How to buy a backpack

Here are a few pointers which could’ve saved me both money and trouble had I known them before buying my first backpack.


First and foremost, think of a backpack as a protection for your back. Everything else is secondary.  Same as shoes, a backpack’s fit will affect your gait and posture, so it should be chosen carefully - it should fit you well and should have the required features for the load that you intend to carry. If it doesn’t fit, don’t buy it.

Know what you want to carry, then find a backpack to fit it in. Understandably, we all want to have one do-it-all backpack that will work for any situation. Better to be smart and realistic about such things. Smart to evaluate your needs and see if there is gear that can have multiple purposes. Realistic to accept when there is no such gear and not try to rationalize. Smaller volumes to which additional storage or gear can be attached are generally better. A big, half-empty pack is impossible to organize and will allow you to bring things you don’t necessarily need.

The best suggestion is to bring your gear to the store and try the pack with it. This advice can be found in every online review I have read. Unfortunately, most people simply won’t do it. Too troublesome, I guess.

Caveat : bigger backpacks, supposed to carry larger and heavier items will feature sturdier frames, allowing the transfer of weight to your hips, keeping things in place on your back and protecting it from them. Some smaller backpacks forego the frame completely, relying only on padding. This is the general and rather sensible trend in the industry - the bigger the backpack, the beefier the carrying system. The problem here though is that there are plenty of exceptions in terms of carrying situations, yet there are not plenty of alternatives in terms of actual products. For example, camera gear is generally compact and heavy, however good luck finding a small volume backpack with a proper carrying system. There certainly are such products, but the available options are relatively few.

More padding is always better. Some companies make cutouts, allowing air to circulate, which makes for nice summer packs. Others make thinner padding, which does nothing except maybe slightly lowering weight and cost. The foam used for the padding is not breathable and its thickness is not going to make much of a difference in terms of heat retention. It will however provide a different level of comfort.

More pockets will make you more miserable. You will always be searching for the backpack that fits your things just right. Pockets, zippers, attachments and various convenience features should be your last concern. In the end, even if your backpack consists of one single compartment, there are ways to organize your things. In addition, any extra features add weight, cost and additional breaking points.

Speaking of breaking, zippers do fail. This happens very rarely, but when it does and you are in the middle of nowhere, your priorities will get realigned real quick.

There are no magic materials. A tougher backpack will be heavier. Choose the proper material for the required durability and protection of your items.

Manufacturer’s measurements cannot be trusted or relied upon. Firstly, companies tend to use different methods and measure different things. Some will include the volume of the pockets, some not; some will round the measurement up, others down. Second, the actual form of the backpack will define how you will have to organize your items. Some bigger items may never fit properly if the pack is too narrow, even if it has the required volume. All volume measurements should therefore be used only to give you a rough idea of which products to look at.

Photography, Sony and Minolta's legacy

I have often heard various comments about Sony not being a “proper” camera company, so I decided to write a few words to correct such thinking.

Here is a list of notable (in my opinion) Sony cameras. It is extremely shortened though and doesn’t discuss all they have brought to the camera industry - links to more information can be found at the end of this post or by googling.

Before Minolta :

Sony Mavica (1981) - this is where the story begins with a prototype for an electronic SLR still video camera - it was the first of its kind and the direct predecessor of digital cameras; the first cameras were released in the late 80s, although, apparently, the prototype has been used during the Olympics in 1984;

Sony Mavica MVC-C1 (1988) - Sony’s first consumer electronic camera;

Sony DSC-F1 (1996) - the first Cybershot;

Sony DSC-D700 (1998) - Sony’s first foray into all-in-one SLRs;

Sony F828 (2003) - the first consumer CCD digital camera;

Sony DSC-T1 (2003) - a real compact at 17mm thickness;

With Minolta : 

Sony a100 (2006) - albeit a fine camera, this one was really a regular DSLR, but it shows how Sony followed firmly in Minolta’s footsteps just after the acquisition; 

Sony a900 (2008) - best viewfinder, highest resolution sensor and first FF camera with in-body image stabilization;

Sony a300 (2008) - dual-sensor design for improved Live View and camera performance (Olympus had this approach first, but with a lesser implementation);

Sony a850 (2009) - cheapest FF camera on the market;

Sony a55 (2010) - first SLT camera and the switch to EVFs for Sony; SLT was the natural evolution of the dual sensor setup;

Sony NEX-3/NEX-5 (2010) - Sony’s first mirrorless cameras;

Sony NEX-7 (2011) - Sony’s first advanced mirrorless cameras and, as far as I am aware, the first mirrorless with an integrated EVF;

Sony RX1 (2012) - first digital FF compact;

Sony RX100 (2012) - yet another proof of Sony’s miniaturization prowess;

Sony a7 (2013) - first FF mirrorless, if we are not taking into account Leica rangefinders;

Sony a7 markII (2014) - introducing in-body image stabilization to the a7x line, still unique to Sony for FF cameras;

Sony have been at it for a long time and this without even taking into consideration the video side, which I find to be very relevant. In terms of innovation (relevant to photographers), the only other company that has done as much during the last ten, or so, years, would be Olympus, in my opinion. In the consumer and prosumer markets, Sony have constantly delivered some of the most amazing packages and have a long history of sophisticated all-in-one designs and miniaturization. Actually, it looks like the period just after Minolta’s acquisition was the most problematic one, maybe because they tried to follow too closely in Minolta’s footsteps. I am confused as to the main reason of their purchase, but my uneducated guess would be that they simply saw a cheap way to gain market share and take on the big two; the know-how that also came with the package was just a bonus. I would dare to say that they didn’t do a great job in the beginning, simply relying on existing Minolta technologies, and that cost them. However, currently, they seem to be back on track and concentrating on their strengths.

From Sony:

http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/CorporateInfo/History/sonyhistory-g.html

http://www.sonyinsider.com/2009/03/11/akio-morita-and-1981s-mavica-electronic-camera/

Camera history:

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/88352-the-history-of-digital-photography

http://www.bobbrooke.com/DigitalStudio/digitalhistory.htm

Articles from long ago:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB917218991667296500

Reviews of some Sony cameras - more links after the links:

http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/sonydscf828

http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/29722/Sony-Mavica-MVC-FD85/

http://www.rfwilmut.clara.net/about/mavica.html

Photo of the Sony Pro Mavica MVC-7000

http://www.nikonweb.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=368

Shooting in cold weather

This is a rather well-covered topic, but I will throw in some thoughts nonetheless.

Part I - the camera

There is a tremendous amount of marketing-speak when it comes to camera durability. “Weather-proof”, “weather-sealed”, “cold-resistant”. Gaskets or not, these are meaningless specifications, as manufacturers almost never adhere to any standards. I certainly am willing to pay a few extra bucks for a so-called weather-sealed design, but I also consider it entirely overrated. I have been using Canon, Nikon and Sony models without any weather resistance in temperatures down to -37C and up to 38C and I have had an issue only once - the focus ring of a lens getting stuck. Sure, there was the occasional problem with the LCD getting psychedelic colors and plenty of battery drain, but these have never prevented me from shooting. And all of these issues resolved completely after getting the camera to regular temperatures.

Here are a few rules of thumb that should be observed though.

• Put the camera in a sealed bag before entering your house, so that condensation occurs on the bag and not on your camera. 

• Do not exhale onto the camera. Either hold your breath while using the viewfinder or simply use the back screen, while holding the camera at a distance.

• Do not keep the camera close to your body while being outside so as to avoid any moisture. Let it freeze. Do keep the battery warm though.

Part II - the photographer

Speaking from personal experience (what I have done and what I have seen others do), the real issue when shooting in cold weather is that people are badly prepared for the cold. This will necessarily end up ruining the shooting experience, not to mention being actually dangerous. Freezing comes without a warning.

It is really important to be well prepared and know where you are going, for how long, in what environment etc. Some quick tips:

• Use wool. Every year we hear about some new synthetic marvel that finally brings all the qualities of wool, but end up being disappointed after the first serious trials. Things have certainly progressed a lot and there are some amazing materials out there, but just get wool and be done with it.

• Always have two sets of gloves. I have never seen gloves that would both be warm at -20C and below, and yet offer enough dexterity to operate a camera comfortably. Have something comfortable on top of which you can put some mittens. 

• I am a big proponent of layering. You can just put a big heavy jacket if you are simply shooting the northern lights and not moving much. Otherwise, it is best to layer up, so you can adjust your temperature; you cannot allow yourself to sweat while moving or to freeze while shooting.

• Use all that clothing to your advantage - put things in your pockets to lighten or even leave your backpack at home.