Saturday, December 17, 2011

Review: LowePro Classified Sling 180 AW

LowePro Classified Sling 180 AW
A LowePro bag? Isn't this a digital blog entry from Mike? That camera bag isn't a digital item! Well okay, that may be your reaction, however I do end up using non-digital products too of course, and once in a while I come across something I quite like and feel inclined to share some feedback about. In this case, I feel that these Classified Sling bags are so unassuming looking and stealthy, that they might actually fly under the radar of people who would otherwise find them well designed and efficient, were they actually to give them a try. So here is my take...

I recently ordered myself a Classified Sling 180 bag, more or less sight unseen, based on looking at the larger 220 version we have in stock here at Beau and based on a few brief Internet reviews I read. Honestly, some of the Internet reviews were actually not all that favourable and complained about several aspects of this camera bag. All I will say to some of those is “... what a bunch of whiners!” Sure, the bag is not perfect (nothing ever is) but all in all, it may just be the nicest camera bag I have bought so far... and I have many, many bags. Even though my continual and never-ending quest for the “perfect” camera bag means I already own way too many, I still thought it was worth trying this one out. I'm glad I did!

What I was looking for specifically when I bought this bag, is an efficient way to carry my new Micro-Four-Thirds camera system and also my 13.3” MacBook Air. Even though LowePro's specifications say the Classified Sling 180 is only supposed to hold a 7”-9” netbook, it actually fits my MacBook Air so well, it's like it was made for it. What I also like, is that the laptop compartment is on the outside of the bag, not against your back, so if the bag is filled with gear, you don't have to worry about crushing the laptop against your back. With the really thin display panels on Apple laptops in recent years, I always get the feeling that the computer might not take kindly to being squeezed between the camera gear and my back, so getting the laptop to the other side of the bag is a big advantage here in my opinion. I already own five other camera bags (shoulder, backpack and convertible sling) and they all have the laptop pressed right up against your back (or your side) when you are wearing them. Erm... 5 bags with laptop slots, and I still have a bunch more without. Whoa. Yep, way too many camera bags when I starting thinking about them all...

What I am able to comfortably carry in this bag, is the following: 13.3” MacBook Air with AC-adapter, portable hard-drive, Panasonic GH2 body, Panasonic 7-14mm zoom, Olympus 12mm f/2, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, Leica 25mm f/1.4, Olympus 45mm f/1.8, Panasonic 'X' 45-175mm zoom, my Fuji X100 and still have room for my Garmin Montana GPS, my Qstarz GPS tracker, an LED flashlight, a small Gerber Multi-Tool, SD cards, spare camera batteries, my wallet and keys, and more! Instead of the Micro-Four-Thirds gear, even a full-size SLR like my Canon EOS-7D fits comfortably (without a grip), with the EF-S 15-85mm kit lens mounted, and there is still room for my 70-200mm f/4L IS with hood and tripod mount, my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, my EF-S 60mm Macro and a 1.4x teleconverter. Alternatively, you can even squeeze in a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS instead of the f/4 and a larger Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L instead of the Tokina, although then you'd probably have to leave the teleconverter out of the main compartment. Rather than the Garmin GPS, Qstarz tracker and wallet, you could instead fit two 430 EXII flashes or one 580 EXII into the smaller top compartment.

LowePro Classified Sling 180 AW
The best thing about this bag is that the entire camera compartment is accessed through one large zippered opening... and since this is a sling bag, you can sling it in front of you, change lenses and pretty much get at anything you need without ever putting the bag down. So in wet, muddy or sandy conditions, this is absolutely an ideal way of working and a more comfortable alternative to a conventional shoulder bag in my opinion. I also have an excellent Tamrac Evolution Messenger 2 shoulder bag that I really like, and it fits everything quite well too (including the MacBook Air), however two issues make it less than ideal for my usual hiking about in the desert. One is that being a messenger style bag, it has a flap that closes but does not completely zip shut, so in dusty and sandy conditions, I would be concerned getting dirt inside the bag. I have been known to leap off the crest of a steep sand dune and then slide/ski down, and sand gets everywhere! Second is that the Tamrac is a shoulder bag and just swings around, so when I am climbing around, a loose bag can negatively (sometimes dangerously) affect my balance.

I used to use a normal camera backpack (two straps and a waist-belt) when hiking around, but the disadvantage is having to take it off and put it down on the ground to access my gear. With a sling bag, you get the best of both worlds... quick access to gear like a shoulder bag and a more stable and out-of-the-way carrying mode on your back. With the Classified Sling 180, you also have the option of attaching a built-in stabilizing strap, diagonally opposite the direction of the main sling strap, so even during vigorous hiking and climbing, the bag won't flop around and mess with your centre of gravity. One more interesting point is that the Classified Sling bags are quite light when empty but have a semi-rigid shell, so they hold their shape well and will stand up when put down on a flat surface. In addition, the rigidity and rectangular shape of the bag also means it can be used as a “shelf” when slung around to the front while changing lenses, something a soft or rounded-off bag cannot safely do. The Sling 180 is indeed a somewhat "boring" looking bag, mostly rectangular with no distinctive curves or swoopy lines, but from a usability standpoint, this actually turns out to be an advantage.

One point I will warn about, is that being a sling bag and thus having only one shoulder strap, some people might not find it comfortable when loaded to the hilt with gear (plus a laptop), so you would be advised to bring your own gear in and maybe test one out yourself to make sure you still find it comfortable. I don't have a problem loading it up with gear and then walking 6-8 km with it for example, but others may not find it comfortable enough with only a single load-bearing strap.

LowePro Classified Sling 180 AW
The final two things I'll mention is that it has LowePro's excellent pull-out rain-cover (the “AW” in its name), so if you are caught in a torrential downpour, you can be sure your gear will stay dry and lastly, it also has a small tripod attachment, suitable for a large GorillaPod or a small tripod like a carbon-fibre Gitzo Traveler.

Is there anything I don't like about it? Well my only complaint really is that it is lacking in attachment points on the outside. Sometimes it would be nice to attach a small pouch or two for filters, a pair of binoculars, an extra lens etc. Otherwise, for the gear that I am carrying these days, it is as close to an ideal bag as I have found. For my much larger and heavier Canon system, I will likely still resort to a full-fledged backpack if I was going to carry most of my gear on a longer hike, but I I'm only carrying a subset of my Canon gear, I could definitely see myself using the Classified 180.

If you are using a more compact camera system, or only have a small-ish DSLR with 2 or three lenses, I highly recommend you have a look at this bag.

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