For several decades I have been thoroughly frustrated by the lack of a decent backpack for hiking with a view camera system.
Over the years I have tried so many different models from so many different manufacturers, that it has become an ongoing joke at our household. I have an entire attic dedicated to useless stuff from Lowepro, Tenba, Kata, Crumpler, Billingham, Domke, Delsey, F 64, Lightware, Mountainsmith, Tamrac and assorted other brands.
The bottom line is that as far as my view camera systems are concerned, I have never been able to find a decent backpack from any of the major manufacturers.
Let me describe some of my pet peeves, some of which also apply to many smaller format backpacks:
1. Weight– Most photo-backpacks able to carry a view camera system or a medium format system are ridiculously heavy. It is not unusual for these things to weigh at least 12-15 pounds empty! I have several that weigh over 20 pounds empty with just the dividers inside.
2. Suspension– The suspensions in all the photo-backpacks I have tried are much worse than the suspensions in technical backpacks. I think this is inexcusable.
3. Curves– I cannot for the life of me understand the rationale for putting a curve on the top of a photo-backpack. I presume that if you are some weird fashion-conscious being from outer space, have a cone-head and would like the top of your pack to match the curve in your cone-head this might be OK, but photo equipment is not made with curves. Putting that curve at the top makes the space awkward and drastically reduces storage in the pack. A photo-backpack needs to be basically rectangular.
4. Let’s face it, the vast majority of photo-backpacks are designed for 35 mm. SLRs and their digital descendants (even for these cameras I find most packs to be pretty badly designed, but let’s not digress). Photo- backpacks that are claimed to be for medium format or large format are usually nothing but a regurgitation of a 35 mm SLR backpack made larger. Because of this, I find the divider systems and the backpack dimensions almost universally unsuitable for the kind of equipment I carry in the field, and I find the external and internal pockets to also be the wrong size and depth for my equipment.
5. I could go on and on about other problems such as protecting gear from falling out or getting wet or full of sand while the pack is partially open, or a whole host of other issues, but I will stop at this point since I am sure you, the reader, gets the picture.
So, what can a photographer do? Well, when I used to shoot film with an 8×10 inch camera I finally gave up and I purchased a top of the line technical backpack. I then hired a seamstress to make me custom padded pouches for the camera and the lenses and off I went.
Because most technical backpacks are top loaders, and mine certainly was, my system was very inefficient in the field, but at least it allowed me to carry the gear with a degree of safety and comfort not possible with any photo-backpack.
I continued to use this backpack with different pouches for different cameras for serious hiking. For less serious hiking I continued to try different commercially available packs, all of which I found to be horrible.
I tried for years to get someone interested in making a decent photo-backpack, but I was unable to garner any interest. I also tried to convince a number of manufacturers to make a custom backpack for me, but the prices and timeframes I was quoted were truly insane. I suppose that was their polite way to say “no, we are not interested”.
So, when I heard a rumor about a year ago that a man by the name of Bruce Laughton was trying to make a photo-backpack based on a technical pack, aimed squarely at view camera users, I contacted him immediately.
It has been a very long year, and I have to hand it to Bruce for his perseverance. I also should praise Bruce for really listening to me and a number of other photographers and for incorporating most of our ideas. When the ideas differed, he found a compromise, so the pack is not perfect for everybody, but it is hands down the best photo-backpack on the market for photographers that use equipment other than a 35 mm type DSLR.
The name of the company isRenaissance Photo Tech, Inc. (RPT).
The system is based on a top of the line Kelty technical backpack that has been modified with a U-shaped zipper to make it into a front-loader, and further modified with a number of other photographer friendly features, such as two front pockets of a size and depth that is perfectly appropriate for the kind of gear that Medium Format digital and Large Format film photographers use. The company is also working with Granite Gear to produce a somewhat different backpack.
The pack is basically rectangular as it should be. It is made of a high quality light gray fabric to prevent it from getting too hot in the field. I know Bruce had a lot of pressure to be fashionable and make it black, but I am glad he listened to some of us and went for a much better color.
The basic model “P1” pack weighs 4 lb. 1 oz (2Kg)including the suspension, the slightly better “P2” pack with one of the best technical suspensions on the market weighs 4 lb. 11 oz (2.3 Kg). Hurrah!
I opted for the basic P2 pack without side-pockets.
The company has developed a very thin material that is a laminate of polyester canvas, closed cell foam and a soft lining. The material is semi-rigid, while still offering the cushioning of foam. It is so light, that the first time you pick up a piece it is almost freaky.
Herein lies the genius of the system: There are no dividers, and there is no padding in the backpack itself.
Instead of padding the backpack and using dividers, each piece of equipment goes into its own custom case made out of this ultralight thin material. Each case has both, a zipper and a velcro strap for closure. You decide whether you want to use one, the other or both. Always using the zipper is best for protection even when the pack is open or partially open.
The company produces a variety of standard cases in sizes that will fit just about any camera, lens or accessory. More importantly, you can order custom cases in any size at a very reasonable price if none of the standard cases matches your needs or wants. Each case has a protrusion in the top center to label its contents. Pre-printed basic labels are provided and you can of course print your own.
There is an ultralight “backerboard” that goes inside the pack and attaches to the back. Each case has a number of velcro strips on their exterior that adhere to both, the backerboard and the cases adjacent to it. The result is a very solid arrangement with total flexibility and tons of protection.
This is easier to visualize than to explain, so please look at the following photographs and the concept will become very clear:
Even though the backpack looks smaller and is much lighter than many photo-backpacks, it has enormous capacity. The picture below shows how I carry a Linhof M 679 CS view camera, six lenses, a digital back, tons of accessories like a bag bellows, filters, light-meters, shades, batteries, etc. and there is still a lot of room to spare. Note the custom compartment made of the company’s laminate material in the middle. It holds the Linhof sliding back for a PhaseOne back with a Linhof viewing bellows and loupe attached. Prior to this system, I was never able to fit this item inside any other backpack; I had to resort to an external case, which was a pain in the butt.
This backpack has easily taken at least 10 pounds off my load, and combined with the better suspension, it literally feels 40-50% lighter than my old Lowepro. I am extremely pleased with the P2, and I recommend it highly.
Is this the perfect backpack? Of course not. Nothing is. For example, I would have opted for a color other than black for the cases. Photo gear is usually black or silver, so my preference would have been to use a color that makes black and silver highly visible by contrast. I would have liked a bigger padded handle on top with a second handle on the side, but other photographers objected to that concept, so Bruce implemented a middle ground of all inputs he received regarding handles. I have a few other quibbles, but in general the concept and the implementation are both very sound.
All in all, I believe that this is without question the best photo-backpack currently on the market. It is also reasonably priced.
At least for now, the company is focused on the under served market for Medium and Large Format photographers. If you work with a 35 mm type DSLR, you are out of luck unless you have custom cases made. For once, we the larger format guys get to have the upper hand!