A brief history of camera cases & the best modern bags
Camera bags as we know them today are a rather new development. In the old days,before cameras had interchangeable lenses, they were simply protected and carried in a tight fit camera case made out of leather. This system was often used for folding and box cameras. The cameras had to be taken out of their protective housing in order to be shot. Since most of these older cameras required quiet some time to be set up prior to taking a picture, this type of casing was not too inconvenient. This is a Voigtländer Prominent folding camera with its’ tight fit case:
This changed as cameras became smaller. Photographers wanted to access their camera as fast as possible. Hence the Leica style leather cases and half-cases were born. The photographer could now make all the adjustments while the camera body was still protected. Theses cases were also equipped with a carrying straps (as most cameras did not have lugs to attach a standard camera strap yet). At this period the first independent case manufacturers emerged, most notably Dielemann who manufactured a special case for the first mass produced 35mm camera: the Leica Ia.
As technology progressed and cameras changed, the cases were adapted accordingly. For instance some cases were a bit higher and had a housing for external rangefinders (ie to use a FOKOS rangefinder with a Leica IC). The rangefinder could not be carried inside the case.
Another example is the carrying case of the Leica IIIg. The bag of the last screwmount Leica has a little window on the back so that you can see your film settings.
As camera systems became even more complex, be it with interchangeable lenses, light-meters or lens hoods, photographers had to carry much more gear. Some manufacturers offered hard shell cases that had a distinct place where each item could be placed and strapped in. The Leica ones now fetch high prices due to their collectability.
During this period the third party also jumped on the occasion and started to produce larger carrying cases. For instance Omnica produced this neat little bag for the Robot cameras:
Although these cases were sturdy and offered good protection they were also heavy and cumbersome. These suitcase type bags were more convenient to store items but not as affective in the field. Professional press photographers who were constantly on the move had to find another solution.
The first photographers who used modern soft shell “messenger type” camera bags were war and documentary photographers. They wanted something light, waterproof and robust that was large enough to hold a couple of camera bodies, lenses and a large amount of film. These bags were not actual camera bags but hunting and fishing bags. They were light, waterproof and enabled a quick access to their content. Especially the fishing bags produced by Brady were very popular among professional photographers at that time.
One of the first persons to realize that a large amount of photographers used fishing bags was a certain Mr. Billingham who worked for the Brady Bag company at the time. He realized the potential and founded his own, now very famous, bag company. No wonder the Bags of Billingham have such a high resemblance with the original fishing bags.
Here is an interesting video showcasing the evolution of camera bags explained by Jim Domke, founder of Domke camera bags:
My favourite modern bags
A few people asked me which camera bag I use. This is absolutely a legitimate question. Although there is an abundance of bags of different shapes and sizes it is not easy to find the right one for you. So here we go: I actually use 3 different bags:
The WOTANCRAFT Ryker is my favourite bag out of the bunch because you can use it for all situtions. A lot of thought went into that bag and it really shows when you use it.
WOTANCRAFT uses vegetable-tanned leather (as opposed to the environmentally unfriendly chrome-tanning process). The thick material is very resistant and is trimmed nicely to suit the form of the bag. WOTANCRAFT bags can sustain heavy usage. Apart from the pebble-grained surface of the bag, the smooth parts of the oil-enriched brown leather is tanned with vegetable agents. I really like that understated combination. The quality is excellent and the workmanship it top notch. At the same time has a low key look that does not scream “come and steal me”.
The interior of the Ryker is lined with velveteen, a smooth and soft material that feels nice to touch, and adds to the protection of the gear placed inside. This is by far the smoothest and nicest padding I have encountered on any bag. As with other bags you can customize the padding to your needs. A lot of thought went into the different compartments. There is even an interior pouch for an ipad.This is the ideal travel bag for me – a lot of space for your gear and on top of that room for other stuff.
The zippered flap is designed to keep the content safe from rain/snow and dust. When the flap is opened, the zipper tooth will face outwards will the zipper trim cloth standing between the metal tooth and the opened space; this allows the camera to be accessed and inserted without touching the zipper tooth. The zippered flap also has a counter-zipper pull piece at the end of the zipper tooth, located at the two ends. They are to be pinched while you pull on the zipper, so that the zipper closes smoothly when it makes its way around the corners of the bag.
The bag is beautifully made. It feels solid and well padded. You don’t have to worry about your gear as the Ryker offers a lot of protection. This is a top of the line bag without any flaws!
Satchel / Pouch bags
This is a convenient small bag with only one compartment. It can hold a camera body with a lens attached to it but unfortunately not much more. The bag is from Billingham. I will call it the pouch bag because I have no idea what that thing was called and it is not produced by Billingham any more and I could not find any information on it whatsoever. I got that small bag on Ebay for 30 Euros (second hand)!
This is my “I’ll just go for a stroll around my neighbourhood” bag. When I want to travel light that’s the one I normally use. It is super light and compact. It feels really nice and well made. It is essentially just a pouch with a water-resistant surface. There is no zipper so you can access your camera quickly and you won’t be worried of scratching it when you take it out.
Unfortunately there is no padding (not sure if that came standard) and there is only enough space to take the bare essentials with you. It is not a particularly convenient bag for long journeys. As previously mentioned Billingham do not offer these any more (which is a shame) but I have seen that FOGG offer similar ones.
ThinkTank Retrospective 30
The ThinkTank Retrospective 30 is one solid bag. I got mine used on Ebay for about 100$. I use this bag when I have to carry a lot of stuff. It is remarkable how much this bag can hold. Several lenses and camera bodies are not a problem for the Restrospective 30. I really like using it because although it is large it is not heavy. You will be surprised how of light this thing is. And if you do carry a lot of gear around ThinkTank had the ingeniously clever idea to add two straps of different length. The padding on the larger strap is absolutely amazing. It’s super thick and does not slip from your shoulder. You can carry a lot of weight in this bag without having a crushed shoulder at the end of the day.
The interior padding is customisable and you have two additional pockets at the front which can easily hold a large lens. There is also an internal square pocket that can hold a laptop. They even added a keychain. The material is light, water-resistant and robust. My bag is grey which is fine with me because I don’t want anything flashy that would generate too much attention. It is certainly not the prettiest bag around (I think they released a new one with a leather trim) but that’s just what you want in a workhorse.
If you need a tank to carry loads, get this one – I have not been disappointed.