I needed a new camera bag. More specifically, I needed a new camera bag that didn’t look like a camera bag. Not something to carry all my gear—just a mirrorless camera with short tele attached, a 13" laptop, a few books, lunch, and other daily sundries. A commuter camera bag? A hybrid camera bag? Whatever you want to call it, my new bag needed to blend in on the subway and rest comfortably on my lap should I be lucky enough to score a seat. A backpack seemed the logical choice: less clunky than a shoulder bag, more spacious than a sling.
I narrowed my options to seven bags that I could imagine myself wearing in public, and spent a few weeks with each. A disclaimer: the bags in this article were not recommended or provided by their manufacturers; they were all chosen by me as potential future purchases. Like The Bachelor, but backpacks—the “Backpachelor,” if you will. Which bag won my heart? Read on to find out.
Timeless Style: ONA Leather Clifton Backpack
The Leather Clifton from ONA is a beautiful bag. Every person—photographer or not—who approached the mountain of backpacks on my desk was drawn to this bag. Maybe it’s the full grain leather, maybe it’s the nostalgic, schoolyard design—whatever it is, the magnetism of this bag is undeniable.
Though its craftmanship screams luxury, nothing about the Clifton suggests it might house a camera inside. All this changes once you unzip the top and are greeted by two removable camera cases tailored to the exact dimensions of the bag’s interior. I used a Sony a7RII with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens as my test camera for all bags in this review. It fit into the large compartment with plenty of room to spare and snugly in the bottom rectangular compartment. For the purposes of my commute, I would stick with the small camera case and remove the larger one to make room for other items. The only potential design flaw here is that it can become difficult to access your camera quickly if all your other stuff is resting on top of it.
The Clifton is comfortable to wear and holds its shape better than I expected. Its leather exterior is supplemented by a lined interior for an extra layer of protection against the elements. ONA says that its bags are water resistant, but I would still recommend investing in a quality leather lotion and waterproofing product to be safe. One detail that could be improved is the side pocket design which, for all intents and purposes, is non-functional. I would love to see a version of this bag that could accommodate a water bottle on its side. Otherwise, it is hard to find flaws with such a beautiful bag.
The “Photographer Bag”: Peak Design Everyday Backpack v2 (20L)
When Peak Design emerged on the camera bag scene about a decade ago, it answered the collective prayers of so many photographers that its signature designs have become synonymous with camera carry—among photographers, at least. The Everyday v2 makes a few tweaks to the original Everyday, a backpack that—full disclosure—I’ve used for several years with few complaints.
Like its predecessor, the Everyday v2 is built to last a long time. Its weatherproof 400D shell is a safe bet for nearly any environment. While I wouldn’t recommend doing so, I’ve placed my bag in snow and worn it through downpours without a drop of water reaching my gear inside, surprising me every time.
The new model has noticeably smoother zippers for fluid access to both side compartments. Like its older version, the interior is shaped using rigid dividers. A variety of pockets inside and outside provide extra organization, and magnets are used throughout to add security and reduce clutter. Up to a 15" laptop and 12.9" tablet can be separately stored in a dedicated compartment accessed through the top of the bag. The Everyday v2 has handles on the top and side of the bag, making it easy to grab and carry if you don’t feel like wearing it on your back. Although I tested the smaller (20L) of the two Everyday sizes, it is still almost too big for my lap when seated on the train. The new version does not really make enough changes to justify upgrading for those who already have the original Everyday—a testament to the durability of these bags—but it maintains Peak Design’s formidable position in the camera bag pantheon.
The Hidden Gem: Simple Brevite Jumper
My first impressions of Brevite’s Jumper were all over the place and served as a good reminder of why I had set out to do this article in the first place. Sometimes you just need to spend some time with a bag before forming an opinion. Online, I felt like the Jumper could be the bag: simple, unassuming, easily adapted. Yet when it arrived, surrounded by the other bags on my desk, it looked—to quote a colleague, “cheap.” After a few days using the Jumper, however, its low-key aesthetic and thoughtful design won me back over.
A removable “floor” separates the Jumper’s camera compartment from its upper storage. The padding on its interior and dividers is the softest of any of the bags on this list, promising your gear a luxury experience. Access to your camera is possible in two ways: through the front of the bag or the side. In front of the camera compartment is an additional, separately accessed pouch, the perfect size for a good book or sandwich.
A word of caution: the exterior of this bag does not look much like the photos used to advertise it. Made of 600D polyester, it has more texture than some of its pictures suggest. Look at the photos in this article instead. This bag is also, according to Brevite, machine washable—something I did not try since I planned to return it after my review. I would trust the Jumper in light rain but would not take it into a downpour without using a separately available rain cover. This shortcoming could be addressed by adding an extra lining to future models.
The Adventurous Option: Thule EnRoute Backpack (20L)
Founded in 1942, Thule is a company with plenty of experience getting expensive gear from one place to another. The EnRoute is right at the threshold of commuter and adventure-oriented backpacks, equally at home on the subway or hiking trail.
This is a bag I would feel confident carrying through a monsoon. Two layers of protection promise your camera will stay safe: a nylon ripstop exterior and a separate rigid, padded camera case. Inside, your camera is as protected as you could hope in a non-hard case—if it fits. This was the only bag with a camera case that my a7RII and 16-35mm f/2.8 felt too big inside of. It fit—but barely, and less comfortably than I would want for daily usage. The EnRoute is better suited to small-format mirrorless cameras and lenses.
Thule uses a zip-in design for the camera case, separating it from the rest of the interior. This leaves a somewhat awkward gap in the bottom corner of the bag. A longer camera case could occupy this space and expand compatibility to larger cameras. The top compartment of the bag has space for small accessories for quick access. The zippers on the EnRoute are somewhat sticky—but in a way that instills confidence.
Wandrd PRVKE 21L v2 Photo Bundle
Wandrd is among the fresher faces in the camera bag world and has quickly cultivated a loyal following. Founded by photographers frustrated by the state of the camera bag market, Wandrd’s popularity stems from its careful blend of style and function. The PRVKE v2 is the latest iteration of Wandrd’s flagship backpack. As versatile as it is unpronounceable, I found the PRVKE v2 to be a labyrinth of storage hidden behind a sleek exterior.
The PRVKE v2 is made of tarpaulin with 1680D ballistic nylon to keep its contents dry. It features a roll top that can expand to hold more gear when necessary. The photo bundle includes Wandrd’s Essential Camera Cube, a stand-alone case complete with its own shoulder strap. Accompanying padded dividers, the cube includes elastic straps that can be positioned to prevent your gear from falling out when opened. Smart. The cube has top and side entry points that can be aligned inside the PRVKE v2 for quick access to gear. Together, these two lines of defense promise to keep your camera well protected. In addition to the side access to your camera, the entire back of the bag unzips—a design choice I’ve never been a huge fan of since it requires the backpack to be taken off to work. This was the heaviest bag I reviewed, weighing more than 4 lb with the camera cube inside. It was also the largest, taking up more space than I would want from a commuter bag.
The PRVKE v2 has dedicated spaces for up to a 16" laptop and 12.9" tablet. There are so many storage compartments in this bag—some obvious, some not—that it flirts with excess for commuters. Likewise, the included waist belt and extra straps may come in handy for long-distance journeys but are not necessary for my specific needs. Neither is the text reminding me to “Worry Less, Wander More” emblazoned on the top carry handles of this otherwise elegant bag. Is this a camera bag or a souvenir t-shirt at the beach?
The Afterthought: Manhattan Portage Snapshot
Manhattan Portage has made its name designing messenger bags here in New York for nearly four decades. Aware of its reputation outside of the photo world, I was excited to see what kind of backpack the company cooked up for photographers.
To my dismay, I found little to like about the Snapshot. Nothing about its design indicated that it was created by or in consultation with photographers. Its removable camera case is… odd. The dimensions are confusingly tall and narrow, taking up a lot of space for such a small bag, the hook-and-loop material on its dividers stick to themselves instead of the case walls, rendering them practically useless, and the top does not fully secure. Adding to the confusion, the Snapshot has a side zipper that is like a door with a wall built behind it. The camera case can’t fit through it even when there is nothing else in the bag and if you rotate the case so that your gear faces the zipper, it doesn’t stay in place, risking your camera jostling around inside or worse, falling out when you unzip it.
The exterior is made of rugged 1000D Cordura but it relies on a drawstring closure topped by a flap, leaving its contents potentially vulnerable to rain and debris. Additionally, the flap is secured by a buckle that tends to stick, slowing your access in and out of the bag. The Snapshot incorporates two button-closure compartments in its front, distinguishing it from a more conventional backpack design and giving quick access for a phone or similar-sized item. Take out the camera case and you have a nifty everyday backpack. Put the camera case inside and you have a dysfunctional mess.
Season Finale: (One) Photographer’s Choice
If you made it this far into the article you are probably wondering which bag I ended up choosing to spend the rest of my commutes with. The decision was a tough one—if I could keep them all, I would. Just kidding. After a month of tripping over all these bags at home I was glad to see them go. Except for one—or two. At the end of the day, brains triumphed over looks and the Brevite Jumper narrowly surpassed the ONA Clifton as my favorite bag from this group. My colleague was as surprised as you.
Did I make a mistake I’ll regret for the rest of my life? Have a better commuter backpack at home that I forgot to review? Argue about it in the Comments section, below!