If you’re anything like me, you probably own more than one camera bag. For the simple reason that there just isn’t a perfect camera bag.
The problem with most camera bags is that they are basically over-engineered, heavily padded boxes with straps attached. They’re designed to haul a lot of photo gear, maybe a laptop, or a bottle of water if you’re lucky. But they’re not optimized to carry other things, such as work or school related things or other daily carry (EDC).
The primary goal of most photo packs is to carry as much camera gear as possible, regardless of comfort or lumbar support. And if you choose not to fill them up with photo gear, not only will you be carrying a lot of unnecessary weight, the extra padding also takes up space that you could otherwise use for other stuff!
Now, you could learn the hard way like I did – by just buying lots of camera bags until you end up with an entire closet full of them. Then you will finally come to the realization that in most instances the best camera bag is actually not a traditional camera bag.
Properly designed regular backpacks, messenger bags, hiking bags or shoulder bags are far more comfortable, typically have more features, weigh significantly less and also cost way less (!) than your typical over-engineered camera backpack. Even more expensive regular backpacks are overall a better value than your typical overly padded camera bag.
If you want to carry other stuff aside from your photo gear, instead of searching high and low for that perfect camera bag, the solution is to buy padded camera inserts and place these inside regular back packs, messenger bags, shoulder bags or tote bags!
Not only does this give you significantly more options (in terms of looks, price, features) you also have the huge benefit of carrying around something that does NOT look like you’re carrying expensive gear! You can even turn your old school bag or an ultralight hiking backpack into a camera bag.
One other usually overlooked advantage is that you usually end up with a lighter bag too. This is especially important in some places in Asia or Australia where some of the smaller airlines strictly limit hand luggage to 7kg, so every bit counts!
The best camera inserts to turn any bag into a camera bag:
The best of the best: Tenba Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) 10:
Available in a variety of sizes, the Tenba BYOB range is a great bag organizer. You get two external front pockets, stretchy mesh pockets on each side and an internal zippered pouch on the inside flap of the top cover that’s good for batteries, memory cards, maybe even some cash. There’s a back pocket that you can also use to tuck in the top cover for those times when you want the insert to remain open at the top. There is even a d-ring for your keys.
There is a useful top handle for easily transferring between bags, and it’s also got two tabs to attach your own shoulder strap if you want to use it as a stand-alone bag. If you use something like a Peak Design Slide camera strap, you could even attach anchors to these tabs and use your camera strap as a bag strap! We do it all the time! It won’t beat a proper shoulder bag, but it’s a great option if you want to bring only the essentials. (Say you’re on vacation and don’t feel like bringing your entire backpack to dinner, then you can just grab the insert and use it as a small bag)
Best of all, Tenba makes these in various sizes to accommodate different sized kits:
These are measurements of the INSIDE of each BYOB insert, add about 0.5” in each direction to get the exterior measurement.
Best for extra protection from the elements: Mountainsmith Kit Cube:
This is a relatively tall insert, and best of all, it’s designed with a rolltop opening and is made of water resistant material. The material and the rolltop design means you get a second layer of protection if your main bag is not water resistant. The rolltop design helps a lot with water resistance, since there isn’t a zipper for water to leak through, but it does mean that it will take a few seconds longer to open/close vs a zipper or a simple flap. Rolltop designs are popular with bike messenger bags because of the great protection they offer against the elements.
Another advantage of a rolltop design is that you can easily configure it to carry slightly more items, or slightly taller items if needed. Not carrying a lot? Then roll it all the way down. Need to carry a little but more, just roll it once or twice. The bright yellow interior also helps a lot with visibility especially inside a dark backpack.
Interior dimensions: (Add about 0.5” in each direction for external measurements): 10.25 x 8.5 x 4”
There is also a micro version suitable for smaller set-ups (not pictured): Mountainsmith Kit Cube Micro: 6.5 x 5.5 x 4” (Interior dimensions)
Timbuk2 Snoop 2014 version: (Best camera insert for messenger bags)
These are slightly larger than any of the inserts listed here. Don’t be put off by the XS and S sizing, that just refers to the type of Timbuk2 messenger bags they were designed to fit (but of course you can use them in other bags). The XS is as big as the Tenba BYOB 9 for example. There aren’t any pockets, but they do have a top handle to allow you to easily yank it out of your bag, if needed.
The inside of the bag is a nice aqua color, allowing for better contrast against the contents of the bag. One big advantage of the Timbuk2 snoop is the way the inserts are designed – the internal dividers have a fold in the middle to allow you to compress the bag if needed. Like so:
Exterior Dimensions, Timbuk2 Snoop 2014 (Gunmental Gray):
XS: 10.2 x 8.1 x 4.1”
S: 13.8 x 9.4 x 3.9”
M: 14.6 x 9.8 x 6.3”
Timbuk2 Snoop 2016 version: (Updated version, but not recommended for messenger bags)
This is the newer version of the Timbuk2 Snoop insert, and for some reason, Timbuk2 still calls it the Snoop camera insert although it’s a completely new design. Unlike the 2014 version which was designed for their messenger bags, this new version features a three quarter zip flap opening that is better suited for backpacks. This version now comes in a black exterior and a duller gray interior, which means the contents are harder to see when inside a dark bag.
Exterior Dimensions, Timbuk2 Snoop 2016 (Black):
S: 8.7 x 7.1 x 3.9”
M: 11 x 9.4 x 5.1”
The splurge: The Dsptch Large Camera Insert:
Size: 10 x 10 x 5”
This is my favorite, and one I use a lot. The best thing about this insert is that it has both top and side openings, which are extremely useful for backpack carry. Carry camera gear in backpacks get a bad rep. because they’re hard to get to, usually requiring you to take your backpack off. The downside is, it’s very pricey.
What’s the fastest way to get into a backpack when wearing it? You do the one shoulder swing, and bring the bottom up to the front of your body and open the bag from the side facing up. This is where the Dsptch insert really shines. Because it’s got a side zip, I can easily position it inside a backpack in such a way that I can still access my gear regardless of whether I open my bag from the top or by doing the shoulder swing.
Note: Dsptch also make a smaller insert, but unfortunately it loses the side access and is purely top-loading, so make sure you get the large one if you want the dual access.
Other inserts we use to protect our photo gear:
These come in a variety of sizes, but take note that they are fairly flat. These are perfect for very compact set-ups or other miscellaneous gear such as audio recorders, hard drives and flash triggers or maybe a bunch of GoPro’s and various mounts. It won’t fit most DSLR bodies, and most medium-sized lenses will need to lie on their side. These come with a clear (see-thru) plastic top that’s great for visibility, but obviously this won’t offer much protection on the top side. All the other sides are hard-sided though, but if you’re looking for 360 degree padding, don’t get these.
If space is at a premium, or if you don’t want the bulk of an insert or a pouch, one great way to protect your gear inside non-camera bags is the use of gear wraps. There are multi-purpose, padded “blankets” for your gear. We recommend the Tenba Portable Protective Wraps which have Velcro tabs on each corner to help with wrapping. Domke also make a very similar protective wrap in a variety of sizes.
Another we use occasionally are various pouches such as these excellent 4-pack of Altura Photo Thick Neoprene pouches. They’re designed for lenses, but we use them for various other things like gimbals, microphones and even compact cameras and camcorders.
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