A few weeks ago, my trip to Cambodia was coming up, and I really wanted to find a good photo day-pack. I have a fantastic Kata R-103 backpack, which is designed to fit all my photo gear but isn’t good for non-photo items. I wanted to travel light, so I didn’t want to bring more than a single body, a couple of lenses, and maybe a flash.
For years, I traveled with a small Lowepro shoulder bag – just big enough for a 5D with a 24-105mm + flash OR another lens. And this is a great, compact package. The only problem is, it couldn’t fit anything else – no book/rain jacket/water bottle, nothing. So at times I found myself carrying the Lowepro shoulder bag with my camera gear AND a small backpack with other essentials – which was uncomfortable (try to wear a backpack and shoulder bag at the same time), not to mention stupid-looking. Speaking of stupid-looking, check out this picture:
I was rocking this arrangement last fall at Tikal in Guatemala. It was raining, so I was wearing my non-waterproof backpack with the Lowepro stuffed into it under my raincoat, while shooting with a 5D covered with a plastic garbage bag. Even the turkey wanted nothing to do with me.
So I started looking for a day-pack that’s also a camera bag. I had the following criteria:
- Not too big (fit underneath any airplane seat)
- Fit a digital SLR with 2-3 lenses/flash AND have room for non-photo items
- Doesn’t scream “photo bag”
- Rain cover
- Not too expensive
After quite a bit of research, I settled on the Kata DR-465i. After tooling around Cambodia and Vietnam for 2 and a half weeks, here’s my review.
No complaints here. Whenever anybody talks about Kata bags, they have to mention that Kata used to make bulletproof vests for the Israeli army. It won’t stop a bullet, but the bag feels solid. It even has a bit of that Kata “rib” material on the outside of the lower compartment for some extra shock absorption. I never worried about my camera or lenses being damaged. The zippers seem pretty solid as well.
The bag has a dual-compartment design. The bottom compartment has a removable padded insert and is meant for your body/lenses/flash.
For my trip to Asia, I packed a Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4 lens attached, a 135mm f/2 lens and a 35mm f/2. This still left enough room for a flash, which I decided not to bring. Instead I filled it out with the rain cover and netbook charger.
In the top compartment, I had a 9” Asus netbook, a kindle, notebook, pen, crossword book, and spare batteries.
The side pockets held all sorts of flat or flattish miscellaneous items like a polarizing filter, CF cards, Canon point and shoot, and some plain crackers (which proved crucial, as they were the only thing I could down for 2 days after I contracted a stomach bug in Siem Reap.)
For a bag as small as this, it really fits quite a bit. My 9 inch netbook slid perfectly in the upper compartment. A larger laptop would not fit.
Even though it’s a small pack, it’s bound to get heavy once it’s filled with camera gear. My shoulders/back definitely got sore after wearing the bag all day long, which I did a couple of times. (Fortunately, an hour-long massage in Cambodia costs around $7.) The included sternum strap was a help. It can be slid up/down the straps for an optimal fit.
The bag also comes with an (unpadded) waist strap, which I left at home. Seemed silly for a pack this small.
The size of this pack is one of the top selling points to me. It’s compact enough to fit underneath an airplane seat even on domestic flights. As I mentioned, it’s not big enough to fit a regular laptop. If you want the same bag, but bigger, check out its siblings, the Kata DR-466i and DR-467i.
The bag is designed to carry your stuff. It’s not necessarily designed for quick access to your gear – especially if it’s in the lower compartment. I found I definitely had to take the bag off in order to take out/put in my camera. Sometimes I would empty the top compartment and store my camera there. This gave me quicker access, but keep in mind that the top compartment is not padded all the way around.
Features I didn’t use
- The top and bottom compartments are separated by a layer of padding, which can be removed with a zipper. So conceivably you could turn this bag into a single backpack for day use. Great feature, but I didn’t need it.
- There’s a little zippered pocket on the side that holds a mesh pouch. This is ostensibly to carry a (small) tripod (the top of which can be secured with a strap), or a water bottle. I MIGHT have used it for water, but the opening of the pouch is too small to fit a 1.5 liter bottle, which was disappointing.
Many photo backpacks tend to be boxy. This one is not at all. It’s small, black and nondescript. Definitely low profile. Like all Kata bags, it’s got the bright yellow interior, which makes it easy to spot that detached lens cap.
So here’s the final roundup:
Small, but holds a lot
Solid construction, padding
Lots of straps/loops all over to attach things
Trolley strap on the back
Doesn’t look like a camera bag
When the bottom compartment is full, it’s not can be a bit of a pain to take the camera in/out
The mesh pocket doesn’t really fit a water bottle – not too useful
Over two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Kata DR-465i was a perfect companion. It’s small enough to comfortably carry onto a bus, and I never worried about my gear getting damaged. Now that I’m back in New York, I know I’ll grab this backpack when riding my bike to shoots that don’t require too much equipment.
UPDATE: This has come to pass. The backpack fits perfectly into my medium Wald bike basket, which honestly really ups the value for me:
Bag lust never really dies in a photographer. It’s probably a matter of time before another photo bag comes along and catches my eye. But for the foreseeable future, this is pretty close to the perfect small photo backpack.