Gura Gear’s Growing Reputation
Gura Gear has rapidly developed a name and a following amongst serious photographers. So when a new flagship Gura Gear camera pack design was released at PhotoPlus Expo I took this opportunity to test the new Bataflae pack against my own needs. I will be focusing on the smaller of the two models: the Bataflae 26L pack, for use with DSLR equipment, while my associate David Saffir will follow up with a look at the larger Bataflae 32L for use with medium format gear.
An Intimate Relationship
The relationship of a travel photographer and a camera case is serious, long-term, and quite intimate. No bag is for everyone, and it takes time to determine if a bag is right for you. Speed dating is not likely to produce a successful result. The goal of this article is to familiarize you with the features and functions of the Bataflae packs, in relation to a particular type of photo gear, as a first step in determining if this might be The One.
What Gura Gear Packs Are Not
Gura Gear cases are dedicated camera bags. They are not computer cases, briefcases, wheelie suitcases, fashion accessories, or multi-purpose bags. They offer flexible configuration, but with a laser-like focus on the storage and access needs of photographers on the move. Gura Gear bags do not use canvas, leather, rigid substrates, wheels, feet, or extendable handles. They do not come in designer colors; unless your designer works in a low-chro palette of black, gray, tan and color-coded zipper pulls. They are not collapsable to flat-pack into other luggage.
Durable, light, flexible, and strong appear to be the criteria Gura Gear uses when choosing their materials. Rip-stop Nylon, with extra heavy “rip” fibers, and PU backing. Clips and cords that are designed for lots of use, and a certain amount of abuse. Padding that won’t lose its loft after being compressed, and which won’t hold water like a sponge if it gets wet. Zippers; actually, the zippers tell such a great story about Gura Gear that I have to halt the pace of this paragraph to describe them. YKK’s most durable and water-resistant zippers, installed inside out, so that the waterproof layer is on the exterior, with color coded pulls to make opening the intended compartment as easy as possible. Zipper hoods for interior zippers. (See Zipper hood detail in photo above.) That’s the kind of detail to be found throughout Gura Gear products.
Size, Shape, and Configuration
Both sizes of Bataflae are carry-on legal worldwide. They are flexible, soft and padded on all surfaces; easy to squeeze or cram into available spaces. The flip side of this is that the Bataflae is not a rigid case. Until you load your bag, it will seem a bit unstable in its end or side, as the padding will present a rounded surface. Once your gear is aboard, this situation will tend to resolve itself; but the main orientation of these bags is clearly flat of their back, for access to their contents. My 26L weighs in at about four pounds (less than two kilos) empty. Fully loaded with DSLR bodies, lenses, and other gear it comes closer to 40 pounds (18k). This is a serious load, which explains the serious straps described below.
Butterfly with a Twist
The top of the Bataflae packs use a butterfly access system. This can best be described as a center hinge, the length of the bag, for fast, secure access to either side of the main compartment though unzipping and hinging open one of the two halves of the cover. This is a tried-and-true solution for camera components, though very different than most multi-purpose bags. But there is a twist to the Bataflae cover (one that Gura Gear claims to have patented): it can be unclipped at the top end, and the length of the hinge is attached with velcro, so the entire cover can be flipped out of the way, offering full access to all contents of the main compartment. This is an interesting and effective way to address the “secure-access/full-access dilemma of dedicated camera bags.
Flat Storage on a Hinged Top
Exterior zippered, subdivided pockets on both halves of the butterfly top are big enough to hold key accessories. Two critical items that I need to find a home for in any bag are Datacolor’s SpyderLensCal for lens AF calibration, and their SpyderCheckr for camera color calibration. The exterior pockets on the front of the Bataflae bags seem designed specifically to carry these accessories. Interior pockets on the case top offer secure storage but easy access to smaller items, such as cards and batteries. Due to the butterfly hinge design of the main face, and the dedication of the back face to backpack straps, there is no location in these bags designed for flat items wider than 7 inches (18 cm). If you have necessary flat items wider than this, that could may be a deal-breaker for adopting this style of pack. However, I find that most accessories larger than this (reflectors, etc) actually belong in an accessory case, not in the camera bag.
The Mother Lode; or is that Load?
The main compartment of the Bataflae cases is accessed either by hinging the top open to access one or both halves, and then by unclipping the end if full access seems appropriate. Each half has a full series of velcro-connected dividers, offering flexible custom layouts for whatever gear you are using at the time. Each pigeonhole in this grid will be the depth of the main compartment. This means lenses longer than 7 inches (18cm) will need to be accommodated flat, rather then on end in the bag (true with any bag) and short lenses or other small components significantly less than this depth will float in their compartments unless additional padding or other items are added. Putting important items on top of less used items, with padding between is one common choice. Using small gear pouches is also a frequent solution. Gura Gear has added a line of such accessory containers to their line, so you might consider purchasing these along with your Bataflae pack. In the image below two Canon DSLR bodies and seven assorted lenses up to 70 x 200mm have been packed; and one entire side is still empty for other gear.
Is that a Cube in Your Pocket?
Yes, I am happy to see secure exterior access for the two items I may need at any time: the Datacolor SpyderCube, and the Hoodman DSLR Loupe. I use the SpyderCube on an XShot extensible handle, for capturing scene illuminant and exposure data. The Hoodman DSLR loupe is used for reviewing images on the camera LCD, even in bright sun, and without reading glasses. The side pockets of the Bataflae bags offer excellent access, without fear of loss, for both these items, and space for the random items any given day provides as well.
The most important piece of gear strapped to the exterior of a camera bag is a tripod. Gura Gear has designed these bags to secure a tripod in any of three locations: at the center of the bag’s top face, or on either side of the pack, as preferred. Centering the tripod improves load balance, and avoiding snagging things when wearing the bag as a backpack. The butterfly access design allows access to the contents of the main compartment without removing a center-mounted tripod, making this location much more practical than with most other bag designs. The larger Bataflae bag offers a longer base for securing larger tripods. The smaller version is perfect for attaching more portable tripods. The attachments and cinches at both sides and ends of the pack are well thought out for secure tripod attachment. Main compartment access is still possible, even with a tripod in place. Tripod access is smooth and easy, even in the heat of the moment, as you scramble to catch a shot. I hesitate to mention this, but it is perfectly possible to carry three tripods on a Bataflae case, and still access the interior.
The Flip Side
The back face of the Bataflae packs is dedicated to backpacking features. A vertical center zipper exposes a well designed set of padded shoulder straps and a removable waist strap, all carefully designed and well tested as one would expect from Gura Gear. The longer bag offers a better length for tall people, and a more stable pack on the back. But those of us seeking to minimize the size of our camera case should still be satisfied with the fit and feel of the straps on the smaller version. Generous padding at the back of the bags assures that items in the main compartment will not make themselves felt when the bag is on your back. Serious thought was put into the design of the straps, and the array of clips that secure the bag from all angles. How far you are willing to hike with a Bataflae pack on your back should be limited by your personal stamina, and the weight of the bag contents, not by the bag design.
Rain Rain, Go Away
Of course a bag this well thought-out has a built-in rain fly. And of course it is located where you can reach it, and deploy it, while wearing the pack. It has sealed seams, like a good tent fly, and it can be deployed for carrying, or for storage. It is large enough to cover items mounted on the exterior of the pack. This reduces gear damage, and increases peace of mind. Don’t leave home without it. Since it has its own dedicated fly pocket, the odds are you won’t leave home without it.
Just One More Thing…
Here is a shot of the Bataflae Pack inside its included dust cover. If you don’t travel as often as you would like, this accessory will be the one that gets the most use.
Which Bataflae Pack is Right for You?
If you have any doubt which length of Bataflae pack might be right for you, please read the second article in this series: David Saffir‘s review of the Bataflae 32L. While his emphasis will be on fitting the necessary gear for medium format photography into, and on, a Bataflae pack, it should add perspective on the two lengths of the packs in general.
The Bottom Line and the Better Half
Street pricing at on-line resellers of Gura Gear products is running $400US for the Bataflae 26 L that I am testing, and $450US for the longer 32L model. Gura Gear bags are not cheap, nor are they inexpensive. But think of it this way: if you can skip just one step in your incremental growth towards your ultimate tripod or your ultimate gear bag, that savings alone will justify the cost of the top end model you are going to end up with eventually. Or from another angle: if it saves you from losing just one lens out of a less secure bag, or damaging just one piece of equipment during travel; or keeps you from missing one key shot, while digging through a bag for a hard to find item, then it will have paid for itself already. Finally: if the zippers and stress points on a Bataflae pack last twice as long as those on a standard-grade pack, then the cost per year for the Gura Gear will be no higher. Feel free to memorize these arguments for use with your spouse.
Service and Support
Gura Gear products are designed in the United States, and fabricated in Vietnam; where custom-sewn products are a longstanding tradition. Gura Gear products are distributed though a number of well-known resellers in the US and abroad; a quick search on-line should clarify the options in your area. Gura Gear’s contact information (as well as product info and videos) is available on their website: www.guragear.com/
Is the Gura Gear Bataflae Pack Right for Me?
So far, so good. Check back next year, and see if we are still traveling together.