Like most photographers, I had many photo bags over the years. But only a few of those were truly great. In this post I’ll tell you about my reasons to get, and my initial experiences with what I consider the ultimate photo backpack for my needs: the Gura Gear Bataflae 32L.
My Bag Story
My first camera carrying solution was a Canon gadget bag. With a huge red “steal me” kind of logo on the side. It was awful, but was able to carry the D60 and a single lens.
Later on as my lens collection grew I needed a larger bag, and made my first mistake: bought a Lowepro DryZone 200 backpack. It was heavy and it was painful to get access to the main compartment – not to mention that I rarely shoot in an environment where I need a totally waterproof bag. It was an overkill for me. So I sold it just to fund my second mistake: a Lowepro Stealth Reporter 650W. Although it was good when shooting from the car, I realized that this was a mistake while hiking to the Delicate Arch. My conclusion was that I would definitely prefer a backpack to shoulder bags.
The next bag, which is one of those I consider to be a great one, was the Lowepro Mini Trekker (which had been discontinued since then). It was able to hold all my gear those days, as you can see on the picture below.
It was a lightweight backpack, with only one downside: wasn’t able to carry a notebook computer. So an upgrade to its bigger brother, the (also discontinued) CompuTrekker AW was a logical step. The brother was also a bit more spacious, so 1-seriers bodies put less stress on the zipper.
Over the years I hauled the CompuTrekker around the globe from Antarctica to Iceland and it served rather well. In it I was routinely carrying: 1D Mark II and 5D (Mark II) cameras; 17-40 f/4L, 24-70 f/2.8L, 70-200 f/2.8L IS and 400 f/5.6L lenses; 1.4x and 2x teleconverters plus both extension tubes in the main compartment. A flash with its external power pack and cables, batteries, and a GPS in the outer pocket. An up to 14″ notebook in its dedicated compartment. I was truly happy with this backpack. Really. So much that I thought I found the ultimate carrying solution.
More Lenses Need More Space
The bag problem resurfaced with the arrival of the 500 f/4L IS. It was huge, just used it for birding, and a separate pack seemed a good solution – mostly because I didn’t want to part with the CompuTrekker. I ended up using a Kinesis L311 long lens case to store and carry it for seven years. Yes, this way I had to carry two bags, but was happy with them – and still have fond memories of this combo.
Until – guess what – my next lens purchase, which was the TS-E 24/3.5L II. I thought that I would carry the TS-E along with the zooms, so I would need a bigger pack again. At that time (late 2011) the best solution seemed to be the Lowepro Pro Trekker 400AW. I got one, and my DryZone memories came back… It is an expedition quality pack, that would definitely withstand lots of abuse – an overkill for my needs. And that toughness comes with a price – it weighs 3.3kg empty. Despite the weight used this pack for two years.
To be honest, I regret buying it: I don’t hike that much with photo gear, so its hiking-oriented features seen no use during those two years. What made my situation even worse is that I replaced my zooms with primes, and the Pro Trekker was half-empty. Even the old Mini Trekker would be too big for those. Putting the 500 f/4L IS into the bag wasn’t an option, as its divider structure didn’t allow that. All this resulted in thinking about replacing the Pro Trekker with a backpack more suitable for my current needs.
Enter the Bataflae
Recently I came across Gura Gear’s new Bataflae product line. One of my friends has a Gura Gear Kiboko, so I knew their quality and design. I didn’t like the butterfly-only opening design of the Kiboko, but the Bataflae promised full opening (which is a must if you want to carry a notebook). My last concern was the configurability of the strap system. The Pro Trekker being excellent in this regard, I had fears that I will not able to configure the Bataflae for my body size, resulting in some rather painful experiences.
After two weekends of measurements, thinking and hesitation I decided to get the biggest Bataflae, the 32L, in black. Although I think the gray one looks better, “black makes your bag look thinner”, which is a huge plus during air travel.
Man, this bag is a pleasant surprise. The experience is kind of getting your first Mac(Book) Pro or Gitzo Systematic tripod: it is so well though out and solves your problems so genuinely, that there’s no going back. Now I can believe those raving reviews.
It’s Bigger Inside
The empty bag is a tad smaller on the outside than the Pro Trekker, but swallows way more gear. This is because of the divider structure (two huge compartments in the Bataflae vs. three smaller in the Pro Trekker), the slightly taller side walls and the thinner dividers.
On the right is a picture of my fully packed Bataflae. The left side compartment holds the 5D Mark III and the 650D; 24 f/2.8 IS, TS-E 24 f/3.5L II, 40 f/2.8, 50 f/1.4, 100 f/2, 135 f/2L lenses with their hoods; 1.4x II and 2x III teleconverters and extension tubes; 600EX flash under the hoods; and a few filters tucked under the 24/2.8.
In the right side compartment is the 500 f/4L IS (after the weight reduction treatment it went through last winter); extension cord and battery pack (under the 500) for the flash; and to my biggest surprise I was able to find a place for the Mongoose M3.6 head – which clearly show how deep is the bag.
As you can see I still have plenty of free space.
Pockets on the flap are large and easily accessible (as they were on the CompuTrekker – much better than the Pro Trekker). These and the outer pockets hold all those small gadgets such as batteries, remote switches, shoulder straps, cleaning supplies, and so on.
My fully loaded bag weighs just shy of 16kg. Honestly, I’m not really calibrated to carry more on my back.
All my worries vanished the instant I put the bag on my back. Despite the less padded strap, it feels more comfortable than the Pro Trekker – even fully loaded. There’s only one difference between the strap systems of the two bags: you can’t adjust the Bataflae to your torso’s length (here the PackJack tool of the Pro Trekker is a plus). Fortunately the 32L Bataflae fits me just perfectly, so there’s no height adjustment necessary (this was one of the reasons I went with the largest one).
A rather nice addition to the strap system are the strap keepers: small velcro strips with which you can get rid of those dangling straps.
Quite a few reviews of the Bataflae tout how easy it is to strap a tripod to the bag (you can do it two ways – to the side and to the back). Well… This is bullshit in my opinion. Yes, you can strap a toothpick-legged tripod to it, but I’m completely sure that if you buy this kind of bag then your gear demands heavyweight support. I have a Gitzo 3532LS with an Arca Swiss Z1sp head, and would never-ever strap it to this bag. Even if the elastic pouches on the sides could withstand the tripod’s weight (which I doubt), it would protrude too much above the bag (and my head). So I still carry my tripod separately.
Working from the Bag
99 percent of time I work from my bag in the following situations:
- The bag is on the back seat of a car. Usually I’m sharing the car with another photographer, who also puts his/her bag on the back seat. I found opening larger backpacks (like the Pro Trekker) to be problematic in these cases, while the smaller CompuTrekker was just fine – there’s a top flap collision when both of us try to open the bags. The butterfly opening here is a big help.
- On a smallish boat, sometimes shared with others. The butterfly opening here helps to keep a small equipment footprint, leaving room for other supplies (food/water) and also for my legs. It is also great to have the bag half-closed but accessible all the time, as accidents can happen (from birds dumping their load on the boat and the bag, to larger fishes jumping into the boat – both happened to me).
- Out in the field, where I must put down the bag on whatever ground happens to be there. I don’t know about you, but I really hate to put a wet or muddy pack on my back, so previously I carried a piece or nylon or closed cell foam sheet to lay under the bag. The Bataflae has a detached rain cover, which can be used as a ground cloth for this exact purpose – and can also be lost because it’s detached. Anyway, I will still bring a cheap piece of nylon sheet as a ground cloth, not risking to lose or damage the expensive cover/sheet of the Bataflae. In this case the butterfly opening is a plus too, as reduces the equipment footprint and hides the bag’s content from passersby.
To summarize: I find the butterfly opening a truly usable feature that makes my life much easier. Actually I use full opening in just one situation: when I carry a notebook.
Where to Put a Notebook?
There’s no dedicated notebook compartment, so what to do? Of course you can carry a dedicated notebook bag (as a personal item while traveling by air, for example). But there’s a more compact method, one that I started to use back in the Pro Trekker days.
Observation: there’s no ideal place for a notebook compartment on a photo backpack. If one places the compartment to the back, then the whole weight of the bag’s content will push on the laptop’s lid when the pack is laid on its back. I had some display panel damage from this in the past. Or one can place the compartment on the outside of the front flap, just like the Pro Trekker does. This also has drawbacks: the notebook can hit the ground if you quickly open the flap, and the laptop’s weight will act on a longer level arm, so you will feel it heavier.
To counteract these I started to put the notebook inside the main compartment (within its sleeve, of course). It is even easier to do this with the Bataflae, because the higher walls leave enough clearance for my sleeved MacBook Pro.
As you might have noticed: I really like the Bataflae. On the level I liked the CompuTrekker. But what will I do when I get more gear? Well, as I can’t carry more than 20kg (backpack, tripod, notebook combined), something will have to leave the bag.
All in all: I highly recommend the Bataflae 32L.