One of the biggest challenges for a landscape photographer is how to get their equipment into the field. Regardless of what format you choose to shoot, with the exception of a cell phone or point and shoot camera, you will have a camera body, lenses, filters, batteries, and other odds and ends that you have to keep up with. There are many different options out there, and I’ve used my share of them over the years. What most photographers go to in the beginning is a small shoulder bag. This is convenient and usually inexpensive. The drawback here is that as you get more equipment that bag gets heavy. Since it is designed to be carried on a shoulder, you end up putting a lot of strain on your back if you are out hiking to a location. These can also be bulky which ends up getting bounced around banging into things. The next logical step is a photo backpack which is what I have been using for the vast majority of the time I’ve been a photographer. I started out with a small Lowepro Micro Trekker which I still have for my old Sony F828 camera. When I went to a DSLR system, there was no way to store all of the gear in that small of a bag. I moved up to a Tamrac Expedition series bag. I actually used three different versions of this bag and really loved the thoughtful touches that Tamrac added to it. However, a little over a year ago, I started looking for a bit bigger bag than the Expedition I was using (6X I think). I was going to step up to the next size up to stay with the family of bags that I was used to. Much to my shock, that line was no longer in production, and I didn’t like the replacement. I had to start shopping for another bag.
I looked at other bags in the Tamrac line first but found that none met my requirements. I was needing to fit a pro sized camera body with three lenses, and a good many filters. I wanted a way to store a hefty tripod on the outer part of the bag, and I needed room for things like gloves rain gear, and maybe a jacket. I wasn’t interested in a place for a laptop since I have no intention of ever hiking with a laptop in my bag. It seemed that all the Tamrac bags were built around laptop storage, and while my existing bag had that feature, I found it to be wasted space for the most part. I looked at Think Tank, F-Stop, and Mindshift to name a few. I also looked at Lowepro which I was wanting to stay away from since my first experience with them was moderate to say the least. It was a decent bag, but didn’t seem overly well designed and the materials seemed flimsy in comparison to the Tamrac I liked. In the end, looking at the features and reviews I started leaning toward the Lowepro line once again. It seemed that to get the features I wanted from the other (more boutique) lines, I would have to get a larger bag than I actually wanted to lug around. There would be less protection for the camera in favor of more flexibility of the interior space. To sum it up, to keep with my goals and to stay with the theme of the Tamrac bag I loved so much, I was going to be looking at a few from Lowepro. One of them really caught my eye and deserved a place in my collection. This was the Whistler BP 350 AW backpack.
Since this is a product review, I guess it is time to make the official disclaimer for this particular piece of equipment. While I didn’t buy this bag, it was a gift last year from my wife, Toni. At the time it retailed for approximately $250, but can be had now for a little less if you shop around. It was purchased with her money through B&H Photo and there has been no communication between Lowepro and either of us. I am doing this review based on my experience with this bag and my opinions so that you might be able to make your own choices as to whether or not this bag is for you. Lets get this review started!
There is no better place to start than with the exterior of the bag. This is what your first impression of the bag will be out of the box. For me, the gray color caught my eye. I have been used to black bags since I started to collect camera bags. This seemed odd, but it is the only color available. There were also high visibility compression straps across the front lid. Since this bag is designed for the adventure photographer I can see the extra visibility as a good thing. For me, I like being a bit more muted in nature so I wasn’t a big fan of the gray right off. The neon straps as well as the gray straps in the middle are there to help secure things like snow shoes, skies, hiking poles and the sort. I’m not that adventurous, so I was very happy that these straps were easy to remove to get the bag down to a bare bones version. I have lost no functionality with the bag by removing the four extra straps, and if I ever need them, I can add them right back on in minutes. Now, all of a sudden the gray wasn’t quite as bright and was a bit more muted. I could live with that!
Looking on the exterior of the front of the bag, you can see loops sewn into the sides. These are great for attaching ropes and other accessories. I would love to say that I have made use of these, but like I said…I’m just not quite that adventurous. However, there are a few waterfalls I would like to visit that require ropes to get to, and if Toni ever allows me to try those, I can see attaching some ropes to these loops (hint, hint). Something that might put folks off with the front of the bag is the logo on the front flap. It has been said many times before that this will invite people to steal this bag since it will likely contain camera equipment. I suppose if I was working as a street photographer that would be a concern, however, for what I do, I’m not concerned about that risk. It is something to keep in mind though. Some tape could cover that up easy enough, and the nylon type fabric would easily accept a piece of tape.
One of the draws to this bag for me was the ability to carry a tripod on it. I have always had a hard time fitting my rather bulky Manfrotto 055 CX Pro 3 on a bag. The Tamrac was designed specifically with a place to store a tripod down the center of the front of the bag. Excellent concept, but lousy execution for anything but a small travel tripod. I had my doubts about the Lowepro’s ability to take on the Manfrotto, but I’m happy to say that this bag didn’t blink twice at the tripod. You saw the tripod mounted to the bag in the opening shot, and that is where it lives while I’m hiking. It is a carbon fiber tripod so weight is down, but it still has a good bit to it. You would think that having this tripod off on one side would wrench my back, but on my first hike with this bag, I had it on for about 3 miles worth of hiking and I never noticed the tripod. In fact, it was such a nice experience having both of my hands free working through the off trail portions that I can’t believe that I never saw this as a mandatory feature on a bag before now. You can see with the tripod removed, there are two adjustable straps which you can extend to fit a much larger tripod than I have (which with the cushioned legs is pretty bulky). There is a foot holder at the bottom which is basically just a reinforced strap that will hold a foot. There is no floor to this, so you can slide the tripod to your liking before cinching it down with the quick release straps top and bottom. I think it is an excellent design and I have had no issues with it at all in the past year of use.
Lowepro didn’t stop there on this side. They are really good at making use of all the available space on this bag. There are two loops sewn into the side that would be perfect for MOLLE types attachments for extra gear. I use mine for a pocket knife so that I have one with me at all times because you never know what you might run into. It fits flush enough that I can still put the tripod on with no problems at all. I will say that if you decide to put a lot of weight on the side, you might want to consider leaving the neon straps on the front of the bag for extra support. You see, they are linked to the bag at the side strap mounts and would take some of the pressure off of the side straps by distributing the load across the front of the bag. Another nice little design feature I think.
You will see on the other side of the bag that you can put another tripod over here. These can also be used for skies, or poles, or whatever else you might want. The reason I chose not to put the tripod on this side was this nice little pocket. Now, don’t think that you can put a lot of stuff in here because you can’t. It is thin, but gusseted for expansion. It runs from the top strap to the floor plate of the bag and is nearly 5 inches deep. It could be used for a thin wallet, but I use it for a poncho, two rain covers for my camera, a set of hand warmers, and inside the included pockets, I have some extra lens cloths. It doesn’t hold much, but if you are storing thin things, it will hold more than you think. What I love about this is the ease of access without opening the entire bag. That has come in handy when caught in a sudden downpour as my wet weather equipment is all stored here.
I mentioned that there is no wasted space on this bag. You can see here the waist belt which I have also loaded up with gear. For those night hikes, I have an LED flashlight in a pouch within easy grasp of my right hand. Just in front of that on the webbed loops, I have a carabiner attached to hold my pair of gloves, or anything else I might need to attach temporarily while shooting. Further up, I have a bottle of hand sanitizer because…well, I am that guy. On the opposite padded belt, there is a pocket. I didn’t pay much attention to this feature while selecting the bag initially, but after living with the bag for a year, I have to say it is one of my favorite aspects of the whole thing. I keep three camera batteries in there which I rotate to the front as I use them. In the back, I have two different lens cloths. You have no idea how spoiled I’ve gotten being able to just reach down on my left side and swap batteries or wipe a lens. Before, that would mean pulling the bag off and going into a wing compartment to get these items. Now it is almost like going into a pocket. In the warmer months, the added body heat will help keep the batteries warm and fully charged as well.
Speaking of the belt, you can see how much extra strap I have to make this belt fit. This is where is currently is to get around my frame. I have a lot of growing room available so I can only assume that this bag will fit a larger individual quite comfortably. There is also a chest strap which has an elastic section to allow for breathing. I used to think that camera bags with waist belts and chest straps looked dorky and stupid…they may still to others. I’ve just reached the stage in my photographic career that I don’t care. My bag, fully loaded is around 30-35LBS with tripod attached. This is a lot for my shoulders, but with the belt and chest strap, that weight is evenly distributed. Over a long hike, that is very much appreciated by my aging bones. Another nice touch that Lowepro added to the chest strap is a whistle. Yep, they thought of that too. One of the buckles has a built-in whistle to grab attention if you are hurt or lost.
The bag itself is made of quality materials with different forms of nylon and spandex. This makes for a true all season bag that repels all but a heavy driving rain. In case you get caught in something like that there is an included cover for the bag that will keep it all nice and dry. The base of the bag is more rubberized so that you can sit it on pretty much anything without damage to the bag. The straps are beefy and padded which add to the comfort over the long haul. The back of the bag has the expected padding that seems to be as effective as the Tamrac I was used to. There are ventilation channels built-in to relieve your sweaty back. For me, that is a welcome touch as I sweat very easy when hiking. It doesn’t keep my back dry, but none that I have ever tried has done that. It is acceptable for comfort which is good enough for me.
Now that we have the bag introduced, lets move on to the meat and potatoes of the bag, and why we actually purchase a bag such as this. We are wanting to carry our equipment into the field. That is the sole purpose of a photo backpack, and the Lowepro really delivers here! The storage in this bag is so much more thought out over the Tamrac line that I had used before. I’m all about convenience and being able to access things that I need without having to get into the main compartment. This is one of those happy surprises that I had with this bag. There is a top pocket that I knew about, but had no idea of the versatility of it until I started to load up the bag.
One thing I have always struggle with has been storing my filters. I have used extra pouches on the side and have stored some in the main compartment before, but this Whistler bag made all of that obsolete. Now I can store all of my filters right at the top of the bag where I can get to them easily. The compartment is that neon orange so finding things in there is easy. To give you an idea of what I have in here, this is the list of filters that I have tucked in here.
Lee Filter Wallet containing
- Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND Filter
- Singh-Ray Mor Slo 15-Stop ND Filter
- Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad
- Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-Stop Soft Edge ND Grad
- Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad
- Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Soft Edge ND Grad
- Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 2-Stop Rev ND Grad
- Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 3-Stop Rev ND Grad
Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer
B+W Vario ND Filter
Lee Filter Holder
In addition to this, I carry another flashlight off on the side of the pocket, and have tools, and a small first aid kit in the mesh pocket on the lid. I even have the little viewfinder cover in there for when I’m shooting long exposures. It is all within easy reach and I don’t even have to lay the bag down to get to it. This is one of those features that trumps anything I have ever done to store my filters before. There is room to grow a little bit as well.
When you think about a photo backpack, you assume that when you lay it on its back and open the front of the bag that you will see your pride and joy photo equipment. Not with the Lowepro Whistler backpack you won’t! When you open the front of the bag you are greeted with a a full sized pocket that has a waterproof liner between the compartment and the actual camera storage. There is even a zipper gusset at the top to expand the capacity of this pocket. You will see a mesh pocket in the lid where I keep spare lens caps and tail caps because we can never know when Toni might strike and toss one of them down to the bottom of a waterfall (I’ll pay for that comment later). I also keep some other spare odds and ends that I have replaced over the years but are still functional. Again, the idea is keeping things easy to get to. There is a neon orange sleeve in the compartment that could hold a small tripod, but I haven’t really found it to be that useful just yet. I’m sure I will find a use for it eventually though. I do keep several items in here that I don’t need all that often, but I want to carry with me. I keep paper model releases in case I need them (although I have graduated to an app based form on my phone now). I keep an umbrella after a hard learned lesson last year on the Parkway when I found great use of an umbrella to keep the rain off of my lens while shooting in the rain. My gloves are tucked in there along with other hand warmers and a small tripod for my phone when I am videoing things in the field. You can also see the gray rain cover for the bag. I mentioned this earlier, and it comes attached in the top pocket of the bag, but I like it here a bit better. It is easy to get to, and allows me to fill the other pocket with filters.
You can see a clip at the top where my umbrella is attached. This is for securing a hydration bladder which is a very nice touch. I haven’t needed it yet, but I’m sure hiking in the summer will eventually present a need for something like this. Until then, I will happily leave my umbrella attached here. There is plenty of room left here for other items and that was done by design when filling the bag up. I can put a small jacket in there with no problem, or even a pair of shoes if needed. This is my catch all pocket and will hold things that I need for a specific adventure. I can configure it as needed before each trip.
I really do appreciate you sticking with me for this long review since I haven’t even talked about the main compartment yet. I know you are a photographer and wondering where the camera will go in here. Lowepro has you covered with that part too. Another one of the selling points for this bag was the fact that it was a rear opening bag. This means that instead of laying the bag on the ground in the mud to access your gear and then putting a muddy bag on your back, you can just set the bag on the front (easily washable nylon) and access your gear from the back. This design had just been introduced when I was selecting bags before, so I wanted this feature really badly in my new bag. It isn’t just marketing…this is a very beneficial feature for the landscape photographer, and I will never go back to a traditional bag ever again!
One of the hallmarks of a good camera bag is flexibility in configurations. This one is no exception as the main compartment has dividers which are attached with Velcro. In a departure from what I am used to, the interior of the bag is light gray and neon orange which allows for great visibility in finding things which I really appreciate. Some of the orange dividers are actually sleeves and are designed to hold memory cards, batteries, and even GoPro cameras. I keep my lens pen in one of them to keep it as clean as possible. The compartment is well padded and it is actually in a rigid, removable box with its own dedicated flap (rolled up orange flap at the bottom). This is the one gripe that others have had about this bag. This removable block adds to the weight. I’m not going to disagree with that fact because it does. The bag is heavy, but not offensively so. It is comparable to the Tamrac that I was used to carrying and with the weight of my gear, I’m not going to quibble over a couple of pounds for padding and security. The design makes this bag wear as if it were much lighter, so the extra weight means nothing to me at all.
Lets talk about what this case holds because that is always the Google search that comes up when you start looking for whether or not a bag will fit your equipment. I know I looked, and found some similar examples but nothing that would really show me what I was looking at in terms of fitment of my particular gear. As you can see from my current configuration, I mainly have camera and lenses in here with everything else in exterior pockets of the bag. This is what I have currently in the bag:
- Canon 5D Mark III body with RRS L Bracket attached
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L Mark II lens (82mm filter diameter)
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L Mark II lens with hood attached (82mm filter diameter)
- Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L Mark II lens with hood attached (77mm filter diameter)
- Canon EF 2x Mark III Extender (under Rocket Blower)
- Hood for the 16-35mm lens in center sleeve with step up rings inside of hood
- Red filtered flashlight for visibility
- Canon wired remote and dual axis spirit level
- Gerber multi tool
- Lens pen in a divider sleeve
- Wash cloth for drying gear after rain
As you can see, there is a lot of room in here for some big equipment. All of that fast glass takes up a good deal of room. I have been a little disappointed with how tight things are since all the pictures that I saw of this compartment showed an attached 70-200mm lens to the body and additional lenses along the sides. Yeah, this won’t happen if you are carrying big lenses, but if you are OK with storing your body without an attached lens, you will likely be happy with the room. I thought briefly about moving up to the larger BP 450 AW bag, but looking at the dimensions, it is really no wider than what I have, and only adds a few inches of length to the bad and a bit more depth. This was not nearly enough to justify moving up in size since I would still be at a loss for width room in the bag. Honestly, this is my one real gripe with the whole bag. They say in the description that it will take a Pro DSLR with Three additional lenses and a GoPro camera… I’m not so sure that is an accurate portrayal if you are keeping with the pro level glass as well. Don’t get me wrong, I have a body and four lenses in this bag, but it is configured quite differently than the reviews and product shots would depict. Am I unhappy with this arrangement, not at all actually. I’m a fan of keeping the body stored by itself because each shot requires a different lens and it just makes it easier to select the right lens for the job rather than thinking about removing a lens in favor of another one. The gripe isn’t with the design, more the marketing of the bag I guess.
In addition to the main compartment, there is also another zipper pocket in the main flap that is really good for manuals and other paperwork. I wouldn’t put anything too bulky in there since it is what rides directly on your back. Not only is there a comfort issue at play, you don’t want anything to damage your camera bouncing around on your back. The orange flap that can be used over the block is not padded so it only offers protection from rain and some moisture. It can be used in addition to the main flap, although that just gets to be too complicated for me. I keep that extra flap rolled up and out of the way. The main flap is designed to be opened just at the top and folded down to access your camera body with a lens attached for quick shooting. Obviously, in my configuration this is not really a plus, but for a street shooter, this is really nice I’m sure. At that top part of the flap that folds down, there are a series of memory card holders which is a really nice feature as it keeps them organized and in easy reach.
So is this bag everything that I thought it was? Well, I had thought it would be a little bigger than it actually was based on my research. However, with some configuration changes inside, I have made this work out perfectly for my needs. Beyond that, this bag has gone well beyond my expectations. There are so many thoughtful touches to this bag that fit with how I do photography. It is all about convenience for me and this bag is all about the photographer’s needs. While I don’t get into the adventure photography that it was designed for, I’m happily benefiting from the design elements that came from that market group.
Over the past year of use, I have shot all forms of landscapes and been in urban areas as well as rural areas. I’ve based myself out of the back of my 4Runner, in the trunk of a car, as well as hiking miles and miles to get the shot. This bag does it all well, and I’ve yet to wish for anything else to carry my gear. In fact, I was so happy with how this bag worked for me, I sold my last Tamrac Expedition shortly after receiving this bag as a gift. I loved that Tamrac bag, and was sad that they no longer made that line. However, now that I am using the Whistler series bag from Lowepro, I can’t imagine anything else. Yes it is an expensive bag at over $200 but like with most things in photography, you get what you pay for. It is well worth the price of admission. It has held up well with no signs of wear and tear. The materials used are easily cleaned in case you do have to set it on a muddy surface which I’ve done many times. Since it is a rear entry bag, I no longer worry about where I set the bag since I know the clean part will be on my back when I start hiking again.
If I needed to upsize any, I would consider the larger Whistler BP 450 AW, but I am not really convinced that it would give me that much more usable room in the bag. This bag is really the best compromise for capacity and bulk on your back. There is nothing worse than hiking in the woods with something the size of a house on your back. A backpack can and does get in the way. The 350 size has yet to cause me any problems, even with the tripod attached. I’m not accidentally running into things with it, and it doesn’t throw my balance off at all. It is just the perfect hiking companion for a photographer looking to take their gear into the woods.
Here we are in the elements that this bag was designed for. It is laying in the mud just as happy as it can be while I am getting the shot. This is all I ask of my equipment…to work as designed so that I can concentrate on the art of photography.
I hope that you enjoyed this product review. I will be bringing you more from time to time here so stay tuned.