Backpack vs Shoulder Bag for Camera Gear: Which is Best For You?

Backpack vs Shoulder Bag for Camera Gear: Which is Best For You?:

I’ve been a shoulder bag guy for years, and years.  Even in high school when JanSports were the cool backpack to have, I had a shoulder bag.  Well, that’s not entirely true; I had a JanSport too but later on, I did switch to a shoulder bag :).  Getting back on topic, I thought I’d never switch to a backpack for my camera gear but over the past year, I found myself carrying around more gear for not only my model shoots but also for review purposes.  My back started paying for it, so I started looking into alternatives, and I remember how much I enjoyed the Rucksack 25 that I reviewed a while back thanks to Billingham (review here).  Well, I am finally an owner of one, and I’m proud to say that it is my very first backpack ever for camera gear :).  Let’s take a closer look at how the two compare.

The Backpack for Camera Gear:

Let’s start off talking about the backpack, and list some of the positives.  For one, things are generally more organized in a backpack.  For instance, in a backpack, items might have their own individual slots and everything is laid out in their own little compartments.  If you only had say three slots in a shoulder bag, for example, you may have to stack lenses to fit more.

Another point is if you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking, especially for extended periods, a backpack will probably be more comfortable to use.  This is also true for certain activities like biking or skateboarding, for instance.

Part of the added comfort is from the weight being distributed over two shoulders.  Whenever I do model shoots, I usually pack my Billingham 307 up, and take it to my studio.  The 307 is usually full of camera gear, which includes my SL, its lenses, miscellaneous items, wireless transmitters, and tons of batteries not just for my camera but also for my light gear.  Once I get to my studio, I’m fine.  If I do street fashion when I’m out there, I usually switch to a much smaller bag that I’ve left at my studio (I do this same thing when I have a lot of gear to review at once sometimes).

However, I live in NYC, and getting out there requires me to take mass transit and do a bit of walking.  I love the 307 more than any bag I’ve ever owned, and the bag itself isn’t heavy considering what you can carry and the protection that it offers.  But when it’s packed full, it’s a different story because that weight is on one shoulder.  Since switching to the Rucksack 25, it’s been a lot easier for me.

Now, a backpack may sound pretty much perfect but there are some negatives.  For instance, I think the biggest disadvantage a backpack has over a shoulder bag is it just isn’t as convenient sometimes.  Some backpacks require you to stop, take the bag off, and put it down somewhere in order to access your gear.  In my situation, where I’m just essentially transporting gear from one location to another, it’s not too big of a deal.  However, if you’re street shooting, for example, you want quick and easy access to your gear.

Some companies have tried to make backpacks that have better access to gear.  Backpacks like the Think Tank Photo Urban Access 13 or the Lowepro Fastpack BP 150 AW II, for example, offer side access, which definitely makes things more convenient.  However, accessing backpacks generally requires one to at least take the bag partly off whereas with a shoulder bag, all you have to do is really lift the flap.

Also, backpacks may be a bit harder to navigate through a crowded city with, especially if it’s a larger one.  You’ll definitely have to take it off, and just hold the shoulder straps in your hands when you’re riding a busy train, for example.

The Shoulder Bag For Camera Gear:

Let’s talk about the shoulder bag now.  I think the biggest advantage of a shoulder bag is convenience.  It basically allows you quick and easy access to your gear.  Generally speaking, you never have to even put the bag down or stop walking just to put back or retrieve gear.  This is the main reason why I’ve stuck with shoulder bags for so long.

The other advantage a shoulder bag has over a backpack is it’s just easy to navigate through crowds with one.  it can be swung to the front, side or back depending on what makes it easiest for you to get through a crowded street.  It’s easier to ride the trains or buses with when they’re crowded.

Another advantage is that you can find a pretty small shoulder bag, if you wanted one.  You can find something smaller like a Billingham Hadley Small Pro, a Think Tank Photo Retrospective 5 V2.0 or even a tiny Billingham 72.

The biggest disadvantage, at least in my eyes is the shoulder bag can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re carrying a lot of gear.  Unlike a backpack, you’re really putting a lot more weight on one shoulder as opposed to two.  If you need to carry more gear or even a tripod for instance, I think a backpack is a better choice.

Another disadvantage, which actually kind of relates to what I just said, is for long periods of time, I feel a backpack is more comfortable.  I walk around the city all day at times just taking pictures, and even with my smaller and lighter bags, I can sometimes still feel it in my shoulder at the end of the day.  I go shooting at least 3-5 days a week, so it all adds up.

Also, if you’re doing certain activities like biking or skateboarding, for instance, I think you’re better balanced with a backpack.  Of course, there are always exceptions to all rules, right?  I see bikers in the city all the time with shoulder bags as well but I’m just generally speaking here.

Backpack vs Shoulder Bag for Camera Gear Verdict:

Deciding between which system is best, a backpack or a shoulder bag, isn’t necessarily easy but I hope this helps.  There isn’t a wrong choice as there are plenty of great shoulder bags and backpacks out there for camera gear.  The important thing is to get something that really fits you, and your style of shooting.

I now have my first backpack, the Billingham Rucksack 25 but it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped using shoulder bags.  For times when I’m going from one location to another, like from my place to my studio,  I’m using the Rucksack 25.  It can carry a ton of gear, and at the same time, it’s more comfortable to carry because of the even weight distribution.

For walking around for street fashion or street photography, I’m still using my shoulder bags, such as, my Hadley Pro 2020 or my Billingham M Combination bag.  I love the convenience and ease of use with shoulder bags.

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