Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Does the world really need another acronym?
The Long Version: Kata's Source 261PL backpack is an interesting beast. It's not a typical photo backpack, and doesn't come with dozens of little dividers that can be arranged in hundreds of ways. Instead it's intended for the very small niche (rhymes with quiche) of people who use elaborate shoulder-mounted stabilizing rigs to counteract some of the ergonomic flaws of using an SLR as a movie camera. Kata has chosen the unfortunate acronym "VDSLR" to describe these hybrids – now with video! – but thankfully that only appears in the product literature and isn't engraved on the bag anywhere. As a further relief, Google shows that the term is far less common than "HDSLR", so at least it's not catching. But I digress.
The Source 261 is part of the new Kata range of "Pro Light" bags. Compared to the other bags on the shelf the weight difference can be quite striking, but the bag certainly hasn't compromised its strength or design. The back panel has a rigid plastic layer that provides a sturdy structure, and this is echoed in the semi-rigid sides that provide additional strength and crush-proofing. While the bag is still quite new, I have no doubts about both its long-term durability and its ability to protect the contents.
The main compartment of the bag is a large wedge that's shaped to hold something narrow and boxy on the bottom but broad at the top. An SLR on a shoulder mount or a small video camera should be just about perfect, although some of the projecting accessories will likely need to be adjusted or dismounted. There are also two narrow compartments on the sides, which start tall and get shorter toward the top of the bag.
There are some additional photos showing the bag with its intended gear on Kata's website, which is a good place to look for information on its typical use; I can only address my own highly atypical purpose. I bought the 261PL to carry my Fujifilm GX680 system, reviewed here, which is no easy task. This bag isn't quite perfect for that particularly demanding job, but it's far better than anything else I've seen.
The Kata 261 comes with a couple of large dividers that can span the main compartment, and I use one of them to partition off the bottom of the pack to hold my second lens and the reversible silver/black pack cover. The other creates a little pocket that holds my light meter in the left-side compartment, and my viewfinder sits below and beside it. Still in the left compartment, I've placed a couple of the small dividers to create more compartments to hold a compact digital camera, film, and other small items. These are positioned at an angle because the rigid dividers are sized to fit fairly specific spots along the tapered bag, and this lets me put them a little higher up in the narrowing compartment.
It's hard to overstate just how big the Fujifilm GX680III is, and how unreasonable my demands are on this bag. At nine inches tall, the camera is putting some stress on the main compartments' zippered-shut panel once the bag is closed. There are some pockets on that lid – one large internal pouch, and a two-slot pocket on the outside – that I can't use because there's simply no room left. There are also two side pockets that zip flat along the side of the pack; these are designed to hold small water bottles when the pockets are left open, but could hold memory cards or similar thin items when they're zipped closed. All told I haven't found a whole lot of reason for them to be there, but it's good to have options.
The right-hand side compartment holds my second film back, which is about the size of a standard DSLR, and above that there's plenty of room for my second bellows. It goes without saying that the fourteen inch length of the camera takes up the bulk of the main compartment, but it's a nice touch that there's an interior strap that's attached to the back of the pack. Designed to hold those long shoulder mounts, this keeps the camera secured even when the bag is open and keeps the weight off of the zippered lid.
Of course no backpack would be complete without somewhere to hold a laptop, and this big bag can hold a big computer. This isn't something that I've tried, since I would also need to carry a film scanner and a minilab with me, but the large compartment is where I tuck my tripod's carrying bag when I'm working. While the 261PL does come with the doodads to hook a tripod to it, this is really only practical with a lighter support than the ten-pounder that I use. The attachments can go on either side, which would leave the pack off-balance, or across the centre of the bag, which puts more weight on the zippered cover for the main compartment.
All of these Pro-Light series backpacks are distinguished by two things: their naming system, which combines a non sequitur with letters, and the extensive use of light-but strong EVA foam. The back panel is mostly EVA, while the interior panels are layered closed-cell foam and stiff plastic. The result is a light bag that's able to carry a considerable weight. When I first started using the Source 261PL I would be quite surprised to discover just how heavy the loaded bag is when I needed to take it off; the full bag is probably in excess of twenty pounds, but it really isn't objectionable when it's on.
The compromise with a backpack is that they're easy to carry but hard to work from. When I'm taking photos I'll often want to change film backs, and occasionally switch lenses and bellows as well. This means that I've really come to appreciate the big red zipper pulls on the three main compartments. Made from soft plastic, these are formed in semi-circles that are perfect for putting a finger through, and make it easy to open and close the bag. Even better, their excellent visibility make it very easy to see when the bag isn't closed properly, which could lead to tragic results with the 261's vertically-opening compartments.
Wearing the Kata backpack is always going to be a matter of personal taste, although its adjustable straps may help people tailor its fit slightly. It's comfortable on my 5'11½" frame, and even without the hip belt I'll have no problem wearing it for extended periods. That belt isn't on the bag in these photos, as I often don't use it when I'm just puttering around in the city, but they come in very handy for extended walking. They're made from the same EVA foam as the shoulder strap pads, which is strong and comfortable but takes up a lot of space when the bag's sitting on the subway seat beside me. The good news is that it's fairly quick to switch the bag into the needed configuration – I wouldn't hesitate to add them if I need to carry the bag for more than a couple of kilometers.
I had a fairly unpleasant introduction to camera backpacks, and have since concentrated on finding the right shoulder bags for everything that I need. My Kata 261 has been a revelation, and now I'm idly thinking about the possibility of adding another Kata backpack to replace my tricked-out Domke F1X. It probably won't happen unless I develop the need to carry my portable studio significant distances, but the fact that I'm considering it at all is huge.
The Kata bag that I've bought solves a very specific problem that very few people have, and it does it remarkably well. If I ever decide that my life needs another camera backpack, I'll be looking at the other Kata Pro-Light series bags first.
last updated 24 feb 2011