Oxtongue River, Algonquin Park, October 2012
Shot with gear carried in a Gura Gear Bataflae 32L, Grey
The Big Shiny World of Camera Bags
Camera bags are like the roadies of the photography world: they get no glamour or glory, but without them nobody’s playing. However, the pedestrian nature of a bag’s basic work hasn’t stopped vendors from trying to make them sexy. At Photokina this year I saw a staggering array of bags, made or modified for photo use, in a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. I didn’t write about it because somehow I guessed that most readers here didn’t aspire to swagger across the Serengeti shouldering a pink microfibre sling-bag.
My friends who runGura Gear, however, have been up to something different. There won’t be any orange fun fur coming out of their Ogden, Utah headquarters anytime soon, except maybe after the kids Halloween party. As I wrote inmy review of their Kiboko bag, Gura is all about function. Their aesthetic – and they definitely have one – bucks the trend by being modernist and minimal.
At Photokina, Gura released several significant new additions to their lineup:two new “Bataflae” bags in 26L and 32L sizes[Bataflae means “Butterfly” in Vanuata] and a series of super-useful accessory pouches known as the “Et Cetera” line [ “Et Cetera” means “et cetera” in Latin]. While I have been working with these bags since late August, I held off writing about them because I wanted to give them a longer field test. A bag might look good on the shelf, but that tells you very little about how it does its job. In fact, pretty much all bags look good these days. But your spine and your 70-200mm don’t care how it looks.
Three Colours – No Orange Fun Fur
Gura builds premium bags for people who want their bags to be as unannoying as possible. This they do exceptionally well. The materials and finish are top quality. There’s no need to belabour the point, because they simply are. Most bags are decently made. These are better. In my mind, only Thinktank really competes, though on a distinctly different product line. You can read my review of theKiboko 26L herewhere I discussed build quality in detail.
The real story to me is bag-feel. What’s it like on your back? Do you own the bag or does it own you? More on this below…
The Bataflaes are not simply an enlargement of the existing lineup, but rather a significant new direction, rethink and redefine of Gura’s bags. Their first line bags, the “Kibokos” , were most notable for their ‘butterfly design’, wherein the carrying compartment was divided down the middle into two completely separate halves, each accessed by the zipper on one side. The design objective behind this was to maximize useable interior space with large lenses, enable easy access in tight environments from the back of Land Rovers, and minimize un-accessed gear’s exposure to dirt and dust. Since the Kibokos were originally inspired by safari photography, this made perfect sense. This approach also causes the top part of the bag to act as a hinged flap, which drops shut when not held open. Again, great for protection, but not terribly convenient if one is actively working on location and frequently accessing gear. While I grew used to the butterfly design on my Kiboko 22L, I never grew to like it. I don’t tend to shoot in arid or dusty environment, and like to have access to all my gear, rather than just half.
Gura obviously listened to a lot of customers on this one and probably concluded that the butterfly design which set them apart would likely also restrict them to a very limited niche segment of the market. The new Bataflae bags are born of the designer’s efforts to keep the good and unique aspects of the butterfly design, while offering a more mainstream ‘whole bag open’ experience. And they succeeded.
The very clever and well implemented solution was to re-engineer the top of the spine to include a flexible elastic band and buckle that allows the bag to be used as a butterfly or in a more traditional full opening mode. In the centre of the bag – as with the previous models – but to top it with a strip of Velcro, which mates to a matched strip of Velcro on the lid-side. So, if you want, you can completely re-create the user experience of the fully butterflied-bag, using one zipper on each side, or configure the Bataflae like any other normal bag with the operation of one simple buckle.
The only cost to this approach is that one is locked-in to having a centre spine in the carrying compartment, which vertically bisects the bag. While this limits the internal configurability somewhat, most users will never notice. I suspect that this centre spine also adds greatly to the rigidity of the which, in turn, is key to how well it carries.
A Bag Two Ways – Butterfly or Full Open
It’s All About Size
Whoever said size doesn’t matter sure wasn’t talking about camera bags. With the Bataflaes, size matters in three ways. First, they are both fully carry-on legal. Second, they somehow seem smaller than they are. And third, they are freaking massive inside. We are talking seriously capacious.
The ups and downs of deep
What was most interesting to me was that the new 26L bag is almost identical in external dimensions to the older 22L. How so? Sadly, they haven’t broken the laws of physics. Rather, they have done away with the rear laptop pouch. Consequently, the carrying compartment of the Bataflaes is something like 6 ½ — 7″ deep. This is deep enough to carry virtually any lens, other than a long telephoto, vertically, rather than having to lay it horizontally.
The big win on deep is that you can put pretty much any camera, with any lens, and any mounting plate into the bag. D4 with an RRS vertical plate and a 500mm f4? Check. H4X with a 50-110 and a vertical plate? Check. If you own it, these bags will swallow it. Without complaint.
Deep is good, but it ain’t perfect. The butterfly in the ointment is that so many lenses today come with honkin’ huge lens hoods which, when mounted, make the overall diameter of the lens much larger than the lens itself. Consequently, I found that lenses like my 24-120mm Nikkor take up way too much space, and it is sometimes hard to get to lenses side-by on one row of the bag (since the spine is in a fixed location). Then again, few of us carry that many lenses that this would ever become an issue. (If you do, a Gear Acquisition Syndrome support group might be a good idea. Just saying.)
The other downside of deep is the loss of the laptop pouch. To be honest, I thought this would be a deal breaker for me. When I travel with a lot of gear, I always have a laptop and I really like the security of the pouch on my Kiboko. It’s just always seemed like a super-safe way to carry my precious and priced-like-gold MacBooks.
This is obviously a debate Gura had had in the design process since, when I complained to Gura President Gregory Schern, he had an answer. It turns out to be a pretty good one. First of all, he explained that the bags were designed on the basis that most users who take the Bataflae on aircraft will also have a smaller ‘personal item’ in the form of a valise or murse of some sort, into which the laptop will fit – and many of which will already feature dedicated laptop slots. Second, he pointed out that the primary design goal behind the Bataflaes was firmly based around large lenses and hoods – in other words, maximum depth. Third, he reasoned, few people actually carry their laptops into the field on shoots. Rather, they travel to their base point with their entire luggage ensemble and then leave the laptop there for processing at the end of the day. Thinking about my own shooting, I had to agree that this makes sense.
Lastly, and most convincingly, he pointed out that the Bataflae wassodeep that, unless my gear was taking up all the vertical space, a sleeved laptop would fit very nicely inside the main compartment, on top of the lenses. This is very true, and the way I have ended up working.
To this reasoning I will add my own observation. Laptops are getting smaller. It wasn’t that long ago that most people were carrying thick, 17” models. But that’s so yesterday. A big laptop today is a 15” Retina. A small laptop is a 13” Air. And they’re getting smaller every day. On a bag the size of the 26L and 32L Bataflaes, a laptop slot is becoming a serious waste of space. On a smaller bag, I think I would insist on a laptop pouch, but on the bigger bags, the time has passed.
Autumn Swirl, Algonquin Park, October 2012
Nikon D800E, 24mm f3.5 TS, ISO 50
Too Small, Too Big and Just Right
Goldilocks probably owned as many camera bags as I do. After all, it’s really hard to find one just the right size. Obviously, how much one carries will vary from shoot-to-shoot, so there really is no one-size-fits-all solution. Personally, I had found the Kiboko 30L too big for my needs. I therefore assumed that the 32L Bataflae would gather dust while I used mostly the 26L during my test period. How wrong I was!
The real litmus test was a three-day fall color shoot Michael and I took to Algonquin Park in early October. My packing plan was to carry the D800E with the 70-200 f2.8L mounted on it, and leave an empty space for the 70-200mm for when it came off the camera. In terms of both size and shape, this was a pretty demanding brief, since six other lenses had to fit in the bag, plus I wanted to take my Mamiya 6 kit (and no, I didn’t use it).
The 26L couldn’t quite pull this off. So I turned, somewhat nervously, to the 32L. A short game of divider-lego later, I had constructed an internal pattern which accommodated my desired set-up, and even left room for all my chargers and cables. But what about the weight? This is where the build-quality of the Bataflae first has an obvious impact, in that the 32L essentially weighs the same as its smaller cousin. Empty, the 32L weighs something like three-tenths of a pound more than the 26L! It hardly seems possible, but it’s true. The only net difference is how much you put in it. Since my object was to leave a big empty compartment, the 32L lost nothing to the 26L.
The pattern of reaching for the 32L repeated itself on a number of portrait shoots, where the lens-count was reduced but I added a number of flashes and Aurora Firefly soft boxes (a terrific portable light-mod, btw). These are light, but take up a ton of space, something the 32L has in spades. On portrait shoots, the dual-chambered design of the Bataflae can be brought back into play, with the lighting gear on one side and the camera on the other, if you like.
So for me, the right bag is now the 32L, leaving an opening for a smaller day-trip suitable bag. Are you guys in Utah listening?
Comfortable? Ask the smiling 12 year old
On the Back
Alright, so we’ve loaded it up, but how does it carry? This is the litmus test for any bag. And this is where Gura shines. Let me cut to the bottom line: the Bataflaes are as or more comfortable on my back than any other backpack (photo or otherwise) that I have ever owned. Yes, it’s still a backpack, but this is about as good as it gets. I also think that Gura has improved the comfort of these bags over the original Kiboko designs, though I haven’t empirically tested that.
What about protection-value? I filled the Kiboko with eggs and had my step-daughter toss it off the roof mostly for fun. Much to her chagrin, I didn’t repeat that with the Bataflaes, but I’m confident they will provide as good protection as any other bag. Don’t drop your gear off the roof, though, and don’t sue me if you do.
Maybe I spoke too soon about colours….because the Bataflae are available in black, grey or a limited-edition desert tan. Personally, I like the choice, and went for grey. With the carrying straps hidden away (and the design for this is ingenious), these are attractive pieces of luggage. If you like the tan, buy now, because they really are limited in quantity and, I gather, are proving surprisingly popular.
The Money Question
Gura bags are not cheap. Whether the extra hundred or two you’ll spend on them over a run-of-the-mill bag is a personal choice. For me, it’s a no-brainer. If you go down the Grand Canyon do you rent the bargain mule? This thing carries thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars of gear and wears at your shoulder, neck and spine – parts of the body I’m rather fond of. We obsess about nano-nyqusists of micro resolution on the Internet, and spend small fortunes to capture it, but decide to save a C-note on our bag? For some, who never carry their gear very far, it may never matter. But for serious outdoor and travel photographers, it’s nice to have a serious choice.
Et Cetera Pouches
Question: what do you get the photographer who has everything? A: pouches to store, organize and carry it all in!
As photography has increasingly become an electronic pastime, we have grown ever-more hostage to hundreds of little do-dads from cables, to plugs, chargers, mikes, receivers, remote controls, batteries, batteries and more batteries, cables for the battery chargers, adapters for the battery charger cables, etc. etc. etc.
Hey, I wonder how Gura ever came up with the name for these rocking zip-pouches they just launched? TheEt Ceterasare basically soft, padded, Tupperware for all your little bits and pieces, covered with a durable see-through plastic lid. What I like about them is that they are just the right sizes (1, 2 and 3 litre as well as a flat ½ and 1 litre pouches), are really well built, you can see in them, they are light, work well and are configurable. There are a couple of similar products out there, but Gura’s are available in just the right sizes and shapes to my tastes. And I like the bright teal blue draw strings on the zippers <grin>. Maybe best of all, they’re not particularly expensive.
So far, these have proven ideal to me for carrying video-mic setups and my battery/charger kits. I will undoubtedly find more uses for them, unless other family members steal them to store makeup or other travel items. A definite winner.