by Paul Mozell
I recently field tested two new camera bags from Lowepro, both on the trail and on the street. The Lowepro Pro Messenger AW 180 is a mid-sized shoulder bag that will haul a surprising amount of gear discretely and comfortably. It’s not exactly a messenger bag in the traditional sense—a large floppy shoulder bag first used by bicycle messengers to carry packages and envelopes. Rather, this bag is more like a hefty laptop case than anything else. Most importantly, it has a very generic and ordinary look; important attributes for a camera bag if you don’t wish to attract the eyes of thieves, or alert wary photographic subjects. The Pro Messenger is soft enough to bend comfortably on your hips, and firm enough to protect the most fragile lenses in your kit. I prefer the softer design of today’s shoulder bags to the boxy hard designs that were the standard for so many decades.
To access most of the pockets in the main compartment of the pack, you must lift up the messenger-bag-like flap. This flap configuration is important because it provides moisture and dust protection for your gear. Folded gussets on the corners keep the elements from sneaking in the sides of the bag. However, lifting up the flap when you are shooting in tight places is annoying. Lowepro has addressed this problem by allowing you to fold the flap under, reducing its overall length by about one half. This also serves to cover the bands of hook & loop attachment strips, and stops the annoying ripping noise they make. The substitute is a less tenacious but silent magnetic attachment.
The bag’s back has a full coverage pocket with zips at top and bottom. This makes it usable for notebooks and papers, or as an open channel that fits over the bars of a luggage cart. The left and right sides have open-topped pockets tightened by elastic, suitable for small drink bottles, or phones. The large zippered front pocket will hold a pro camera body, without lens attached. An array of small pockets can hold pens, business cards, cable releases and other small items. The smallest pockets seem sized for memory cards, but I wouldn’t trust them, lacking a secure closure. The pocket is easily large enough for a speedlight, assorted cables, and filters, assuming you put the camera body elsewhere. A pocket on the bottom-outside of the bag is for Lowepro’s unique all-weather cover, which is permanently attached to the bag by a small tether. My gear has been kept dry in many a rainstorm by the rain covers on several of the large and small, old and new Lowepro packs I own.
Moving on to the inside of the main compartment. Thee three large vertical lens pockets are impressive, each deep enough to hold a 70-200mm lens with its sun shade attached. The three pockets, whose dividers are easily repositioned, could easily hold up to five lenses of various lengths. The center pocket can hold a DSLR with a modest lens attached – I succeed with a 70-300. However, I was unable to fit a body with attached lens in the middle pocket, and the 70-200 in either of the adjacent pockets, without forcing them in. I’ve concluded that is was Lowepro’s intent for the body to live in that front pocket — if you are going to carry a 70-200 telephoto.
The workmanship and materials on the Messenger AW series are up to Lowepro’s high standards. This bag is ideal for the photographer who does not want to stand out in a crowd, needs to carry as much gear as possible in a compact package, and feel confident his/her equipment is both safe and accessible. It is available in three sizes. I tested the mid-sized Messenger AW with a street price of about $169.95.
The Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW is a light weight backpack designed for active photographers. Inspired by the current generation of ultra-light packs favored by rock climbers and hikers, its rip-stop nylon fabric, narrow profile, comfortable strap system, and hydration bladder pocket, will support a photographer on the move.
As a nature and landscape photographer, I feel as though I am on a never-ending search for camera bags that satisfy these criteria: Fast access to cameras and accessories, adequate impact and weather protection, comfort when hiking and climbing, and enough storage space for food and clothing. I have camera packs that can haul large amounts of photo gear but with no place for foul weather clothing. And, there are the packs best suited to urban travel and tourism, sporting a padded laptop sleeve. Enter the Photo Sport series.
The concept of a side entry camera compartment is not new. By swinging the pack in front of you after releasing the right shoulder strap, you can unzip the compartment while walking—without setting the pack on the ground. For me, the ground is often covered by mud, snow, or thorny undergrowth. The side-entry packs have always made me nervous because of the chance I would neglect to fully zip the cover closed, risking the loss of a lens or body. In this pack, a simple draw-cord tightens the compartment, limiting movement of your camera within the pack and reducing the odds that the camera would fall out if the zipper was not properly shut.
I carried a Nikon D300 with an attached 18-50 lens, plus a 70-300 in the adjacent pocket. You could also carry a body with attached 18-200mm lens, although you might need to reverse the lens hood. There is not enough space for a 70-200 2.8, but hauling this much glass would be somewhat at odds with the ultra-light concept.
I prefer hiking backpacks with draw cords and not zippers on the top compartment. Score another point for the Photo Sport. In my tests that top compartment was large enough to hold a speedlight in its own Nikon pouch, plus another nylon pouch for my filters. There was plenty of space for a sweater, and some snacks. I could also have pushed in a headlamp, extra hat, and a field guide or two. This is lots of space for a pack with such a slim profile. Another zippered pocket within the big pouch is ideal for cables, lens cloths, pens, and a notepad. Need more space? Use the pocket within the top backpack flap.
Inspired by larger packs built for climbing and skiing, a fast-access, top-entry pouch on the front is large enough to hold a windshell or rainjacket. The right side of the pack has a pouch suitable for a small water bottle. On longer treks you might want to use a water bladder (you must supply). Lowepro had the wisdom to make the hip belt small and soft so it doesn’t get in your way if you don’t fasten it to your hips. Small zippered pockets in the hip belt are suitable for a small phone or accessories.
The shoulder straps are comfortable but I would have preferred a slightly longer sternum strap to accommodate the puffiness of a winter jacket. A pocket in the bottom of the pack stores Lowepro’s excellent, attached, all weather cover. I’m uncertain why the pack has what appears a mini axe loop on each lower corner of the pack. Also, I’m not sure how I would use adjustable straps on the bottom of the pack. The pack is too small to hold a tripod.
For my field test I wore the Photo Sport to photograph the rocky shoreline of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. I climbed around the jagged rocks at low tide observing that my movement was not at all limited by the pack. Poised with my tripod on a small outcrop near the water, I was able to reach my camera without putting the pack down on the narrow granite platform. On another excursion, I climbed some hilly terrain in a forested reservation near my home, confident that if the weather were to change, my camera gear would be protected from the elements.
I’d like to see this pack in a slightly larger model. Also, in my experience, a tougher class of zippers on main compartments would be least likely to fail at critical moments. Other than that, I give a hearty endorsement to the Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW. It is available from most photography dealers at a street price of $149.95, in your choice of bright orange or black.