Photos from China and Japan

Apologies for the long gap between posts!  I just got back from a business trip that took me to China and Japan, and luckily afforded me the opportunity to spend a bit of time with a photographer buddy taking pictures.  I tend to focus too much on hardware sometimes on Enthusiast Photographer – I hope you enjoy them!  Some of them are kind of touristy, which is fine – I was a tourist!  🙂  I did try to be a little creative, but my main focus was having full command of my camera and having fun.  A D300s looms in my immediate future, and I wanted to be fully comfortable without the nanny “Auto” mode.

So here are a few from my travels.  Comments and feedback are welcome!

Dinner in Beijing

Lights

A Manhattan in Beijing

Woman watches a Fountain Art installation in Beijing

Pipes in the 798 District of Beijing

Impromptu parking garage…

Biker takes a break from the mid-day sun in Beijing

View from the top of the Mori tower in Tokyo

The world’s largest Buddha, located in the temple city of Kamakura, Japan.  This one is an example of where composition and zoom can actually reduce the scale of the subject.  The tourists in the foreground make the Buddha seem much smaller than it is…

A better composition of the world’s largest Buddha.

The world’s largest Buddha, located in the temple city of Kamakura, Japan

A monument near the great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan.

It was a really enjoyable trip, even if it was work!  Even better, my wife and I are heading to Europe for two weeks early next week, so I’ll be a traveling Enthusiast Photographer once again!

By then, all the D600 rumors will probably be sorted out… 😉

As a quick equipment note, this was my first big trip with the all my gear, plus a couple other items – my Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the Snoop insert performed well – if anything, it holds too much!  The Gitzo 2531/Sunwayfoto XB-44 performed well, but the setup is really too large to fly with.  I took my new Sirui monopod and the monopod head/clamp setup provided by Sunwayfoto, and these were a great solution.  The head and clamp gave me excellent flexibility with the monopod, and allowed me to shoot in some pretty low light.  Unfortunately, even monopods weren’t allowed on the top from the Mori Tower, so that shot was hand-held.  I’m debating whether I can/should take the tripod to Europe.  I want to find a way to take it, but I’m thinking it is going to be hard to get on the plane, and I’m not taking a suitcase big enough to put it in.  More on that later…

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Off to the Farmer’s Market

Things have been a little hectic on all fronts around our household, so last Saturday we decided to change things up a little and head to our local Farmer’s Market.  Since I hadn’t done a lot of shooting lately, I grabbed my camera.  My wife asked me what I was going to take pictures of, and I aid “I don’t know.”  Sometimes I think I spend too much time thinking about what I’m going to shoot, what time of day, what the weather will be like, etc.

Ultimately, what is important to do is just shoot, and let the rest just come to you.  So I did, and it was great fun.  Here are a few samples from the day:

Loose Candy
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Dried
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Farmer’s Market Jars
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Old Door at the NC Farmer’s Market
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Horrified Birdhouses

Contrast at the Statuary
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Self Portrait at the Statuary
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Grumpy Cupid
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It was nice to do some easy shooting, without any real pressure of losing the light or any hard-core theme – it was fun to just shoot!  Most of the time when I do this I’m drawn by color, texture or a story and there is a little bit of all of those here for me – hope you enjoyed them!

As a note, it was my first real day out with my bargain-priced Snoop bag and I had the camera on my Black Rapid Arca rig all day, and both performed flawlessly.

CES Diversion – Snoop Camera Bag

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. But hey, I just like a bag now and then – there’s nothing wrong with that, right? I mean, a man shouldn’t have to limit himself to just one bag when there are so many really cool bags out there. Right? Anyone?

OK – so the fire sale that was going on with the Snoop Camera bags was too good to pass up (as of the time of this writing, they had a number of sizes and colors available, starting at $59 – over 45% off!), and I ordered a Medium Snoop bag for $79 (regularly $150). My rationale was that while I love my current Laptop Messenger, (A) it is a pretty big bag, (B) I liked the idea of a dedicated bag I could keep loaded and ready to go without unpacking my work stuff and (C) was made of ballistic nylon that would tolerate my shoots in the woods, etc. better than the waxed canvas of my other bag.

At least that is what I’m telling myself.

(If you’re a new reader, check out the review of my custom-made Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger as well my separate review of the Snoop insert that goes inside the custom bag – I make a lot of references and comparisons below)

It arrived today, in the now-familiar Timbuk2 bag/map.

My map collection grows…

Out of the…um…bag, the Medium Timbuk2 Snoop bag was clearly smaller than the Large Laptop Messenger Bag – they both have the Medium Snoop insert, and both seem very snug, so somehow the Snoop looks a lot smaller but appears to hold nearly as much the Large bag.

Snoop Unleashed...

Open view, note the clear pocket for cards, etc. and the standard velcro silencers

A quick view inside

Snoop Camera bag - loaded and with a ThinkPad T420s on board

View of the insert, loaded other than my camera

My bag-o-many things fits fine all loaded up

So how does the Snoop bag compare to my full-size Laptop Messenger? Clearly, these bags are sisters – the overall exterior design is very similar – same trio of zippered pockets on the front, along with a drop-in pocket at the top. In contrast to the Laptop Messenger, the bottom of the zip-pockets has a clear plastic front, presumably so you can see the memory cards, etc. you tuck inside. Like many bags from Timbuk2, the Snoop also has the “Napoleon Pocket” – a long pocket accessed from the side which doesn’t require opening the messenger flap – very handy.

The overall outside design is two colored panels instead of three. My bag is the black and gunmetal ballistic nylon, which looks great and feels really sturdy and durable.

The shoulder strap is the same very heavy-duty affair with really strong hardware. In contrast to my custom Laptop Messenger bag, the shoulder pad is included, as are the velcro “silencers” that were an add-on to my custom bag. These are used when you don’t want the “RRRRIIIIIiiip!!!” sound of velcro on a nature shoot, during a quiet event shoot (wedding, etc.) or during a meeting when you just don’t want to be loud. It does take away a layer of protection – the velcro ensures the bag doesn’t fly open if you don’t clip the flap down and later drop or tip the bag. Since I don’t shoot wildlife or weddings, I don’t think I’ll use them often, but I’m glad I have them. The shoulder pad has excellent padding that makes even a fair amount of wear bearable and regular weight very comfortable.

The other big differences on the outside are something gained and something lost. This version of the Snoop Camera bag does not have the handy “grab strap” handle at the top. I happened to talk to the lead designed of Timbuk2 at CES (post coming soon) and he seemed to say that newer versions of this bag would have the handle. I hope so – it is a very handy feature (no pun intended…), and I’m sure I’m going to miss it.

The added element(s) are the two tripod straps on the bottom of the bag. This is a feature I was excited about, since I’m a tripod guy, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of the execution. First, it is very difficult to get the tripod in and out of the loops. There are no snaps or connectors. You have to open the strap loops very wide, slide the tripod through and then tighten the straps around the tripod. My Gitzo almost slid right out because I went for balance, placing the tripod in the middle, and the legs are very slick – when I picked it up, it almost fell. Ultimately, I had to tighten one loop around the neck between the base and the head, with the other loop around the legs, which left a considerable amount of the legs exposed. The tripod is light enough that it didn’t affect the balance of the bag, but I think it is going to be awkward. I think the “compression tabs” on my Laptop Messenger will work better, and might well be more reliable, too. The tripod loops on the Snoop bag are each sewn at one 1″ spot, which seems like a lot of stress on the fabric. The compression straps on my Laptop Messenger are sewn at the outside edges of the bottom forming a cradle that I can use for the tripod – easier to use, seeming as secure and spreading the load across four points vs. two. Lastly, I wish there was some sort of padding on these straps. I’ll likely wrap my tripod to avoid any wear from the straps, and may rig something different altogether to carry my tripod. A disappointment, if a small one.

Snoop Camera bag - using the tripod loops

To keep the tripod from sliding, I had to tighten one loop at the neck, leaving a lot of leg exposed at the other end...

Inside, the differences are a lot greater. Outside of a tall sleeve for a laptop or tablet on the back of the cavity, there are no pockets or other storage at all inside the bag. Of course, the camera insert itself has compartments for lenses, the camera body etc., but no other mini-pockets at all to tuck things into. I’d really like to see some storage on the top flap of the Snoop insert – a couple zippered compartments on the top and maybe a mesh one on the inside. As you can see in the pictures, I do have a separate bag I tend to use, and Timbuk2 has an array of small bags with funny names they are happy to sell you.

At the end of the day, the bag has a very reasonable amount of storage, but storage in a camera bag is like closet space when you’re married – there is never too much.

The bulge on the flap. That's technical...

One other difference from my other bag is the Snoop bag does have the bulges at the base of the main flap that fold inward to seal the bag from moisture, dust and other nasty stuff. There is even velcro that you can pinch as you’re closing the bag to make it extra secure. I wish my Laptop Messenger had this design, and I wonder why it doesn’t.

The bags share the waterproof “TPU lining” which seems to be a slightly rubberized nylon. Whatever it is, I like it – it feels tough and the protection from water is peace of mind.

Since this is a dedicated camera bag and to make access easier, I tucked the top flap of the camera insert away. Since I’ll have the snaps and the velcro protecting things from falling out, the flap will only be used during actual travel if this is the one I take on a trip or during storage.

Tucked away - the zippered top of the Snoop insert is folded over and hidden to allow better access.

I’m amazed at how much less volume this bag has while still carrying the large majority of what I had in the much-larger Laptop Messenger:

Side by side, Snoop Right, Laptop Messenger left. Both loaded with Medium Snoop inserts

Top view

I’m picking a lot of comparative nits here, so let me be clear – I’m thrilled with the Snoop Messenger bag. For $150, it represents a lot of function, flexibility and style in a package that carries very well. It has a lot of capacity, has a very reasonable amount of pocket storage and protects the gear very well. If my time with the Laptop Messenger is any indication, the bag is great to walk around with – it is comfortable and convenient. Is there room for improvement? Surely, but my addiction…er…quest for the perfect bag has been lulled into a passive state by this excellent bag. For now.

At the $59 to $79 they are selling for at the moment, they are an absolute steal. I’m hoping it ends soon so I’m not afraid to go on the internet any more. It isn’t a problem though. Really.

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As an aside, in case you are wondering, I’m just what I say I am – an enthusiast photographer. I don’t make money on this in any way, I don’t get free stuff and I don’t have any ties at all to any products or companies I write blogs about. I don’t have a PayPal account for donations like Ken Rockwell. I’m just passing things along as I see them and hoping they are useful, entertaining or both. Thanks!

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Prologue

Unfortunately, my time at CES wasn’t my own and I had only a limited opportunity to kick around to check some things out.  I did get one opportunity to get out there, and spent from 9AM to 3PM checking things out in the Venetian and the main convention center.  I saw lots of cool stuff, learned a few things and met some interesting folks.  I think the easiest way is to break it up into each place I visited to cover my CES adventure.

First, a word about traveling with the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the Snoop insert.  I stuffed that thing to the gills (body, 4 lenses, ThinkPad, tablet, charger, accessories and much more), and it ate it all up and carried very reasonably.  Having the ability to pull the Snoop was a savior though – it would never have fit under the seat otherwise.  I’m pretty sure the medium bag would be a stretch, too, the small would probably be fine without removing the Snoop.

The Snoop all tidy in overhead - the bag then fit fine under the seat

The shoulder pad is a great thing – it made carrying all that weight bearable.  It also has a knack for staying on your shoulder where it belongs when you swing the bag around or readjust.  I’ll say it again – it should be standard.  I actually got a chance to talk to Timbuk2’s lead designer, and passed along a few comments (before I knew who he was).  But we’ll get there in a bit.  Based on this first trip, it should serve the purpose I bought it for perfectly: it holds a lot, travels flexibly and didn’t attract any attention at all from the airport staff.  The huge variety of pockets came in handy, too.  Net:  I’m happy with the way the bag travels.

CES is pretty amazing.  I’d love to have maybe a full couple days to kick around to check out all of the photography stuff.  I didn’t get to Fuji, skipped Sony and didn’t see the Lytro Light Field Camera I was hoping to (though based on Ed Baig’s article, it wasn’t on the floor anyway).  A recommendation:  If you ever come to CES, wear really comfortable shoes… 😉

Traveling with Timbuk2

So I lied about few posts this week – I figured my first airline experience with the Large Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the Medium Snoop insert might be worth hearing about.

I’m taking nearly my whole kit – see part 2 of the bag review for the full list, but laptop, tablet, D90, four lenses (including the 80-200 2.8) and a gaggle of other stuff. And a book to read. The only things I don’t have are my dual charger and my tripod. I don’t need it all. This is a test! The things I do for post material… 😉

It is bulky, but I got through security and on the plane with no comments. I’m on a tiny jet to start, so the ability to remove the Snoop is extremely handy at the moment. The camera/Snoop is in the overhead, the rest is at my feet.

More thoughts later…

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Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Review – Part 2

The custom bags get this tag...

**UPDATE** I just noticed on one of my photography forums that the Snoop bags (meaning the messenger bag built around the Snoop, which is similar to this bag without all the laptop stuff) is nearly 50% off Timbuk2! So I got one – it is now my dedicated bag, while the custom bag below is my daily briefcase and travel bag. Review here.

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I waited to write my review of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger until I had a few hours carrying it around. Having done that a fair bit over the last several weeks, I’m ready to give an initial review, though I’ll probably update it in a few weeks after an upcoming business trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Since this is a pretty extensive review (I’m wordy…), I’ll try to create a summary version that incorporates both parts. But for now, the full monte…

If you read my reviews of the Ona Union Street and Part 1 of this review (about the Snoop camera insert I’m using with this bag), you’ll remember that I got a custom version of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger in two colors of waxed canvas.

Full order contents - I added the shoulder pad and the velcro silencers

Before I get to the review of the bag itself, let me say a few things about Timbuk2 and the buying experience. First, the ability to customize your bag is just plain fun. I’m a conservative guy, and wound up with a conservative bag, but I spent a lot of time playing around with the custom bag process. You can choose from a wide variety of fabrics and colors for three panels of the the bag (I only tried the one I bought – there are six different custom bags). You can also choose the trim color and even what color thread is used for the logo. The fabric options range from 30 colors of the standard ballistic nylon to “Performance” options like polybond, “SuperBright” (described as “99% nylon, 1% magic”), to X-Pac, which appears to be a tough, lightweight sailcloth-like fabric similar to what is used in the Gura Gear bags (not to say it is the same). There are also premium “Specialty” fabrics that lean a little harder toward fashion than sheer function – these include denim, faux snakeskin, faux leather, a dark heather wool, the two waxed canvas options I chose and more. The Performance and Premium fabrics add an extra $15 per panel, except the Super Bright, which are $25 per panel (I guess that 1% magic is pricey!). You can mix and match any of the fabric choices on any panel. Since there are 62 different fabrics available, there are hundreds of thousands of combinations, even before we start talking about trim and logos. They occasionally rotate in new Performance and Premium options. Inside, you can choose any of 11 colors for the lining of the bag. I chose light blue to ensure high visibility for whatever was in the bag. Lastly, you can choose to add reflector tails (for higher visibility if you’re on a bike – this is a messenger bag after all) or Compression Straps which allow you to cinch the bottom of the bag when it isn’t full. Since I was getting the Large size (Lg./Med./Small are available) that would only occasionally have the Snoop insert, I added the Compression Straps.

Configured that way, the bag totaled $215. Add $59 for the Medium Snoop Insert, $3 for the “silencers” for the velcro and $20 for a premium shoulder pad and my out-the-door cost was a shade under $300. Not cheap, but where else can you get a custom-made bag? Since this one is doing double-duty as my daily laptop bag, and it looks very nice, I’m happy overall. My only ordering quibble is that I’d like to get at least the standard shoulder pad (which is $10) by default and as I mentioned in my Snoop review, more dividers should be as well. That said, all I had to do was ask and they sent me some, so kudos for customer service. A quick expansion on that point – all my interactions with them by phone and mail were just terrific. The people seem enthusiastic and are knowledgeable and helpful.

OK – so what about the bag itself? I’ll follow the same general format I commented on in the Snoop Review.

Build: Nothing at all to complain about here. The origins of this company is building bags for guys who kill bags just doing their job. The seams are very strong, and stress spots are oversewn without making the bag look too industrial. The shoulder strap is very wide, made of extremely tough nylon and all the hardware feels very beefy and strong. YKK zippers throughout.

Features and Design: As a messenger, the formula is pretty set, but Timbuk2 has managed to put in a few nice touches. The “Napoleon pocket” is a zippered horizontal pocket that can be reached without undoing the flap. Handy. The shoulder strap is adjustable, allowing you to keep some slack to remove the bag without having to wiggle out of it. In my case, I’m tall enough at 6’1″ that I’m using most of the slack.

As opposed to the Snoop insert, there are lots of pockets and places to put things. In addition to the Napoleon pocket, there are four medium-sized pockets on the front, three with zippers (one containing a lanyard for keys, etc.) and the top pocket that is open (no zippers. There are several D rings on the outside of the bag for attachments. The optional cinch straps to a nice job slimming this bag down when I don’t have the Snoop installed, though it would be nice if there was some way to secure the slack – I just wrap the extra around the bottom.

The carry handle at the top is comfortable and generally well-placed, though it is a little unbalanced when the Snoop is in the bag. It is fine for the duty it will serve. The hardware on the outside of the bag is just the right size – not too big, but not so small that I can’t undo the buckles when I have gloves on.

A view bucked and lightly burdened...

On the interior of the bag, there is a large zippered pocket with two phone-sized pockets and some smaller business-card sized slots inside. Facing inward, there are three additional phone-sized pockets – one with a flap and two open pockets lined with soft nylon, presumably for a phone. One accommodated my iPhone easily, the other left about 1/4 of it exposed. Between these two sets of pockets are notches for three pens. Then there is a huge cavity for whatever, or the Snoop when I’m using it. That is it for storage, but is pretty substantial.

The open flap allows you to see the two zippered pockets. The third un-zippered is at the top. The Napoleon pocket is behind these, accessed from the right side (in the photo).

There is a large sleeve for my ThinkPad T410s (14″ screen), with a knobby pattern for some additional protection. It should easily hold most 15″ laptops, though there is a compatibility checker on their website for most makes and models. On the other side of the laptop sleeve is another compartment for notebooks, or whatever. When I have the Snoop in the bag, this is where most of my other stuff goes. When the Snoop is slumbering elsewhere, it is empty. One small quibble I have is that this pocket isn’t sealed from the Snoop compartment, so small items can move between and get lost.

Sleeve for up to a 15" laptop

Snoop installed.

I’d also like to see the flap have a similar design I saw in the Ona bag, where there was additional fabric at the base that prevented a gap to the interior of the bag in case of rain, etc. As I mentioned in the Snoop review, they missed a chance for some really handy storage by not adding SD card pockets on the top of the Snoop and maybe a zippered mesh pocket or two on the top. Lastly, a bag this big and costing this much should come with a padded shoulder strap as standard equipment.

Optional shoulder strap in wool...

What about space? You want space? Here is a listing of what I got inside the bag:

  • Nikon D90 w/ Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 non-BIM (mounted)
  • Nikon 35mm f/1.8
  • Nikon 80-200 f/2.8
  • Nikon 18-200
  • 2 extra EN-EL 3e batteries
  • Cable release
  • 3 MF clothes & cleaning spray
  • TIffen filter case (4 filters)
  • Black Rapid RS-7
  • 3 SD Cards
  • L-wrenches for tripod & plates
  • Various caps
  • Bag-o-cables, thumb drives, Advil, etc.
  • Dual battery charger with AC and Car/Plane cables
  • Blower
  • Gitzo 2531 with RRS BH-40 (tucked in the cinch straps on the bottom)
  • FlipCam
  • Cell phone

Plus the work stuff…

  • ThinkPad T410s (14″ screen)
  • ThinkPad Tablet (10″)
  • AC/DC travel charger for ThinkPad
  • Notebook
  • 3 pens
  • presentation remote
  • Business card holder
  • USB hard drive

So there is a big checkmark next to “Space.” Was it huge? Yes. Was it workable to carry? Yes. At least I think so. I doubt I’ll travel with all of that stuff (at least very often), but it is nice to know I could. The strap was comfortable and I think I’d be able to get on a plane counting his as the second item (probably minus the tripod). I’d likely break the Snoop out once I was safely aboard.

Fully loaded, and I do mean fully...

This is the unpacked view of everything in the above photo. I had a hard time laying it all out and getting it in the picture!

As for protection, I think the design allows for a lot of protection for the laptop, as it is protected not only by the knobby neoprene sleeve but by the contents of the bag around it. The Snoop has a similar benefit, and has some interior padding as well.

Looks: No worries here. The bag looks as good as I expected. It is a bit more casual than the Ona Union Street, and I think that is OK for the versatility it offers. The waxed canvas feels more substantial than the Ona and richer than what I’ve seen on Domke and others. Net: high marks for attractiveness.

Comfort: Despite being a big bag, the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger carries well. The weight feels balanced and it is manageable even with a fully stacked Snoop whether over your shoulder or in “messenger mode” with the strap across your chest. However, you have to buy the shoulder strap. Otherwise it won’t be comfortable on your shoulder and will saw your head off if looped across your chest. Nobody around me will be fooled into thinking there isn’t something in the bag, but it doesn’t seem like it will be breaking me, either, and the design doesn’t tell the world you’re carrying photo equipment.

As for fiddly things, I can’t really find any. I can get to everything I want to without much fuss, and when I’m in full-camera mode I can fold the messenger flap completely open and still have the Snoop zipped until I need it. With the Snoop open, I can easily get in and out whatever I want, despite things looking a little cramped. The Napoleon pocket and similar touches make the handling of this bag excellent.

Conclusion: Is it the perfect bag? No. You can’t do this many things and be great at all of them. As I’ve configured it and with the amount of stuff inside it I’m using to judge, it does strain a bit. But only a bit. To ask a bag to handle that much and have it achieve it in a travel-worthy fashion is a tall order, and the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger delivers. I think it stands in a class by itself. The Snoop insert is a good idea, with some room for improvement. The quality and handling is terrific. Asked to any two tasks, it excels. Asked to do three, it handles it, and still looks great doing it.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased with this bag, and it’s a good thing – custom bags can’t be returned! 🙂

For full-size and higher-quality photos of the Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger, check out my set on Flickr, or just click on any of the photos above.

Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger Review – Part 1 (Snoop)

I’ve been waiting…patiently this time…for my custom-made bag to arrive.  After trying the Ona Union Street Bag and finding it terrific but with a single, fatal flaw (that wouldn’t bother most people, but I’m a little whack about certain things), I went in search of another messenger-style bag that would fulfill my needs.

This review is going to be long enough that I’m breaking it up into 2 parts, so let’s get an overall summary out of the way for the short-attention-span crowd who are already dying to be done:  I got the large Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger with the medium Snoop insert.  The bag is very roomy with lots of pockets, and holds literally everything I own from a photography and mobile technology standpoint.  The Snoop insert is well-padded and fairly flexible.  The bag carries well and looks terrific, especially if you get a custom-built bag like I did.  The quality appears to be fantastic.  I have a few minor quibbles – It isn’t perfect, but it is highly recommended.

Now that those folks are playing on their xBox again, let’s get to some details on the Snoop, and I’ll do a bag writeup in the next day or so.  You might want to read the Ona review, but here’s my recent list of what I’m looking for in a bag:

  • Versatile – lots of easily accessible pockets and places to put stuff.  Travel well.
  • Spacious – hold my body and 4-5 lenses.   One lens would be replaced by a flash (when I own one and decide to carry it…).  It needs to hold my laptop and various cables, notebook, pens, etc. so I can have a single bag when I travel.
  • Protective – don’t let me break my stuff.  Please.
  • Comfortable – my equipment felt more comfortable to carry in the Ona bag vs. my current LowePro 202 AW, and actually felt lighter.  Also, don’t have fiddly designs – be simple and easy.
  • Attractive – as I mentioned in my other article, I travel in the corporate world, and I want something that has some style and design.  The very serious and pro photographers roll their eyes at this, but I’ll steal my own quote: I don’t want a bag that looks like it belongs on “That 70′s Show or “Star Trek” – I want something that looks good.  Attractive design and high function aren’t mutually exclusive. They just seem to be in the world of camera bags…

After scouting around, I came upon Timbuk2.  They are famous for their messenger bags.  As it turns out, a buddy of mine has their “Commute” bag for his laptop and is a big fan.  They have just recently announced a “camera bag.”  I put that in quotes because they didn’t announce a bag so much as they announced a variant of their current messenger bag with straps for a tripod (on the bottom) and an insert for camera equipment that slips into the bag.  They call it the “Snoop” and there are two sizes: small and medium. These correspond to the same sizes of their bag or +1 size (small Snoop in medium bag, medium Snoop in large bag) if you are customizing want some extra room.  I’d recommend the +1 strategy.  You’ll see what I mean later.  Since I was looking for a laptop case and a camera case, I went with the Laptop Messenger and added the Snoop insert instead of the standard, dedicated Snoop Camera Messenger.

While I was considering my order, I e-mailed and called Timbuk2 more than once.  The people were friendly and helpful.  Their website is excellent, and the customization process is almost too fun.  If I have a criticism, it is that the build-your-own experience has taken over their website a bit, but whatever – it is a very nice website with a lot of cool products as well as a fair number of videos about the products.

I decided to go with a custom bag and stick with the waxed canvas theme I liked so much with the Ona bag.  I chose black with an olive center panel, black trim and logo and a light blue interior.  Yes, you can choose a different color for all of those things.  There are a lot of colors and fabrics, so you can end up with something uniquely yours.  There are, of course, pre-made bags in a variety of colors.  I configured away and had a merry time, also adding Compression Straps so I could cinch the bottom when I wasn’t using it as a camera bag.  They also provide a handy place to tuck my tripod in a pinch, too. Ultimately, I stuck with a conservative look, but you have lots of options to add color and texture to the bag.  The Snoop itself does not customize.

I’m not sure how their process works, but build/ship took a little longer than I expected.  I think expedited shipping might get expedited build as well.  I ordered on Dec. 5th, it shipped on Dec. 9th and the bag itself arrived on Dec. 19th (original arrival estimate from UPS was 12/16).  Poor performance on the part of UPS, holidays notwithstanding.  Especially if you live much farther east than the Rockies, upgrade the shipping.  The Snoop arrived several days earlier, so I’l make that the focus of Part 1 of this review:

Cool bag - it is a map of San Francisco, and it encourages you to cut it out and keep it.

All four lenses, my D90, my FlipCam and various other stuff in the bag. Not sweating space at all...

There is a carry/pull handle on the top of the Snoop that allows you to pull it out of the Laptop Messenger or light portability.  It is for moving it from storage to the bag and back, not for transportation.

The Snoop is gray nylon canvas on the outside.  They call the color Gunmetal, and it looks great – if I ever build a laptop-only case and go custom again, it is high on my list.  The interior is blue soft terry lining with minimal padding on the outside and nicely padded dividers.  Since the insert is inside a bigger bag and has multiple layers of protection, I’m not worried about the side padding.  Interior room is excellent.

I got the Medium Snoop, and it carries my D90, four lenses (a large one, two med/lg. and a little prime), my filter case, Black Rapid strap, FlipCam and other various stuff with room to spare.  In an insert this size, a few extra dividers would be a good thing, but you can get extras from them separately.  The top of the Snoop zips shut to make it a self-contained unit, which works great for me.  When I’m not using this as a camera bag, I can store the Snoop an make the bag my daily laptop case.

Other than additional dividers, my only criticism of the Snoop is that it has no pockets or accessory storage at all.  They could make use of the top flap for a couple memory card slots and a small pocket for a cable release, etc.  Some slide-in pockets on the side wouldn’t be a terrible idea, either.  Yes, there are plenty of pockets on the bag itself, but if the idea is to make this a modular piece of a carry-system, I’d like to see the Snoop be a little more self-contained for my photography equipment.  A minor point, though I’d love to see them update the design.

Outside of that, I can’t find much to fault with the Snoop, especially as part of the overall system in the bag.  I’ll be carrying the bag in three modes: Laptop, Camera and Laptop+Camera (travel only).  I’ll cover it more in Part II, but I think the fact that the Snoop is removable will make this bag much more flexible than anything else I’m aware of, which is fairly cool.  It isn’t without drawbacks – I’ll cover more in Part II, but I’m very happy, which is a good thing:  Custom bags can’t be returned…

I’ll get the second half of the review up as soon as I can, holiday duties and preparation call, and I’m going to try to get out and take some photos, too!