Kata MiniBee-111 UL Camera Backpack Review
Kata announced the MiniBee series backpacks late in the year last year. The significant feature at the time was it's aluminum frame, a technology borrowed form the backpacking/camping world, which makes the bag more sturdy and improves the carry. At PDN Photo Plus this past autumn, I was given a brief tour of Kata's new products, including the MiniBee. My first impression? It was a solid bag with a lot of great features. But of course a few minutes with the bag wasn't enough for me to really wrap my opinions around it. So a few months back, Kata was kind enough to give us a MiniBee-111 UL to review. I have been using the bag exclusively for about a month now. There is much to talk about.
The most notable feature of the MiniBee-111 UL is it's aluminum frame. The frame sits close to your back when it's worn, and the bag is stretched around it. Additionally, it serves as the support for the back plate, a mesh is stretched between the two uprights giving you a well ventilated padding of sorts between you and the bag. The frame helps the bag keep its shape, and it also helps to prevent gear within the inner chambers from shifting around. It is similar to the type of frame you would find in an internal frame backpack used for long-range hiking (backpacking). It helps you carry gear high on the body and close to the shoulders without sacrificing comfort.
The shoulder straps are Kata's trademark Gecko Harness, which we've seen before on Kata's Bug-205 backpack. Each strap is made of a reinforced EVA molded foam, which has a rubbery feel to it, but certainly more breathable. At first, the straps can be fairly firm, but they break in as you use them, conforming to your shoulders and your body. They are each fastened to the bag at three essential points. The top of the strap is actually fastened at a point that would be well below the top of your shoulder so that it curves up and around your shoulder for comfort. It is also fastened by a webbing that connects the top of the bag to a point on the strap so that you can adjust just how much the strap is allowed to curve. It also affects how the bag rests in relation to your back – if that webbing is tightened all the way, it pulls the top closer to your back and the bottom pushes away from your hip. That's not what you want, of course; you'll want to adjust it so that the bag is as close to your back as possible while also making sure it has full contact with your lower back. This will give you the most comfort. There is also a belt which can be used as a stabilizer, but can be removed if you don't have need.
There are essentially two main chambers. The camera chamber is the largest of the two and sits in the lower portion of the bag. It can be subdivided using adjustable partitions. There is also a smaller chamber up top that is intended to be used for other items. It's large enough to hold a couple of filter wallets, maybe a paperback book, a small umbrella, collapsible rain coat or any combination of things. The partitions can be removed from the lower chamber, and a zippered flap at the separating the two chambers can be opened to give you one large chamber if you need to house something larger.
The MiniBee has it's fair share of pockets. There is a large flat pocket on the left side of the bag, large enough to carry a small pad of paper or a small journal, or even the rain fly that comes with the bag. On the other side of the bag is a stretchy mesh pocket designed to carry a water bottle, but it can also hold the legs of a small tripod in conjunction with a strap (included) that can loop through a webbing at the top of the bag. The largest pocket, which sets on the face of the bag near the top, is packed full of the organizational attention I love. It has pen slots and a few miscellaneous sized slots for your triggers, meters, wires or even side-arm pocket camera. The pocket is pretty deep so you can stash a few things at the bottom – this is where I keep my multi-tool – without much fear of dropping it upon opening the pocket.
So by now you have noticed that the camera pocket opens with a zipper that runs along the bottom half of the bag. This may be a bit uncomfortable for some, especially those with interest in accessing their camera with the bag on one shoulder. But the camera, lenses and other gear are protected by an additional mesh cover that rests over the entire chamber just under the main flap. This adds an extra level of comfort that your gear isn't going to fall out of your bag. It zippers up both sides and has a pull tab (a loop, actually) at the top of the flap. One can easily pull on the tab and open both zippers with minimal effort. I actually fastened my lens cloth pouch to it which made it even easier to pull (and besides, it makes it easier for me to get to my cloth as well.
For extra protection of your gear, the MiniBee-111 contains several Kata trademark features. First is the Spine Guard, which is a long narrow tongue of molded foam with a steel central spine that slips into a narrow pocket at the face of the bag. It's mission is to add more support and resistance to the bag to help resist damage from bumps. Kata always seems to get the carrying handle right. Regular readers of my reviews know my (potentially unhealthy) obsession with the tow strap handle. My reasons are justified: You don't always carry your bag on your shoulder, and there are more than enough times you need an alternative carrying option. This bag has two handles: One on top, one off-set to one side. This helps to stabilize the bag in certain situations, but it's also a comfort issue, especially with the frame, as I found the off-set handle quite comfortable most of the time it wasn't on my back.
There are still a lot more of Kata's attention to subtle details. The main zippers have the large, but low-profile, pulls that are featured on many of Kata's most current bags. As with any bag from the manufacturer, the entire interior is lined in yellow to make things easy to find – a feature I've grown to appreciate. Of course we can't forget the elements cover (matte on one side for rain, reflective on the other to protect from the sun), nor can we overlook the included three-part camera strap. The camera strap can work stand-alone, or you can unfasten the mesh pad and hook the camera to the bag's shoulder straps to take the pressure off your neck.
There are a few curiosities about the design of this bag. For example, there are loops on the left side of the bag that I would presume would be appropriate for the tripod to be fastened to, but there aren't any loops on the bottom for which to hang the sling (there are on the other side and on the face of the bag). There is also a hook and loop type enclosure on the left side of the bag between the zippers for the upper and bottom portions of the bag. But I have not yet figured out the purpose of this hook/loop connector other than aesthetics, which isn't typical of Kata – everything typically serves a purpose. My theory is that it is structural or a potential expansion point, but I can't figure it out exactly.
I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the aluminum frame. The benefits are plainly obvious. It adds structure to the bag which helps to keep the stuff inside protected and in one place. It also eliminates all the padding along the back plate, replacing it with a simple, breathable mesh (possibly the most fantastic benefit). All that's really between the bag and your back is air, and I suppose you can't get much better than that in the summer. As an additional benefit, it contours to my lower back quite nicely and my hips – not my shoulders – to support the bag. But sometimes the frame can be a nuisance. I sometimes like to carry a backpack on one shoulder and the curvature of the lower back portion of the frame will dig into my back as the bag will inevitably hang slightly off-center. And while the frame doesn't add any additional bulk as compared to a traditional back plate, it feels more bulky, especially when carried by one of it's tow straps. But I will say this: I've dragged this thing through some difficult challenges and it stands up to abuse. I banged this thing, dropped this thing and scuffed it on a brick wall (all accidents, of course), but the frame has not dented nor is it at risk for any structural issues.
But here's the real beauty of a well designed frame pack that counterbalances any of my concerns: Carrying comfort. At any given time, I was carrying a camera, four lenses, a flash, tons of accessories and sometimes even my tripod (which isn't the light). That's a lot of weight, but I barely felt it. It's not because of the Gecko straps (though they are quite nice), it's because of of the frame. First of all, the frame doesn't allow the bag to sag or pull away from your body, and the closer you can keep the gear to your body, the better. The lower part of the frame curves around your lower back and the weight sits on top of your hips instead of on your shoulders. Without a super padded belt (which would be far too crazy for a gear bag), it's not exactly like a backpacking frame, but it's a ton better than your typical camera bag. If you've never tried such a bag, stop by a store and try one on with some weight tossed in there. You'll see what I mean.
There are a few minor nuisances that are difficult to ignore. The adjustment webbing on the shoulder straps seemed to flop around and get in the way from time to time, especially as I'm picking up or putting on the bag. Once I have the thing adjusted, I'd like to see a way to tuck away or at least secure these straps. The camera strap is a neat idea, except that I find the hooks impossible to affix to the shoulder strap loops, and even harder to remove. In use, it was comfortable, but pray you don't have to get out of that tangle to get into the bag. The loops are a plastic coated webbing when a simple aluminum D-ring would suffice. As for the color, I wouldn't recommend the light gray. The bag is also available in black, and I would suggest it. The gray could be appealing to some, but it stains. I do a lot of work in the woods, and I stained a few spots on the bag that wouldn't even be noticeable on black.
I was skeptical of the zipper opening to the bottom of the camera chamber but I think I've been won over. Kata answered to this concern by adding an interior netting that zips up both sides. And while it is an extra step to get to my camera, I don't find that to be a nuisance. I grew quite comfortable with the design. While it still prefer the portal type opening found in Kata’s Bug series bags, this type of opening is an excellent trade off in favor of a more compact bag design.
What Fits In The Bag
Don't let the size mislead you, this bag can hold quite a bit of gear:
- Nikon D80 (it can accommodate a larger camera comfortably)
- A pocket camera (top chamber)
- 18-135mm zoom lens (attached to camera)
- 50mm prime lens
- Lensbaby Composer
- SB-600 (mid-sized) Flash
- Full-sized Tripod (with accessory strap and pocket, included with bag)
- Large Flashbender (laptop pocket)
- Small Flashbender (camera chamber)
- Filter wallet with four lens filters (top compartment)
- My Kindle
- A few Magazines (laptop pocket)
- Accessories (cables, flash gels, camera straps, cleaning supplies, etc.)
- Other supplies (business cards, pens, etc.)
A few caveats: I don't have a laptop small enough to fit into the laptop sleeve, but it is designed to fit a 13″ laptop (an iPad or an Ultrabook is ideal). One could also fit a larger attached lens if the dividers were configured differently. As for the element cover, I kept it in the main compartment – but one could stick it in the side pocket (where I kept my journal) and free up another lens slot. There are plenty of configurations, so your list could vary.
The Kata MiniBee series is certainly not a bag that can be overlooked. With it's aluminum frame, well organized interior and lightweight design, it's an ideal bag to carry and protect your camera gear. It is design and feature set – and the price – is likely more appropriate for semi-professional and professional photographers, but it really would be a great bag for almost anyone. But it is especially perfect for anyone who is an outdoor lover as it is one of the most comfortable bags I've used for long treks. That said, it's not a bag for those who don't have a need to carry a lot of gear. But if you have a lot of gear and some need for some more robust features, you may want to consider the Kata MiniBee series.
As of this writing, the Kata MiniBee-111 UL is available for about $370 USD (amazon.com)
Things We Liked
- Aluminum Frame – provided durability, comfort and a well ventilated back plate.
- Well organized interior – Can fit a lot for it's size.
- Gecko Shoulder Straps – despite their look, they are quite comfortable and extremely adjustable.
- Lightweight – For it's size, and features, 2.8 pounds (1.27 kg) bends the rules of physics.
Things We Didn't Like
- Aluminum Frame – made bag uncomfortable to carry on one shoulder, added bulk
- Avoid the light color – it stains easily. Fortunately, the bag is also available in black.
- Camera chamber opens along the bottom, which could be uncomfortable for some.