Pictures from Portugal: Porto and Coimbra in March

When I travel for work, I still try to sneak in a few pictures here and there on the way. Usually, I bring along my Fuji X100S, as it is small enough and good enough to document most things. I hardly leave the house, however (and certainly not the country) without a film camera. I don’t like bringing big heaps of luggage, though, so most often that camera is a rather small one.

On a recent conference trip to Portugal and the UK, I really tried to keep the weight of gear down and brought only my Rollei 35T. The Rollei is the first film camera I ever bought, in 2013, and I recently had it repaired and readjusted and some parts exchanged because it had not functioned satisfactorily and sat unused for a while. The viewfinder had lost its luster and become quite dim, and some screws were obviously no longer originals, so the camera needed a makeover. The camera repair shop also adjusted the light meter so the camera can now be used with common 1.5V batteries, and no longer relies on the 1.35V mercury cells that have been phased out because of environmental concerns.

I still have an original yellow filter and a lens hood, and thus equipped I threw the camera in my bag with a roll of the sadly gone Kodak BW400CN loaded. Scale focusing (i.e. guess focusing) the Rollei is a learned skill, and one I seem to have unlearned to quite a significant degree in the years I hadn’t used the camera. The pictures that did turn out, however, are reward enough. The lens is sharp and gives a wonderfully vintage street photography feel. Looking at the results, I feel transported to another time, another way of living and thinking and photographing.

 

 

Archive Days: Marbach

After Gütersloh, I had another trip planned pretty much immediately. It was off to Marbach am Neckar, near Stuttgart. While Stuttgart is industrial, bustling, and often gray, Marbach has a distinctly rural and homey feel to it. And it is the home of an institution to which I was now traveling.

The Deutsches Literaturachiv resides in Marbach. It is tasked to collect works by German authors (and quite a few others as well) and make them usable by the public. This is where I was headed after alighting a regional train at the quaint Marbach train station one sunny day in late summer. Dragging behind me a carry-on sized rolling suitcase, I decided to walk up the hill where the archive is situated. Passing by a small park, I saw a sign out for a photo studio that wasn’t open every day – small town antics – and that offered passport photos on special. Since I had an appointment back in Cologne to get a new passport issued, I followed the sign to a small door in a backyard building.

Two photographers, one female, one male, were at work there in a small studio that reminded me of the one that had existed at the screenplay agency and film production company I had worked at for a year in Munich a decade and a half ago. It was a bit dark, it was cozy, and it appeared to make use of repurposed furniture that once had lived in a more machine-shop-like setting. After getting my passport pictures taken (on a battle-scarred Canon 5D with a 70–200 1:4L zoom lens, if you must know), I meandered on and soon found the archive. It is perched atop the Schillerhöhe, a bluff that houses a park with Friedrich Schiller’s statue. It is surrounded by museums and Marbach’s Stadthalle, where there is an event space and a restaurant for hungry tourists coming off a long day in the museums, or for locals from the neighborhood who just want a drink and a meal.

I checked in at both the archive and the Kollegienhaus. The Kollegienhaus is a purpose-built modernist Bauhaus-y building with small apartments for researchers. That done, I put only the most necessary tools – laptop, phone, a notepad and some pens – in my backpack tote and began work at the archives. When I came back after a long day of staring at archival materials and note-taking, I dropped off my laptop, grabbed my camera, and went exploring. I repeated this on every day when the weather was agreeable to my doing so, and walked away with half a dozen or so exposed rolls of Fuji Superia 200, my preferred film for 2016 on account of the fact that I’d gotten a good deal on about six recently expired bricks of it at the end of 2015.

Though not my favorite, Superia 200 is definitely not a bad film. It has colors that to me say “1990s.” This is perhaps because Fuji Press 800, a preferred photojournalist’s film stock from the decade stems from the same Superia family, and therefore I remember those years that way. It is grainy, but not unpleasantly so, at least when exposed correctly. It doesn’t have the punch of Fuji Velvia, Provia or Kodak Ektar, but it is also not as subdued as the Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro ranges of portrait film. It is clearly a summer film or a film to be used with flash. In low light, you’ll often miss that one stop of extra wiggle room that a 400 film would offer. Then again, if the light is there, why not go for even less grain and ISO 100 slide or negative film? It’s an in-between film, and while that makes it lack in versatility, it certainly worked well for the task at hand.

The first two days found me wandering about Marbach, buying groceries, listening to podcasts on my phone, and documenting my surroundings with the Nikon 24–50 1:3.3–4.5 zoom that I had forced myself to bring as my only lens for the week. I had brought my then newly-bought used Nikon F80 (known as the N80 in North America because, well, I have no earthly idea why) with its extra battery holder attached. While light, this was a nicely grippable setup. The F80 certainly feels cheaper and less durable than the F100 or my standby Nikon AF SLR, the F801S, but it has all the features I could possibly need for a travel camera, including a custom function that will let you display LCD frame lines for composition in the viewfinder. No other serious film Nikon has this handy feature. My only gripe with the camera was that I kept losing the little rubber eyecup, and eventually couldn’t find it again after walking around a grocery store looking for food that came in small portions, as I was only going to be there for a week.

My week in Marbach was pleasantly lonely: it was summer, I had a task, I was in a picturesque place, and I could enjoy evenings off exploring with a camera in hand. It had to end eventually, but afterward, new travels awaited.

Almost There – A Review of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL

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.

Venque front
The front of the Venque Briefpack Utility XL
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.

Venque open
A lot fits in here
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.

Venque Laptop Compartment
Laptop compartment
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.

Venque Backpack
The Venque in backpack mode, with those long long straps
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.

Venque in backpack mode - sideways
Backpack mode – sideways
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.

Venque in backpack mode - top
Backpack mode – top
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.

The offending zipper
The offending zipper
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.

The back of the bag
The back doesn’t look too bad either
Want the TL;DR?

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.