In a marketplace filled to the brim with camera bags for all sorts of equipment, which is the best street photography camera bag out there? Spoiler alert – it isn’t one that costs £300 and is made of the finest leather.
What makes a good street photography camera bag?
I have a had lot of camera bags over the years. I still have an attic full of them; backpacks, shoulder bags, sling bags, belt packs, rolling cases. It’s embarrassing. I’ve bought them for different assignments but when it comes to shooting on the street, choosing a bag is actually very simple. In fact all I need from a bag is comfort, space, and security.
Getting the right size of camera bag has always been a problem for photographers. Too small, and we won’t use it, too big, and we will fill it with crap. My advice is to buy the smallest one for the gear you usually shoot with. Trust me on this. After an hour or two of walking on the street, you will be thanking me. If the bag is just big enough for what you usually carry, you won’t be tempted to put that extra lens into it. The bag will be lighter as a result, and your back won’t ache as much later on.
Likewise, avoid bags with lots of padding. You don’t need a bag that will withstand a bear attack or being run over by a truck. Adding padding increases bulk and weight to the bag.
For me, a good street photography camera bag is one which gives me space for my main camera body and a lens, a couple of pockets to hold some energy bars and a drink, along with a few other odds and ends. The more crap I take with me, the heavier the bag. The more weight I carry, the less time I can spend shooting.
I’ve used backpacks, sling bags, and shoulder/messenger bags on the street. To be honest, the best style of bag comes down to personal preference. I always found a professional photo backpack to be the most comfortable option, but I felt it screamed ‘photographer’ whenever I used it. It was also very bulky. Sling bags were a good compromise, but I struggled with getting the weight distribution right within the bag. If there was too much weight at the bottom of the bag, it felt uncomfortable. Too much at the top, and it was difficult to swing it around to open it.
My favourite street photography camera bag is based on the shoulder/messenger design. It’s not as comfortable as a backpack, but I find it easier to work with and, if it’s not too heavy, I can shoot for hours without any issues. How I wear the bag is an important consideration. In my experience, the two best ways are the bandolier style and what I call the ‘Bruce Gilden’ style.
The bandolier style refers to the wearing of the strap across the chest. It’s my preferred way. The bag sits securely, and the weight is distributed across the upper body. The important thing here is that the strap has to be long enough to do this. Not all shoulder bags come with long straps, so check before you buy. The Bruce Gilden style, which I’ve also used, involves wearing a small bag over the shoulder with a very short strap. There are plenty of YouTube videos showing Bruce with his bag on the street. I’ve always found this way of working to be surprisingly comfortable and very secure, but quick access to the bag is limited.
One of the main issues with bags, particularly in crowds, is preventing theft. The first thing to consider is how the bag looks. A £300 luxury designer camera bag will grab more attention than something which looks like it’s been in the back room of a charity shop for a couple of years. The luxury bag might look good on your Instagram feed, but it will shout “look at how rich I am” to the casual thief. Expensive bags are a target. Don’t use one.
The second thing to think about is access. The easier it is to open, the more likely it will be targeted, particularly in crowds. My old Billingham L2 is a wonderful bag, but it fastens with two leather straps that grip metal posts. As the strap leather has worn, the bag has become very easy to open. It is something I will have to address going forward and ideally, the straps need replacing. In fairness to Billingham, they have addressed this issue on later models.
The Domke F2 has the best security that I have seen on a bag. It uses velcro with metal snap hooks to make access to the bag very difficult for the opportunist thief. While it’s the perfect bag for commercial assignments, it’s just too big for the street.
A lot of bags use zips as their primary point of access. They seem like a good idea for backpacks and sling bags, but I’ve thrown away many good bags after the zip broke. They’ve also scratched camera bodies and lenses. Velcro is a better option. Strong and easy to use, it makes a loud ripping noise when anyone tries to open it. Overall, a good compromise for security purposes. I would always try to find a street photography camera bag that incorporates some sort of velcro fastening into its design.
We mainly use a camera bag to carry gear and to protect it when not in use. With street photography camera bags, gear protection isn’t as important as in other genres. For a start, the camera spends little time in the bag. It’s also rare for the bag to be subjected to impact and shock. This is a good thing as we can use smaller and lighter bags.
In terms of protection from the elements, nylon, canvas and leather should keep out the odd rain shower. There are also products you can buy which help to waterproof these materials. The thing is to make sure that any access point is protected. Ill-fitting top flaps on shoulder bags will let water in, no matter how waterproof the material is. This is one of the issues with bags like the ThinkTank Retrospective series.
Do I need a professional camera bag for street photography?
In all honesty, any backpack, handbag, or satchel can be used on the street. It’s actually an advantage to have something which doesn’t look like a camera bag. If you have an old bag that is big enough for your gear, think about sewing some velcro into the inner lining so that it will take padded dividers. You can also buy ready-made inserts. There is no need to spend a fortune.
As I mentioned earlier, I have an old Billingham L2 which I love. It is the the best street photography camera bag for me. I can’t remember when I bought it, and yes, you could argue that it is a professional bag and it’s quite expensive. The fact that it’s getting quite beat up now, doesn’t make it look desirable or expensive, and if I was looking at buying another for street work, I would buy one that is used and well worn in.
For her street photography camera bag, Sarah has an old leather rucksack she bought for less than £50 from eBay. It’s not a camera bag at all. She loves it because it’s very comfortable to wear, and it’s inconspicuous. It looks like what it is, an old leather rucksack. There is nothing to suggest what is inside it. Protection for her camera is provided by a Domke wrap. It works for her.
Hopefully, you have found this post helpful, and I’ve given you something to think about for the next time you see an Instagram ad for a £300-£400 luxury leather street photography camera bag. Remember, for the cost of that bag, you could buy a good, street photography camera bag and treat yourself or a loved one to a designer handbag with the rest of the money.