Wildlife photography is a “gear intensive” pursuit. The goal is to make images of animals in their natural habitat, and ideally we don’t want to endanger the animals or ourselves, or alter their behavior by our own presence. That means keeping your distance, and THAT means using telephoto lenses. At some point many photographers will invest in a fast prime lens like a 400, 500, or 600mm. These lenses come with their own set of challenges, not least among them how to carry and protect them. The tool of choice for most photographers: the backpack. It seems like such a simple thing, and compared to the vast amounts of time, energy, and money that get invested into the headline pieces like cameras and lenses, you would think it would be easy to select one and get on with it.
Not for me! To date I have purchased more than a dozen packs that are marketed as “outdoor/nature/wildlife” bags and in most cases I found myself wondering if the designers had ever actually gone outdoors with a camera and tried to use their products in pursuit of photographs. The problem comes back to THE BIG LENS. Virtually any backpack you could name will function at least reasonably well for a small camera and a couple of small lenses. You could steal your child’s school backpack and with a little padding it could be pressed into service as a camera backpack. But THE BIG LENS presents a number of unique problems . To state the first and most obvious, it’s big. It’s also heavy, awkwardly shaped, and in many cases, ridiculously expensive. And for wildlife photographers, we want our packs to transport and protect our big lenses, while also making it comfortable to carry, and fast to access when we need that camera and lens in a hurry.
I thought that my requirements for this elusive pack were fairly straightforward and reasonable:
- Must fit 2 camera bodies with attached lenses – a 400/2.8 and 70-200/2.8, plus a pair of teleconverters, a 16-35 and small flash.
- Must be carry-on compatible so I can fly with it no questions asked.
- Must be comfortable to wear for at least an hour or two when fully loaded.
- Must be rear opening. (If you have ever put a front opening pack down in the rain and mud and then had to put it back on you will know how crucial this design element is).
My intent here is not to rag on anyone’s product, but because I know people will ask, I will list some of the packs that I have purchased in my quest for one that works for me:
F-Stop Tilopa, Mindshift Backlight 26L & 36L, Shimoda Action-X50 & X70, GuraGear Kiboko 30L, Vanguard Alta Sky 66, Lowepro Flipside 500, Peak Design Travel Backpack, Nomatic McKinnon, Lowepro Pro Trekker, Tenba Axis 32L, and more that I’m sure I am forgetting. All of these packs were tested and returned, as none of them could do what I needed.
I had pretty much concluded that a pack that met my needs did not exist, and then purely by chance I came across the one and only video on YouTube demonstrating a pack made by MrJanGear, a company located in the Czech Republic. I was astonished to see that this pack, which I had never heard of, actually checked all the boxes on my list. Searching online yielded NO dealers for it in the US, so I located the manufacturer’s website, read through the info, and sent off an email with my questions. I got an immediate reply from the owner, and placed an order for the pack, hoping it would arrive before a big international trip I had coming up.
The pack DID arrive in time! The Boris is brilliantly simple in its design, and decidedly “low tech” compared to brands like Shimoda and F-Stop. There are no fancy ripstop fabrics, no magnets, no hidden compartments. It’s constructed of a rugged Cordura material, with beefy zippers, and a superb harness system. A well designed backpack is supposed to carry all the weight on your hips, and they all claim to, but none of the ones I had purchased really accomplished that, except the Shimoda. That pack features heavily padded shoulder and waist straps, and it DOES support and distribute the weight, but the shoulder straps are so thick they restricted my arm movement and were uncomfortable to wear.
The Boris straps are nicely padded but not overdone, they are flexible and move with you, and the hip belt with its split design actually works! The kit that I listed above is about 25 pounds when loaded into the pack, and the Boris is the first pack I’ve used that was workable for hauling around the whole kit for a couple of hours. I won’t use the word “comfortable” here, I think the more accurate word is “bearable”. I am quite fit, but not a huge guy, and strapping 25 pounds of glass and metal onto my back has never registered as comfortable to me. I took the Boris with me to Costa Rica, and that meant getting through airports, standing in Security and Customs lines, getting it on and off of planes, boats, Jeeps, etc. It was always “bearable” and felt balanced and secure.
The thing that really makes this pack work for THE BIG LENS are the butterfly type flaps that open the two camera compartments. The footprint never changes, something you will really appreciate if you need to work out of the pack in a boat or a vehicle. And they open from the BACK, so when you put your pack down in the mud and muck it stays on the front, away from your clothes.
Once open, you will see two long compartments that run the entire length of the bag. It will not only hold a 600/f4 lens attached to a body, it will hold two of them! If you are that person who wants to carry your 400/2.8 and your 600/f4 this bag will do it, and they go in and out of the bag easily. There are straps with buckles inside the compartments to lash down your lens and hold it in place for transport. They also serve to compress the pack and relieve some of the pressure on the zippers.
I have used it to carry my 400/2.8 on one side and my 200-600 zoom on the other. The more common setup for me though is gripped camera and 400/2.8 on one side, while the other side holds a second camera attached to a 70-200/2.8, 16-35 wide angle, two teleconverters, small flash and remote unit, and a cleaning kit. I can also stuff in straps and rain covers for both cameras, card wallet, battery wallet, and assorted bits and bobs.
All of the interior surfaces are Velcro compatible, so you can easily configure the dividers any way you want. Included is an ingenious segmented divider panel that wraps around a vertically loaded lens (my wide angle goes there) and can be positioned anywhere inside.
Another great feature I have never seen before are multiple zippered pouches that can be Velcroed onto the underside of the flaps, and are perfect little houses for lens caps, memory cards, batteries, tools, or anything else you want to toss in there and have quick access to. Brilliant!
The front of the bag has a large zippered pocket that goes all the way down, it’s big enough for a laptop, but is not designed for that unless you put it in a sleeve as there is no padding. I use this area for a jacket or a beanie and snack bars.
The bag has two GREAT handles, something that is SO often overlooked on backpacks, one on the top and one on the side. These make it easy to hoist the bag into a vehicle or overhead compartment on a plane. There is a heavy duty stretch pocket on each side of the pack, two straps on top for lashing down a jacket or whatever, and the pack has laser cut slots all over it to mount the included straps for tripods, etc. I love the fact that everything you need is included with the pack: rain cover, multiple straps, accessory pouches, a dust bag for the pack, nothing additional that you need to buy. Nice!
The pack dimensions are carry-on compliant and I never had a problem on any of my flights bringing it on board.
I do have one complaint and I saved it for last because it’s really minor. The zippers are nice and beefy and they run very smoothly, but my pack came with a nylon string on each one as the zipper pull. This looks really cheap to me, on a pack that is definitely not cheap. Worse is that they kept slipping out of the sliders and I would have to wrestle them back in. That is pretty annoying when you are in the jungle, which is exactly where I was working. When I got home I ordered a set of replacement clip-on zipper pulls from Amazon (total cost $8) and that completely solved the issue, but I feel like this is a design oversight that could be easily fixed.
All in all I love this pack, and it is easily the best I have found for carrying and working with a big lens kit. I hauled it all over Costa Rica and it was a pleasure to use. Bravo Mr.Jan!