A reposting of my blog on camera bags from 2012. Still apt.


Who cares about camera bags? Well....I do.

This is an old, Domke Little Bit Bigger camera bag.

I see a lot of super crappy camera bags out and about.  What the heck are you people thinking?  Seeing a huge, ballistic nylon, super-size-me bag that looks like a black shipping box rigidly swinging from a strap that has a death grip on your shoulder tells me that you didn't think that bag purchase through all the way. I know, I know, you're an engineer and you read the tests and selected a bag for maximum gear safety.  Your brand X behemoth bag can protect the contents at drops that accelerate to 20 g's.  It's bullet proof and has dedicated compartments for everything from your micro-fiber cleaning cloth to your 18-500mm zoom and your GPS something or other, and your flashlight and your cellphone(s),  and your MP3 player and a few books on lighting and a couple of sandwiches and a six pack of lite beer.   Swinging the "big bags" through an unsuspecting crowd won't win you many friends.    In term of coolness the giant, semi-rigid, b-nylon bags are the comb-overs of camera bags.  Better to just carry everything in a paper bag from the grocery store.

 You want something better out of life than to own the U-Haul of camera bags. I've looked at almost every bag on the market over the last thirty years and I've bought dozens of them.  Maybe more.  I had a brief romance with a minimalist Leica canvas camera bag but it just wasn't the right size.  I still have three of them hanging on a door in the studio, in various sizes.  Tamracs are the Pontiac Firebirds of camera bags.  Too bulky and inefficient.  The interior size is minute on most of them compared to the exterior dimensions.  Ditto the Lowes and the Katas.  In fact, all of the bags that are constructed of dense, rigid foam, covered with ballistic nylon are heavy on "protection" (as if it mattered) and light on comfort and usability.  And as stylish as a leisure suit.
You want a bag with give.  You want a bag that ages gracefully.  You want a bag that's underwhelming and personable.  And, most importantly, you want a back that wraps itself around you like an affectionate lover.

In the end, if you are a professional photographer who carries his own cameras onto commercial locations, or in the service of art, or you just want to look like one, you can't really carry anything but a Domke cotton canvas bag.  The size is really up to you but good taste dictates that you select one that's just big enough for whatever you have planned, photographically, for the day.

If you are shooting with micro four thirds cameras and lenses you certainly don't need anything bigger than the original, F2 bag.  If you shoot with APS or full frame cameras you don't need anything more ample than the Little Bit Bigger Bag in the photo above.  If you get one of the Little Bit Bigger Bags and you come back whining that you've run out of space you are wrong.  You just tried to put too much worthless stuff in the bag.

Let's get straight about one thing: A camera bag is not a "storage solution" and a photo shoot is not an automatic opportunity to bring every last piece of photo-crap along when you leave the house. Tobacco colored filters? Really?  If you've done your due diligence and practiced your craft over and over again you should know which two zoom lenses you really need to shoot with or, alternatively, which three primes you need to pack for the day.  If you're shooting unhurried and close to home do you really need a back up camera?  I didn't think so. An extra battery or two? Sure.  Wanna pack even lighter? Leave the cellphone at home and concentrate on shooting.

But back to my point.  The small Domke bag (the f2) and the Little Bit Bigger Bag are both made out of cotton canvas.  Over time (if you use it) it gets softer and softer. Comfortable to the touch.  The bag is made to smush when there's not a lot in it.  It kind of wraps around your hip instead of gouging rigidly into it.  The smaller bag should always be bought in the dark brown color.  It's stealthy and visually appealing in its simplicity and grace.  In the large bag your really only have the choice between a very, very light tan and a deep black.  I have them both.  Just get the black.  Over time it will fade like the corners of an enameled Leica M3, showing the equivalent of camera brassing that says, "My camera bag earned this soft, weathered finish from time in the field."

My Bigger Bag is perfect for what I do.  I can comfortably fit in two big camera bodies and four lenses, plus a flash.  The front pockets are reserved for camera batteries and memory cards.  The end pockets for flash batteries and off camera flash cables.  The back pocket?  You get to use it any way you want.  It will accept my 13 inch laptop but it's stupid to carry a laptop around if you're going out to shoot.  If your camera bag feels heavy it's either not well made or you put too much stuff inside.  See above.

Big, dumb bags are insidious.  They aren't really scalable because they are more rigid than the unstructured canvas bags. Human nature (which you can't resist even though you say you can) impels you to fill every pocket; every nook and cranny.  And the fat bag throws off your normally graceful gait. The more you carry the harder it is to be creative.  It's a known law of the photographic universe.
I started out with a Domke F2 (original) bag in brown.  I still have it after nearly 20 years.  A short time later I got the bigger bag because I was doing a lot of airline travel and the bag, with my two shooting cameras and four lenses, and necessary junk would all fit under the seat in front of me.  It still will, even with all the TSA'ing and downsizing.

The black, bigger bag has been with me through a blizzard in St. Petersburg, a junket to Monte Carlo, a torrential downpour in Seattle and just about everywhere else.  It won't protect gear from rank stupidity and will  punish you until you learn to be vigilant in caring for your gear.  But it will make you a better photographer because it will carry your stuff gracefully and call less attention to you than more unyielding baggage.  In a way, all baggage is part of a balancing act.  Too much means you're not selective enough.  Being prepared is one thing, carrying your whole inventory on your shoulder is just crazy.

These are just suggestions.  If you're as headstrong as I am you'll go out and buy whatever the hell you think is right.  But I'm here to tell you that when I've met the best and the brightest, the superstars, the Rollingstones and Beatles of photography, every damn one of them is hauling their carefully selected camera gear around with them in a Domke canvas bag.  Not some high tech monstrosity of a bag. And certainly nothing in bright colors or attached to a cutesy name.  You've been informed.  No one can force you to have good taste.  But if you are in the market for a great camera bag I suggest you try one of the Domkes.

full disclosure. I own too many Domke bags but, it can't bear to let any of them go.  I don't own Tiffen or Domke stock and no one gives them to me for free.  The article is not meant to be mean or serious.  If it comes off that way I either wrote it wrong or you read it wrong.  And, true fact, Duane Michals actually did carry his cameras to several photo shoots in New York City in a Shopping bag from a department store.  Really.

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Duane Pandorf said...

Great article as one who doesn't have too many bags but my two favorites for my M kit are the Billingham Hadley Pro and Small bags.

I don't have a Domke but have seriously considered the brand before I settled on the Billinghams.

George Beinhorn said...

Hey, this is wonderful. The Domke F2 is the J. Wellington Wimpy of camera bags. Many times I've regretted giving my old, worn-in, supremely comfortable F2 to Goodwill. And your experience reflects mine precisely, how the bag gets softer and molds around your hip, totally out of the way; it seemed to shrink when you put in less gear. The F2 would be too big for a mirrorless and four lenses; but danged if I wouldn't carry the F2 anyway - it is just sooo cool. Thanks for telling us that many pros use it - warmed my heart.

Gato said...

Thanks. I bought my Domke bags back in my newspaper days -- they were the only way to go for serious photojournalists back then -- and they still serve me well. My F2 will hold everything I need on my person for most gigs -- an m4/3 body, lenses, 1 or 2 hotshoe flashes, and more batteries, cards and miscellaneous than I ever need. The backup stuff (a body, kit zoom and yet more batteries) usually stays in the van in a separate bag.

Some of the other brands seem to waste more space on padding than they allow for gear. Though I ado have a small Lowepro bag from Walmart exactly the right size for an m4/3 body and two small zooms -- or three primes.

FWIW, my FZ1000 currently travels in an insulated lunch bag I ran across at a garage sale just after getting the camera. It is exactly the right size and shape, and it only cost two bucks. I have done considerable shopping since then, in person and online, and have not found anything better.

Bill Bresler said...

I've actually worn out 3 F2 Domkes in my 39 years as a newspaper photog. When the holes got so big that I was losing pencils and AA batteries it was time to retire them. I still have a Little Bit Bigger, but it's just too large.
There's nothing like the aroma of an old Domke bag. It's a mixture of sweat, mold, film, and a whiff of cigar that never goes away.
When I began using a Sony NEX-6 and an a6000 for news work the F2 was too big. After reading a favorable review from some young guy who probably never shot film in his life I purchased a Lowepro Urban Reporter, which sounds way cooler than it is. After 2 years it's falling apart. The snaps on pockets pulled out, the grippy strips on the shoulder pad peeled off (I've glued a strip of rubber stair tread in its place.), and the black is fading to a hideous tan/purple hue.
It's probably time for another Domke. Perhaps an F8 will do.
The only problem I forsee is that I may be retired before it's fully broken in.

Gordon Cahill said...

I have too many camera bags. I could open a shop. In there is one Domke.

I really like the bag. It's a good size. The strap is great. It's comfortable for a shoulder bag. The inserts are genius. I never use it.

Because the stupid thing just falls over. Sure it's sewn like a 3D rectangle but mine takes on a cylinder shape, as soon as you put anything in the pockets on front or top and rolls around in the car. Put it down and it's liable to fall over backwards. And if you haven't done up the horrible clips your gear just rolls out.

I migrated to the stupidly expensive billinghams and never looked back


Kirk Tuck said...

That's so funny! I've never had a Domke bag roll overhear get cylindrical. What are you putting on the top? That little zipper compartment is barely big enough for an owner's manual...

I looked at Bellingham's once but I just couldn't do it. Seems like the equivalent of owning a Range Rover to me. To uppity for my station...

Don Parsons said...

I ran into Eddie Adams one day at the airport.
He had his Leicas' in a pillow case.
I kid you not....

jiannazzone said...

I've had a Domke F3X for 35 years. The grippers on the strap are long gone but the bag just keeps going. My F2 sees less use because it carries more than my aging back sometimes wants to bear.

tnargs said...

I certainly love my Domke F-3X Super Compact Ruggedwear. The ruggedwear bags are waxed and soft from day 1. Mine initially served well with my Canon 7D and three zoom kit, and now equally with my micro four thirds system.

Anonymous said...

I've been using various Domke bags for the past 25 years and they are still my favorite. When I need something a bit smaller or more flexible, I have a bevy of Tom Bihn bags that readily accept Domke inserts. Similar philosophy, different materials and purpose. Life is good!


Peter said...

I had a $25 nylon bag, blue with khaki piping for nearly 30 years that did me fine! I carried two Nikon bodies and about five lenses (in the 1980s), plus a flash and film, and filters. Ideal. Like a fool, I gave it away.

Then I got uppity and bought a Billingham. I had it for about 20 years and never took it on a trip. It was smaller on the inside than it looked and was heavy even without gear. Sold it in 2012. Very expensive and a disappointment.

I still have another cheap bag, Nikon branded but generic, which is soft khaki cotton with soft dark brown velour inside, three compartments, two end pockets and a wide soft woven cotton strap. I've had it for 30 years at least and I'll never part with it. It easily holds my Contax G bodies and lenses. I really like it.

Long story but recently (2 weeks ago) I bought a Think Tank Retrospective 7 in Pinestone green, the leather topped one. It's with me now in Bali, holding the Panasonic FZ1000 and the Oly EM-1 with Panasonic 14-42mm. That's all. No need for anything else these days. The E-M1 hasn't been used yet. One of the compartments is used for my oaty snacks and cough lozenges, and the front compartment holds my wallet and reading glasses. The rear is too small for my Dell 15" laptop but holds my Samsung tablet. Just about perfect. Until the next one!

Mitch said...

I got rid of my Domke's. Sand color. They all smelled like dairy farms and structure fires. Hazards of a couple of decades of newspaper shooting in the northeast I guess. Kinda liked the Lowe Stealth series as it was a somewhat Ok sorta approximation of a Domke just in plastic material and a little too fat. Still carry a Stealth Reporter for some bigger jobs.

My ThinkTankPhoto Retrospective is kinda nice and is a good size for a couple of lenses, flash, power bar for lunch, keys. Not having to carry 30 rolls of film at all times opens up a lot of bag space. But the material is a nudge too heavy and will never get properly broken in before I retire in 10,15 years. Certainly will never acquire that body hugging curve like the F2 did.

Might have to get a new F8 little version ... drag it behind the car for a couple of blocks so it's good to go ...

Robin said...

I like Domke's too, but I love my Hadley Pro - it's like a Rolls-Royce Domke. My current big bag is a Thinktank Retrospective 30. It takes everything, it's huge and heavy and has an intricate pocket for every last thing. The pockets in front seem to make it twice the width it needs to be. It's very good, but I don't like it: too big, heavy and complicated. Next stop is the Large Hadley - so much simpler. Most Domke's are not deep enough to take a 70-200 f2.8, which is why I don't use them anymore.

Kepano said...

F2 was my first serious camera bag. Still have it, but as it is the ballistic nylon version, it hasn't worn as nicely as yours. I also have some Tenba bags, a couple of f-stop backpacks and several Think Tank products. The Retrospective 7 and Tenba Mini Messenger have replaced my F2 as my primary gear hauler, as they both have slots for a small laptop or iPad. Aperture, despite being EOL, runs great on my new 12" MacBook. I wouldn't carry it on a local day job, but I need my laptop when on travel gigs. On my last trip, I had an a6300+18-105mm and my A7s+Contax 1,4/35, a VideoMic Pro, iPad mini and 12" MacBook all in my Retro 7. Amazing amount of capability in such a small bag.