Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Perfect Camera Backpack: Clik Elite Obscura vs. Lowepro Primus AW

The only thing more difficult than taking a good photo is finding a bag for your photo gear.

Fine, that's hyperbole, but I've long been looking for a bag that meets my needs. In particular the challenge is to find a bag for "adventure travel" or hardcore touristing; it needs to not only carry my camera gear, but also a jacket and other layers, lunch, water, maps, souvenirs etc.

Lowepro Primus AW vs. Clik Elite Obscura
The best backpack I had found was the Lowepro Primus AW (AW is Lowepro-ese for having a rain cover, All Weather). It has a great carry system with a proper hip belt, sternum strap and load lifters. It also has a relatively large non-camera compartment, and a tripod attachment. It has served me well on multiple trips to Japan and elsewhere, but a few annoyances remained: the built-in tripod carry system was entirely inadequate for a medium-sized tripod (Gitzo GT2541 with Benro B0 ballhead). Its non-camera compartment was still too small, in particular it was too small to handle an A4 / Letter sized object.

When I saw the Clik Elite Obscura on sale through The Clymb, it seemed to address all these concerns. What followed was a year-long saga to actually get one; without going into detail, I can say that I was very impressed by the pre-sales customer service of both The Clymb and Clik Elite.

Last week I finally received the pack, and last weekend had a chance to load it up and hike a good six miles (close to ten km) with it. Here are my observations of the backpack.

The 2013 model came as black or white-blue, which I rather liked. The 2014 models comes in black or blue-on-blue; unfortunately I'm not at all fond of the new blue-on-blue, and so opted for the black one. The attraction of the non-black options is that it makes the bag look a lot less like a camera bag. Even black, though, Obscura looks a lot less like a camera bag than the Lowepro in general. Of course, with a tripod hanging off of it the point is moot.

The carry harness is not height-adjustable, and neither is the Lowepro. Both have well realized shoulder strap length, sternum strap and load lifter adjustments. The Lowepro's sternum strap isn't height adjustable, whereas the Obscura lets you slide it up and down a bit along the shoulder straps. Most importantly, both fit my 5'11" frame great. I had frequently used the Lowepro as an example of a superb harness, but the Obscura is clearly better. The material is an open-cell mesh that is very breathable and comfortable; there's a central air channel (or spine channel) with a mesh cover over a ribbed back plate.

The hip belt is asymmetric — one side has a zippered pocket that holds a wallet, keys, GPS or such; the other has a reinforced loop/handle and webbed loops. The loops are of varying sizes, but most will accept the Lowepro SlipLock system, which is great since it allows me to use my existing gear. The shoulder strap loops will also accept SlipLock accessories. Internally the Lowepro has no structural reinforcement whereas the Obscura has an internal aluminum frame. The sturdier padding of the Lowepro keeps it fairly rigid, whereas the lightweight construction of the Obscura benefits from the frame.

To carry water with the Lowepro meant either putting a bottle in the side mesh pocket, or putting a bottle in the main compartment. The Obscura has a side mesh pocket as well, but also has a dedicated sleeve for a hydration bladder, complete with a little loop on top for hanging the bladder on. The fit is really tight, though. I had a really hard time getting my partially filled 100 oz / 3 l bladder into the sleeve. The loops on the shoulder straps are too tight to fit a Camelbak valve cover, so routing the hose is another challenge — for my hike I just let the hose flop out the side. On the other hand, the bladder compartment has a large drain on the bottom, so if the bladder should burst or leak, the water will evacuate through the drain rather than seep into the bag. I'm not sure why this isn't common sense with bladder sleeves.

The Lowepro side opening has a large zipper pull, and can be opened and closed while the backpack is being worn. It takes a bit of practice and agility but taking the camera out and putting it back into the bag without unbuckling anything is entirely possible. The door faces right, so right-handers have an unfair advantage here. A Nikon D300 with L-bracket attached is about the largest body you can use with the side door. The Nikon D600 pictured is an easy fit. If the camera should be too large for the side opening, the Lowepro allows access to the camera compartment from the rear of the bag.

A Nikon D600 with a tripod plate attached barely fits through the Clik Elite Obscura side access panel.
In practice, the Obscura doesn't allow access to the camera while it is worn, instead you have to unbuckle the hip and sternum straps and swing the bag partially around. For one, the camera door zipper is small and the opening is tight even with a relatively small D600 without an L-bracket. If you have a camera too big for the side door of the Obscura, you're out of luck: there's no alternative way to access that compartment. The Obscura's door is on the left hand side.

The Lowepro camera compartment is pretty rigid, so having the main compartment filled has little impact on the space the camera occupies and vice versa. The Obscura camera compartment is basically just a partially padded internal pouch on the bottom of the bag, so if there's a lot of other load in the backpack, inserting the camera can require a bit more effort as you have to push all the other things aside. The flip side of this is that whatever room the camera isn't taking up on the Obscura is automatically available for other use.

An ace in the Obscura's sleeve is the Marsupial system. There's a second padded pocket attached to the inside top back of the bag. It's large enough to hold two 80-200 f2.8 lenses, or one and a body. The beauty is that this keeps the weight close to the optimal spot for carry, and it makes the camera gear easily accessible since it remains close to the top of the main compartment. If there is no camera gear in the pouch, it lies flat and takes up very little space. In the picture it has a 80-200 f2.8 and Nikon SB-600 in its carry case. You can also see the orange internal frame.

Another bonus the Obscura offers is a padded laptop sleeve inside the main compartment. It's just a hair too small for a 15" Macbook Pro, but it's fairly deep. There is no good way to carry a laptop on the Lowepro. When traveling, I usually have my laptop in a neoprene sleeve in the outside pocket of the Lowepro, but without tying the sleeve to the bag there's a real danger that it'll fall out, and tying it to the bag is a pain at airport security check points. The Obscura's laptop sleeve is felt lined and can be seen in the above picture just next to the marsupial pouch.

The Obscura has an outside top compartment with smaller zippered pockets and a key strap. This functionality is built into the main compartment and camera compartment in the Lowepro. The Obscura's external compartment is much more convenient, and can also be used to hold some additional items, like gloves.

There are four attachment loops on the corners of this compartment; the bottom ones can likely take some load, the top ones would stretch the external compartment and its zipper. These are probably best suited for a helmet, jacket, or other relatively light-weight item.

It warrants mentioning that in practice accessing the Lowepro's main compartment requires unbuckling the load lifters, this isn't necessary with the Obscura. Accessing the Lowepro's external pocket fully requires unbuckling another set of straps, which I in practice kept forgetting to buckle back up when I picked it up, and ended up with a tripod flopping around until I refastened them. Aside from the hip and sternum belts, there's nothing to unbuckle on the Obscura.

One important aspect for me is the tripod carry system, and the Obscura's is good. It consists of two velcro-fastened openings that run through a second outside compartment. One tripod leg slips in through a hole the top, through the compartment, and out the bottom. There are also two elastic bungees inside the compartment for further fastening the tripod, although with the Gitzo they are wholly redundant. It does its most important job well, and keeps the tripod stable and won't let it flop around on your back as you walk or jog or squeeze around spider webs.

The fit of the two pass-throughs in general is tight for the Gitzo, and might be a problem for a tripod that has bulkier locking mechanisms on the tripod leg. Removing and inserting the tripod takes a bit of work, so it's not just a matter of slipping it in and out; a smaller tripod would of course work better. With the tripod functionality in use the external compartment is somewhat spoken for, and accessing its zipper is tough since the tripod is in the way. Without a tripod the compartment is useful for a light jacket or similar item.

Slightly larger than the Lowepro, the Obscura is just under 22" tall on the exterior which should allow it to meet typical airline overhead bin size requirements as well.

Summary

Despite its drawbacks, the Obscura is now my main go-to camera bag for adventure travel. I hiked over six miles with it partially loaded (three lenses and D600 body, my tripod, a Goretex winter coat and a rain coat, hydration bladder, snacks and some other odds and ends, and it was the most comfortable backpack I've worn.

The space is vast, though not cavernous. My Mountain Hardwear Viperine 2 tent fits easily — I could load a body with lens attached, an extra lens, two person tent, sleeping bag, pillow, and mess kit in without too much trouble. At that point, though, not much else would fit.

The Lowepro is made from beefy recycled ballistic nylon, the Obscura is light-weight ripstop like your typical hiking backpack. In practice I doubt this makes much difference, unless you plan to test the packs against road rash.

Pros

  • Superbly comfortable to carry.
  • Tripod carry system allows stable carrying of a medium-sized tripod with ball head.
  • Hydration bladder pocket.
  • Easily accessed exterior compartments.
  • Great flexible space in the bag, seamlessly adjusting from camera space to general use.

Cons

  • Tripod carry system is a tight fit for a medium tripod.
  • Side opening for camera compartment is too snug for a lot of cameras and cannot be used while pack is worn.
  • Hydration pocket is tight, hose routing can be challenging.
  • Camera compartment is only lightly padded, and won't offer nearly the kind of protection the Lowepro does.
  • There are only limited external attachment loops. A few at the bottom of the bag, or very top for carrying a tent, sleeping pad or such would greatly add to the utility of the bag.