Camera Backpacks vs Camera Shoulder Bags: Which is Best?
When I first started in photography, the last thing I thought to get was a bag to carry my camera.
I figured that since I had just one camera and one lens, and that the camera came with a strap, that I didn’t need anything beyond that to get my gear from one location to the next.
I learned the hard way that that approach is not how to carry your gear.
I’m a big landscape photographer, so in the early days, I was hiking trails with my camera bouncing off my chest as I walked. And when I was in the car, the camera was riding shotgun in the passenger seat, which was great for quickly grabbing it. It wasn’t so great for keeping my gear clean and out of harm’s way.
So, all that being said, here’s a quick overview of two popular types of camera bags in a head-to-head comparison of camera backpacks vs camera shoulder bags.
The Case for Camera Backpacks
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of using a camera backpack like the Vanguard Alta Rise 45 shown above is that the weight of your gear is distributed across both of your shoulders as well as your back and your hips.
That makes a camera backpack the ideal choice for photographers that will be out shooting photos for a long time.
Not only are camera backpacks extremely comfortable to carry, but they also offer incredible stability for the load.
With dual shoulder straps, a sternum strap, and a waist belt, you have multiple points of contact between your body and the bag, and multiple ways you can adjust the bag for the optimum in comfort, too.
Another benefit of using a backpack is that there’s such a wide range of sizes of bags.
For example, the Alta Rise 45 can accommodate a pro DSLR and 4-5 additional lenses (along with other gear).
However, if you need something even bigger, there’s plenty of options, like the Vanguard Alta Sky 51D shown above.
This beast can carry two pro DSLRs with lenses attached, up to three or four additional lenses, and all the additional accessories that you need.
The knock on camera backpacks is that many of them do not make retrieving your gear an easy task.
That is, often you have to remove the entire bag from your body, set it down, and then get your gear out.
But companies like Vanguard have made advancements in their backpack designs that allow photographers to access their gear without entirely removing their pack.
As you can see in the photo above, you can simply remove one strap and access zippered side panels to get what you need and start shooting.
Camera Backpack Advantages:
- Carry tons of gear
- Comfortable carrying experience
- Stable carrying experience
- Size variation to accommodate different body types and gear needs
- Great for landscape and travel photography
Camera Backpack Disadvantages:
- Some bags make it difficult to access gear
- Some bags are bulky and not suitable for shooting in crowded areas
- Not ideal for things like portrait or street photography
The Case for Camera Shoulder Bags
Even the best camera backpacks can’t offer what a basic camera shoulder bag has – incredibly easy access to gear.
Indeed, the primary benefit of using a camera shoulder bag is that you can sling it across your shoulder and lift open the flap and get your gear when you need it, all without ever having to remove the bag from your shoulder.
Additionally, a shoulder bag can be worn in a variety of ways – on your left or right shoulder, across your body, or even around your neck to position the bag in front of you as you work.
Like backpacks, some shoulder bags offer crazy amounts of space and customization.
For example, the Vanguard Alta Rise 28 messenger bag shown above can hold a DSLR with lens attached, 2-3 additional lenses, accessories like a flash, and a tablet to boot.
But if you need something smaller, you can rock a Vanguard VEO Travel 21 shoulder bag (shown below), which can accommodate a camera with lens attached, an additional lens, and a tablet.
Of course, the biggest disadvantage of shoulder bags is that they aren’t exactly designed for long-term use. After all, that shoulder strap – no matter how padded it might be – can begin to fatigue your shoulder unless you constantly move the bag from one shoulder to the other.
Additionally, shoulder bags aren’t exactly known for their stability.
That is, unlike a backpack, a shoulder bag has more freedom of movement which can be annoying.
Camera Shoulder Bag Advantages:
- Ease of use
- Can be worn in a variety of ways
- Great for quick photo shoots, street photography, and portraiture in the field
- More appropriate for working in crowds or tight spaces
Camera Shoulder Bag Disadvantages:
- Weight is not distributed over a very large area
- Can’t carry all that much gear
- Bag can move around a lot as you work
When thinking about buying a camera backpack or a camera shoulder bag, the direction you take is really dependent upon the type of photography you do.
If you spend hours and hours amongst landscapes, a backpack might be a better option.
But if you spend your time photographing people or places in urban environments, a shoulder bag might be the right option for you.
The key is to do your due diligence, investigate the features that a bag offers, and really think about what you need the bag to do.
At that point, you can put the camera backpack vs camera shoulder bag debate to rest and buy the bag that’ll work best for you!