Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I took too long to write this.
The Long Version: There are two very real problems with online product reviews: there's no way to gauge how relevant the reviewer's experience is, and they might be a bit of a dolt.
When I was looking for information about Kata's 3N1-22 backpack, most of the comments were very positive. But there are always exceptions, and typically they would fail in the same fundamental way. My favourite example can be paraphrased as "I gave it 3 stars just because it's very narrow. I wish they made it wider, like a normal school backpack." Never mind that the largest member of the 3N1 family fits this description perfectly – it's a great illustration of the difference between reviewing the actual product and creating a wish list for something else.
Camera bags are expensive, everyone's equipment is different and the success of each combination becomes very personal. It's too easy to make a bad choice and then blame the bag for it.
Even when I bought my Kata 3N1-22, I wasn't completely sold on it. It's a very complicated bag that can switch into all manner of configurations, but at the same time it lacks a fundamental flexibility and is missing a couple of features that I like. Despite that, three things convinced me to buy it: my 11" Macbook Air fits like a glove, its narrow width doesn't block my view when I do a shoulder-check on my bike, and I've been pleased with my much larger Kata 261PL pack. Really, if it wasn't for each of those three things, I wouldn't have the 3N1-22.
I've done something a little different for writing this review. Before I bought the bag, I made a list of the things that I thought would be issues for me – sort of a pro/con list without the "pro" side. So here's what I was worried about, and what I think of it after a couple of months of use.
Not enough velcro to reposition the lower dividers. As I use the 3-in-1 to carry a lot of different gear, I find that I'm constantly butting into limits with its internal configuration. The lower two-thirds of the camera compartment is fairly accessible and can have dividers added or removed but only within a small range of permitted positions. The top third of the camera compartment is a de facto different section that runs across the middle of the bag, and is mostly accessible from either side but only with great difficulty from the front. The very top of the bag has an "other stuff" compartment with plenty of room for odds and ends; it's reached via a generous top zipper. The floor of this section can also be unzipped and folded out of the way to create a single-compartment bag.
My heaviest load has been my two Nikon SLRs, two SB600 speedlights, and my small three-lens kit of the AF-D 85/1.8 50/1.8 and 35/2. Cables and the rest went into the top compartment, and I had my little Macbook Air down the back. Alternatively, I've carried the same two bodies along with one really big lens (Sigma 180/3.5 or the Nikon 85/2.8 PC-E) and the medium-big 105/2.8VR. The D700 with a grip will squeak in, but this isn't like a Billingham or a Domke that can carry far more than you would expect. Actually, it carries a little less.
My small-camera setup has the PCM-D50 audio recorder in the middle compartment, and the lower section holds a Panasonic GH1 with the 20/1.7 attached along with the 14-140 and 7-14 Panasonic lenses. There's still room for my Zeiss Ikon and ZM 1,5/50 and 2/35, but it takes a lot of fiddling to make everything fit. For my daily commute I'll only carry one little camera with a single lens, and perhaps my small gorillapod for the audio recorder, and then that leaves enough room up the side of the bag for an umbrella and a water bottle.
Between photo outings and commuting I can easily need to rearrange the dividers a couple of times a week. I don't often miss my Think Tank Glass Taxi, which is a similar size and shape to the midsize 3N1, but I do miss its all-grippy interior that came with more partitions than an office cubicle farm. The lack of velcro positions for the camera compartment remains my biggest complaint about the bag, and the reason why I'm still occasionally disappointed by the 3N1-22.
Zippers around the top compartment can't slide past the top handle easily. This was a bit of a nuisance in the store, but as the bag has broken in the difference in the lid's flexibility around the large handle has lessened. By keeping the twin zippers on one end of their run it's fairly easy to zip past the potential hang-up, and I've become used to this quirk and it doesn't really bother me any more. What I do miss are some of the features from their newer 'Pro Light' bags, like my monster Source 261PL, such as the better zipper pulls, lighter fabric, and EVA foam.
It's too long and high for a practical sling bag, and can't be worn in front for extended periods. I tried wearing the bag as a sling pack in the store, and wasn't impressed. In over three months of actual use I've never felt the need to try carrying the bag this way; if I want a bag that's easily accessible in front of me, I'll use a traditional shoulder bag. It's not that I don't like sling bags: it's a great idea for small bags that really doesn't scale up very well. I find the 3N1-22 awkward and bulky, but I'll use my little MEC Pod for day trips on a regular basis. I will use the 3n1's side access points to get into the bag when I carry it as a backpack, though, so the design is still useful.
No water bottle holder or external pockets. I've had to find ways to work around this one. For daily use I don't usually carry a lot of camera gear, so I can carry a water bottle and/or umbrella inside the bag instead of a long lens. When I'm on the bike I"ll have a pannier, which is great for commuting and removes the need to carry water with my camera bag when I'm out on a biking photo excursion.
Tall slim pockets on the outside of the bag would be great for their additional carrying capacity and to move potentially damp bottles away from the electronics. The catch is that it's completely counter to the design of an ambidextrous sling bag, and would take the place of the side-access panels. I've grown to appreciate those, because I use them when I just take the backpack off of one shoulder – typically to reach an umbrella or a beverage, which is exactly what I would put in an exterior pocket. What can I say? I'm conflicted, and never claimed to be consistent.
But I do unequivocally like the two small side pockets at the top of the bag; one holds my wallet and phone, while the other houses my TS3. The top Other Stuff compartment is excellent, being just big enough to tuck a DVD case across the top, with plenty of room for snacks and the other odds and ends that I carry everywhere. To me this compartment is the 'killer app' of the bag, and is what lets it be a practical day bag that also carries camera gear.
So it's fair to say that there are at least a couple of instances of my wanting the 3N1-22 to be a bag that isn't the one that Kata has made. But with all of that said, the medium-sized 3N1 – with or without the laptop compartment, as suitable – remains an easy bag to recommend. It shows all the signs of Kata's usual exceptional construction quality, and its basic layout of camera gear on the bottom and an Other Stuff compartment on the top is incredibly useful.
While the dividers don't have much flexibility in how they can be arranged, I can usually make them work, and it's nice to know that I can even pull them all out and use the bag with no internal partitions at all. In the three months that I've spent writing this review I have come to like the bag more, but nothing about it has really surprised me. It's a solid and innovative camera bag from a company with a history of doing that sort of thing.
Finally, I have to acknowledge the downside of taking so much time to learn the bag before publishing my thoughts. Almost every single one of my complaints – the biggest ones, certainly – are about to be addressed by the new 3N1-25 model from Kata. Time will tell how much better the new one will be, and in the future I may have another review to write. In the mean time, I'll continue to plug along with the soon-to-be-old "22" model, which has the distinction of being superseded within days of my finishing a three-month review. Sometimes life can be like that.
last updated 31 aug 2011