One of the main reasons people are fascinated by the Leica M system is high performance in a tiny package. Small, lightweight, and discreet are what the M is all about. This can be seen lately by the surge of “small cameras” like the M4/3 Panasonic and Olympus offerings, Sony NEX, and others. Everyone wants full frame quality in something the size of their iphone it seems. Unfortunately these cameras still don’t quite fit in a pocket that well. Next best thing…a camera bag!
Most camera bags are designed for digital SLRs. If you browse a bag makers website, most bags list what they can hold in terms of equipment. Most examples will be “One or two SLR bodies, 2 – 3 lenses, a flash, and filters” or something similar. Do you know what an SLR body and several lenses can weigh? My ThinkTank UD40 with a 5Dmk2, 24-105 f/4 and 70-200 f/4, an ipad, and some filters weigh 11lbs 6oz. or 5kg. That’s a pretty common two lens kit. (the f/2.8 version of this kit weighs about a couple pounds more!) It doesn’t sound like a lot, but hanging from a shoulder all day it becomes a drag. This is certainly not something I enjoy carrying around town for leisure. This is one reason I was originally to the Leica M. It is lightweight without compromising on quality.
I discovered a problem once I got my M system. I am sure a lot of mirrorless camera owners are just discovering this as well. Conventional camera bags are way too deep! I honestly can’t reach my camera when it is in some of these bags hanging from my side. I bought the ThinkTank Retrospective 10 thinking it would be a perfect rangefinder bag and was totally wrong! It is a fantastic bag…but I can’t get my stuff out of it! The same goes for most bags out there now. (I own over a dozen different bags for different situations and gear)
The little M lenses roll around a cavernous bag and have no advantage of the padding. I can hardly grab them if the bag is on my side and I am walking. After much searching, I came up pretty empty in terms of a good solution. That is when I started looking elsewhere for a bag that works. I figured maybe I can just pad up some other bag! Timbuk2 makes some nice lightweight bags, but they are not designed for cameras. (Their actual camera bag is too huge for the M as well.) I figured i’de give them a try however.
I bought the Timbuk2 X-small messenger bag and a Billingham Small Hadley insert.
The Billingham insert comes with a very soft lining and generous padding. This is actually nicer than what most other camera bags come with. 4 small dividers are included. There is a lid that closes the inset as well. This doesn’t latch, but if you press down a little the corners dip into the insert and it holds itself closed.
The Timbuk2 bag is balistic nylon. I wish it had a grab handle on top, but that is only an option if you custom order a bag from their site. I was going to….but not knowing if this would fit my gear made me go with the returnable option of buying at a local store. The strap is not adjustable technically, but there is a special buckle on one side. This lets you short the strap as much as you would like. When you release the buckle it opens to full length again. This makes taking the bag on and off very easy if you are wearing a coat or just like the bag tight against you during transit. There are two buckles and velcro to hold the flap closed.
There are three pockets on the outside of the bag. They are hidden when the flap is closed. One holds an iphone perfectly. One is zipper from the front and the other is one the side and can hold a variety of small items like keys, etc… Honestly, I don’t think you can use all three together except for maybe flat items like a wallet, passport, or papers. Once you start putting keys, a phone, or headphones in those pockets, the room in the adjacent pockets decreases.
There is a large empty main compartment in the bag. This section also features a small divider against the back that holds an ipad perfectly in landscape orientation. There is a zippered pocket to the front that has a variety of pockets and dividers to hold business cards, a notepad, pens, etc… There are also two more pockets in the main compartment, but these will become pretty useless once the insert is in place.
Here is the bag next to a soda can and a 70-200 f/4 lens. As you can see, it is not too high, nor really wide. Perfect for being inconspicuous about its contents. The bag neither looks like a camera bag or big enough to hold a standard laptop.
The billingham insert fits perfectly in the main compartment. It’s as if they were meant to be! You can still access the inner zippered compartments just fine. The two pockets in the main compartment are not easy to use since the inset hides them. The “ipad pocket” is still easily usable for papers, a book, or an ipad.
A Leica sized camera fits perfectly in the billingham insert. You can fit the camera facing forward, or facing sideways. I place it either way depending how long of a lens I have on it. The camera is easily accessible as are the lenses. I found some lenses to still be so small that I can’t reach them once they fall to the bottom of the bag though! I alleviated this issue by stacking two lenses per pocket. With this arrangement you can hold a Leica body and 5 lenses. (two per side compartment and one on the camera) Or you can hold 4 lenses and 2 M bodies. Or you could hold an M body, a lens, and lots of other stuff in the pockets!
The bag is so lightweight and comfortable even with camera and lenses placed in it. The bag weighs approximately 5lbs or 2.5kg with an M8, 21mm, 35mm, and 75mm lens! That is a whole kit and bag at 5lbs! You could have this on you all day and forget it’s there! If the camera is out and in your hands, it is like there isn’t even a bag on you! If you add an ipad to the pocket, the total weight with this configuration is 7.5lbs or 3.3kg. This is still a big difference from an SLR kit.
With an ipad and a full camera kit, the bag buldges just slightly. This only happens if the ipad is in the bag. The flap still closes just fine, but not all the way down to the bottom of the bag. This next picture also shows the insert flap closes. I figure this is handy if you place some papers, or a CD, or other little items on top of the insert and close the bag.
You can definitely hold a variety of items in this bag. It is not big by any means. You won’t have space for too much extra either. If you are traveling light and on the go, this is a fantastic day bag for a Leica kit or any mirrorless camera.
Timbuk2 also has a fun configuration tool on their website. You can customize a bag in all kinds of ways. Most camera bags are black. They also offer a variety of materials including an even lighter weight material. I definitely recommend you check out what they have to offer.
::Last minute update::
Thinktank Photo just released info that they are releasing a Retrospective 5 bag designed for Leica and other mirrorless cameras. I will be getting my hands on one as soon as they are available. Expect a comparison review to follow!