Photographers tend to spend a lot of time searching for the perfect camera bag. It's right up there with pink unicorns and the Holy Grail.
There's are good reasons, of course, why we never seem to be quite satisfied with what's available. Not only does every photographer have their own preferences and needs, but those change depending on the situation. The camera bag I want in the back streets of Istanbul is different to the one I want to haul up a mountain and different again to the one I want to carry on a plane.
I've recently been trying out the new Lowepro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II, both out and about as a day pack and also using it as a primary travel backpack on a trip to Mexico. It's not really designed or marketed as a travel backpack, but I like to travel light and prefer to only take carry-on if I can. Usually I'll use a Tortuga backpack or a Timbukt2 Aviator, both of which are a bit bigger and are general travel packs. But I wanted to see how the Photo Sport would stand up as a travel pack.
So after spending some time with it, here's what I think of their latest offering.
A Split-Duty Backpack
In many camera backpacks you can fit only camera gear. That's never been a model that appeals all that much to me, because if I'm going somewhere with a camera where I need a backpack, I'm going to need other things as well. Things like wet weather gear, cold weather layers, water, snacks, or first aid kits. And I certainly don't want to be carrying one bag for my camera gear and another for everything else.
So I've always been drawn to backpacks that can be used as a real combination of daypack and camera bag. One that has room to fit camera gear as well as room to fit the other stuff I need on hand. I've usually jury-rigged my own solution, but there are a few on the market now that cater to this preference. Mindshift have some of the fanciest, where the camera gear compartment swings around the waist. Or you can do what I've often done, which is use a padded compartment like the Mountainsmith cube in a regular backpack.
The Lowepro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II also has a padded camera compartment at waist level, although it doesn't swing around. But the idea is that it's a backpack with a padded section in the bottom and a free-form space at the top. Sure, you can fill it exclusively with camera gear if you want, but that's not how I'd usually choose to use it.
The AW in its name refers to all weather. It's not waterproof, but it is pretty water resistent just by itself. It also comes with its own water repellent shell that you can use in steady rain or a dust storm; it packs away unobtrusively in a small pocket on the bottom of the pack when you're not using it.
The two main compartments are a padded one in the bottom and a traditional backpack space on top.
Padded Compartment for Camera Gear
The camera gear compartment has a name: the UltraCinch™ chamber. And yes, evidently Lowepro has even trademarked it. But it's a basically a padded compartment that's built-in to the backpack. You can't remove the compartment itself, but you can move the internal dividers.
The thing that makes it a bit different from a regular standalone padded cube is that it's built into the structure of the bag in such a way to provide quick, direct access. The top of the compartment faces sideways and can be opened directly by zip as part of the outer layer of the backpack. That allows quick access from the side. While it's not a sling bag, as such, the idea is still similar--you can swing it around on your right shoulder and access the camera gear quickly that way, or you can lay the pack down and access only the camera gear without rummaging through everything else to get to it. It makes it much more convenient.
There's a strap that goes across the outside of the zipped lid just in case to add an extra layer of safety.
The inside on the camera compartment lid has a couple of small elasticized pockets that are designed for memory cards. I'm not sure I trust them to hold a memory card security, but they might also be handy for some small cables.
The compartment is also at the bottom of the pack, where is exactly where you want it for more comfortable weight distribution.
I was able to fit a large DSLR (Nikon D810) with a 24mm lens attached, as well as a couple of other smaller lenses. But since I generally carry my main camera body with me in a ThinkTank Retrospective 30, I put lenses in my backpack, including an 80-400mm, 24mm, 50mm, and a small case of cables and adapters.
Top Compartment for Everything Else
The top section loads from the top in a traditional backpack style. For the most part, it's just free-form space.
The space also extends down along the length of the pack in front fo the padded compartment. That allows for quite a lot of extra space, and it also means you can take thing that are longer than half the pack. On my trip, I fit a 3 Legged Thing Brian travel tripod in there comfortably.
The top of the pack secures with a traditional backpack method of a top-loading loop pull. There are two advantages to that: it's simple and effective, and it allows a surprising amount of flexibility if you find you need to rummage up a little extra space to pack something extra.
The lid then closes over the top section and locks down with the usual buckles.
There's a thin mesh zippered pocket on the back wall that's big enough for passports, a Kindle, folded documents, or a wallet, but it isn't big enough for an iPad or laptop.
The lid has its own small pocket that's accessible from outside. Again, it's not especially big--not big enough for an iPad--but is handy for small things you might need access to quickly.
Each side fo the waist strap also has a small zippered pocket. It's big enough for loose change, a small wallet, keys, lens cloths, and that kind of thing. I find them very useful for stashing keys and my watch when passing through a security screening at an airport, but it's also handy for snacks or anything small you might want quick access to on the go without taking the backpack off.
On the right-hand side as you're wearing it there's an elasticized pocket on the side that's a good fit for a water bottle or stashing a hat. It's open at the top, so you wouldn't want anything small or valuable in it.
And finally, there's a large open pocket that covers about 2/3 of the front of the pack. I found this very useful. While it doesn't secure at the top, the combination of some light elasticity and the pressure coming from inside the pack when it's full keeps things pretty secure in it. It's very handy for stashing things like wet weather gear. I also found it very handy for an iPad and a book when flying while still allowing for quick access.
Fittings & Features
Zippers. A bag's zipper are very often the weak link in a bag. For what is old and readily available technology, it's apparently pretty hard to make a strong, reliable zipper. And if it fails, the whole bag can become useless. So it's always one of the first things I look at when picking up a new bag.
The zippers used on this don't have a specific brand like ---, but they've been reliable, smooth, and doing what they should do. I've not run into any issues of them catching or threatening to burst even when the bag's packed full.
Straps. While it doesn't have as many loops and attachment points as a dedicated climbing pack, there are places you can attach carabiners or walking poles or ski poles. There are a couple of loops on the bottom that can be used for ice picks, although the straps aren't especially strong. While there's no dedicated tripod attachment system, you can use a combination of the attachment points to strap on a tripod to the outside (or you might be able to fit small travel tripods inside).
Water Reservoir. If you use a Camelback or Platypus water resevoir, there's a dedicated hydration pocket that fits up to 2-litre capacity.
Laptop. While you can fit most laptop sizes in it if you need to, there's no dedicated space for it, and if you do put one in you'll likely have to put it in the outer section of the free-form upper space where there's the least protection.
This is where I was least impressed. I'm 6 foot and not petite, and I just couldn't find a way to fit it that I found comfortable for any length of time. The main problem came down to length. To use the waist strap, I had to let the straps out to a point that the top of the pack fell away from my shoulders, which in turn pulled my shoulders back uncomfortably. But to make the pack sit snuggly on my back meant doing the straps up enough that the waist strap wasn't usable anymore because it was sitting up at mid-stomach-level. There is a cross-strap to pull the shoulder straps together across your chest, but it's high, and I found that it was uncomfortably close to my neck.
The straps are lightly padded. They're not bad, but they're not as comfortable as those on a high-end pack designed for proper backpacking.
The ActivZone™ harness--and yes, they've trademarked that, too--is the part of the pack that goes against your back. It's padded with channels to allow for air circulation. It works okay but not great. It's also quite flat, meaning it's essentially a flat board against your back and only shapes to your back moderately well.
Overall, the fit is what lets me down about this pack. But everyone's fit is different, and you might find it much more comfortable than I do.
Being able to take a pack like this carry-on is important to me. If I regularly have to check it I'll go with another option. But with exterior linear dimensions totaling 42 inches it is within the carry-on baggage size for most of the larger US airlines. It is a shade over the restrictions of some overseas carriers like Qantas. And overseas discount airlines can be especially restrictive.
There is, though, an important caveat. One of the advantages of a top-loading pack like this is that you can overpack it if you need to. But that's going to make it exceed those dimensions. The dimensions that Lowepro provides are presumably for packed comfortably but not overstuffed, and I'm not sure how to accurately measure something this shape myself. But there are plenty of ways to pack this where you'll have parts bulging out, and in that shape it might not fit in one of the bag size testing frames.
The upshot is that you should be fine taking it carry-on on most airlines. That's how I used it, and I had no trouble at all. Carrying it on my back when boarding and checking in, none of the gate agents looked askance at it, and it fits comfortably in the overhead locker even on smaller planes. But there's no way to protect against running into a gate agent rigidly enforcing the rules or just having a bad day. And once you throw camera gear in, you always run the risk of exceeding carry-on weight limits, which is a different problem. If you do end up having to check it, it should fare reasonably well. There's no way to hide the straps, so they'll be hanging out and potentially catching things, and with the exception of the camera gear compartment in the bottom there's minimal padding. The rain cover is open at the back. If you plan to check it regularly, a proper protective cover is probably a good idea.
Exterior Dimensions: 10.6 x 9.4 x 22.0" / 27.0 x 24.0 x 56.0 cm
Weight (empty): 3.2 lb / 1.5 kg
Lowepro have again made a well-designed and well-constructed, quality backpack. There's much to like about it, from the quick-access camera gear section in the bottom to the small but useful selection of pockets. I also like the all-weather protection.
Ultimately, for me, though, it's not a good fit for extended hiking or wearing for any length of time. But your mileage might vary on that.
It does work well as a carry-on pack and a light all-round pack with an extra protective and quick-access compartment for your camera gear.
Lowepro's Marketing Shots
It's available in black with yellow trim or bright, almost electric, blue.