I will begin this review with the conclusion: there is no better all-around camera bag than the Domke F3x. Now continue reading to find out why. Or save yourself the time and just order one.
Perhaps no single camera bag can do everything, but there is no finer, better designed, everyday bag than the F3x. My first Domke F3x was given to me by another reporter when I worked at The Daily Record. Rakim had carried the bag on many assignments as a newspaper journalist and as a photographer for the U.S. Army. I was about to leave the newspaper to work in Central America and he knew I needed a good bag. Rakim, like too many veterans, is no longer among the living, and writing these words, seeing them in black and white, makes me think of happier times. He was a talented journalist and a good friend for the relatively brief time our paths overlapped. Fifteen years after he gave me that bag, the F3x is still my primary means of carrying a camera. I still have that bag in fact—which I imagine is close to 25-years-old — patched, faded, strap replaced, and still perfectly functional. I also have two others. I keep my Nikon D800 in a newer black canvas F3x and my Leica M-P in a brown, waxed cotton model that Domke calls, “RuggedWear.”
The F3x does not appear to be a particularly large bag but I marvel at what can be stuffed into one. On a four month trip to Central America some years ago I put a Nikon D1x, a 17-35 2.8 Nikkor zoom, a Tamron super zoom, a Leica M6ttl with a 50mm Summicron, a 15mm Vogtlander Super Heliar, a Olympus Stylus Epic, all the peripheral gear and… wait for it… A Nikonos V. I didn’t carry all that around with me while working but it got me through the airports and moving from place to place.
Part of the reason the Domke bags are so adaptable is that, unlike most other camera bags, they are made from natural materials: canvas, waxed cotton, and natural rubber woven into the strap to help it grip your shoulder. It is amazingly waterproof and wear-resistant, and when the bag isn’t stuffed like a magic clown car it molds itself to your body and gear rather than remaining an awkward nylon box. For the same reasons, the Domke also maintains a lower profile and has a style that doesn’t scream “camera bag” to the uninitiated but does say, “professional” to those in the know.
The original Domke bag was invented by Jim Domke, a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer back in the 1970s. There is a reason why so many generations of photojournalists have used the Domke — and only the Domke — and why so many younger photographers end up with one after trying bag after bag. Domke bags were designed by a working shooter for a daily paper. There is no photography job that will refine your gear like working for a daily, and for all the industry has changed with the rise of digital, the actual act of carrying a camera and shooting the news (or anything else) really hasn’t changed much at all.
Too many bags market a profusion of specific pockets, places for filters and lenses and this and that. The problem is that everyone has different gear and that gear is all different sizes. Oftentimes there will be clever pockets that end up as wasted space. They don’t fit your gear or shooting style. Even worse, people find their bag forces them into certain gear rather than accepting a variety of gear and the changing requirements of diverse assignments. Domke bags have removable, adaptable, dividers that can be easily changed to suit a photographer’s individual needs. The pockets are well thought out and properly sized to fit a wide variety of gear and allow secure storage as well as easy access. On the back of nearly every model is an open pocket that fits a notebook (a critical piece of photography gear that rarely is given a place). Not having a place for an easily accessed notebook is, in my view, a sure sign of a carelessly designed bag made for amateurs.
People are often concerned that Domke bags, which seem relatively unstructured, won’t properly protect their precious gear. The design of the bag, however, protects gear better than heavily structured bags. To begin with, the bottom of Domke bags, the part that hits the ground most often, have extra padding. The velcro-adaptable inserts provide additional padding, and the natural fabric of the bag provides a surprising amount of protection: surrounding and cradling your equipment. As well, something of the nature of the bag, its style and comfort, makes you keep it close by. It feels right sitting on your shoulder and has that extra bit of space into which you can stuff a scarf or light fleece, a sandwich or a souvenir acquired in some exotic location. I have carried valuable gear across four continents and 15 countries over the course of nearly 20 years, in every climate and every type of weather, and have never broken anything, never had anything damaged or wet. I can think of no stronger testament to the bags and their ability to transport and protect your gear.
There are bigger and smaller bags and I use a combination of the aforementioned F3x bags, a classic black F2 that is a little bigger, and a Domke F5XZ RuggedWear bag that is smaller. I use each bag to store a different set of gear, complete with some standard items, but I freely swap gear between them depending on the assignment.
I’ll end where I began. If you are looking for a bag to go everywhere, to be your constant companion, and to encourage you to always have your camera with you, then you can’t pick a better all-around bag than the Domke F3x. FP