If you are looking for a camera/laptop backpack that can hold a 15″ laptop and camera equipment with features for travel, take a serious look at the Kata Pro Light 3N1 35. (Kata has since been purchased by Manfrotto. Although the color of the backpack has changed, the model number and features remain the same.) This is the hands down winner for my purpose of constant travel and the need for a backpack that can carry my camera equipment capable of completing a pro shoot if my check on bag with my lighting and other camera equipment did not arrive at the destination. Here are the three camera/laptop backpacks for travel that I evaluated:

First Choice: Kata Pro Light 3N1 35

Although this is the most expensive backpack of the three, the Kata’s capacity, number of compartments, carrying system, build, tripod holder and rain cover all result in a pack that is for pro shooters on the go.

This backpack is good for:

  • Travel by any method including air, rail, auto, and on foot
  • Carrying a 15″ laptop, plus ipad and other flat items
  • Carrying a camera, three lenses, a flash and accessories
  • Exposure to rain.

This is not good for:

  • Infrequent use (the cost would not be worth it unless you have money to burn!

Second Choice: Tamrac 5549 Adventure 9

An excellent value for the money, the Tamrac provides enough space for my gear; however, there are not enough compartments to properly organize. It is comfortable and should travel well. Access to gear is not as good as the Kata but adequate for its purpose.

This backpack is good for:

  • Less frequent travelers or day trips
  • Travel by any method including air, rail, auto, and on foot
  • Carrying a 15″ laptop, plus ipad and other flat items
  • Carrying a camera, three lenses, a flash and accessories (but not all in the main camera compartment).
  • Those who prefer spending on other things and are looking for a good value

This backpack is not good for:

  • Those like me who want a lot of pockets to put smaller accessories like chargers, flash, etc. Although I was able to fit everything into the pack, the flash and other accessories had to be in a jumbled mess in the top compartment due to lack of enough pockets.

Third Choice: Pelican Products 0S1300-0003-110 Sport Elite

With its hard shell laptop compartment, this backpack is good for conditions that could be rough on softer laptop enclosures found in most backpacks. However, padding for the camera gear is thin and there are insufficient pockets for gear and only one laptop in the laptop compartment. For me, a Pelican fan, this was a disappointment.

This backpack is good for:

  • Short trips with limited gear via plane, rail, auto and on foot.
  • Only one laptop up to 15″. The laptop case cannot fit anything else.
  • Hard protection of the laptop.
  • Lighter and smaller camera kits with less equipment.

This backpack is not good for:

  • Anyone who needs to carry more flat items than a laptop (i.e. an iPad). The backpack has nowhere else to put that item.
  • Those who need a good number of pockets to properly organize.
  • Those who want supportive and solid cushioning between camera equipment in the camera compartment.

The Details:

During this trip I am taking my family to London, Paris and Barcelona. As such we will be on multiple trains, plans and cars which require we pack as light as possible. A few years ago during a trip to Italy I carried a backpack, a Think Tank Airport Security V2.0 roll on bag (my camera, lenses, 1 Elinchrom Quadra power pack with 4 heads, and accessories), and a check on bag with another Elinchrom Quadra power pack, lighting gear, three Manfrotto Nano light stands and clothes.

What I learned was this was too much. Trains do not offer much space for luggage. Just getting three bags on and off the train was a challenge. In many places in Europe there are not elevators. So lugging about 100 pounds of gear up three stories via stairs was also a good workout!

So this go around I decided I wanted to travel as light as possible. I intend on limiting my luggage to one backpack and one check on bag. My other blog entries will discuss how I narrowed down equipment choices to reduce weight and bulk while still ensuring I can capture great images.

With all this in mind, I have to be able to pack enough camera gear into a backpack sufficient enough to complete a professional shoot if my check on bag does not arrive at the destination.

The pack has to have the following characteristics:

  • Small enough to fit under the seat of a commercial airliner (some airlines do not allow overhead luggage or have large overhead storage compartment) and within airline size restrictions for a carry on.
  • Comfortable for long walks
  • Easily accessibility to equipment during a shoot
  • Preferable ability to reposition the pack to easily grab the camera with the backpack still on
  • Rugged for travel and daily use
  • Lots of pockets for my equipment and accessories
  • Light enough to not contribute significantly to airline weight restrictions

The pack has to fit the following equipment:

Kata Details:

As I mentioned in the beginning, the Kata met all of the requirements without a problem. The section that carries camera equipment has enough space to carry all of the primary camera gear including the Speedlite. My only wish is that it included a few more padded Velcro sectional pieces so I could better customize how the space is organized.

The Kata is the only one that comes with a detachable tripod holder. I don’t carry a tripod; however, I generally do carry a Nano light stand; strapping it on the pack in this manner will free up a hand. It also included a rain cover which can definitely come in handy.

I was very impressed by the space afforded in the laptop section. Unlike the Pelican, it fits my laptop, ipad, drawing pad, and thin folder in which I put critical paperwork.

three camera/laptop backpacks for travel kata

Although I could always do with more pockets, The Kata had enough pockets for me to logically organize the accessories, cords, etc. without having to mix up unrelated items in the top compartment; in fact as it stands, the top compartment (which is the second largest section of the backpack) is currently empty.

This backpack allows one to access the camera section from three sides. I mainly access my equipment from the front and one side (where the camera can be easily removed). So I do wish the other side had been dedicated to another pocket or perhaps a mesh bottle holder. But one cannot have everything!

Three camera/laptop backpacks for travel kata

The one minor gripe I have is the zippers. Kata uses either fabric “strips” or pull “loops” on its zipper pulls as compared to traditional metal “tabs”. I find this arrangement actually causes the zipper to get stuck every now and then as the zipper itself flexes.

The option to shift the Kata from traditional backpack to sling is also a feature that I didn’t initially think about but works quite well. In addition, a padded hip belt is available when the load is heavy or a more secure and close fit is desired. When not in use it neatly tucks away out of sight.

Tamrac Details:

For about half the price of the Kata, the Tamrac is a great value for the money. Its laptop compartment is also large enough to carry all four items I jam in there. The camera section is well padded. Access is only through the front zippered panel.

Three camera/laptop backpacks for travel tamrac

My main concern is that there are not enough pockets for all my things. The camera section was not large enough to fit the Speedlite so it had to go into the top compartment. Power adapters, cords and other small accessories ended up piled together in that same compartment. With some Ziploc bags I could neaten things up but built-in pockets are definitely a better choice.

Three camera/laptop backpacks for travel tamrac

The build of this backpack is solid, the straps comfortable, and the zippers high quality and smoother than the Kata.

Pelican Details:

Like all Pelican products (and I own another great Pelican product I trust my cameras to when checking them on an airplane) this backpack is very rugged. The padded hard laptop case would definitely add significant protection to hard knocks and drops for one’s laptop. In addition, a hard plastic plate over the camera section adds an additional level of protection.

All that said, the hard laptop section, though ingenious, cannot close and latch with anything more than one laptop. There was nowhere in the backpack to fit my iPad and drawing pad. Since this would require me to carry those items in another bag (which must remain with me and not put in my check on bag), it defeats the purpose of consolidating my critical gear into one backpack.

Three camera/laptop backpacks for travel pelican

The camera section is actually removable and can be used separately from the backpack. This can be very convenient when arriving at the shoot location. However, padding for the removable camera bag was remarkably flimsy for a Pelican product. In addition, if one chooses to leave the camera section in the pack, the front panel is not large enough to easily grab some of one’s gear in that section. Lack of sufficient pockets also meant that accessories had to be piled together in the remaining limited space. I thus eliminated this backpack from contention even before putting it on.

This is definitely not recommended for the purpose I intended but could do well for less gear and lighter use; this is ironic since Pelican products are generally designed for hard use.

Conclusion:

Like a purse, wallet, or even gun holsters, the appropriateness of a product depends on the situation in which it will be used. All of these backpacks have their place and can be successfully utilized. For the criteria I mentioned and purpose of a long trip through Europe on planes, trains, car and on foot, the Kata definitely fulfills all of my requirements.