One bag to rule them all

I’ve been remiss in writing on this blog, and for that I apologize. I return to form in a new year with a review to share. I’ve been searching for years for the right bag. Not just a camera bag, because those are thick on the ground. I use a camera bag differently than some, but I know there are others who have the same list of needs in a bag that I do. Here, I’ll outline my needs and show you a bag that checks all my boxes. Maybe they’ll be your boxes, too. 

As a bright-eyed, ruddy-faced photography student, I was initially a user of the good old Canon Gadget Bag. I assumed my youthful exuberance and souk-like negotiating skills had netted me a gem, since the retailer agreed to throw this bag in with the purchase of my plastic-fantastic Rebel G. Literally a zipper-pocket for every branded accessory Canon could sell you. This bag didn’t last long.

Inspector GadgetBag
Inspector GadgetBag

As I learned quickly, there’s a ludicrous retail markup on photography accessories. While working at a mini-lab and photography store in my college years, I was able to order directly from the wholesalers at an embarrassing discount. Moving a Hasselblad V and a Canon EOS-1n as well as a laptop necessitated a very fancy bag indeed, and I treated myself to a Lowe Stealth AW backpack. It was massive, had dedicated neoprene lens pockets and retailed at over $600. All-day comfort, but really needed to be filled with heavy gear to make any sense. I stopped using this for cameras when I moved away from the Hasselblad. As a data point, I still own this bag for transporting drug-testing supplies to industrial sites and it hasn’t aged a day in 15 years. Bombproof.


Later when I worked as a commercial photographer, I used a Domke F2. It was excellent for moving all the cameras, lenses and ancillary junk I would need in the run of a shoot. The gripper strap mean I could sling it over one shoulder while carrying two large hard cases of lighting equipment up stairs, through the city or at an event. I traveled solo most times, and everything needed to fit in two hands. More importantly, equipment like this is hardwired into the visual lexicon of every security guard and gatekeeper in the land. Combined with a Canon professional body, I was able to talk my way into lots of places a private citizen shouldn’t have been granted access to.

Ubiquitous
Ubiquitous

Since I no longer work with lighting equipment nor onsite for clients, my needs have shifted along with my activity. Most of my photography happens while on foot during travel. The needs of a traveler dovetail in some ways with that of a photographer, but your typical carry-on bag makes for a lousy camera bag, and vice versa.

Terraclime Loadout
Terraclime Loadout
The Challenge

When shooting with the Fuji GA645, I found the LowePro Terraclime 100. It was perfect for this camera, ditto for the Contax G2 and trio of magic Zeiss lenses. The Terraclime is very soft and thin, offering a minimum of crash protection.  Wearing it all day is much more pleasant than the heavily padded diaper bags we’ve come to recognize for DSLR equipment. It works well enough for the Rolleiflex so long as I remove the protective camera wrap when actually shooting.

The chunky, square shape of the Rollei pushes the limits of what the bag was meant to hold. I found that when fully loaded it wasn’t wearing as nicely as when the svelte Fuji was in residence. Sadly, anything more than the Rolleiflex and a bottle of water, and the Terraclime is overburdened and hard to use. It’s not even practical to add a simple box camera to the kit, much less travel necessities beyond a folding umbrella laid over the top. Gripes aside, I’ll keep the Terraclime for that glorious day when I repair the GA645; it’s such a good match with that camera.

Snug
Snug

When traveling I tend to walk a lot and like to carry passes, snacks and other necessities for the day. Sometimes I bring a laptop to write about my experiences. Sometimes I bring headphones or a book to use on the aeroplane. But I always have a camera and film. I’ve been spoiled by the light and flexible Terraclime, and if there was a larger version of this bag, I’d have probably gone up a size and been happy as a clam. Alas, no mas.

So the checklist is as follows:

  • Light, unpadded design
  • Secure on the shoulder
  • Unobtrusive, wears close to body
  • Room for day-trip necessities
  • Waterproof a definite bonus
  • QUALITY construction

I’m an analytic sort of chap, I like to look at things like buying a camera bag as something akin to the Quest for the Holy Grail. Part of my purchase process involves obsessively reading everything about everything and letting it percolate for a while until the answer comes floating to the surface like a Magic 8-Ball.

The Hunt

Way back when I spent a lot of time on RFF, I was intrigued by the Bare Bones Bag that Steven Schaub commissioned through Courierware. It seemed tough, practical and well thought out. It was also ridiculously priced and had a long waiting list. I could understand the appeal of a messenger style bag then, but his version predictably hung at the side. I think I really just enjoyed reading his mad-scientist-style rants on Figital Revolution more than anything else. But he did get me thinking, and he had the stones to design and produce a bag that he thought was right.

After some more searching and head-scratching, a couple years later I came across a Canadian company called Cocotte Equipment. They are (Montreal) famous for making bicycle messenger bags for the busy couriers in that city. The elusive reviews I could find were all from that gristly, jaded courier community but universally positive. I filed the information away and kept an eye on their charmingly out-of-date website.

When the opportunity finally arose to see a bag in the flesh came up in November, I bought one right away. The smaller version of the design (called Frida) is roughly the same size as my green Terraclime 100. But much, much better made. The largest version (and Cocotte’s claim to fame) is Alfredo. It’s immense. I brought home the midsize Fred in blue and I’m one happy customer.

Meet Fred
Meet Fred

Fred to the rescue

Fred was hand-made right in Montreal, using the highest quality hardware and materials. The shell is 1000 Denier Cordura, the interior is completely waterproof. The strap adjusts on the fly and the bag sits securely on the small of my back. The build quality and attention to detail on this bag is hard to believe. There are no corners cut anywhere in production. Everything is solid and feels like it will last a lifetime.

Strap and Adjusters
Strap and Adjusters

The 14L capacity is perfect for my camera and accessories, with another third left for headphones, a rain shell, water bottle, umbrella or lunch.

Headphones and Camera
Headphones and Camera
Writing Stick and Notebook
Writing Stick and Notebook

Cocotte also makes the Capa camera insert for this middle-sized messenger bag, and I was tempted to buy it right away. Having spent a couple months using Fred, I’m going to forego the purchase of the insert and put that money toward film and chemistry. I have a simple kit, with no large accessories, lenses or flash units to house. Since I usually add travel essentials instead, I am able to cinch down the bag to the size of my kit instead of always having a padded insert at the bottom.

Photo: Cocotte Equipment
Photo: Cocotte Equipment

If I shot a DSLR kit, or had multiple cameras it would be a no-brainer. Especially with the obsessive quality of construction and materials.

Photo: Cocotte Equipment
Photo: Cocotte Equipment
Conclusion

There’s not a thing I would change about this excellent bag. I foresee it being a stalwart companion on many a journey by air, motorcycle and on foot. I haven’t been endorsed in any way by the maker or retailer where I purchased the bag. As a satisfied customer I can recommend this bag without hesitation to any of my friends who need a practical, affordable and secure way to transport their equipment. At $125 CAD, Fred is a bona-fide bargain. Have the folks at Cocotte make you one, there’s no doubt you’ll become a fan too.

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