The one thing I’ve learned – and have been most surprised about – since we started reviewing products for Shutter Photo is that camera bag selection is a very personal thing. Each of us is looking for different features and different form factors. That may be why there are so many manufacturers – there are hundreds, many you’ve never heard of. Naneu is one that surprised us. Our good friend, Peter West Carey, introduced us to Naneu. Recently, Peter reviewed the Naneu Adventure K4L, a photo and computer bag. While it certainly appears to be a great bag for professionals and semi-professionals, it didn’t seem appropriate for hobbyists. But Naneu offers a wide range of bags, and a quick survey of their offerings yielded a bag that was well suited for hobbyists with a fair amount of equipment: The Military Ops Echo-X Messenger Bag. For the purpose of our review, Naneu was kind enough to loan us a sample. For the past month, I’ve been using it as my primary bag to carry my camera gear.
The Echo-X is a fairly new product. It is a larger and slightly different version of Naneu’s popular Echo bag. Though there are likely many similarities between the bags, please note that this review does not address the Echo, only the Echo-X. The Echo-X is a sling bag, meaning there is only one strap that you wear across your chest. The main improvement over the Echo is that the Echo-X has a side-access panel that can be accessed while the bag is still on your shoulder. Just rotate the bag to the front, and you can grab your camera out of this side access without the risk of dropping any of your other equipment.
The side access is actually just another portal into the main compartment, which can also be accessed by a zipper at the bag’s mid-line. The mid-line zipper essentially hinges the bag so that the top portion of the bag can flop back granting full top-access to the main compartment. As for the size of the main compartment – this is where I was pleasantly surprised – it’s huge. Many sling bags that I’ve seen cannot carry a larger camera or a camera with a large lens. This bag is designed to carry a full-sized camera like a Canon EOS 1D MkIII or a Nikon D3. For those of you with a mid or small sized SLR, like a Nikon D90, there is a special “shelf” divider that can be used to accomodate these smaller cameras. Even the full-sized cameras can be accessible through the side access panel. The camera lays in the bag parallel to your hip, so it can also accomodate a 9″ lens attached to the camera body. That’s a ton of space to play with. My meger camera with it’s 185mm lens attached quite comfortably fit in the bag with plenty of room to spare.
From the top access (via the mid-line zipper) you have access to the balance of the main compartment. The panels are all customizable so that you can accommodate a number of additional lenses. There’s even enough space to carry an extra camera body. There are a few minor limitations – the front and back panels are detachable, but you likely want to keep them in place to cushion your camera with lens attached. And if you have a mid or small sized camera, you’ll most likely want to use the shelf divider so that you can access the camera body both from the side and from the top (though this is a preference). Otherwise, you can store lenses upright with a total of 7″ to play with. One feature I really appreciated was that the main dividers and the walls were entirely velcro covered. This allowed complete customization without limitation. I was, however, a little disappointed in the shelf support – a padded spacer used to support the shelf if you have a mid/small camera. The spacer was not fully velcro covered, and it did not effectively install laterally (perpendicular to your back), which I would have preferred so that I could store small things, like spare batteries, directly below my camera. As designed, my batteries got lost somewhere in the bottom of the case, and I would have to tilt the bag to get them out. I would rather see some structural support put into the shelf itself than to have to use this spacer, or at least have a way to effectively fasten it laterally inside.
Pockets are all over the place. Lets start with the upper compartment. The compartment isn’t padded and it’s tapered, so it is really designed to carry your extras. I was able to fit a field manual and my moleskine notebook in there. There would be plenty of room to carry a rain poncho, a fleece or even a small lunch if necessary. The bottom of this compartment can be removed completely to access the main compartment or to convert the entire thing to a backpack by removing the dividers in the main compartment. There are also two pockets on the outside of the top portion of the bag, and one larger pocket on the outside of the main camera compartment. These pockets are where I stored the majority of my extras. Filters and the like went into a pocket inside the larger of the top pockets. Business cards and other quick-access items went in the smaller of the top pockets. In the largest pocket – the one on the front of the main compartment – I stored pens, my eyeglasses and other similar items. There is also a small map compartment within the back-plate, the zipper for which is conveniently placed at your right hand – so you’ll be able to get those maps out without removing the bag. There are also two quick-access pockets on the outside of the larger bottom pocket. I didn’t use either, but these might be good for temporary storage – receipts, train schedules, and so on. And finally, there is a cell phone pocket built into the shoulder strap. I don’t carry enough small things to fully take advantage of all of these pockets, but there are a ton of ways to organize your stuff.
Here is a list of everything that fit into the bag (you won’t believe how much I could comfortably fit):
- Nikon D80 camera body (digital, with lens)
- Nikon N2000 camera body (film, no lens attached)
- Nikkor 18-185mm zoom lens (attached to the Nikon D80)
- Nikkor 50mm prime lens (autofocus for D80)
- Nikkor 50mm prime lens (manual for N2000)
- Nikkor 200mm prime lens (manual for N2000)
- (3) 52mm lens filters
- (1) 67mm lens filter
- 67mm petal lens hood
- 52mm reverse mounting ring
- shutter release cable
- USB sync cable
- TV output cables
- (2) rolls of film (plenty of room for more)
- SD card case (with two additional SD cards)
- my favorite field guide
- moleskine (5″) note book with pens
- wireless phone
- eyeglasses with case
- A pull-over fleece
Little Details That Make a Big Difference
Little things make a big difference. For starters, we already discussed the number of small compartments for organization which are suitable for the most obsessive compulsive of the lot. The upper compartment and pockets of the bag are designed with corner webbing so that you don’t accidentally spill its contents while searching for things. The main camera compartment is a bright orange color which allows you to find things easier. I only wish that the other compartments were also orange (they are gray). For those of you who wish to carry an iPod or other MP3 player, there’s a special pocket inside the larger upper pocket where it can be stored. There is also a special port where you can push through a headphone cord. I also really grew to appreciate the “feet” on the bottom of the bag, rubber blocks that keep the bag off the ground in case you need to set it down. I’ve seen many bags with this feature, and I wonder why there aren’t more that take advantage of such a similar implementation.
The zippers – we need to talk about those. I have never seen a zipper built like these. The zipper itself is a typical zipper with teeth and a pull tab. But these zippers are built so that the outside face is covered in a water-retardant textile fabric. With the zipper closed, the fabric covering either set of teeth closes as well. This essentially eliminates any chance of water getting in through the zipper. Now that’s not to say that water wouldn’t get in if I submerged the bag in a tub of water – but I wasn’t about to test that with or without my equipment (this bag is on loan, after all). Then again, I don’t expect that any of you are planning on swimming with your camera gear protected only by a bag. What this zipper system does is eliminates the need for a rain-cover. At first, I found the zippers a little tight to open and close. But after about a week, they seemed to move smoothly.
Those of you who have read my other reviews will know that I appreciate a good tow strap. For many manufacturers, the tow strap is an afterthought. In practice, however, I find myself using the tow strap a lot. Putting the bag in and out of cars, moving around a crowded subway, or even for carrying short distances. It seems trivial, but a well designed and comfortable tow strap is something I look for in a bag. The Echo-X has an awesome tow strap. It’s extra long and well padded, so you can fit your meaty hands, or even a gloved hand, in there comfortably. One end of the strap is fastened to the bag itself, the other is fastened to the shoulder strap. As a result, the bag carries quite comfortably at your side. You can also reach the strap with your right hand while wearing it in case you want to use the quick-release on the strap to get out of the bag smoothly.
Not all details are perfect. There are a few nuances of the bag that I didn’t like. First is the shoulder strap. It is fastened to the center of the bag at the top, which makes it lay at an angle across the back. For many, this isn’t a significant issue. But the bottom of the bag is flat, and at times I felt that the bottom right corner was digging into my waist. I admit some hyper-sensitivity issues, however, so this would bother me more than most. Even so, it’s not a difficult thing to fix – the strap could have been fastened off-center so as to allow the bag to hang more symmetrically. I also didn’t like the quick release buckle on the strap. I like that it’s there, but it didn’t seem very secure. I have this odd habit of having a hand on my shoulder strap when walking about. On multiple occasions, I accidentally grabbed the clip and nearly lost the entire bag (I never did, but the potential is there). I would like to see an extra button on the buckle, at least, to prevent such accidents. My final issue with the shoulder strap was the stabilizer strap. With my coat off, it worked quite well to stabilize the bag, even to bring it more in line with my spine. But with my coat on, it didn’t quite seem long enough to wear comfortably. I’ll admit I’m overweight, but my gut is still an average size. The stabilizer strap could stand to be a bit longer. As such, I rarely used it throughout my experience.
The main compartment zipper vs. the front pocket zipper poses an interesting scenario. Both sets of zippers (four pull tabs in all) have the same type of pull strings on them. Though the main compartment zipper itself is slightly larger, at a glance, there doesn’t appear to be much difference. The zippers both run along the mid-line of the bag, about a half inch from each other horizontally, but nearly the same plane vertically. Normally, I like to keep my pull-tabs at the centers, but in doing so, I often pulled the wrong tabs. I also found that I would occasionally zip one set of pull strings into the other set’s pocket. I simply grew into the habit of pulling one set of zippers to one side, and another to the other side – and through such habitual means I was able to conquer the confusion. But it would be nice of the main compartment tabs were more prominent or at least different to avoid such confusion. I would consider this a minor issue.
The Echo-X in Action
I can surely attest that this is a bag designed for the elements. In our area, we had an unusual winter, and we got ransacked with snow. The week I started using the bag, we had a record breaking storm event just a few days after another big storm. To really test the bag out, I ventured out into the windy, snow-drifted weather (it was still snowing) with the Echo-X on my back. I slipped and fell, but my gear was protected. The snow threatened, but was not able to penetrate the bag, not even at its zippers. On this same excursion, I wanted to switch up lenses. With all the fresh snow around, I didn’t have an opportune place to set the bag down, so I experimented: With the strap on my shoulder as I would normally wear it, I was able to rotate the bag partially around and access the main compartment from the top via the mid-line zipper. I’ll admit, it was not the most comfortable way to access my gear, but it was possible. Because of the snug fit of how I set up the dividers, I don’t feel that any of my equipment was at risk to fall out either.
As for wearing for long periods of time, I carried this bag with me on a few day trips and several site visits. I wore this bag for hours at a time. It was quite comfortable. The straps, well padded, didn’t dig into my shoulders much. The sling design also contributes to it’s comfort. The stabilizer strap adds to the comfort, but see my note above with regards to its size. Despite the amount of gear I carried on one of these excursions, the bag remained comfortable.
The Naneu Military Ops Echo-X is a great bag for those of you who have a lot of gear, want something a little more rugged and somewhat casual. It’s a bag you can certainly grow into, but many just getting started in the hobby will find this to be too much bag. Aside from the quantity of lenses that could be fit into this bag, it can accommodate some moderately large lenses. So this would be a great day bag for street photographers or even some landscape photographers. If you have need for significantly larger lenses (something much larger than 200mm) this bag isn’t the bag for you. It’s a rugged bag that can really stand up to the elements, so I suspect that for many it would serve well as a primary (or only) bag. It goes without saying that a sling-style bag is a manner of preference. Some bags accommodate multiple carrying options, but the Echo-X is explicitly a sling bag. Try as you might, there is only one way to carry the Echo-X: Across your chest, over your right shoulder. Sling bags aren’t for everyone, so if you’re not sure, make sure to try it before buying.
As a company, I learned quite a bit about Naneu in this past month. From my own observations, they make a quality product. The bag appears to be well built, packed full of features and nice details. I only used the bag for the last couple of weeks, so I cannot attest to its durability first-hand. But I did some research and I found that many Naneu owners (not necessarily owners of the Echo-X) find their products to be durable. In general, I feel pretty good about the brand, and based on my first hand experience, I’d be comfortable recommending any of their products.
I suspect that the Echo-X appeals to a certain type of individual: Someone who likes organization, someone who shoots a wide range of styles and needs to carry an array of lenses and gear (maybe even an additional body), but doesn’t want to carry one of those massive backpacks. If that person is you, the Echo-X is a bag you should check out.
I will admit that this bag is a bit too much for my needs. It’s rare that I carry both camera bodies. It’s even more rare that I carry all of my lenses (really, who needs both 50mm lenses). But I would consider this bag if I traveled more often where I might want to have both bodies on the trip, if not at every moment. I also tend to wear a lot of hats, and I personally prefer to have a bag where I can fit some items from my day job – such as my 8.5″x11″ notebook and a plan or two. But again, these are preferences of my own.
As of this writing, the Echo-X is not available from our most trusted retailers. But if you are interested, the Echo-X is available directly from Naneu’s website (naneubags.com) for about $143 (USD).
Things We Liked
- Hinged section design for easy camera/gear loading from the top.
- Rubber feet to protect the bag.
- Side Entry – camera is accessible without removing bag.
- Camera accessible from side and top entry.
- Fully covered velcro dividers – makes for countless configuration options.
- Pockets – pockets are everywhere, and they allow you to organize everything.
- Main camera compartment is a bright orange – easier to find small things.
- Really nice tow strap.
Things We Didn’t Like
- Location of clasp on sling strap – I accidentally grabbed it and nearly lost the bag more than a few times.
- Camera shelf spacer seems more of an after thought.
- Zippers on the front pocket sometimes confused with zippers of the main pocket (minor issue)
- The bag doesn’t lay square on the back (a very minor issue)