Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

"The Zen of Camera Bags"

When I first started doing a lot of air travel as a photographer, I bought suitcases for all my Haliburton camera cases. I went to the local dime store and bought four of the worst, cheapest suitcases I could find. The terrible fabric exteriors were backed with cardboard. The suitcases had all the protective abilities of a grocery bag. But that didn't matter. The Haliburtons went inside the suitcases. The Haliburtons protected the cameras from damage, and the terrible suitcases provided a disguise that protected the Haliburtons from airport theft.

I would carry onto the plane a camera bag with my most fragile equipment and have a Leica with a collapsible 50 under my coat. Thus, even if something got stolen I would have a basic working rig with me. But nothing was ever stolen. For thirty-five years no thief has stooped low enough to grab one of those awful looking suitcases.

However, my brilliance in disguising my luggage was not matched with my brilliance in the field. I would work in bad neighborhoods carrying one camera bag (sometimes two) on my shoulder, thinking I was not attracting attention because none of the equipment was outside the bag. And, besides, what thief would recognize those bags as camera bags? What a dummy.

Of course, I got hit. The Bronx, New York City, New Haven, all saw the famous flying Domke heading south in the arms of a photo-savvy thief. While the majority of assignments are a little easier for the use of a good camera bag, city streets, among others, are some of the places not to display your expensive wares.

My solution was to carry my equipment in back packs. The equipment inside the packs was protected and organized with Domke inserts and a variety of color-coded Domke wraps. This worked out better than I could have imagined.

Obviously, it is a lot harder to snatch a backpack than a bag with one shoulder strap. As a matter of fact, it is impossible, unless you want to snatch the person along with the pack.

And, as backpacks have become more popular, they attract less and less attention. They simply are not the kind of designer bag that says, "Hi, I’m affluent, stylish and probably stupid enough to be carrying something valuable in this bag." This is protection, not only when you are on the street, but when you are carrying a bag onto an airplane. Sadly, there are now thieves that snatch expensive looking bags as they go through an X-ray and security check. Want to lose all your cameras? Just pack them into a bag obviously designed to carry a laptop computer.

Old age has also shown me the advantage of a backpack. Carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder for a prolonged period of time is definitely a no-no for the senior photographer. Twice, after spending a few months on the campaign trail, carrying everything I would need, including high-speed long lenses, I ended up on the emergency-room trail followed by the stay-in-bed trail followed by the don’t-lift-anything trail. Definitely not happy trails. So far there have been no problems carrying relatively heavy loads for a fair length of time in a backpack. So far being 16 years.

In an emergency you can work out of a back pack, just as you would a shoulder bag, by putting both straps over one shoulder. It is something I avoid when possible. I can usually put the pack on the ground and rummage around for what I need. After the first few times doing this, I realized, it was what I did most of the time with a big shoulder bag.

But how can you wear a backpack at an upscale event? I now have as many backpacks as most photographers have conventional camera bags. Big packs, little packs, packs with and without inner steal frames and a beautiful leather pack with a full carrying handle and concealable straps. The leather pack comes out of storage any time that I want to say, "No, I’m not a press photographer, just a close personal friend of the guest of honor. And, as you can see from my stylish leather bag, I’m probably quite a guy."

Bill Pierce

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