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Modularized Think Tank Airport International Photo Bag

First let me say that there is no perfect camera bag... at least not that I have found.

Secondly, I have tried many different camera bag combinations for cruising. Cruising in itself presents some challenges - perhaps that is not the correct word - presents a unique situation wherein you might want to take your equipment on board with you, but not necessarily not all of that equipment will be used on a daily basis.

An example might be bringing a DSLR and a waterproof camera - which of course - you would use at different times. If you don't need both cameras at the same time, why carry them both in the same bag?

I have painfully come to the realization that a bag that is large enough to hold all of your gear is too large to carry around comfortably. So my #1 advice - get a small bag.

OK then, this also presents another challenge - what do you do if you have more stuff to take than the bag will hold?

My solution; I take a larger "mother ship" kind of bag, and a smaller day pack or excursion bag. I fill the excursion bag with whatever contents I might need for that particular day from the "mother ship". That way, I can take all my stuff, but only have to carry a lightweight bag each day.

I have tried several approaches to this (and before I made the realization that you need a mother-ship approach), and have littered eBay with the bags that just didn't quite work.

Bags that I have tried are as follows:
1. Tamrac Adventure 75 - with add-on pouches.
2. Tenba Messenger Medium camera bag.
3. Tamrac Evolution 8 sling bag.
4. Tamrac belt-pack system.

All of these solutions came up short and they eventually all ended up on eBay.

Tamrac Adventure 75: The first attempt was to carry a bag that would be a bit on the small side, which would not quite fit all of my stuff, but with the pouches attached, I could carry everything as one unit through the x-ray and check-in process, then detach the pouches after I arrived at my stateroom. The disadvantage was that the bag was still too large... and all of the pouches hanging off it was too cumbersome - it was just a mess, and all of the straps hanging off the bag could get caught in the x-ray machine's rollers. One of the side release buckles even ripped off after getting caught in an x-ray machine.

When you board a cruise ship (as well as at the airport), you are often in a line for a significant amount of time. You pick up your luggage, walk 3ft, sit it down, and wait a few seconds; then you repeat the process... endlessly. This is just so hard when you have a 25lb. backpack on your back, or worse - have taken it off and are carrying it. You need something with wheels!

My first attempt - a rather Rube Golberg approach.

Tenba Messenger Medium Camera Bag: My second attempt with the Tenba Messenger was to carry the bag not on my back, but as a shoulder bag. And with a trolly strap on it - I could easily place it over my carry-on luggage as I go through the check-in. While it did contain everything I needed - it was still just too heavy.

Tamrac Evolution 8: The third attempt was with a Tamrac Evolution 8 combination backpack - sling bag. While at the time, I thought this was the perfect solution, as it carried everything, including a little compartment in the top for a kindle, ipods, and other stuff - as well as my notebook. But when you converted the backpack into a sling bag - it was still too darned heavy, and it hurt your shoulder after awhile. And it was still just too bulky to carry everything on an excursion.

The Non-photo Photo Bag: The fourth attempt was to pack all of the photo gear into separate pouches and load everything into a non-photo backpack. I even used a couple of Clik Elite modules for this attempt. When I took what I needed on an excursion, I used a holster-style camera case, and was able to clip one or two modular pouches to it in case I needed an extra lens. This was probably the closest I came to perfection - but again, it seemed to be a really disorganized approach.

I have placed reviews of these bags on for your review. Perhaps you may find them appealing to you, or at least interesting.

The Solution: Back to ground-zero. I need to re-think this whole approach. I need to come up with a list of what is important:

1. should be a transport system (mother ship) to get your camera gear on board - and perhaps other items, such as carry-on essentials (change of clothes, other electronic items, medications, etc).

2. should also be a small day bag so that you can just carry what you need for the day. The day bag should be small enough so that it is not too heavy. A DSLR and an extra lens is perhaps all you need. And it should have provision to attach an extra pouch if need be for a particular excursion - but do not get carried away with adding pouches.

3. should have a method of securing the bag.

4. should be able to carry a laptop or netbook, and be easily accessible when you go through check-in x-ray, as you need to remove the computer for inspection.

5. should be able to carry documents - passports, boarding pass, and so on. And be easily accessable for the check-in process.

6. should be airline carry-on capable; yet secure enough that you could check it if you are presented without any other option. You should not want to check it - but sometimes you might need to as things may be beyond your control. And if you have to check it, the day bag should be easily removable so you can at least carry your expensive camera gear with you in a smaller bag.

7. should be streamlined, without a lot of straps and buckles to get caught on the X-Ray machine.


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I now use a Think Tank "Change Up" bag for day use. It is normally a sling bag, but it can be used with a pull out belt that is permanently attached (but stuffs into the bag when not needed). The belt has loops on it so you can attach pouches if needed. The bag is large enough to hold a DSLR with lens attached, a 11-16mm super-wide, and a flash. There is a front pocket for accessories - spare batteries, and such - and even can carry passports in the front pockets. If I have to check my main photo bag, I can still take this bag as a carry-on so that at least I am not having to check my camera.

Think Tank Change-UP



For the rest of the gear, I am using a "mother ship" bag. It is actually a rolling suitcase, also made by Think Tank, called Airport International.

Think Tank Airport International V2.0

Think TankAirport International Rolling Suitcase

Style: Rolling Suitcase Camera Bag
Size: 14 W x 21 H x 8 D
Weight Empty: 11 lbs
Weight Full (when I'm done): 22 lbs
Colors: Black
Features: International Carry On
Manufactured: Vietnam
Street Price: $320
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It is sized for carry-on for both international and domestic flights (international flight carry-on sizes are slightly smaller). The interior of the rolling suitcase is just right so that I can fit the day bag inside of it (in the bottom section as shown here):

In the top section, I can fit two pouches with all of the connectors, cables, and chargers, a kindle, my 50mm and fisheye primes, a second camera, a Nikon P7000, a third camera, an Olympus 8010 waterproof camera, and other "necessities".

A short video of how I pack the Think Tank Airport International.

So what about a change of clothes? Since when you go on board a ship, you may want to carry a change of clothes, I can remove the day bag from the bottom compartment and carry it either as a shoulder bag or by it's belt, and put the change of clothes where the day bag normally resides.

Note that I had to make a couple of custom dividers for the bag for everything to fit correctly. Think Tank does supply you with tons of dividers, and you could get by with those, but for the perfect fit, we made a couple of our own. You don't hav to do this though, as the dividers Think Tank provides will be sufficient.

But since we have a commercial sewing machine, it was an easy thing to make a couple of dividers. I used 3M Veltex fabric for the dividers, which is the loop side of Velcro, typically used for making kiosk display panels.

I have to tell you, this isn't a cheap solution; the combination of the two bags runs almost $500. Think Tank products are professional grade, and do carry a lifetime warranty. And there are a couple of other features that attracted me to the Airport International rolling suitcase:


First, it has an integrated lock for the main compartment. This prevents the zippers and lock from flopping around. It is located on the side of the bag.

Secondly, there is a security cable on the back of the suitcase so you can secure it to a pole or other non-moveable object. The cable is permanently attached to the suitcase frame, and inside a zippered compartment on the back of the suitcase. All you have to do is pull it out, loop it around something, and lock it.

Another security measure is that there is a metal riveted identification plate on the suitcase with a serial number stamped onto it. When you get the suitcase, you register the number with Think Tank so should you ever lose the bag, it the number can help identify you as the owner should anyone find the bag.

There is also a protective rain cover that I keep in this compartment. The smaller day bag also has a rain cover inside of it as well.

And Third, there is a nice little "office" on the front of the suitcase for holding my boarding documents and passports for easy access during the check-in process.

And finally, on the front of the bag, there is a neoprene sleeve where a laptop or netbook can fit into. And in the "office" compartment above, there is another security cable attached to the bag that you can attach to the laptop bag.

There is also a removable tripod attachment gizmo on the side of the suitcase. I don't always take a tripod with me on a cruise, so I can attach the tripod carrier only if I need it.

The only thing lacking in this setup is the rolling suitcase doesn't have backpack straps. While I could not see the need for them in normal use, they could come in handy as you are getting on and off board the ship. But if this is a real need, you could look at the Think Tank "Airport Security" bag. It's just slightly larger, and does include "temporary use" backpack straps. I say temporary use, as the straps are not padded, and are not intended for long term use - you might use them just for going up stairs and such.

But the Airport Security case, being a bit larger, is too large for a carry-on for international flights - but should be OK for domestic flights.

So (at least for now), this is my setup. I know it is a bit on the expensive side, but I sold all of my other bags on eBay and had enough money to buy this one. And you can perhaps build your own system for less money by purchasing a small day bag and a suitable suitcase that it can fit inside of.

The idea though is to have a small day bag that is not too heavy (think small), and a transport bag or suitcase for bringing stuff on board. I think this is a much better approach than trying to get everything into a larger photo backpack or shoulder bag - which ends up being too heavy and bulky.

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