For safety, protection and ease of transport, nothing beats a well-built camera and equipment bag. There are bags built for every piece of equipment, accessory and kit, as well as specialty bags such as "fanny packs" and photographer's backpacks. You might want to have one bag or case as a safe keeping place for all your gear at home and a variety of bags for different types of photographic ventures in the field. You might want a small bag for day trips and a bigger bag for major photographic adventures. In short, a camera and gear bag is an essential part of a photographer's equipment.
What Makes a Bag "Photographic"?
The main attributes of a photographic bag are the way it distributes weight, the protection and padding it affords delicate equipment and the compartments it provides for stowing individual pieces of equipment. You don't want to just throw your camera and lens into a large, open bag, no matter how safe it may seem to be. In every case and bag, compartmentalization is key.
Matching the Bag to the Gear
The overall size of the bag you choose should always match the gear it will hold. In some cases, bags may be identified as "compact camera" (enough for a point and shoot and a few rolls of film), "35mm SLR" (which may hold a camera with a lens attached and perhaps a flash and extra lens), "35mm SLR kit" (for all of the above plus a few extra lenses, film and filters), or "medium format" (for a larger camera and lens system
As mentioned, compartments are key to keeping gear from bumping against other gear in the bag. Some bags are specially made to hold a 35mm and lens (even a long lens) in a holster-like compartment within the bag. Others have special pockets for film and filters and extra lenses. Most allow you to move the compartments around to your liking via Velcro strips. The ability to customize the bag interior is a key point. These compartments should also be well padded.
Ease of Access
There's nothing worse than having to dig around in your camera bag for essential gear, especially when the photography is going strong. Look for a bag with top access to essential gear and side pockets and even flaps for film and filters. That access can be gained through zippered sides or even internal Velcro straps.
The heavier the gear the more the potential strain on your shoulders and back. For lightweight, small amounts of gear consider a "fanny" pack, one with a zippered pocket that attaches like a belt around your waist. For shoulder packs, check the strap width-the heavier the gear you have the broader the strap should be. For large amounts of gear consider a backpack made especially for photographers-with zippered opening and padded, internal compartments. This can make a big difference when going on those long, photo hikes.
Camera bags can take a beating, so look for tough, outer materials to handle those overhead bins and hikes through the woods. Make sure the flaps over the top and side of the bag cover everything on board, just in case of rain. Many bags are weather resistant (which means they'll keep moisture out unless you're caught in a downpour). So-called "all weather" bags do a better job. These may have separate covers that come out of a side pocket to cover the bag when the going gets really rough.
For those who are heading out on a long journey, or who just want the sturdiest protection they can get, consider a hard case made of polycarbonate or aluminum. While we always suggest caution in this regard, some photographers even check these cases onto airlines when hauling large amounts of shooting gear. All these cases have padded foam inserts that can be cut into shapes to accommodate different size gear.