I don’t normally do gear reviews on this site but did have one post a few years back entitled ‘What’s in my bag’ and, with a change in the gear I use to capture landscapes and seascapes in the town of Marblehead, as well as a new backpack (the Shimoda Explore 30) to carry it in, I thought I would try my first review.
There is a common trope about photographers and their obsession with finding the perfect bag. For a long time, I did not appreciate how true that was as my photography is mostly confined to a 4.4 square mile town and I had made do with a fairly basic bag that didn’t carry well but really didn’t need to. When I purchased my drone a few years ago, I purchased yet another bag that could hold the drone and all of my camera gear and worked with that for a while. It wasn’t until we started traveling more that I began my search for a better means of carrying my gear.
Short segway: In 2017 I moved over from the Canon body and lenses I was using to the Sony a7rIII. At present, I own 6 lenses of various sizes and utility including the FE 16-35/4, FE 24-105/4, FE 24/1.4, FE 85/1.8 and FE 100-400/4-5.6. I also own one Canon lens – the 200/2.8 used with an adapter.
The Messenger Bag
In 2018, I researched bag options and happened upon the Wotancraft Trooper. This was a truly gorgeous messenger bag and, with just a bit of finagling, I managed to fit five of my lenses into the bag which I could quickly grab and go. The bag had hidden compartments for card holders and was both well crafted and looked really, really great. I thought I had found the perfect bag…until Disney.
My family traveled to Disney World over Thanksgiving and I brought along my Wotancraft Trooper only to find that a messenger bag was really difficult to carry for hours and miles of walking. I still loved the quick access to my camera but found myself switching shoulders and then carrying it by the handle only to find myself tiring of it fairly quickly. I tried leaving some lenses at the hotel room which lightened the load but still left me with a bag that, by its nature, felt awkward to use for longer stretches. On my return home, I purchased a custom shorter strap from the great folks at Wotancraft so that the bag would fit tighter to my body but found little benefit in its carryability.
After Disney and one other trip, I decided to search for a proper photography backpack. My must-have features were:
- side/quick access to my camera
- nice styling that would not be ‘too big’ or ‘too touristy’ appearing when out in town or on vacation in urban environments
- carry well
- plenty of space for accessories
- adjustable carrying capacity so I could quickly go from carrying all of my gear to select lenses
My search took place on Internet forums (particularly Fred Miranda and DPreview) as well as Google and YouTube. The first answer seemed to be a proper hiking backpack from companies such as Osprey or Gregory used in conjunction with an internal camera unit to house the camera and lenses. I ended up purchasing the Osprey Kamber 32 and the Gregory Targhee 32 from Amazon during a Black Friday sale as well as a Pacsafe camera unit. I really liked the way the Osprey Kamber carried on my back but found it too big and the rear access meant no easy/fast means of accessing my camera. Both backpacks went back to Amazon within a week.
I then read about bags from f-stop, Atlas, Wandrd and a relatively new company – Shimoda. The f-stop did not appear to offer the side/quick access I was interested in. The Atlas styling didn’t appeal to me and I found the Wandrd bag a bit too ‘out there’ in styling/access. The Shimoda seemed to tick off all of my needs/wants and, luckily, my local camera store (Hunts Photo and Video) carried the 40L and 60L versions.
I spent several hours at Hunts Photo trying the Shimoda Explore 40 on with all of my gear and found that it carried very, very well but felt a bit too big for my 5’8″ frame. I knew that Shimoda had created a 30L version of the bag and so I ordered one and waited for delivery.
Shimoda Explore 30
I received my Shimoda Explore 30 bag on Wednesday, April 24 and headed to Hunts to pick it up. This gave me a chance to compare it to the 40L version I had previously tried on in the store. The major differences between the bags were the slightly taller frame of the 40L and the removable hip/waist belt of the 30L version. The actual carry capacity did not appear very different from my standpoint as I planned to use two of the small core units for my gear. Neither bag would hold three small core units and so the marginally smaller space of the 30L actually seemed like a benefit to me. I was able to fit all of my gear in the backpack with the 100-400 either in its lens case or a lens cloth placed in the main compartment above the two small core units. I positioned the two core units to allow for side/quick access of my camera with lens without having to remove the backpack.
Getting the Fit Right
Coming from regular backpacks and/or photography bags, I wasn’t used to the fit of the Shimoda which borrows from hiking backpacks (including the use of an internal frame). At first, I found the shoulder straps to be too wide as they seemed to rest of my shoulders rather than the clavicle. It was only after a couple of forum posts and a YouTube video that I realized how to get the fit right. For those in a similar situation here are the steps:
- Measure your torso – from the top of the iliac crest (hip bone) to the C7 vertebra (the pointy one when point your head down)
- Measure the bag from the midpoint of the waist belt to the top arc of the shoulder straps when gently raised – this should be the same as your torso size and you will adjust the backpack straps to the small, medium or large setting to get the right fit
- Loosen all straps
- Load up the bag with gear
- Tighten the waist strap
- Lean forward with the waist strap over the hip bones and tighten the shoulder straps to pull the bag against your back
- Tighten the top load lifter straps
- Close and adjust the sternum strap
I had assumed I would need a medium or large setting for my shoulder straps with this smaller 30L bag but, once I measured my torso, found the small setting to be perfect. This took the straps off my shoulders and closer to the clavicles.
Setting up the Bag
In order to use the side/quick access, you do need to use the two small core units in a vertical orientation with one open to the side and the other open to the back. The latter can hold three lenses including hoods without issue. The deep small core units measure 6.7″ which means I can keep my 16-35/4, 24/1.4 and 85/1.8 with hoods out. The 24-105 with hood out just reaches the top of the core unit and so I tend to have that one with hood reversed. The Canon 200/2.8 only fits with the hood reversed. The 100-400 lens is too large to fit into the core unit standing up but fits on its own or mounted to the a7rIII in a small core unit without dividers.
I currently have the bag set up so that the side access core unit has the Canon 200/2.8 lens on the bottom and space for the Sony a7rIII with any mounted lens (expect the 100-400) above it. If I am using the 100-400, I place the Canon in the main compartment and remove the dividers. The other core unit carries the other Sony lenses. I hadn’t previously appreciated the utility of rear access believing it to only be a safety measure to prevent thieves from potentially unzipping a camera bag when in urban areas. However, it dawned on my with some use that the rear access means laying the bag down on its front in any condition/terrain and keeping the back as a handy platform for lens changes which also ensuring that the back and straps do not get dirty.
Someone asked about the core units moving inside the backpack and I have found there is some vertical movement that takes place when I don’t have anything above the core units such as the 100-400 lens. In day to day use, the movement does not affect my use of the bag in any way.
The top compartment can easily hold a battery and my bubble level in one zippered netted compartment, lens cleaners in another and remote trigger in a third. The open space holds my card holder, rocket blower, hat, gloves, lens rain cover, MC-11 adapter and circular filters.
I found the strap pockets can hold an iPhone X in the zippered one and a can of soda or small water bottle in the expandable one. There is a built in tripod holder on the left side of the bag hidden in a zippered pocket with two straps to secure it.
Using the Shimoda 30 Bag
I have had several opportunities to use the Shimoda 30 bag over the past 10 days including one outing last night that put the bag through its paces. Fully kitted with all of my lens, the bag weighs in at 20lb. I have carried the bag on walks with the dog and found no discomfort in my back or shoulders. My legs felt the literal weight more so than any other part of me. With all of my lenses in the bag, I did use the waist belt for added support.
The side access has been perfect with the zippered area slowly loosening to allow more rapid and freer access to the camera and mounted lens when I first purchased the bag. I have used side access with all of my lenses including the 100-400 and found it to be very easy to slip the bag off my left shoulder, swing it around slightly, unzip the side access, grab the camera, rezip and place the left shoulder strap back on.
The other night, I headed out to a carnival in town and used the tripod holder. I had left the 100-400 lens at home and the bag weighed 20.3lb with the tripod and 5 lenses in it. I did not use my waist belt and found the bag easy to carry as I walked among the teenagers at the carnival. When I took my camera out of the side access, I found the bag shifted in its distribution with literally all of the weight now on the left side of the bag (tripod was still in the holder). It just took a slight pull down on the shoulder straps on the right side to even out the way the bag carried. With the tripod out later that night, the bag felt more balanced again. I should note that the tripod bag can be removed and used for more central holding if desired.
During the carnival, I also had a change to swap lenses by laying the bag down and accessing the back flap. On the Shimoda, this opens like a book rather than up and toward you as many other bags do. The wide open access made lens changes much easier than prior efforts with the Wotancraft which had me placing lenses on the ground or having my wife hold them while I swapped.
It’s been just under two weeks but so far the Shimoda 30 is checking off all of my wants and needs in a photography bag. I have some big trips coming up and will update this review with more thoughts when I travel on a plane and throughout Europe and Israel in the months to come.
You can find more information about the Shimoda 30 by visiting this link. Note the link is non-affiliate. I purchased the bag on my own after doing extensive research and have not received anything from Shimoda for writing this review. I simply found information on the newest Shimoda Explore 30 bag to be a bit lacking when I was ready to purchase one and thought others might find some benefit from a hands-on review from a photographer who is not using it primarily for hiking but rather urban use.
May 17 Update:
I’ve had the chance to use the bag a lot more in the past few weeks and it continues to impress. I have managed to fit the following into the 30L bag:
Sony a7rIII and 24-105/4
Sony 100-400 above the two small core units in the main body
Canon EF 200/2.8 in the top deep pocket compartment or in the small core unit set for side access
Canon EF 35/2 at the bottom of one small core unit using a Peak Design FlexFold Divider cut to size
I have also found that the removable small core units make for a very adaptable bag. I went to my son’s baseball game last night and didn’t want to carry the a7rIII and 100-400 bare as clouds were threatening rain. I put them in the small core unit and used the included cover and strap to carry them instead. Sure enough, we ended up with sprinkles and the camera and lens stayed dry.
May 27 Update:
We decided to spend the day in Boston on Saturday and I packed up the Shimoda 30 with my 16-35/4, 24-105/4, 24/1.4, 85/1.8, and Canon 200/2.8. All told, the bag weighed 15 lb. I decided to use the shoulder and sternum straps only as that was how I envisioned using the backpack for future urban adventures.
We took the subway train in and had no issues with the full backpack on a full subway. Ended up walking 5 miles over 6 hours on concrete and the bag did an incredible job of holding the weight. It was 75 degrees and I got a bit sweaty on my back but never hot and found the air gaps in the back panel helped immensely.
At one point, I took my daughter’s seltzer she had purchased and put it into the shoulder strap stretch pocket – perfect fit.
My wife and daughter did a bit of shopping and the front pocket of the bag proved very helpful in transporting their new clothing as well.
I found the side access to be perfect when I wanted to quickly grab my camera and did a few lens changes with the back panel open and found it to be a far better experience than my former use of the ground when I had a shoulder/messenger bag.
Still very happy with the Shimoda 30 bag.
July 11 Update
Back from a Europe/Israel vacation and put the Shimoda 30 through the paces over 80 miles of walking – tl;dr – bag was perfect
I had originally been looking for a new way to carry my gear as we planned a two week trip to London/Tel Aviv/Paris. I reviewed my prior bag and needs as well as gear above but, in the end, I took the following with me on the trip:
Sony a7rIII with 24-105 on in side access small core unit
Canon 200/2.8 below camera in side access small core unit
Sony 16-35/4, Sony 24/1.4, Sony 85/1.8 in other small core unit that opened to back
I also had a 13″ MacBook Pro, two 2TB externals for backup, Leofoto LX-225CT tripod (fits horizontally above two core units inside the bag!), rocket blower, remote trigger, extra battery, filters, MC-11, travel charger/adapter, bunch of cables.
I weighed the bag with everything and it exceeded international weight limits for a carry on so I moved the Leofoto to my check in bag; the MacBook Pro to my son’s backpack and the external drives to my daughter’s backpack. With that, I was within weight limits. I had no issues taking the bag on board Norwegian Air, ElAl or Air France. Only weighed the bag (as well as all other carryons) at Charles de Gaulle in Paris but no one mentioned size or asked me to put it into the size checker. The bag would fit under the seat in front of me (jutting out just a bit) but I chose to put it in overhead where it fit just fine.
The bag was great for adjusting on the fly with gear depending on what we were doing. I had my Apple Watch on and kept track of miles walked – peaked at 13 miles in one day and totaled 82 miles in all (most of that in London and Paris). At times, I would use a small core unit with the weather cover and strap as a ‘man satchel’ (my kids decided that was its proper name/term).
Never had an issue with carrying the bag as far as discomfort in my back/shoulders. I probably averaged 10kg of weight (22 lb) on most days and felt that in my feet more than anything. Also never had any issues with pickpockets trying to get at the bag.
Only issue I found was the lack of straps to hold the back of the bag to the handle of my rolling luggage. I ended up doing a weird folded thing with the shoulder straps and hip belt that worked but plan to reach out to Ian with an idea for a more elegant add-on option that should be simple to implement. [CORRECTION – I’m an idiot. Was trying to attach the back of the bag against the handle of the rolling suitcase. Turns out the front compression straps can be used to attach it. Just didn’t think to turn the bag around…]
I am very happy with how the Shimoda 30 handled the two week trip. Let me know if you have any questions.