In search of the perfect camera bag
Posted on 4th April, 2018
I believe it is written in law somewhere that a photographer can never have too many bags. The perfect bag will surely never exist; but, is the Shimoda Explore 60 the closest yet? Well, it's early days but I have to say, from my experience, it seems the best and by some distance.
Last week I spent a few days up in Torridon (Scotland) with a few photographer friends, enjoying some of the finest scenery you could wish to see and experiencing the usual variety of weather conditions you expect to find up there. It was a big treat for me to be spending a few days out and about in the Highlands, doing a bit of photography purely for the hell of it. Even better, after three months of eager anticipation, my new backpack arrived just in time for my departure, so this was my first chance to put it through its paces.
I first heard about Shimoda last December; my interest piqued by the reference to photographers needing a better adventure bag. Could this be the one? Available through a Kickstarter campaign, these backpacks sounded as if they ticked pretty much all of the boxes for me. I'm not going to provide a detailed review, nor go through every minutiae in detail - others have done that and you can find some excellent reviews and videos online; though I'd recommend first looking at all the detailed information that was made available to those backing the campaign by clicking here. Rather, I hope simply to give you an idea of why I opted for this bag and why I'm so pleased with it.
The bags have been designed by Ian Millar, who also designed the original F-Stop bags. These were a revelation when they were first launched but, in my opinion, the Shimoda backpacks have risen the bar by some margin. I have to say that Ian was incredibly helpful in answering any questions during and after the campaign - great customer service! They seemed to offer so much of what I was looking for - in particular I was swayed by the adjustable harness and the commitment to developing female specific straps. I wanted a bag I could use primarily for camera gear plus, on occasion, a limited amount of camping gear. This requires a reasonably large pack. Any of the larger ones I'd tried previously sat too low on my back and had simply been too uncomfortable for prolonged usage. I'd also found many had chest straps that were unusable for us females.
My first impression was the Explore 60 seemed impressively capacious yet incredibly light for its size. But, would it fit me? I initially adjusted the shoulder straps for the medium (second smallest) setting but, after a couple of days use, ended up moving them to the smallest setting. I'm nearly 5'9" but I suspect I have quite a short torso and I like my bag to sit quite high. During my time away, I walked on varied terrain, including some very steep and tussocky heather hillsides. The bag felt well balanced, with or without tripod attached. The furthest I walked was probably around 10km or so - nothing too taxing, but a reasonable test. I found the Shimoda really comfortable, even with a fair bit of weight inside. I've noticed that the lowest section of the back panel has extra depth and padding (see above left) and this really seems to help with comfort. For me, it's a great improvement over the F-Stop Loka I once owned, which always seemed to dig into my lower back.
I was also interested to see how the bag would fare in Scottish rain - those of you who know Scotland, will almost certainly have experienced the full-on immersive deluge that can follow! The weather was very mixed and of course included some good and proper west coast rain - the sort that makes you soaking wet! I thought it would be interesting to try going out without using the rain cover, and I have to say I was really impressed. You can perhaps see how the water has beaded on the surface of the bag in the image further up. A little water came in through the sealed zip on the top of the bag - but the main compartment with all my camera gear and the outer zipped area remained completely dry. This after a prolonged downpour.
The rain cover does also seem to be rather better designed than others I've used - not only does it have elasticated loops to fit around the waist strap, but it is also generously sized and remains useful even with a large tripod attached to the bag. As you can see from the photo below - everything is covered.
I also really like the optional tripod pouch. This tucks into the side zipper of the bag when not in use and I hadn't really expected to bother using, it but it works brilliantly, particularly for a fairly long tripod like the Gitzo GT2543L. I far prefer to have the tripod mounted on the side of my bag and the combination of straps and pouch make this a really secure, stable solution. It's also quick and easy to access and pack away. If you prefer to attach your tripod in some other way - there are straps a plenty to allow you to do so. It's also worth pointing out that the pouch has a small hole in the bottom of it, so it's not going to fill up with rain water!
Time will tell how well the leather zip pulls fare but first impressions are very good - they are great to use. The zips in general seem great. One small issue I found was that the bottom right hand corner on the back panel sometimes needs a little help, due to the seam edge of the panel flap being slightly more pronounced on this one corner. It's not a big deal, though, and probably varies slightly from bag to bag.
The Shimoda bags currently come with two sizes of ICU. I have the larger sized ICU fitted in my bag. It allows me to carry as much camera gear as I'd want to when I'm out and about, walking more than a few hundred yards. Above, you can see how it looks with a Sony A7Rii with 24-105mm lens attached, and an additional five prime lenses. I have seven filters in the red pouch and a remote and numerous spare batteries in some of the other compartments. It may be hard to tell on here, but the ICU is quite deep - I had thought deeper than I need - but in fact it allows me to fit lenses in vertically that I might otherwise have had to lay on their side. It also means that there's no danger of things digging into my back - something I've experienced with some other bags. You'll notice how slim the dividers are but, don't be fooled, they are strong, deceptively well cushioned, and they seem to keep their shape well. I initially wondered whether more dividers should have been provided, particuarly if you are someone that has quite a few smaller prime lenses. However, once I'd worked out how to arrange everything, it seemed that what was supplied was indeed enough.
Just above the ICU (above left) is a bright blue medium accessory bag - for assorted extras, including filter adapters and so on. The accessory bags come also come in a small and larger size, and all of them have an optional strap to allow you to hang them round your neck (see below right). This is great for switching between different adapters, filters and anything else you choose to keep in there. You can fit them to the outside of the bag as well, should you wish. There's another (expandable) compartment, accessible from the top of the pack, where you can put clothes and other equipment to suit.
Shimoda have also provided smaller sized ICUs - two of which can be seen inside the roller bag above (left). These come with an optional wateproof cover and an optional adjustable strap - meaning you can use them as a very lightweight shoulder bag. I used one of these in the top section of my backpack to transport extra gear up to Scotland, but you can also use these and/or the larger ICU to store your camera gear within the wonderful carry-on roller bag. This beautifully designed 'extra' was a financial no-brainer for anyone buying at the Kickstarter stage and I'm very glad I allowed myself to be tempted. It's beautifully made and I can see it being extremely useful for all sorts of travel, not just photography related trips. As an aside, for those with really large lenses, I believe a larger ICU is likely to be introduced in future, although I can't see this being something I would need.
Overall, I'm really, really happy with the bag. Yes it's early days but it's everything I'd hoped it would be. Although the standard shoulder straps work pretty well for me, I'm looking forward to trialling the female specific ones when available. These are currently in production, after an initial development trial by Shimoda photographer Varina Patel, and a number of us that backed the Kickstarter campain are going to try out two different designs, with a view to them being rolled out for purchase thereafter. Despite the existing straps being quite wide, with pockets on each side, I find they sit pretty well on me and the pockets are really useful for mobile phone, etc. The chest strap sits a little lower than I'd choose but, despite this, I still find it comfortable and it seems to sit comfortably in comparison to the one on the Loka, which I simply could not use.
I'll have plenty of time to get to know the bag better over the coming months and I'll look to do a further review once I've received the other straps. At the moment, the Shimoda bags are only retailing in the USA but I know they are due to be available in Europe in due course and, from all the feedback I'm hearing, they're going to be selling very well!
NOTE: I've since written a 'year on' blog which you can see here.