Most people spend hours, days, or even weeks deciding on what camera body or lens to add to their collection. But when it comes to backpacks even professional photographers cheap out on their selections. Much less research goes into this decision since most people assume that the pack will wear out in a few months anyway. Unfortunately, this happens a lot, especially if you do choose the cheapest backpack you can find on Amazon that looks somewhat cool.
Looking cool is definitely an important factor; but what about materials, durability, and water resistance? How much gear do you plan to carry to shoots? Do you want Nylon or cotton canvas? Choosing the right camera backpack is an important decision, but it does not need to be a difficult one. Here are some guidelines you can use to help decide on what’s the best camera backpack for you.
What features do I want in a camera backpack?
Material Construction and Durability
Packs nowadays tend to be made of Nylon, a synthetic plastic. Nylon is so popular because it’s highly resistant to tearing and shearing forces. This will come up fairly often if your pack stands a chance of catching on branches or rock in the outdoors. Ripstop Nylon, in particular, holds up nicely to abuse. The threading is not only thicker, but interlaces at regular intervals for greater strength. Lastly, Nylon packs are waterproof and great for outdoor photographers.
Occasionally Polyester and Polypropylene are used as well, but both are inferior to Nylon. Polyester is inexpensive and holds color nicely thanks to its high UV resistance, but isn’t nearly as durable as Nylon. Polypropylene is naturally waterproof and has insulating properties, but will degrade with sufficient UV exposure.
Leather is one of the most quality materials you can have for a pack. It’s heavier than synthetics, but durable and far more attractive looking. Leather does require some care to ensure it lasts, with regular cleaning and applications of leather conditioner to ensure it remains supple. Leather also forms an attractive patina on the surface over time that changes the color and texture into something soft and supple. Leather can be treated to make it water resistant or even waterproof, but leather is innately porous and not a waterproof material.
Cotton canvas is the last of the most common backpack materials you’ll find. It’s attractive and durable and usually midway in price between leather and the synthetic plastic materials. Cotton canvas can be treated or blended with other fabrics to make it water resistant, but it’s not innately waterproof like Nylon or Polypropylene.
If the material has a D (denier) rating, it can be used to gauge approximately how thick (and therefore how strong) the backpack will be. Keep in mind that the rating only applies to backpacks of the same materials. A 500D canvas pack is not comparable in strength to a 500D Nylon one. For most users, 400-800D is more than sufficient strength. But if you’ll be putting your pack through rugged conditions, you should seek something with at least an 800D rating or more.
Carrying loads up to and exceeding the maximum rated load capacity of your bag should be avoided as much as possible. Micro tears and stress on the joints, seams, and the material itself will add up faster than you might expect. Double-stitching is best if you tend to put your gear through the wringer.
Inspect the shoulder straps and corners in particular for reinforcement, even the zipper matters when it comes to quality. Japanese-manufactured YKK-brand zippers are well known for being the toughest and most reliable in the world, thanks to rigorous testing and quality control.
When looking at a potential backpack, it pays to know which of the compartments you intend to use. While the overall design may be pleasing, if the backpack has components that are poorly laid out for your needs it may be a waste of money.
For example, many camera backpacks use a divider-based storage design for at least one major compartment. This style works nicely for photographers needing to carry around a large lens selection. But if you have a fixed lens camera, it may be wasted or even a hassle.
And even if you remove the Velcro-secured dividers, the Velcro itself will be a magnet for lint and can potentially damage any cloth items. Many, if not most, camera backpacks also include a laptop sleeve; all the better to operate as all-purpose electronics carriers. But is that something you intend to use? A single large compartment may suit you better at the cost of gear organization.
Many models also include pockets on the access flaps, and several even get creative with the access points. The access point on top of the pack is the traditional design, but rear access packs are becoming increasingly common, as are side access models. Each style has its pros and cons and really depends on your storage needs; how quickly you need particular items and how large, small, or numerous those items might be.
How big of a backpack you need is dependent on both the amount of gear you plan to carry, as well as your own body. 18” packs are considered to be small, while 18-22” is a medium-sized bag. Anything over 22” at maximum dimension is a large backpack.
Small and medium backpacks are usually small enough to fit as a carry-on item with airlines, while large backpacks will always need to be checked in. Small packs may also work as your “personal item,” depending on airline regulations.
If you’re buying a medium or large backpack, you may find it uncomfortable when it is full of equipment, unless it includes a hip strap. Hip straps are secured by buckles around the waist and allow the weight of the pack to not just sit on your shoulders. Otherwise, you risk neck and shoulder fatigue after a long day’s haul.
Top 5 Camera Backpacks
Peak Design Everyday Backpack 20 & 30L
Peak Design was a Kickstarter company that became successful enough to start their very own brand of premium backpacks. There are two size options, the Everyday Backpack 20L and the Everyday Backpack 30L, and both offer an incredibly well-designed suite of options catering specifically to digital photographers.
The pack uses a 400D Nylon outer shell treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) spray coating. DWR coatings do eventually wear out with frequent abrasion and washing, but you can reapply as needed via spray coat or DWR additions to a wash cycle.
Flexfold Divider + Integrated Storage Design
The very heart of the design of this backpack centers around the Flexfold or “origami divider” design. Sometimes in-pack dividers can be a pain or of limited use, but Peak Design uses compression molded EVA foam in the construction of these dividers.
They can fold into the exact orientation that suits your gear storage needs, including cubbies and shelves within the pack, and then secured with Velcro. They’re also completely removable, in case you need all 20 L for something substantial.
There are other storage modules of the pack integrated into the body. The two side flaps not only double as access points for the pack, but also have a pocket secured by a zipper. Another zipper pocket exists under the top access flap. And the laptop sleeve provides storage for laptops up to 15” in size.
At 4 lbs. (1.81 kg), this backpack is incredibly lightweight and provides a lot of storage in a rugged yet minimalist package. Especially important for the frequent traveler, the Everyday 20L is also carry-on size, and can even fit under a seat if needed.
Sometimes zippers are a weak point for water-resistant packs. But the zippers of the Everyday 20L are well designed to ensure that water can’t penetrate at all when sealed. Lastly, the seams are reinforced even further with Hypalon, a synthetic rubber that’s resistant to chemical weathering and degradation from UV exposure.
While the price puts it at one of the more expensive models, the Everyday Backpack 20L is both stylish and functional.
Vanguard Alta Sky 51D Backpack
Sometimes we need to carry a large amount of gear all at once. Wedding and other event photographers often need to carry two or more bodies at a time, with an assortment of lenses for each. And we can’t forget about about tripods and the increasingly popular camera drones.
The Vanguard Alta Sky 51D is compact enough to fit into overhead storage on a flight, yet comes with enough storage space for both your camera gear and your drone!
Outer and Inner Storage for Tripod or Drone
There are dozens of decent camera backpacks that feature a Nylon design with good storage capacity. But few are sizable or designed to hold a drone. The broad wings usually take up too much space in most backpack models.
With the Vanguard Alta, you can choose whether to use the spacious main compartment or the customizable outer pocket. Keep in mind that the main compartment is only so large, and won’t be able to hold the largest drones.
The outer pocket can be a sort of pouch that can secure your drone while leaving it partially exposed. The pouch can also be disengaged and combined with several outer straps to secure a tripod to the back of the pack. Even if you don’t plan on carrying a tripod or drone, the outer straps can secure a tent, sleeping back, or other large items that otherwise wouldn’t fit inside the backpack.
Like most modern packs, the Vanguard Alta also includes a laptop sleeve for laptops up to 15” in size. It also features a flexfold divider system, though the dividers are flimsy and don’t offer much cushioning for protection. At 22.25” x 4.625” x 10.25”, it’s at the very limit for most airplane carry on restrictions, but still suitable so long as you mind the weight restrictions.
At 6.44 lbs. (2.92 kg.), the pack itself is somewhat heavy, which makes it less suitable for what it was designed for: carrying gear over long distances. Two shoulder straps are also supported by two hip straps to evenly distribute weight for maximum comfort.
While Vanguard isn’t forthcoming on the materials used to design the Vanguard Alta Sky 51D, it does include a rain cover for protection. This means the pack, zipper, and seams aren’t likely to be waterproof. But you can expect some level of water resistance given how common and inexpensive synthetic fabrics are.
Manfrotto Pro-Light 3N1-36 Backpack
The name 3N1 refers to the flexible design of the Pro-Light Backpack. This particular pack uses a harness system with side release buckles that give it versatility in how it’s worn. Users can wear it as a standard backpack, a sling, or a cross backpack, which is sort of a hybrid between the first two.
Using the pack as a sling frees an arm up for accessing gear from your side more quickly. The sling style is best when the camera is not at full capacity; otherwise you risk stressing the single strap. A padded waist strap is also included for even weight distribution between the hips and shoulders when bearing a heavy load.
Manfrotto is well known for making quality photography gear, and the Manfrotto Pro-Light 3N1-36 Backpack is no exception.
Flexfold Storage Based
Like the Everyday models, the Manfrotto Pro-Light uses a collection of flexfold inserts to allow you to fully customize the layout to include as many or as few lenses and camera bodies as you want. You can ensure the body of your camera with the lens already attached fits perfectly, while additional lenses take up space around the mounted lens barrel, for example. Two red main flexfold pockets leave a storage space in the middle for a drone around the same size as the DJI Phantom.
Tripods have two ways to be attached. You can use the tuck-away straps hidden in the front panel to secure a tripod or monopod in place. Or you can attach it to the exterior using the attached bungee cable.
The Pro-Light 3N1-36 is treated for weather resistance, but also includes a rain fly for waterproofing, even in heavy rain. The rain fly also has a silvered side that reflects sunlight and protects your gear from overheating in direct sunlight. A laptop storage pocket is included, and can hold even a large 17” model. Finally, a single zippered mesh storage compartment inside the main pocket is perfect for small loose items that would otherwise roll around or get lost in a typical backpack.
While small enough to fit on a plane as a carry on, the main pocket can hold up to three camera bodies and five additional lenses. The top grip handle gives a fourth carrying option that’s particularly handy for those moments where wearing it as a backpack would be inconvenient, like disembarking from a crowded airplane, for example.
Manfrotto Advanced Rear Access Backpack (MB MA-BP-R)
Another Manfrotto offering, the Manfrotto Advanced Rear Access Backpack is a compact, chic Italian offering that immediately catches the eye. Black Nylon construction ensures water resistance, and the included rain fly offers full waterproofing in case of heavy rain. At 17.7” x 12.6” x 7.5”, this bag is almost a medium-sized one.
The waist straps are rather small and don’t offer as much hip support for weight redistribution as one might like, but they are functional. However, the bag is also sized perfectly for being carried onto airplanes or stored under a seat.
One very nice thing about this bag is that is features not only flexfold dividers, but a removable compartment. The main compartment doubles as a camera case that slides in and out of the bag and has a mesh zipper cover. Additional modules would have been even nicer, but one is a handy feature.
There is room to store a tripod or monopods in either of the two side pockets. Given the size of the bag, the pockets are tall enough for collapsible travel-sized tripods and monopods at best. Dual rings exist on both of the shoulder straps for attaching carabiners or other hanging devices. The laptop sleeve can hold a laptop up to 13” in length, making it better suited for MacBook Airs and other slim models.
Rear Access for Extra Security
If theft has ever been an issue for you, this backpack has a security feature worth looking at. The main pocket is accessed from the side that faces your back rather than the side facing outwards. This means potential thieves can’t open the bag from behind while you’re distracted by a shot, shopping, etc.
It does mean that you have to take the bag off whenever you want to access an item, and slows things down somewhat. But for sheer peace of mind, the Rear Access system is perfect for street photographers.
Ona Camps Bay Camera Backpack
The Ona Camps Bay Camera Backpack combines rugged functionality with a stylish twist. It features a messenger bag style using waxed canvas and leather for a comfortable feel and fit. Air mesh padding on the rear allows proper airflow and prevents sweat from collecting while being worn. Double stitching throughout the construction will ensure this bag lasts a very long time with proper care.
Stylishly Fits All Your Electronics
This particular backpack is on the smaller end (dimensions 17” x 13” x 6.5”), but can hold a surprisingly large amount of gear. There’s space enough for 1 DSLR body, 5-7 lenses, and a 17” laptop. Or two camera bodies and slightly less lenses, depending on your setup.
Messenger bags definitely have more of a classic look over the more practical designs of some of the other bags here. This is a bag you won’t be embarrassed to carry around at a wedding or other higher profile event.
The Ona Camps Bay also has a zipper pocket on the top of the main flap for small item storage. You can retrieve pens, notepads, and other items quickly without fussing with the main buckles. You also can access the laptop sleeve through the top zipper pocket.
The only real issue with the bag is that it’s not designed for particularly quick access so much as looking good while keeping your gear secure. The twin front buckles aren’t all that quick to open, and then you’ll need to unzip the front pocket to access your gear.
Waxed Canvas or Ballistic Nylon
Waxed canvas is an excellent alternative to synthetic fabrics. Cotton is durable, environmentally friendly, and has a great feel to it. The cotton canvas is saturated with wax; which is water repellant, but not necessarily waterproof. Zippers and seams will still allow in water if there’s enough flow around.
Waxed canvas should also be re-waxed every 6-12 months, depending on usage to keep the fabric at its best. The leather accents in various places on the bag makes it the most attractive bag on this list.
A 1050D ballistic black Nylon version also exists. Nylon has a more artificial feel that may also be somewhat more familiar to backpack enthusiasts. Ballistic Nylon, as the name suggests, was initially designed to help protect soldiers from shrapnel in explosions in WWII.
It’s naturally durable and resistant to both tears and punctures, making it the bag of choice for people who want to look good even as they do a number on the bag itself.
The bags in this article are in the order of preference. Peak Design's Everyday Backpack really hits all of the right notes. It combines organization with customizability, thanks to its extra-tough flexfold dividers. And it looks every bit as stylish as the Ona Camps Bay messenger bag, while being much more affordable.
The Vanguard Alta Sky 51D is pure function over fashion. It carries as much as you need while keeping your gear secure and you comfortable with the generously sized waist straps. Manfrotto Pro-Light 3N1-36 Backpack combines some of the bulk function of the Alta 51D with a customizable style that lets you wear it as a backpack, sling, or cross backpack.
If you like Manfrotto’s style but not the size of the Pro-Light, then the slightly smaller Manfrotto Advanced Rear Access Backpack could be for you. The rear access design makes gear acquisition a bit slower. But for the security-minded photographer, it’s one of the best on the market. But if looking good while keeping your gear secure is foremost on your mind, the Ona Camps Bay Camera Backpack should be first on your list. Featuring a classic waxed canvas look with leather accents this is a backpack that will raise eyebrows no matter where you go.
Whichever of these backpacks you choose you’ll be making a decision that you’ll be happy with for years to come!