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Old 11-09-2005, 06:35 PM
Jason Kravitz
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 143
Default Building an Urban Messenger Camera Bag

Finding the perfect bag seems to be a theme on camera forums and message boards. With the increasing popularity of digital SLR systems there is an increase in the need for a good bag to keep it in. There are so many different varieties and styles available it is almost overwhelming to find something that works. In addition, there are different bags for different occasions. I had a few different bags but was not completely satisfied with any of them so I decided to create one using various parts and padding. Read on to find out more!

So Many Choices
I have an older Tamrac backpack for hiking and nature shots so I was looking for an urban bag that I could travel with or take on informal shoots around the city. I went to the local camera store and spent a while loading and unloading different bags but they still came up short. Comfort and accessibility were my key requirements. I was hoping to carry a laptop and eliminate the need for two carry on bags however most laptop camera combo bags were too big for what I was looking for. Another key point was use of space inside. So many camera bags are over stuffed with padding which is good for the protection of my equipment but not very flexible for carrying other things like maps, a jacket, a book or other items. Finally I wanted a bag that didn't look like it had thousands of dollars worth of gear inside.

I quickly became frustrated because many bags had some of these features but could not find one that had all of them. I was leaning towards a messenger style bag like those made by Crumpler. They were stylish but a bit too big and rigid. While searching on messenger camera bags I came across a post on a forum from a guy that made his own camera bag using a standard messenger bag (from Timbuk2) and some Domke inserts. Unfortunately he did not go into a lot of detail about which Timbuk2 bag he was using and which inserts so I bought some components and started experimenting.

I had not heard of Timbuk2 before the post but after reading some user reviews on various sites it seemed to be a highly regarded brand. They were reportedly roomy, rugged, water resistant and able to take years of abuse without showing signs of wear. You can buy a Timbuk2 from a place like for a discounted price or order a custom one from the Timbuk2 website directly. I went the custom route which allowed me to add some features which I will go into later that have proved useful for my camera bag conversion. The classic messenger bag comes in 4 sizes from small to extra-large. I debated between the large or extra-large and finally settled on the large which provides enough space for me to fit a body and a few lenses and accessories without making the bag too bulky. I also bought a Timbuk2 laptop sleeve hoping I could fit my camera and laptop in the large bag but it is not quite big enough for this. The sleeve is well padded and I've used it in a backpack and some other non-laptop bags. Timbuk2 also has a line of laptop bags, I'm curious if these would have enough extra room for camera equipment.

Figure 1: My Timbuk2 large classic messenger bag emptied and slightly flattened.

Good to have Options
The key advantage of the converted messenger bag is that I have a lot of flexibility in how to carry my stuff. I could take everything out and only take my camera with one lens with a bunch of non-camera gear like clothing or I can load it up. The bag (and inserts) folds down flat so I can even take the bag and all my gear in a suitcase for flying, since there is a two carry on limit and I usually bring a laptop bag. When I arrive at my destination I can "build" the messenger bag based on where I will be walking around or what I'm going to do that day.

Figure 2: Flipped open to show the velcro pads and external zipper pocket.

Buying directly from Timbuk2 I was able to add on a few features, a center divider pocket, strap pad and top handle. Buying a custom bag from Timbuk2 also allows you to choose between Ballistic Nylon or Codura fabric and choose custom interior and exterior colors. I choose the codura fabric which has a tighter weave and matte surface. Both types of fabric as well as the inside lining are made to be highly water resistant. I've had mine out in heavy rain and everything in the bag stayed dry. I was concerned at first because the bag does not zip shut rather closes with velcro and snaps. When the bag is not hanging the corners can sometimes be exposed however I think this is the case with any type of messenger bag and when it is hanging on my shoulder it seals tighter. All the bags come with a bunch of zipper pockets. It took me a while before I noticed all of them, I kept finding new compartments. There always seems to be a corner or place so shove odds and ends whether in the pockets or in the main compartment.

Figure 3: Inside lining and internal zipper pockets on inner front panel.

Padding it Out
I had a little difficulty deciding which inserts to purchase. The forum article mentioned Domke brand but not the specific type. I looked at B&H and Adorama and found a few options before settling on two different inserts, the FA-230 3-Compartment and the FA-233 3-Compartment combination.

Figure 4: Domke FA-230 3 Compartment (slimmer) and Domke FA-233 3 Compartment Combination.

I was fortunate to have a bunch of extra padding from my Tamrac bag which I use on the bottom and sometimes on the sides for extra support. I don't know if you can buy these types of pads individually however you can probably find something comparable even if it is not made specific for cameras.

Figure 5: Tamrac padding with heavy bottom pad on the left.

Loading it Up
On a casual shoot or while traveling I primarily carry my 20D body, Canon 17-40mm, Tamron 24-75mm lens, Canon 70-200mm/2.8, and Canon 50mm lens, 580EX flash, omni-bounce diffuser, flash TTL cord, remote shutter cable, polarizing filter, graduated neutral density filter, extra batteries for camera and flash, and extra CF cards. I also typically carry an umbrella, books, energy bars, light jacket, iPod and/or PSP (usually when traveling).

Figure 6: The gear listed above minus the umbrella, light jacket and 50mm lens.

Having the two different inserts allows me to setup the bag in two configurations. The FA-233 is wider which allows me to keep more non-camera equipment but makes the bag bulkier. I tend to use the FA-230 more because it makes the bag slimmer. The lens slots are quite wide on both inserts which is nice for the 70-200 lens. For the other slots I use some of the Tamrac padding to fill out the space so things don't shift around. On the store web site the inserts advertise the ability to keep a lens and body however my 20D does not fit comfortably in the slots with a lens so I keep it between the insert and the side of the bag. I was concerned it would not be as protected this way but have not had a problem with this setup yet.

Figure 7: Loaded bag using the slimmer setup with Domke FA-230.

One of the tamrac pads (see figure 5) fits perfectly on the bottom of the bag. I would recommend using something similar even a piece of heavy cardboard would work. I also place a piece of tamrac padding on the bottom of each slot for extra protection. My typical FA-230 setup consists of the 50mm and 17-40mm (or 24-75mm) in the left slot separated by some tamrac padding. The middle slot holds the 580EX flash in it's case, some filters and other random fillers like energy bars. The left slot holds my 70-200mm lens. I keep the camera body with the 24-75mm lens (or occasionally 17-40mm) on the side outside the insert with some more tamrac padding underneath it. Sometimes when I travel I remove all lenses from the body for added protection and am able to fit the body and one of the shorter lenses between the insert and the edge of the bag. If I am walking around and have the 70-200mm on the camera I occasionally keep a bottle of water in the empty slot. All the cords and extra batteries go in the center pocket. I fold up my jacket and shove it behind the center pocket so it fills out the back of the bag. Other odds and ends go in the zipper pockets. There is a small felt lined pocket for cell phone or iPod on the front inner panel. I stick the umbrella, books, PSP and any other random accessories along the front between the insert and the inner front panel.

Figure 8: Packed bag using Domke FA-230 insert as described.

Figure 9: Loaded bag from the front.

Overall I have been happy with this solution. The bag distributes weight well although after walking around for a few hours it can get uncomfortable. Taking the body and a lens out of the bag makes it considerably lighter so I often will sling the bag over my shoulder and hold my camera or hang it from my neck. There are probably similar style pre-made bags available maybe even cheaper than it cost to build this one but I enjoy the style and flexibility of this configuration and will continue to use it until I find something better.

For those of you looking to try this out for yourself, expect to spend about $70-$100 on the bag depending on where you buy it and about $20-$40 on padding. If you come up with another variation that works for you please share it on the forum.

Jason Kravitz is a software engineer, musician and photographer specializing in the creative potential of the human mind and its connection to the subtle spaces around us. Jason is the creator of the PocketPC game DevilDarts. His current area of interest is the potential of imagery to transcend the boundaries of language. His photo blog can be seen on
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