The piece of gear I get asked about more than any other is one I've found almost nothing about online, so I figure I'll use it for test driving writing gear reviews.
The fact that I love it also helps - articles about strong feelings are a hell of a lot easier and more fun to write than topics I'm totally apathetic about.
As much as I love doing stuff in the mountains, I also love documenting those experiences through photography. Photos help me look back years later and relive those experiences, without my photos, trips either blend together or worse, are completely forgotten.
Alpine photography is an interestingly conflicted proposition. On one hand, I shave grams out of my pack wherever I can. On the other I carry about 3kg of camera gear that in no way helps me accomplish my objective. Similarly, on one hand the mountains are a gear destroyingly harsh environment, on the other I carry thousands of dollars worth of delicate glass and electronics.
The question of ‘is the weight of a camera (especially a giant SLR) worth it‘ is a personal one and I can only say that for me, it is.
The question of ‘how do you keep from destroying your camera’, that one I can answer.
Ortlieb is a company well known in the bicycle community because they are the name brand in waterproof panniers. They are pretty much unknown in the mountains. Luckily, when I was working in a bike shop years ago, I was looking through our distributor’s catalog and noticed that Ortlieb also made a chest harness compatible camera bag called the Aqua Zoom with the same construction as their industry leading panniers. Waterproof materials bonded with RF welded seams and an opening that closes with what is basically a giant zip lock slider.
Ortlieb makes another camera bag called the V-Shot that is even more water proof (it's rated for brief submersion), but it uses a waterproof zipper around the perimeter, but my experience is that those waterproof zippers are pretty stiff and difficult to operate quickly. I'll try to get my hands on one for a future review.
I bought my first one seven years ago and it lasted six years of absolutely brutal use before the slide closure started to fail. It probably would have lasted longer if I had actually used the lubricant Ortlieb supplies with the bag.
When I finally had to replace it I took a look at the camera bag market and discovered that basically nothing had changed - Ortlieb was still the only company I could find that made a truly mountain-weather-proof bag and they (for better or worse) had made zero changes to the product in the intervening years - even the colour was the same. So I replaced the old one with a new one and didn't miss a beat.
When hiking, or skiing, you need a chest mount bag if you are carrying a big camera. If your camera is in your pack, you've missed the shot by the time you get it out. If you use a second shoulder bag or clip it to your harness, it just flops around and gets in the way. Small cameras you can clip to your waist belt, but big cameras need a chest mount.
To chest mount, you have two options - if your bag has at least two D-rings (basically if it has a removable strap) you can use a couple of small carabiners to clip it directly to the shoulder straps of your main pack. I'm not wild about this technique with bigger cameras because it can flop around and sucks while skiing. If your bag has four D-rings (like the Ortlieb), you can use an independent harness. The independent harness keeps things from bouncing around by holding the bag at all four corners. It also decouples your camera from your main pack so you can dump your big heavy pack and scramble to a better vantage for your shot.
Ortlieb sells a nice low profile harness with elastic in the upper straps which means less jarring on your neck when things get bouncy. You can also make your own solution out of webbing or plenty of other companies make harnesses.
But, this isn't about harness systems, this is about the bag itself.
So, let me get to the review part and give you the pros and cons about the Ortlieb Aqua Zoom.
The Ortlieb Aqua Zoom is actually, seriously weather proof. Sealed up I'd do a river crossing without any fear. I wouldn't want to hold it under water, but brief dunks or torrential rain are a total non-issue. That right there makes this a unique product. If you know of any other camera bag with that sort of ability to shrug off weather, please, please, please let me know.
The Ortlieb Aqua Zoom's slide lock is crazy fast. Combined with a chest mount you can be skiing or hiking and have the bag open and the camera out in two seconds. No excuse for missing a shot.
The bag is tough. While not crazy heavy, the material still looked new when I retired my old one. The slide lock is the weak point, but even it survived six years of heavy use. I don't have much gear that lasts two years, so points for durability.
Finally, the bag is a pretty ideal size for mountain use. It doesn't get in the way of moving but it's big enough to fit a bigger (but not enormous) lens. A 70-200 f/4 for example is no sweat. The f/2.8 I haven't tried, and could be pushing it though. That said, if you can carry glass that big on your chest all day, you're way tougher than I am.
I stashed a small padded square in the bottom of the bag to sort of create a second chamber and underneath that I keep a spare battery and shutter release. When shooting smaller primes, I've even kept a second lens in the bottom. Like a Tardis, it's bigger on the inside.
It's tough to find. If you live in Canada, you basically have no choice but to order it from the States, which means shipping and duty and exchange rates and ordering blind. You may get lucky and find that your local bike shop can get one in, but I struck out and ordered one across the border.
It's not cheap. I like cheap. That said, it's also going to last for years so maybe consider it an investment. Also, if it saves your camera, it probably paid for itself a bunch of times over.
The internal suspension system sucks. Two velcro adjustable braces hold the camera in place. In theory. In reality, the glue that attaches the main velcro panels to inside of the bag fails, the braces unvelcro themselves if you lift the camera out the wrong way and you end up having to readjust them pretty regularly right up until they just fall out for good. I was super choked that Ortlieb didn't fix this in the six years between when I bought my original bag and its replacement.
My final complaint is Ortlieb themselves. I've tried contacting them through their website with questions a couple of times but have never received a response. Last time I tried was a couple of years ago so maybe they've gotten better, but I would not bank on warranty coverage in Canada. Sort of a big deal. My second issue is that they haven't iterated the product to address any of its shortcomings. Change for the sake of change is dumb. Not trying to improve an imperfect product is equally dumb.
The Ortlieb Aqua Zoom is the best camera bag I've found for use in the mountains. It's tough enough to survive serious abuse, it's the only camera bag (other than Ortlieb's other bag, the V-Shot) I know of that actually protects your camera from multi-day seriously bad weather. It's fast to get in and out of, so you can't blame it for missing a shot. There are a couple of minor drawbacks with availability and the suspension system and then the big drawback of a questionable warranty.
Ultimately though, the very large pros outweigh the cons. This is the bag that lets you carry an expensive camera without freaking out over an inconvenient monsoon, blizzard, or dust storm.
Mountain Wagon Recommended.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.