Initial Reaction: Chrome Niko Camera Pack Feb 12, 2013

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The years I spent in New York make me appreciate two concepts: mobility and real estate. Observing both, in the literal and figurative sense, can teach you everything you need to know about anything, even products. They are key deciding factors in determining something’s usefulness. Quite simply put: how you use the product while moving through space and how the product uses its own space.

When I heard that Chrome had picked up a designer from Lowepro to design their new Niko Camera Pack, I had high hopes that it would be an improvement over last year’s Niko Messenger Sling bag. The design seemed to be simple enough and the product shots made it look like the Niko Pack was just an enlarged by 200% Niko Messenger.  I shoot multiple formats and travel a lot with my camera equipment, so I’m always looking for a new bag that meets my needs.

Surely with all this space, it had to be the bag I was looking for?

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Last week, a large box arrived from Chrome and upon opening, I was greeted with a large, impressive camera pack. The Niko measures 11″ wide, about 18″ tall and around 8″ deep, depending on how you pack it. It’s weather-proof, black and is minimally-branded.

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A bag this large, when loaded with gear, can be quite heavy but the Niko Camera Pack is very comfortable. The padded back and adjustable straps carry the weight and the only main critique I have is the lack of a lumbar strap. When you design a bag to address the cycling community, you’ve got to have a lumbar strap. Ever try to hop onto a curb with a fully-loaded bag? Or chase after friends down a trail? It’s not just about security either, lumbar straps transfer weight to your hips, making a heavy bag a lot easier on your back during a day-long event.

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Ok, without getting too hung up on the lumbar strap, I will say that fully-loaded, this bag is very comfortable walking around and even riding. The tripod attachment will hold either a skateboard or a few light stands, securely. There’s even a u-lock holster. With all this on the bag, it still performs exceptionally well but while it delivers on mobility, it lacks on real estate usage, the most important feature in any backpack.

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Camera bags fall into a few categories:
-drop in (camera body with a lens drops into a bag from the top)
-side access (camera body with a lens can be pulled from a side zipper)
-front or back access (with the bag on its back, or front, a large compartment opens up, displaying equipment)

The Chrome Niko Pack’s ambidextrous design lets you stash a camera body and a prime lens on either side and align the zippers so you have access without taking the pack off. This is great. If you could have a telephoto or wide angle zoom lens on the body. The biggest fail with the Chrome Niko is also its most convenient feature. The side-access only allows you to load the camera in one direction, across the width and this limits the overall camera length by what you have packed. You could run a 5D with a 70-200mm, along the length of the bag but it’d take up all the space.

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I.e. you can have a 24-70mm on the camera, but no lens stored on the side, as shown and even then, the bag is bulging.

Basically,  you can’t even have a 24-70mm lens on the body if you’re carrying the 70-200mm in the bag (and still use the dividers as they’re intended to be used). I use those lenses more than any other in my Canon bayonet. In fact, you can only carry a body with a prime attached and three professional-grade lenses in the main compartments if you use the dividers Chrome supplied. Now, you can re-situate them and stuff it in but then a once neatly-organized compartment becomes array.

Edit: See my comment below.

When I shoot events, I’m almost always using the 70-200mm and being able to drop the bag and pull it out, all ready to go is key. This might be personal preference, but I don’t want to have to store my body without a lens on it, unless it’s in an overhead bin on an airplane. When I travel, my bag has to hold the camera equipment I’m bringing at least on the flight. Then if I’m out at an event, I limit my selection based on what I’m shooting. That said, the Chrome Niko is a more efficient camera bag if you’re limiting yourself to a few lenses and one body.

Still, I can’t fit my Hasselblad, my 5Dmkii with an extra lens in the Niko Camera Pack without having to take the lenses off the bodies.

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The other head-scratcher is the massive top pocket. This compartment is big enough for its own modular, padded dividers and all it has is one of those elastic nets. I suppose you could drop in a padded bag for your 35mm SLR or rangefinder but I feel like this is wasted and precious real estate. I’d rather not have this pocket at all and just have more main compartment space.  You can unzip a panel and expand but again, the dividers aren’t the best for doing so. There is an access slot here for a iPad or a 15″ laptop. My 13″ MacBook Pro fit inside with no issues.

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One of the nice features the Nico Camera Pack does utilize is an exceptionally-organized access flap. The see-through pockets are great for film, SD cards and the large velcro pocket will fit chargers and cables. Here’s where the Lowepro designer brought their knowledge of real estate usage.

Maybe I’m being too hard on this camera bag. Maybe I had preconceptions about how I thought it should operate.  Maybe, when I opened the box and saw this massive bag, I thought it would fit everything I needed it to. Whatever the reason, I am not as impressed out of the box, as I was with the The Incase DSLR Pro Pack. Which I might add is the best camera bag for under $200 I have used. It fits my Leica rangefinder, my 5dMkii, a 70-200 (attached or stored), a prime lens (50mm L or 85 Zeiss), a 24-70mm and my Hasselblad, with room for film backs, film and a laptop. But still, no lumbar support.

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I feel like with a few tweaks, the Chrome Niko Camera Pack would be one of the best pro-sumer bags on the market but as it is now, I would spring for something else. I’m sure this is a great bag for people looking to ride around the city and casually shoot photos but for someone that travels with gear, it’s not the right shoe.

Also, apologies for the boring and bland product shots. I just didn’t feel inspired by this one…

Price: $180

  • http://theradavist.com John Watson

    So I ripped out the compartments and managed to fit a pretty standard, multi body arrangement in the compartment but I still feel like it’s not ideal.

    • Ian Stone

      That looks gross.

    • http://twitter.com/princeofbraddon James McKeon

      which two cameras are those middle and right?

      • http://theradavist.com John Watson

        Right is my 5D, middle is an old EOS 3 35mm DSLR that I have.

        • http://twitter.com/princeofbraddon James McKeon

          Yeah I figured that one was the 5d but was intrigued about the other, cheers dude.

  • http://www.rhyshastings.com/ Rhys

    That’s a shame, it looked like a great bag. Did they by chance send you a Niko Camera Sling? I’d be curious to see what you thought of it. It looks like it’d be great for traveling light with a rangefinder.

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      I’ve used it and my only real qualm with it is the buckle. I duct-taped mine to keep some idiot from pressing the release button. For a rangefinder, I use the ILE photo mini bag. Cheap, customizable and very durable. I’ve put mine through the ringer over the past few months. The Niko Sling is a bit bigger than it though.

      • http://www.rhyshastings.com/ Rhys

        Awesome, thanks! I’ll check it out.

  • An Ha

    Would you think this would be a good alternative to race bag for cycling gear?

  • http://twitter.com/HarryShawd Harry

    John, your photos are amazing and you’ve really come a long way in your craft, which has been great to witness. Please dont take offense but I think you are falling into the amateur trap of feeling the need to carry way too much gear. 

    The impression I get from looking at your photos is that you; moreso than a lot of other people, could really strive with a one camera, one lens kit. You can pretty much do anything with either a 35 or 50mm lens, and sticking to one format (even for just a day or a week) is liberating. You just have to think about composition more with such limitations.

    Not telling you to change anything, just sharing something Ive found helped with my photography, and my back!

    Cheers
    H

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      Then I wouldn’t need a bag at all. ;-)

      I travel a lot and cover a lot of different subjects. I don’t like shooting bike photography with a 50mm because it’s too wide to capture the geometry accurately. I also like to be able to take the medium format out for a few shots and the 35mm rangefinder when doing “touristy” stuff. 

      I have to produce a lot of content and over the years, I’ve narrowed down what I like to travel with to a pretty reasonable load.