Our roundup of new camera backpacks and messenger bags

Just as an average modern digital camera takes better photos than some of the best cameras of a decade ago did, camera bags have evolved to surpass their predecessors in various ways. Today's rugged bags offer better protection, and many come with an array of clever features. I've collected and examined seven recent offerings. Though the result is neither a comprehensive roundup nor a scientific sample, virtually every kind of photographer will find something to like here.

The bags I looked at fall into two broad categories: backpacks and messenger bags. Backpacks tend to appeal to more-serious photographers because they hold more gear and are especially suited to hiking outdoors or carrying numerous accessories to location shoots. Messenger bags sacrifice storage space for style. They work better for casual shooting, or for situations where you don't want to look as though you're climbing Everest or you don't want to advertise that you you're carrying an expensive camera on the street. And messenger bags typically cost for less than backpacks.

To size up these bags, I tried to load each one with the same array of gear. My primary camera—a Nikon D7000—is a midsize digital SLR that becomes downright enormous when attached to its optional battery pack grip. I also attempted to fit in two additional lenses (including a massive 80-400mm zoom), a flash, a tripod, and various accessories. Beyond those items, I also tried to wedge in either a 14-inch laptop or an iPad, plus a pair of bulky Klipsch noise-canceling headphones.

Tenba Discovery Photo/Laptop Daypack

Tenba's Discovery Daypack.

Tenba's 2.6-pound Discovery Daypack ($140) is one of the lightest backpacks I've ever carried. Unzip the lower compartment, and the camera insert pulls outward for vertical loading—an unusual but functional design. Measuring 12.3 by 18.0 by 10.5 inches, the Daypack accommodated most of my gear. But I had to leave the battery pack grip behind because I couldn't shoehorn the oversize camera body into the bag. The laptop compartment did have room for my laptop.

The DayPack's most appealing feature is its generously oversize top compartment. Designed to provide quick access to nonphotography accessories, it had so much room that I could fit in a light jacket with the headphones. Mesh pockets on the side made this bag one of the few to accommodate a water bottle for long photo hikes, and a slip-on rain cover affords protection from the elements. I even managed to hitch my tripod to a side of the bag, though the bag doesn’t seem to have been designed with the idea of letting users hang a tripod on it.

The Tenba Discovery Photo/Laptop Daypack.

Brenthaven BX2 Xtreme Protection Camera Collection Backpack

Brenthaven's BX2.

Of the seven camera bags I tried, Brenthaven's BX2 Xtreme Protection Camera Collection Backpack ($150) was far and away my favorite. Though similar to the Tenba Discovery in its overall dimensions (14.0 by 20.0 by 8.0 inches), this bag has more room inside for the paraphernalia that really matters. The camera compartment is significantly more spacious (mainly because it divides its interior space into a larger lower compartment and a smaller upper one). The bag fit all of my camera gear and had room for more. Even better: The design offers secondary access to the camera compartment on the side, so you can easily pull the camera body out while the bag is still slung over one shoulder. The smaller upper bay still had room for headphones and other accessories, and the side-load laptop slot held my laptop with room to spare. Clipping my tripod to the side was easy, too. Among the backpack's thoughtful extras is a "tethered" LED flashlight in one of the pockets for working in the dark. The bag feels safer, too: Brenthaven's "BX2 Xtreme foam protection" looks as though it can handle abuse without endangering your cargo.

The Brenthaven BX2 Xtreme Protection Camera Collection Backpack.

Chrome Niko Camera Pack

Chrome's Niko.

The Niko Camera Pack ($180) looks like something that a Navy Seal would carry—sleek, jet black, and made of weatherproof nylon (so you don't need a slip-on rain cover of the type that comes with the Tenba and Brenthaven backpacks). The bag's heavy-duty construction and thick Velcro support bands, the bag also feels rather rigid (and heavy, at 3.4 pounds). At 11.0 by 17.75 by 8.0 inches, it's also large: The cavernous lower camera compartment swallowed the camera, flash, and lenses without much trouble. Unlike the Brenthaven, which has a separate access door on the side for extracting the camera, Chrome's bag has a single door that you can partially unzip to pull out the camera from the side. Also, If you need to, you can unzip the floor of the upper compartment to get to the camera bay.

A few disappointments: My unadorned 15-inch laptop barely slid through the bag's gullet, but when attached to its oversize extended battery, it wouldn't go in at all, making the Niko Camera Pak the only backpack of the four I tried that couldn't accommodate my laptop with its extended battery in place. And though I could attach my tripod to the bag, I couldn't do so in a way that didn't require removing it to gain access to the camera compartment. You'll find plenty of pockets and small compartments inside, but this bag has exactly zero of them on the exterior. That contributes to the bag's sleek appearance, but it leaves you with no place to slip a lens cap or a boarding pass while you're on the move.

The Chrome Niko Camera Pack.

Tom Bihn Brain Bag, plus accessory bags

Tom Bihn's Brain Bag.

If Chrome's bag looks like Special Forces gear,  the Tom Bihn Brain Bag ($160) more closely resembles Army Ranger fare: big, baggy, and covered in exterior pockets, mesh, and clips. Regrettably, the Brain Bag isn't a great camera bag on its own: It has two huge top-load zippered compartments with no gear dividers. The Brain Bag works in conjunction with separate accessories such as the $60 Brain Cell (a padded laptop case that provides you-can-almost-drive-over-it protection). Likewise, the $110 Camera I-O (Insert-Outsert) is a larger version of the Brain Cell, and you can configure its interior with padded dividers for your camera and lenses. The I-O case gulped up all of my camera gear, with room left over. To handle a tripod, you can clip the optional Quiver ($45) to the bag. The configurable extras enable you to carry your gear to a shoot in the Brain Bag, and then dump the Brain Bag and carry the I-O as if it were a messenger bag, with the tripod quiver clipped to the side; in short, it behaves like the luggage version of a Transformer.

As much as I love the idea of the Brain Bag, it was too bulky—the 18.0-by-14.0-by-9.0-inch bag is a monster on your back—and the bag-within-a-bag approach was too complicated and time-consuming for me to enjoy in real-world use. All that Cordura adds up, too: What with the bag, the Brain Cell, the I-O, and quiver, the system tips the scales at 5.5 pounds before you park your first gadget inside. On the other hand, your wallet will be lighter, to the tune of $375, if you purchase the full array of bags and accessories.

The Tom Bihn Brain Bag.

Tamrac Aria 6

At the other end of the spectrum, Tamrac's Aria 6 ($100) is ideal for users who have less ambitious photo needs, but want a very lightweight bag (just 1.1 pounds) that lets them carry a camera in style. This diminutive messenger bag held my camera (sans battery pack), one small lens, and the flash. It was far too small (at just 12.25 by 5.5 by 9.25 inches) to host any laptop or my headphones, but it does have a slot designed expressly for an iPad. A few outer pockets (and one that zips shut) can carry a phone and some lean accessories, such as memory cards and paper. The smooth nylon finish looks more like a handbag than a camera bag—and I suspect that women will find the design more appealing than men will.

The Tamrac Aria 6.

Lowepro Event Messenger 250

LowPro Event Messenger

At 15.3 by 7.4 by 11.7 inches and 1.8 pounds, Lowepro's Event Messenger 250 ($80) is bigger and heftier than the Tamrac Aria in every spec. The bag's surprisingly spacious camera bay held most of my gear—the body (with motor drive attached) and two lenses, though I couldn't find a spot for the flash. The computer slot accommodated my iPad, and it looks roomy enough to hold a netbook. Besides supplying plenty of accessory pockets, the Messenger 250 has a cool trick up its sleeve: You can secure the flap with a clip or with reversible Velcro. Of the messenger bags I looked at, the Event Messenger was just the right size—big enough to hold most of my essential items, yet comfortable when slung over my shoulder.

The Lowepro Event Messenger 250.

Brenthaven BX2 Xtreme Protection Messenger Bag

From testing the Brenthaven backpack, I learned that this company doesn't do anything halfheartedly. The coolest feature of the BX2 Xtreme Protection Messenger Bag ($135) is that you don't need to set the bag down, undo the clips, and open the flap to extract your camera. A zipper across the top of the bag splits the flap open, giving you immediate access to your camera and accessories while the bag is still slung over your shoulder. Brenthaven includes its signature tethered LED light, plus a slew of accessory pockets. The bag is enormous (16 by 13.5 by 6 inches), and took in all of my gear (except the tripod)—even my laptop. Fully loaded, though, this giant bag looked obese and felt awkward to carry. If you need to haul as much gear as I was fitting into this messenger bag, a backpack is a better option. In fact, the BX2 Messenger Bag weighs 2.8 pounds—the same as Brenthaven's BX2 Backpack.

The Brenthaven BX2 Xtreme Protection Messenger Bag.

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