Backpacks for large format cameras

Compiled by Tuan for the Large Format Page

Why you need one

Edward Weston said that there were no truly photogenic subjects which couldn't be seen from the road. Although I am a montaineer, I have come to somewhat agree with this conclusion. I have backpacked a few times with my LF gear without finding something which really inspired me, so that i ended up shooting just a couple of bad photos because I wanted to justify having carried the gear so far. In general, if my purpose is purely photography, I have found that it is more efficient to drive around and do short hikes than to take long hikes.

That said, I still find that the only practical way to carry my large format system is to use a backpack. The fact that you see it from the road does not mean that you photograph it from the road. Even on a short hike of a half-mile, having to carry a case is a pain, esp. if you are not on a good trail. They really work well only for shooting next to the car. On the other hand, put the same weight on a good backpack, and you can carry it comfortably for hours.

In addition, there are actually a large number of natural areas which can be reached only by hiking. A few examples are the mountain scenery in parks such as sequoia/kings canyon, north cascades, guadalupe mountains, the bottom of most canyons in the southwest, including narrows, the paria, slot canyons, the grand canyon, havasu, etc...

With LF, you often end up with more accesories that you think. Some photographers (like me) also carry other formats as well. It's good to have some room for additional outdoor gear, food and water, so I don't think it is a good idea to find a backpack which just fits your LF gear with no room to spare.

Don't try to guess whether a given backpack will work for you. Take all your gear to a couple stores. Test fit it in as many different packs as you can, and watch how easily you can get it out of the packs. Try on the loaded pack and walk around the store. Pay close attention to how well the pack fits you and how well the weight seems to be distributed. Too much weight on the shoulders can be very painful.

General purpose backpacks

The suspension systems of the hiking/climbing packs is considerably better than the suspension system of cameras backpack of similar capacity. I used for several years a climbing backpack, a Gregory Big Wally. It weighted less than 4lbs, was compact enough to carry-on, and has been used to ferry (non-photographic) loads in excess of 70 pounds (yes, climbing hardware for big walls is heavy).

You can customize exactly the backpack for your needs. Some people use foam that they cut. I use additional cases inside. My (wrapped) lenses and wide angle bellows are in an Artic Zone cooler, and my film holders are in an Artic Zone lunch bag (Artic Zone makes great camera gear :-)). Accessories are in small outdoor research pouches which go in the lid pocket with the shade. My system (5x7, holders, 4 or 5 LF lenses, accessories, N90 + 1-3 lenses, tripod) weights only around 25lbs. There is enough room for plenty of clothing, or the 4x5 and polaroid back with an extra box of Quickloads.

This is to say that for volume/carrying comfort/weight this system was excellent. The problem was that it is only top-load so that accessing equipment is a bit slow, and my stuff ends up all over the place if I am not careful. However, this doesn't need to be the case. Although most of the backpacks are top-loaders, there are still a few panel loaders. Check in particular among the Dana Designs and Gregory.

Recently I upgraded to a Dana Designs Swiftcurrent. This is quite a bit bigger and heavier (6lbs), but it is panel-loading, has a great usable volume, the panel system is handy for stowing the tripod and the carrying comfort is just great.

Here are some other suggestions:

Photo Backpacks

The main advantage of a photo backpack is that it makes accessing the gear easy and organises it well with its compartiments. These packs are heavy, and for LF they might be over-padded, but this protects your gear well. The three that I find large enough for a 5x7+35mm system, the LowePro Super Trekker AW, Tenba PBH, and Sundog Art Wolfe, are all around 12 lbs. They are reviewed below, as well as the smaller LowePro PhotoTrekker AW, Temba PBL and Domke Outback. There is a short article in the July/August 1993 issue of View Camera describing large format packs. If you fly, it helps if your pack is small enough to carry on a plane. The largest pack which will fit on an overhead bin is the Super Trekker.

Lowepro Super Trekker AW

A favorite of many photographers, the Lowepro super trekker AW is a very well made bag. It is sold with several internal dividers which make it possible to customize the interior compartiment the way you want it. It can be configured with a lot of compartiments, which might be more useful with 35mm and MF gear. I've stripped away most of the dividers, but still I like the fact not to have to use lens wrappers anymore. On the panel, there are three zippered pockets for small things, and a large mesh pocket behind the cover that i find very useful for larger items like the dark cloth or a jacket. There are two outside pouches and a tripod basket which can also be repositionned. I like this pack because it makes accessing the gear easy and organises it well. This convenience sorts of compensates the weight, especially when you are in a hurry to set-up. It is the bag that I use most of the time. I switch to a regular backpack only if I plan a long hike, so that I can then carry more stuff more comfortably.

It is relatively compact (for its size) and could be carried on an airplane, but so far I checked it because I had another carry-on bag. It protects quite well too, but since it's not rigid, there is still possibility of dammage if you check it. One time a filter box was cracked. Another time, a cable release left on a lens was broken just at the tip. Still, I don't hesitate to check it. It works like a convertible travel pack (there are handles and you can cover the harness) and has a weather cover built it.

The main drawback is the weight of the pack. It doesn't have that much usable volume inside. It's a strech if in addition to my 5x7 and 35mm I want to carry 4x5/polaroid backs, and I when I carry my fleece, I have to attach it outside of the bag. Yet, it still weights 11lbs11 (5300g), which I find is awfully heavy (that's the weight of overnight gear which would work anywhere on this planet). The suspension system is the same as for the older generation Lowe climbing packs, but due to its reduced height, the top stabilizing straps are attached too low to be really useful. The comfort is just decent, barely equal to a low-end backpacking pack. The tripod carrying system is practical with my 1228, but I could see it becoming awkward with a larger tripod. You put two feet of your tripod in the shoe, and secure the top with bungee cord locked by a fast release buckle. Although it is more neat to have the tripod ride at the back, it feels heavier than if you have it ride on the side.

If you are going to buy one, think twice before getting a used model. Recently, this pack has been upgraded, and I find the new model to be a significant improvement in flexibility, in particular because of the detachable inside panel, additional mesh pocket, and tripod carrying system (although the built-in back pockets where neater than the current modular system). Although not the largest, it might be the most expensive camera bag in the world ($400 at B&H). If you don't need a bag that big, try the new Protrekker.

Tenba PBH-K by Kerry Thalmann

I use a Tenba PBH-K. The "H" stands for huge, which it is. The "K" means it mounts on a Kelty backpack frame. This pack is really designed for an 8x10 system, so it might be more than you need for your 5x7. When I bought it, I was carrying a 4x5 Wisner (roughly the same size as your Canham), plus the 4x10 conversion back and bellows. I had plenty of room in the pack for the camera, 4x10 back, lenses for both formats (nine total), film holders (again for both formats), bag bellows, filters, meter, etc. On occasions, I also carried a Nikon N90 with 28-85 zoom. It really does live up to the "huge" name. I'm not sure of the exact weight, but given the enormous volume, it doesn't feel very heavy (I think it is ~ 8lbs not counting the Kelty frame). Plus, on the Kelty frame with a good waist belt and suspension system, it rides well with plenty of support. I have become much more tired and sore when carrying loads half the weight in lesser packs. They also make a PBL ("L" as in large), that might be better suited for your application. I haven't attempted to fly with my PBH-K, but even with the frame removed, the pack would probably be too large to qualify as a carry on.

Based on my experiene with the Tenba PBH-K...

Pluses: Very well built and well laid out for carrying a large format system. I have had this pack for almost three years and do a lot of heavy duty hiking. It has been repeatedly exposed to salt spray at the Oregon Coast and hot desert sun in the Southwest. It has carried my euipment on many an off trail bushwhack through very dense brush, has been rained on constantly in the Columbia Gorge and subjected to complete immersion (unexpctedly, of course) in the Left Fork of North Creek (the Subway). It still looks and works like new. The fabric seems almost indestructible. Even when hiking through heavy brush that has torn my clothing and bloodied my arms and legs, the fabric hasn't shown the slightest signs of wear. The pack is not completely water proof, but it comes close. Even after the total immersion, all my equipment, film holders and spare clothes were useable (a little bit of moisture leaked in at the seems and settled in the bottom corners of the pack.)

This pack is designed for large format and it shows. Most of the other packs I looked at were designed for 35mm systems and had oodles of little compartments and pockets and little elastic loops to hold 35mm film cannisters. Some of these packs can be reconfigured internally to accept a large formt system, but the external pockets are often too small to hold things like film holders. My Tenba has two external pockets, each plenty large enough to hold 5x7 film holders. All these extra 35mm oriented features add both weight and cost to the pack (my huge Tenba cost considerably less than the much smaller Lowe Super Trekker). In addition to the Lowe (at 12 lbs.), I also looked at a Sun Dog (again 12 lbs.). Both these packs, while very well built, seemed very heavy for the relatively small volume. Another brand I have seen that is designed specifically for large format use is the f64 line. They were not available when I bought my Tenba, but I recently saw another photographer using one. It was much smaller than my Tenba, but still big enough for his 4x5 Wisner, lenses, holders, etc. Also, if you plan to hike more than a couple miles, be sure to allow extra room for water, food, a jacket and extra clothing. Although my Tenba is larger than necessary for the system I am currently using, I like having the extra space for non-photographic items.

Minuses: The pack is huge. As I mentioned above, this is a problem for air travel. Also, being a huge pack with an external frame, it tends to get caught on brush and tree branches. This is exacerbated by my taller than average height. Branches most people walk right under present obstacles for me. Ducking my head is not sufficient (the top of the frame still catches). I must physically stoop down, or occasionally crawl on my hands and knees in tight spots. Very tiresome and inconvenient. There are times when I wish for a smaller pack.

Somewhat related; I have always found carrying a tripod to be troublesome. Not just with this pack, but with any pack. The tripods typically carried by large format photographers tend to be rather large (I know you have a little Gitzo Mountaineer. so this might not be a problem for you). My tripods are too long to fit inside the pack, so that gives me two choices; strap it vertically to one side of the pack, or horizontally across the top. A heavy tripod, vertically mounted makes the pack unbalanced, which makes my shoulders sore and tends to cause me to lean when I walk. A horizontally mounted tripod seems to snag on just about every tree branch in sight. My solution. In most cases, I just carry my tipod in one hand (switching hands if one gets tired). This seemed rather tedious at first, but after years of doing this, it now seems natural to me. It also allows me to set up and tear down faster for the moments when I am running up the trail trying to catch the last light on a snow covered peak before it fades. I can extend the legs on the tripod while I am approaching my planned location, rather than waiting to drop the pack and unstrap the tripod. I did look at the Lowe Super Trekker before I bought my Tenba. It has the built-in tripod pouch that runs vertically up the center of the pack. It was too small for my tripod, and even if it wasn't, the tripod would have stuck up so high in the air I wouldn't have been able to walk upright on any tree lined trail. Again, this might not be applicable with your smaller tripod.

Note by David Fokos: I have a Tenba PBH. This is the non-Kelty version. My only addition to the informative message above, is that you *NOT* buy a non-Kelty PBH. I carry an 8x10 with 1 lens, 6 filmholders, a half dozen filters, etc. I still have room to spare, but the pack, and my shoulders are not very happy with the weight (the straps are not very well designed as far as serious backpacks go). I had to return the pack to have the shoulder strap re-stitched (where it joins the pack), which by the way, they did quickly and well. Also, the pack no longer holds it's shape (from carrying it by the handle on top, as well as hanging off my shoulders). This makes it increasingly difficult to unzip and open the top section where the camera lives. The rain flap no is no longer able to cover the zipper for this section properly. I know it's a pretty poor description of the problem, but just take my word for it that it's undesireable. Otherwise I think the pack is great -- well, laid out, etc. -- and I think the Kealty frame would have prevented my problems.

Editor's note: According to tenba, the PBH-K weights 8 lbs 6 oz (3800 g.) and the frame is 4 lbs 9 oz (2069 g.). That's pretty heavy. Maybe I am biased against external frames but it also looks quite bulky. The 8x10 case is a good design for those who use this format, otherwise I don't think it makes efficient use of the (abundant) space. The same could be said of the the bottom compartiments, which are quite deep, so that one has to stake lenses unless they are really huge.

Sundog Art Wolfe backpack by Denis Hill

I've used one for several months with a variety of equipment. Some major features are: The two rectangular removable units fit the bottom, leaving a large open space in the upper pack: perfect for a field camera.
  • Drawbacks: expensive (list price is over $300), limited distribution (try LL Rue catalog).
  • I was attracted by the modularity (having a collection of different cases ranging from a 25-year-old Halliburton to recent Tamrac stuff: never seem to have quite the right thing) and my admiration of the work of Art Wolfe. I'm happy with it.

    LowePro PhotoTrekker AW by Marc F. Hult

    I use the LowePro PhotoTrekker AW and am quite satisfied. I bought in part because I was quite smitten by the Orion AW for my 35mm gear and it seemed of comparable quality. The Orion will actually hold a compact 4x5 kit but certainly not 5x7.

    The pack more-or-less permantly houses about six LF lenses, filters, spotmeter, reflectors, small hot-lights and other gear. I can load it with an 8x10 Deardorf, 4x5 Arca Swiss monorail or field 4x5 and appropriate holders. If I'm carrying a field 4x5, there's room for 35mm gear too. If I don't carry the reflex housing for the Arca, I can squeeze in a small field camera too. The Arca monorail fits because the rails folds up. Most other monorails will not fit because the pack is not deep enough although it will hold 4x5 holders vertically which is important to me. A 5x7 holder would have to be laid on its side. It's cramped for 8x10 (not enough holders).

    I very briefly had the next smaller LowePro (non-AW PhotoTrekker?) but found that the only provision for attaching a tripod was a strap on the bottom of the pack which was useless. The AW has loops on both sides which work well. The AW (all-weather) cover has come in handy. I'm not thrilled about how the pack fits me (it is too short for my torso), but perhaps I'm spoiled from having used good back-packing gear.

    Tenba P 253 PBL by Timo Ripatti

    The weight is just a little over 3 lbs and it holds my 4x5 Toyo Field with 3 lenses easily. Plus there's room for a 6x12 roll film holder and a Kodak Readyload Film holder and 20 exposures worth of film. What else... in goes the compendium lens hood and a loupe and a Cambo reflex focusing viewer and there's still room for a Minolta spot meter and all the filters I might need. This Tenba has a large back flap which, when opened, lets me reach everything I've packed without moving anything aside. There are loops at the sides for attaching a tripod and/or some extra pouches. I've used it regularly for 4 or 5 years without any noticeable sign of wear or tear.

    I chose this one because I was going to Lapland and that involved some cross-country skiing. It was also important to keep all that snow outside of the pack even if I tumbled over. Which I did a lot...

    And then some criticism: this is the second one I have - the first one I returned to the dealer after I inspected every seam and noticed that the large zipper was not sewn to the position where it was supposed to be, leaving a risk of ripping off if I overpacked the backpack. The price may not sound like a bargain - according to the Tenba Webpage it is $286.

    Domke Outback by Mark Dubovoy

    Although too small for 8x10 and marginal for 5x7 (depends on your camera), this might be the hands down best pack for 4x5. It is extremely compact and light versus the interior room, has three major front loading zippers which I find great when working in windy or inclement weather (you only open what you need, you do not have to expose everything else, and the flaps are small), and it has a unique padding/compartmentalizing system that works great. The straps and suspension system (an external aluminum frame that you bend to fit your body)are no nonsense and second only in comfort to some of the top hiking packs.

    This pack looks so small, it is deceiving. Do not let it fool you. I carry a Linhof 4x5 with six lenses, 2 lightmeters, filmholders, tripod, lens shade, filters, extra straps, a couple of towels, a rain cover, lunch food, sunscreen, etc. and I find that I always still have a little room to spare. It is also reasonably priced.

    I have learned from experience that the Domke bags in general do not look too exciting in the store, but when you use them in the field, you will probably conclude that they may just be the best stuff around.

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