Field Report: Lowepro Whistler BP 450

As a filmmaker mostly working overseas in developing countries, flying with kit and how best to do so, is one of the constant challenges I face.

Starting out I remember it was one of the things which bemused me most, how to keep my shiny new kit from being nicked, smashed, lost, or most likely, held in customs. A decade on from my first trip as a solo shooter, and having worked in over 20 countries, I’ve pretty much refined my technique.

I was asked by my friend Nat Wagstaff, who runs Pack Config, to review the Lowepro Whistler BP 450. Personally I have no affiliation with Lowepro, though they have said I can keep the bags, but I see no reason not to be completely honest about my thoughts on them – so I will! I’ve been using the BP 450 on my latest trips to Guatemala, El Salvador, Kenya and Uganda, so have given it a pretty good bashing by now, and am pleased to say I’m super happy with it still.

To explain my reasoning behind picking this bag, it’s probably best to start with what I’ve been using up to now. Depending on the type of job it is, along with the number of people in the crew, I’ve previously used a mixture of the Petrol PC003 (now Sachtler SC003), F-stop Loka and a variety of Peli cases. The F-stop bag was up to recently the best camera bag I’ve owned. A backpack which opened only from the body side – keeping stuff safe whilst on my back – it was comfortable, light, and has a removable customisable padded insert. Sadly it’s just too small for my needs. With photography kit alone it is fine, but add a C100, C300 or FS7 to the mix – forget about it. The Petrol bag was bigger, and chiefly, being a doctor style bag, it was possible to pack a rigged up C100 ready to shoot in. Enabling me to pull it out and be ready to shoot immediately if needed. (Outlined nicely here on Newsshooter).

This solved one of the biggest challenges when choosing a camera bag for working abroad, namely how can I pack a bag both for the travel component, and allow my gear to be ready to go, giving me quick access when on the shoot. It also has an internal light, which is a really nice touch. The biggest drawback with this bag, is because it’s a shoulder bag it’s incredibly heavy to lug around airports, and can’t be taken far from a vehicle when in the field. Both of these bags are carry on compatible, which in practice means they will definitely fit in the overhead bins on long haul flights, and can also fit – but with a lot of grunting – into smaller bins on internal flights. I always take as much kit as possible in my carry on, ignoring weight restrictions, as I’ve had so many bags delayed it’s not worth the risk. Ideally you want the minimum kit required to get through the first few days of shooting, if you had to strip everything else away. If ever asked about the bags weight I politely explain the value of the kit, and it always works itself out.

Peli cases are fantastic, and I’ll always use them on larger shoots. Their major drawback, and why I try to avoid them when I’m travelling as a solo shooter, is the interest they draw from customs officials. Immediately they make you a target for questioning and, depending where you are, this might just be about trying to get some cash out of you.

Which brings me to the Lowepro Whistler 450. It’s essentially the same design as my Fstop, but is bigger, and importantly deeper. At first I thought this is all this bag would have over the Loka, but there is actually so much more to it. Designed by Paul Morrison, an alpine photographer based in Whistler BC, it was created with the adventure photographer/filmmaker in mind, and so in many ways suits my demanding travel needs perfectly. The bag is made of a super strong ripstop waterproof fabric & although it comes with an additional rain cover I can’t see myself needing it, unless in a tropical downpour.

The internal padded camera unit is big, and importantly for me can take a cinema camera without having to completely disassemble it. The whole unit can be taken out, which is helpful if you need to dry out the exterior. The removable padded dividers are also pouches, which is a really clever way of helping to store all the little niggly bits. The Activ Zone harness system with waist straps and padded back panels ensure the bag is stable and comfortable on your back, even when heavily loaded, so can be worn for long periods. This is particularly useful when scrambling over stuff in precarious places, as you know the weight is not going to shift about and unsettle you. Lowepro have added a hypalon base which they call rhino tough; undoubtably this stuff is, and is never going to tear. My one caveat here, is that I’d like to see this on the front of the bag as well. Inevitably with the camera access on the body side, it spends most of its time being set down and dragged around not on it’s base, but it’s front.

The bag has multiple heavy duty connection points on the outside, which will securely fasten a tripod, or any other outdoor equipment. Designed for the adventure photographer, they could easily be used to attach ski’s, snowboards, or ice axes & crampons. The compression straps are detachable with a solid metal buckle, and whilst I like the design, once or twice one side has dropped off, when the bag is being squeezed in our out of somewhere. This makes me fear one day I’ll lose them altogether.
Another very cool feature from this adventure background, is that the internal front pocket is huge, expandable, completely watertight, and isolated from the padded camera insert. So you can shove wet and dirty clothes and gear inside, without worrying about it leaking into your camera kit. Even if you want to take a water bladder in here then this gives you the additional reassurance if it were to break. There is another pocket at the top which can be used as additional storage for items you need quick access to. This is particularly helpful, as many camera bags are completely consumed by the padded section, leaving no room for other essentials.

One challenge I’ve always faced with camera bags, using them as carry on luggage, is where to put my laptop. There is always room, but when in the front pocket, there is a lot of weight on it when the bag is put on its front. I’d love to see a bag with a removable laptop insert, that is rigid sided, protecting the laptop completely from knocks and the weight of the loaded bag. That said, I think this is a perfect bag for travel and adventure filmmaking. A bag which is big enough, strong enough, waterproof, can fit my laptop and jacket, can be worn all day, and still fit in carry on luggage. All in all I love this bag, and will use it until it falls apart, or more likely I do first.

Thomas Williams Contributor & Filmmaker

It was during the 1997 Balkan conflict (dubbed the ‘Croatian Stalingrad’) that Tom first became aware of the power of photography to tell the stories of people without voice, and the responsibility upon him to echo their call for help.

Over the years since studying in the UK and Finnish Lapland, he has worked with humanitarian and NGO organisations as a photographer and filmmaker that visually and faithfully represents the marginalised people they are serving. He has a constantly deepening conviction of his responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless.

Website here.