts: The Ona Camps Bay is fairly comfortable if you aren’t trying to max it out. It’s rectangular shape doesn’t fully conform to your shoulders and back and the shoulder straps could use a little more padding for those that load it up. This really is a beautiful bag clearly made with high quality material. Check the current price on Amazon.

 

PACSAFE CAMSAFE Z25 – $280

Pacsafe

Pacsafe Camsafe Z25

Smallest of all these backpacks, this little guy amazes me! It’s comparable to a messenger bag turned backpack. No space is wasted in this bag as you can hold most of the same camera gear as the other backpacks. A DSLR, a few lenses, and a flash fit in the main compartment. On the side of the bag is a flat pocket that unsnaps to allow you to carry a water bottle or even attach a small tripod. The top of the bag is made to easily access smaller gear such as a couple flashes or chargers. This is where you also can access up to a 15” laptop, which is almost the full size of the bag. Handles on the top and side allow you to carry the bag like a briefcase.

The front of the bag has a zipper pocket designed specifically for carrying and protecting your identity. Pacsafe is known for security and has created RFIDsafe pockets that will protect your credit cards and passports with chips on them so thieves cannot steal your information – it’s easier than you would imagine. The rest of the bag has additional safety features. The Slashguard material is used for the straps and shell of the bag. Zippers connect to each other and lock together.

Final Thoughts: This is a boxy little bag, so it’s not the most comfortable simply because it only covers so much of your back. Even though it may not be the prettiest of bags it does a great job of holding gear and providing reassurance for those that travel overseas.  Check the current price of this bag on Amazon.

 

THINK TANK AIRPORT ACCELERATOR BAG

ThinkTank

Think Tank Airport Accelerator

This bag mirror’s its sibling, the Mindshift Firstlight 40L (see above review). The only difference internally is the Velcro dividers that just allow a little more variety in their thinner pads and the pockets on the inside flap has one less pocket compared to the Firstlight 40L. Outside the bag handles are in the same place with one on the top and one on a side. The other side has an elastic pouch to carry the base of a tripod and a bunch of strap loops.

On the front of the bag are two pockets. One pocket has a padded sleeve slot for a 17” laptop with an extra slot for an ipad and room for a light jacket folded. The other front pocket is not very deep but is designed to store keys, passports, pens, etc. There’s also a small zipper slot on the top of the bag for quick access to papers or anything small. An attached cable lock can be unzipped from a small pocket and used to lock the zippers together.

Final Thought: I would choose the Mindshift Firstlight 40L over this Think Tank bag. Although the Think Tank is still comfortable it does not have the adjustable torso length and there is better padding on the back and shoulder/waist straps. There are no bells or whistles to this bag. It simply does a good job of transporting tons of gear from point A to point B.  Check the current price on Amazon.

 

THULE COVERT ROLLTOP BACKPACK

Thule Covert

Thule Covert Rolltop Backpack

I am impressed by Thule. I continue to be blown away by the quality and design of their bags at such an affordable price! The camera gear is stored inside a removable compartment and can be accessed from the bottom side of the bag. It can best fit one DSLR with a couple of lenses separated by adjustable origami style dividers. You can fit a couple flashes in the bag around the compartment, but they will be a little loose. There is a waterproof pocket zipped onto the inside of the flap that you open to get to the compartment.

The top half of the bag is large enough to store a pair of shoes and a few articles of clothing. You access this area from the top where it is sealed closed by a zipper and clips. This top part can also fold up to save a little space if empty inside. The other side of the bag has a pouch and a couple straps to hold a tripod. The front has two big zipper pocket areas; one is almost the size of an iPad and the other meant for keys, passports, etc. On the front of these two pockets there are three Velcro pockets that could each hold something about the size of external hard drives. A padded slot on the back fits up to a 15” laptop.

Final Thoughts: This is a very comfortable bag with just the right amount of padding on the back and straps. The bag feels really durable! The one thing it’s missing is a waist strap to give the bag more security if hiking around. A few minor adjustments could have made this bag amazing; even so, it’s still a good deal if your budget has a budget.  Check the current price on Amazon.

 

TIMBUK2 AVIATOR TRAVEL BACKPACK – $179

Timbuk2

Timbuk2 Aviator Travel Backpack

This is a backpack that you can put a camera insert into. The bag itself has one big area that you zip open around the edges. You could fit a few pairs of pants, shirts, and a light jacket in this spot. The top of the bag, about the size of a pair of shoes, is separated by material that can be unzipped to have one big compartment. That’s it internally.

They make a camera insert that fits their messenger bags and also the main compartment of this backpack. Because you just slip it in and out, you need to remove the insert completely to access your camera gear. The insert itself is a decent size capable of holding a DSLR with 3-4 lenses. There are no pockets or anything else to the insert.

Both sides of the bag have handles, elastic pockets, and straps that would allow you to attach a tripod on either side – or both if you have two. There is a thin pocket on the front perfect for stuffing in a light jacket and another on the top that would work well for keys, papers, etc. The shoulder and waist straps can be tucked away to avoid them dangling and getting caught on things. A slot on the back holds a 15” laptop.

Final Thoughts: This is a sharp looking bag and doesn’t scream out PHOTOGRAPHER as you’re walking down the street. I feel like they made a travel backpack and said let’s put a camera insert in it. The pads aren’t the most comfortable, but are manageable. Another bag where the price may be just right.  Check the current price on Amazon.

 

WOTANCRAFT COMMANDER

Wotancraft Commander

Wotancraft Commander

Not on a budget? This might be your bag! I’m a HUGE fan of the waxed canvas and combine that with leather and I’m hooked! Wotancraft makes these bags handmade from Taiwan and must be preordered because they are not manufactured (LOVE that!). The Commander, like it’s little brother the Ranger, is inspired by the WWII Swiss Army backpack.

There are two parts to this bag. The top is accessed by a zipper flap (with built in magnets to help hold the flap open) and another flap with leather straps. The insert can hold a few lenses and you can slide in a flash between the insert and the bag. They also make a waterproof insert that comes separately that can fit in any of their main bags.

The bottom part of the bag can be accessed from either side. Dividers inside allow you to customize it to one big space. Here you can store a couple DSLR and a lens or flash or two. There are three zipper pockets on the top of the bag: one on each side and one on the front. These are perfect spots for papers or keys or memory cards. A larger deep pocket on the front bottom could easily store a flash or water bottle. A zipper pocket on the back fits a 15” MacBook Pro. There are multiple leather straps on the bag that allow you to attach a tripod, especially going across the front pocket. The shoulder straps, also made of leather like a belt, have just the right amount of padding.

Final Thoughts: I have never seen a bag that looks as ruggedly beautiful as the Wotancraft bags. This bag isn’t for everyone. Beauty comes with a price. This bag may not hold any clothes or extras, but it will do a great job with what you have.  Pick one up here!


About the Author

Brian McGuckin

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Addicted to traveling, Brian McGuckin has journeyed to 18+ countries around the world. On Sundays you may see him on the sideline shooting NFL football games. Celebrity/athlete event photography, weddings, and portraits allow him to be immersed in different genres of photography. He shares his love of photography as a workshop instructor. Somehow he juggles this with teaching middle school social studies and living life to the fullest with his wife and four kids.

Comments

  1. This is a wonderful article with a wealth of information. The only extra I would have liked would have been to see some gear in the bags to get an idea of storage capabilities.

  2. Awesome list! Unfortunately – none of these have a laptop compartment that I’m looking for. I’m about to head on a 3 week excursion in Central America as a photojournalist. I’m looking for an affordable pack that can hold 2 lenses, a speedlite, a 7D, a 15″ Macbook Pro, a bunch of cords, a tripod, a shotgun mic and an LED light. Hoepfully dome accessories as well. I’m thinking that I’ll probably also bring a duffle bag with some clothing and let all of my non-clothing related items stay out of the pack. Any suggestions?

    1. Amanda, you might want to look at the Lowepro Fastpack backpacks. They look like they’d be pretty good for travel. I just ordered one but don’t have it yet, but there are lots of review on amazon or at bhphoto.

  3. I found for airplane travel, especially long distance flights, I absolutely love my Think Tank Streetwalker backpack. It’s for carrying all your gear and keeping safe and protected. Lenses I didn’t take during the days went into the hotel room safe. Then you can take the day pack of your choice on a shoot, different purpose in my mind. In some countries, you don’t really want to advertise “expensive camera equipment”.

  4. Hey, I select for me Wotancraft Commander. But, have some confusion. My height is 5 feet 4 inch. Is it heavy or big for me?
    Thanks in advance.

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