Brenthaven BX2 Messenger Bag Review
A camera bag is, in my opinion, a major component of anyone's photography kit. Not only is it a means to protect your expensive equipment, but it's a way to organize your gear between shots. There are bags for all occasions, but I think I found the perfect bag for the part-time photographer with a day job. We're talking about the BX2 Messenger Bag from Brenhaven. It is one of first two bags by Brenthaven that is specifically designed for the photography community. Or more specifically, it's designed for the photographer on the go. Well, we got our hands on one and I've been using it exclusively for a little over a month. In short: It's a great bag and I really like it. In this review, I'll explain why I like it, but I'll also outline some of the things that I think could be improved (nothing is perfect). Brenthaven is a brand that you probably already know, but don't readily associate with the photography industry. They made their name creating great products that surround and protect your other electronic gear like laptops, tablet computers and mobile phones. So they aren't exactly new to the game, but they have only recently evolved into designing for photography gear. Ironically, I wasn't aware of this new expansion of their offerings until I literally stumbled into their booth at PDN Photo Plus last October. I made note of it and noted it as a product worth looking for in our Photo Plus Expo wrap-up. So the first impression was lasting, and I'm glad to have gotten some real world experience with the bag.
The basis of the entire line is this special BX2 Gel. It's not unlike the gel inserts that you can stick in the bottom of your running shoes, but the gel pad is quite a bit thicker in the bottom of this bag. It offers unparalleled impact dampening which is the main selling point. It is a little heavier than traditional padding, but ounce for ounce, it offers far more protection for your gear than anyone else's offerings. In the Messenger Bag, the BX2 Gel panels fill the entire bottom of the bag and it wraps around the bottom edge of the bag, coming up about two inches from the base. This is the main impact zone and it will protect your gear if you put the bag down to harshly or if it otherwise gets bumped. The balance of the bag does have more traditional padding, in part because the other areas are less likely to cause damage to your gear, but I also suspect this is to cut down on weight for the bag. So protecting your gear isn't at all an issue for this bag. That is the primary goal, and I believe it does that flawlessly. The layout of the bag is not unlike any other messenger bag on the market. The main chamber has two main parts: A laptop or book sleeve along the back and a larger storage area that can be subdivided to meet your needs. Included with the bag are four dividers with Velcro fasteners, two of which are entirely felt-like so that they can also have dividers attached to them. In my configuration, I created four chambers of varying size and then I subdivided one further to more tightly cradle my camera. I do wish the dividers were a bit more configurable, perhaps of different heights or wall thicknesses. I like systems that have at least one panel that is shorter. This would usually end up cradling the grip of my camera so that it doesn't move and to dissipate energy of a falling bag. I do trust the BX2 Gel will do a better job than most padding, so I am a bit more comfortable not having the extra cradle wall. But it would be nice to have more options for organizing that main compartment, even a few extra pieces of each type of divider would help those picky about their layout (like myself).
The inside of the bag is gray, only a shade lighter than the outside of the bag. So it can get pretty dark in there. The bag does include a little LED light that is attached to an inside pocket to compensate. I've used it a couple of times to find small items, like a lost Micro-SD card. But I can't help but to think the flashlight is a bit of a gimmick. Why not simply use a lighter colored interior? Organization is one of the main reasons I love this bag. Bear in mind, the bag is not going to be one that you carry to a portrait session. It is designed as something you'd carry on a daily basis, and so it has some organization for your camera stuff, but also for your day job. The laptop or book sleeve is large enough that I can easily carry my tablet or laptop. But you have a good 2-3″ of play in there that you could carry some sizable books if you need to. If you really need to carry a lot, the main compartment can easily be stripped of dividers and you can leave the camera at home. Aside from the main compartment, there are two side pockets – one Velcro, one zippered. The Velcro one is large enough to hold a drink bottle, though I don't suspect it is designed for that. Its flap fastens closed with two tiny dots of Velcro. It works, but would like to have seen something more fool-proof like an entire Velcro edge. When the top flap is open, you can see two additional pockets – perfect for my journal or my business card wallet – and some pen slots. It's just enough to get me through the day. There is also a large zippered pocket where the bag's rain fly seems to have taken up residence, at least for me, though you could probably use it for any number of things like a train schedule or the camera's manual. Finally, there is the small inside pocket where the bag's flashlight resides. In addition to the flashlight, I keep things like spare batteries or my cleaning kit in there. One really cool feature is that the top flap actually has a quick access zipper in it which makes it easier to access your camera in a hurry. The flap is oversized so that it overhangs the corners of the bag so that everything is protected no matter how loaded up it may become.
From a carrying perspective, it is everything you would expect of a messenger bag. There is a wide shoulder-strap with a shoulder pad that is stitched into the edges of the bag. It has a slight angle to the way it fastens to the bag which allows for a more comfortable carrying position and likely less stress on any point where it is fastened to the bag. A minor flaw in the design is that there is only one adjustment buckle, which will pose some problems for smaller framed individuals. You would wear the bag across your chest, but if your frame is too small, shortening that strap to a comfortable length will result in the buckle – not the shoulder pad – aligning with your shoulder. Furthermore, the strap is stitched into the bag and the shoulder pad cannot be removed. So if you need that strap to be that small, the shoulder pad becomes little more than decoration. If only you could adjust either end of the strap individually, this wouldn't be a problem at all. There is a comfortable hand strap along the back of the bag to ease in carrying when it's not on your shoulder. I'll spare you the details, but it's a pet peeve of mine when a bag doesn't have a comfortable alternative carrying method. So thanks goes to Brenthaven for realizing that we need other ways to carry a bag. One last item to note is that there is a stabilizer strap included with the bag if you need it. It goes between the strap and a point at the corner of the bag (there is a loop on either corner) so that it hugs our torso when worn. This is for those who are riding a bike and don't want the bag to swing freely. I didn't use it except to try it out in concept, so I can't say exactly how well it would work on a bike. But it seems like it would do the job.
It's difficult to find a bag that strikes a nice balance between the professional world and the desire to carry your camera all the time. The BX2 seems to bridge the gap perfectly. It looks professional, made of high quality materials with an understated aesthetic. It won't turn heads as you walk into a room, but that's what I like about it. When I'm pulling files out during a meeting, no one knows that I also have a camera in there. It simply blends in. So the look of the bag is a major selling point for me.
I grew to really appreciate the quick access split in the flap. Whenever I needed to grab my camera, that was the quickest and easiest way to get it. The zipper is aligned just right so that no matter how much is jammed in the bag, I was able to get to my camera almost by muscle memory. The quick access worked so well that it begs the question as to the purpose of the flap as a whole. In theory, the only reason to open the flap entirely would be to access those organization pockets on the face of the bag. Well, there is another reason for the flap: It's adjustable straps can be tweaked to keep your gear snug regardless of how much is packed inside. But no, you won't really use the flap very much…just that zipper in the top. I try not to think of the bag as a camera bag. It's more of a day bag, or a briefcase, that just happens to hold my camera as well. And I think that's an important distinction. Because this isn't going to be a bag that you'll carry around on your photography sessions. It's just a bag you'll use on a day to day basis. Don't get me wrong, it does carry a good amount of equipment. But there's no feasible way to attach a tripod and you're not going to be carrying your long or bulky lenses in the bag. During the month when I was putting the bag to the test, there were two occasions in which I had photo sessions requiring more equipment. I needed to switch out of the bag to accommodate the tripods, the extra flashes and all of the extra accessories that I needed. The rest of the time, it helped me carry everything I needed.
What Fits In The Bag
To give you a rough idea of the size of the bag, I like to list what kind of equipment can fit into the bag. This isn't intended to be a definitive list as there are many ways to configure the bag. And your equipment may be slightly different sizes than my own. But this should give you some comfort level as to what could fit.
- Mid-Sized or Full-framed SLR camera body with mid-sized lens mounted
- Mid-range zoom – 18-135mm Zoom Lens (Roughly 7″ long with glare shield, mounted)
- Two small-mid sized lenses: I carried my 50mm and my lensbaby side-by-side in the same partition with plenty of room to spare. I could have very easily carried two telephoto lenses or two mid-range zooms or any mix thereof.
- Off-camera Flash
- A small laptop: Mine is a 13.3″ Ultrabook. A MacBook Air would also fit.
- Various accessories: Lens filters, cleaning supplies, small notebooks, pens, and so on.
Overall, I have no serious complaints. Sure, I wouldn't mind a few extra dividers, and I wouldn't mind a few tweaks to the shoulder strap. But it's a great bag that I really like carrying to work (my other job) and I surely don't look as out of place as when I'm carrying one of my massive backpacks. It's just a good general use bag that also happens to hold a camera. The gel on the bottom of the bag is really quite impressive. Just to push your finger into it gives you a great deal of comfort that this bag is going to protect your gear. I really do see myself using this bag as my daily bag moving forward. But is it for everyone? Well, probably not. Some people simply don't like messenger style bags. Shoulder bag fans may not like it because it's not designed to carry off one shoulder, you really do need to carry it cross-chest to get the most comfort out of the bag. And of course those who don't have a desk job will favor other, more specialized, bags. But if photography isn't your primary job and you'd like to things other than your camera, this might be the bag for you. As of this writing the bag can be yours for about $136 USD (amazon.com) .
Things We Liked
- Great size and form factor – the messenger bag is a classic design. Used as a camera bag, it's still classic.
- It looks good – not too casual, not out of place in corporate world.
- BX2 Gel – seriously, that stuff is awesome and it does a great job protecting your gear.
- Quick-access zipper in top of the bag – get your gear quickly and easily
Things That Could Be Improved
- Shoulder Strap – it can only be adjusted from one side, making it less comfortable for smaller-framed individuals.
- The Divider System – we'd like to see more dividers of different sizes for the ultimate in customization.
- Side Pocket (velcro dots) – two tiny dots to close the pocket flap? We'd like to see an entire velcro edge so we know it's going to stay closed.