Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In the history of bags, there has been one great bag.

This may seem like hyperbole, or link-bait, or, well, bullshit. And if the assertion were made about any other bag, you might be right. You can't, however, be right about a bag that was carried by none other than Batman.

In 1924, Belstaff company was founded in Staffordshire, England. It focused on making all-weather jackets for motorbikers, eventually expanding their line to include other textiles as well as goggles. Their products are well-designed, tough, practical, and long lasting. 

Until 2011, Belstaff made a series of bags called Colonials. Harkening to the expeditionary spirit, the bags are made of waxed cotton canvas, leather, and brass, with a large center compartment, and pockets on the outside. The 554 is a large bag, and the 556 is a slightly smaller version. Both were built to last. 

Finding a good bag is no easy task. There are a seemingly infinite variety of bags, but for some reason it's quite difficult to find one which has the right combination of features. The Colonials don't suffer this problem. It's the right size, the right shape, the pockets are in the right places, and it looks good in a variety of places, all over the world.

It's also the perfect camera bag.
Belstaff Colonial Bag
The perfect camera bags. Original Belstaff in the back. Chinese homage in the front.
The issue with finding a good camera bag is usually not the bag--it's the conception of the bag. I long ago gave up on the concept of "camera bags." I used to lug around a giant, padded LowePro to protect the gear, and most "camera bags" have that concept: more padding to protect the gear. The purpose dictates the design, and it makes "camera bags" pretty hideous.

Domke started a change in the right direction by simply adding pockets to the outside to protect the gear from knocks, and just separating the equipment on the inside. The problem with Domkes is that they still look like camera bags.

The best solution I've found is to find a bag I like *as a bag.* Then add one of these inserts into it. The insert takes care of the equipment organization problem, and I don't have to pick a "camera bag." Even better, I can move an insert among various bags, or take it out and use the bag for something else entirely. It increases the utility of the bags, and also eliminates the hideousness of "camera bags" as the only solution.

The only issue with the Colonial is that the 554 is a bit large as a daily carry. It's great on extended journeys, trips, and assignments where you have to bring a lot of gear. For daily use, though, the 556 is the better choice.

As I say, Belstaff made a terrible decision and discontinued the line. (They now carry something called the Bromfield, but it's far too Barbour like and fancy for photojournalism.) I firmly believe in paying for design, and my 554 is an authentic Belstaff. But since Belstaff decided not to make the 556 anymore, it's reasonable to look further afield.

As it turns out, the Chinese appreciate a good bag when they see it, and have made a fairly decent replica of the 556 at an incomprehensibly low price. I found mine on http://www.modernmanbags.com for $45. It was shipped out nearly immediately, and came a couple of days later. 
Belstaff, via China
The Belstaff rip-off is still a great bag.
No, the cotton is not as tight a weave. No, the leather isn't as thick. No, the attention to detail isn't as present. But it's also $400 less than I paid for the Belstaff, so I'm willing to accept some margin of inequality. What it does have, which matters, is the shape, design, layout, look, and functionality. I recommend it. You should buy it in either size, because it's the one great bag. Don't take my word for it: take Batman's. 

Just, you know, be careful when wearing your casual labor rubber shoes while carrying this bag.
Just, you know, be careful when wearing your casual labor rubber shoes while carrying this bag.