Photography has never only been about the end product, whether it’s an Instagram post, a slide projected on a screen, or a print. It’s always also been an art form dependent on technology, process, and gear.
Assume you’re about to get into film photography for real. Maybe you’ve exclusively shot with an iPhone so far. Maybe you have a DSLR, a digital point-and-shoot, or a mirrorless camera. Or maybe you’ve dabbled in Lomography and would like to see what “regular” analog photography is like (provided there is in fact a difference, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). Maybe you don’t have money to burn, or even if you do, you’re not inclined to. Where do you start?
It’s easy to get lost in the thicket of reviews and if recommendations, of opinions what’s great and what’s crap, and what you must absolutely have. IctusOculi is here to help. Next week, we will inaugurate a column about the Second Tier Superstars of Film. Each installment will put forward, for your consideration, an affordable camera that – with just a bit of talent and technique – will allow for professional results at a reasonable price.
How do I know? Am I a professional? Why, no. But that’s exactly the point: you don’t have to be a professional using professional grade gear in order to make great pictures. All you need is a good eye, a decent camera, and a decent lens. And some film, because we’re keeping this column analog for now. I’m orienting myself somewhere below the €50 mark for how much the whole combination should cost to begin with. Sure, if grandma Alice gives you her Leica for free, snap it up, say thanks in the nicest way possible, and be forever thankful. But if you’re not that lucky, you may want some advice.
We begin with something that many who are into digital photography already may be looking for. We’ll pick a Nikon autofocus SLR that works with modern lenses, feels solid, is reliable, as well as easy and fun to use. And less than €50 with a lens. Are you curious?
Why oh why, you may think, is a blog dedicated to photography reviewing bags now? And not even photo bags? What has the world come to?
Simple: I have always liked bags, but I’ve never been a photo bag person. I think they’re generally meh-looking (too technical, too boring, too black nylon), and since I don’t do this professionally, I don’t want to be “that guy” who goes everywhere with at least two camera bodies and half a dozen lenses. So, for the most part, I don’t use photo bags. Instead, I stuff my camera du jour in whatever bag I’m using, and hope for the best. Will this remain so forever? Who knows; I’ve found more occasions where a dedicated photo bag may be desirable lately. Whether that is going to translate into me getting (and possibly reviewing) one is still up in the air.
This review came about because I saw something super interesting on Kickstarter a few months back: an everyday commuter messenger bag that could be transformed (hey, I’m a child of the 80s, I like that stuff) into a backpack. A weekender that functioned like an old-timey valise and still had an extra laptop compartment. Why not? So, a Kickstarter campaign, a few months, and a deduction from my credit card later, I had the thing in hand. And because I liked it well enough to test out all its idiosyncrasies, I ended up writing a review. Maybe there’s someone here who will find it useful.
I received my Venque Briefpack Utility XL as part of the Kickstarter delivery. First impressions matter, and this one was good: the Briefpack seems well put together, is very stylish in an unobtrusive fashion, and the fabric, metal clasps and leather accents all appear to be of such a quality that you never need worry about whether the bag will hold up to the rigors of a busy commuting life.
The “XL” in the name of this pack is deserved. It’s big, almost like a small valise, yet it’s not unwieldy. Its size (given by Venque as 19″ x 15″ x 6.5″, roughly 48 x 38 x 17 cm) is significantly below typical airline carry-on restrictions. I immediately got the impression that the size of the bag was arrived at after a lot of deliberation. It serves me well on trips to the office without seeming ludicrously large even if I’m only bringing my laptop, a book and some papers. It can easily hold a change of clothes for the day (think gym or biking to work). It was also perfectly adequate in size when I brought it as my main bag on a recent two-week vacation. A trip with just carry on baggage, thank you very much every single European premium airline for not distinguishing yourself anymore from Ryanair by much anymore. I digress.
It easily fits almost a week’s worth of t-shirts, and underwear, as well as an extra pair of pants, one or two extra shirts, a sweater, and a small ziploc bag of toiletries. The elastic straps in the compartment, held together by a solid looking half-metal half-plastic locking clasp, do a good job of keeping all your clothes organized. The clasp is another point where you feel like someone was paying attention. It uses plastic for the inner part, and metal for the outer one, and this seems to have been considered well in terms of quality vs. price point. The gist is that you’re truly packing a suitcase here, not stuffing clothes willy-nilly in a messenger bag.
The four inside compartments (three smaller ones on the top of the bag’s flap, and one larger one on the bottom) are also quite handy. For my trip, I used the upper compartment for additional toiletries, a small container of painkillers, and photo equipment: a small flash, some filters, cleaning cloth, etc.
The bag’s front pockets – two large and one small one on top of the right hand main pocket – are ideally sized for phones, keys, notebooks, a small camera, or glasses. I don’t always wear glasses, but I encounter situations often enough where they become necessary and thus typically keep a pair of regular glasses plus a pair of sunglasses in their cases in the left pocket with the leather flap, while my keys live in the small exterior pocket on the right, and a point-and-shoot camera, my wallet, and whatever else seems useful that day live in the larger front pocket on the right.
The back compartment easily holds my Macbook 13″, and has room to spare. It’s rated for 15″ laptops, and you should have no problem fitting one in. The padding is exemplary. I often cram my bags full, and then end up with laptop screens pressed too tightly onto keyboards. This, however, was never a problem with the Utility XL. Very nicely done, Venque. There are three holders for pens in this compartment as well, and three open compartments for phones, business cards, or possbly a cell phone, or a small notebook. There is also a zipper in the back that lets you store away power bricks, cables, and the like toward the middle of the bag. I found this to be a better solution to storing such things than putting them in a front pocket. Alternatively, this is also a good spot for valuables, such as a passport and travel documents if you’re in a place where you’re worried they might be stolen.
The Utility XL works well for most things, but maybe because it’s such a jack-of-all-trades, you don’t get everything you possibly could get in a commuter messenger bag or backpack proper. The large size and the lack of a water bottle sleeve, for example, grow out of the fact that the XL is so versatile. You can’t go smaller and still carry all that stuff, and by attaching a bottle holder you’d either lose a handle, or have a water bottle dangling precariously on the underside of the bag when in backpack mode. I’m completely fine with these tradeoffs.
There are some other things that I find somewhat confounding, though. Basically, it comes down to straps and zippers.
The Venque’s straps in backpack mode are of good quality and comfortably padded, but they are simply too long. They can be adjusted, but I never could get them tight enough so the bag was flush with my back. Biking especially was unnerving, the XL kept dangling about. This is also a problem when you’re walking for more than just a few minutes, as in airport terminals or through cities. I.e., pretty much whenever you’d prefer backpack mode over shoulder carry mode. Granted, this is a question of how tall you are, and of your body shape. But as a male of 180cm / 5’11” with a slim, athletic build and size medium for most shirts, it doesn’t feel like I should be out of the ordinary for Briefpack XL buyers. This issue could be solved either by shortening the straps (something that could be done aftermarket by a third party if desired) or by offering a cross-body strap of the type found on hiking backpacks. This would pull the contoured backpack straps towards the middle of the chest and thus make the bag sit closer to your back.
The supplied strap for carrying the XL messenger bag style is also comfortably padded. The padding covers most of the strap, but the “one size kinda fits all” approach also meets its match here. If you want to carry the bag not directly at your side, but slightly askew – which I’ve found is the most natural way to carry most messenger bags – the padded part pretty much covers all of your chest, but doesn’t reach all the way across your shoulder. A strap with an adjustable foam pad would have been preferable here. If you want to, it’s easy enough to attach pretty much any strap with a clasp, though you might be compromising the XL’s sleek aesthetics.
Lastly, the zippers are a bit of a mixed bag. There are three kinds: small internal zippers (I had no problems with these), small external zippers in the back, and larger zippers for all the various pockets.
The two small external zippers, under which are hidden the backpack straps when not in use, as well as a loop that lets you attach the XL to a larger piece of luggage in order to easily wheel everything through an airport or train station, don’t need to take much abuse. Still, they feel a little too rough for a product that otherwise appears premium in every way. On my XL, both zippers have an unfortunate tendency to open slightly just from rubbing up against my body when I am carrying the bag on my shoulder. In addition, one of them looks like it is permanently pulled apart a bit, and there is a noticeable “hump” you can feel whenever you open or close it. They will probably hold up just fine, but you will be reminded of the fact that they could be better quality every time you use them. Clearly, your mileage will vary on how much importance you attach to this.
The external zippers are well-dimensioned and they stay closed when you want them to. The zippers on the front pockets are a bit badly placed, but otherwise function well. The ones on the larger compartments, however, initially opened and closed a bit too roughly. One-handed opening of a compartment while wearing the bag wasn’t as smooth as I would have expected. Here’s hoping this will continue to improve with use.
So what’s the verdict? On the one hand, the XL is very versatile, sturdy, and good-looking. If you’ve been searching for the one bag that does it all, that’s good for a day at the office, a weekend away or a one-week trip even, if you’re packing light, this is the best design at this price point I’ve come across. Other makers, such as Swiss company Qwstion, may have comparable offerings (like their similar-looking Weekender, Overnighter or 3 Day Travel Bag), but you’ll either easily pay in excess of $100 more for the most expensive one from that line-up than you would for the XL, or you forego the XL’s size. On the other hand, if a bag that is touted as being both a backpack and a messenger bag is lacking in either of these modes, you may just be better off with a dedicated bag in your preferred style. Venque’s own Milano, Hamptons and Amsterdam models may be a better bet for many who already own dedicated weekenders, duffels, or other short term travel bags.
In terms of functionality, fit, and finish, the Venque is almost there. It’s almost the bag you want, but not yet quite. Maybe the production run after the Kickstarter deliveries will have solved some of these niggling problems. I hope so. The XL is already pretty close to what it could be.
This is essentially a three-out-of-five star bag that’s really closer to 3.5 stars, and with a few improvements could be even better. While I don’t love it unconditionally, I like it and will continue to use it.