Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Just because it's good doesn't mean I'll like it.
The Long Version: When I first started out I had a couple of Lowepro bags. I mean, we've all been there, right? But then we move on. So it was with a certain sense of shock that I realized that a Lowepro "Stealth Reporter D200 AW" was the perfect travel bag for a recent bus trip to New York City.
Lowepro overwhelmingly makes ugly black nylon camera buckets. Fetishistically complicated, too heavily padded, and adorned with flaps, zippers, and clasps, they're exactly what every beginning photographer thinks they need. Lacking the soul of a Domke or the class of a Billingham, Lowepro is the Nike of the camera bag world: ubiquitous in the stores, heavily promoted, but outside of paid endorsements it's never seen with people who really know what they're doing. For those in the know, that oval logo with its orange accent is the photographic equivalent of wearing track pants while eating microwaved pizza.
But you know, sometimes they actually make pretty decent bags.
Take my travelling companion, the "Stealth Reporter". Aside from the brutal `90's flashback name – an italics "stealth" is even embroidered onto the back panel, in black thread on black nylon, as if that makes it okay – there's not all that much to complain about. The padding is dense but thin, so it doesn't take up most of the bag's capacity, and the buckles and zippers aren't tremendously objectionable. The bag doesn't really hide any nasty surprises: it's quite honest about them.
My biggest complaint about the nylon camera bucket school of bag design is solidly represented by the D200: it never gets any smaller. The 'stealth' even has plastic stiffeners between its layers of fabric that serve no purpose except to force the bag into its particular shape. When it's stuffed full it can't flex to accomodate its contents, and when it's nearly empty it isn't any more agreeable to carry. Stiffly padded nylon bags, no matter who they're made by, will always be my second choice when I could use a Billingham or Domke bag instead.
The Stealth Reporter D200 is a working bag that's designed for travel with a moderate amount of gear. It has a strap to fit over luggage trolleys, a rear external slash pocket, and a rear internal pocket that can fit paper folded in half – think E-Tickets – with a zippered sub-compartment that fits a passport. This is really important for a travel bag: along with its SLR-friendly capacity, it's a big part of why I swallowed my pride and took the Stealth to New York.
The front of the bag has two external organizer pockets, including one that's lined to protect gadget screens, a front slash pocket, and space between the nylon shell and the padded bucket that's also equipped with with an inner divider. All of these are full-height and quite narrow, so they're not for storing gear, but can hold thin or flat items like a travel hard drive or maybe a few sticks of gum. Forget about finding small items in a hurry – while on my trip it actually took me about twenty minutes to go through the bag thoroughly enough to accept that I'd left my wallet at home.
The front exterior slash pocket also has two small pockets near its top that are sized to fit a standard-sized DSLR battery in each. Very clever, but it violates a fundamental photographic rule: never make two things the same size. If Lowepro had made these pockets slightly different sizes, then perhaps I could have fit a battery in one and done something outrageous with the other, like carry a pack of mints as well as a tube of chapstick. Apparently that's not something that Lowepro expects "photojournalists and news photographers" to do.
The inside of the nylon and foam camera-bucket compartment is unsurprising and in need of a refresh. It has a standard velcro-and-dividers approach, but unlike newer bags that are completely lined with the soft loopy fabric, the Stealth Reporter D200 has specific strips of it that restrict where the dividers can be placed. My Kata 3N1-22 – which I used to think had a dumb name – has the same flaw but has since been updated. Perhaps Lowepro will make a Pro Stealth Reporter that fixes this in the future.
I went to New York with the bag in its stock configuration, which let me carry the D800 with a grip attached down the middle, a mid-size prime on each side, and accessories and non-camera necessities in the other two lens-sized compartments. Another option is to have two big cameras and two skinny lenses stored separately; keeping a lens on a camera is possible, but I'm rarely a fan of carrying gear this way.
An unusual feature of the bag is a weatherproofed pass-through zipper built into the lid. Some people want this to be for easy access to the camera, but with the D200 you can forget about birthing anything larger than a mid-sized lens through it. With reasonable expectations it actually turns out to be rather useful, as it bypasses the zippers and clips that keep everything bolted down the rest of the time. But designing a bag with an extra zipper to provide a convenient way to bypass its other buckles and zippers is an excellent example of solving the wrong problem.
Like almost all of its siblings, the Stealth Reporter is very well built; something tells me that Lowepro bags and cockroaches will be the ones locked in a battle for supremacy after a nuclear war. This one also has a rain cover sewn into a special compartment in the bottom if the bag, Lowepro-style; I immediately cut it free, Kata-style, to reduce the bag's bulk and give me a little bit of space for soft things like hats or really small jackets.
There is one feature of the Stealth Reporter that I initially scoffed at – hard to imagine, I know – but actually turned out to be quite useful. It includes a small nylon toiletries bag that has a zipper along three sides, and even has a clear business-card holder on the front. (There's another of those on the outside of the D200 as well.) This is where I put all of the little odds and ends: phone charger, extra film, batteries, and so on. Essentially, anything small that would have happily gone in the front pockets of a Domke or a Billingham can go into this pouch that only took up one of the four available lens slots.
By having all of the bits and pieces collected in the toiletries bag it was easy for my to take the entire pouch out through the lids' pass-through zipper, retrieve what I needed, and then slip the rest away again. This pouch even adds orange trim around its edges, making it easier to find inside the Reporter's relentlessly grey-on-grey nylon interior. And because it's carried inside the bag, this small concession to usability and styling doesn't detract from the bag's Stealthiness.
The bag also includes a massive nylon memory card wallet that can hold a dozen compact flash cards. It's very impressive, and has a little loop that lets it be tethered to either of the bags' two keyfob leashes, as well as a simple velcro belt loop that lets it attach to any of the six lash points on the outside of the bag. I can see this being very useful for people who don't like cards that are higher than 4GB capacity in this era of 75MB raw files. Unfortunately it's not quite big enough to also hold a portable hard drive, but one could be tucked into a couple of the front slash pockets easily enough.
The Reporter can carry a substantial amount of gear, but despite its size the D200 is a pretty small bag. Two cameras with two small lenses or flashes, or one camera with a big lens or two. The height of the bag means that smaller lenses can be stacked with other items, which was very handy for travel, but like all bags it's easier to work out of when it's not stuffed to the gills.
As a travel and working bag, the Stealth Reporter is excellent if you happen to like this kind of thing. It solves some very specific problems better than my other bags: it holds two big SLRs, like the D800 and F5 pictured above, can fit a bunch of lenses, and securely carries travel documents. Make no mistake – the Lowepro Stealth Reporter is a high-quality product and exceptionally good at its job.
Lowepro makes very clever bags, and they make dozens of them. Each one is conceived for a certain use or niche (rhymes with quiche) with all kinds of little tweaks and bits that pull the bags away from general-purpose and toward specialization. Whether their designs are widely copied, like the Slingshot, or blatant copies, like their Pro Messenger series, these aren't versatile bags that will become cherished classics.
Notwithstanding all of the Stealth's many strengths, I'm not a fan of the Lowepro's aesthetics, dislike its design objectives, and don't agree with its stiffly-padded worldview. But it did what I wanted and, since I bought it at a clearance sale, it cost what I was willing to pay. The last time I bought a camera bag with expediency and budget as my main considerations I ended up with the Lowepro Micro Trekker, which I hated after just a few hundred miles, so compared to that the Stealth Reporter and I are off to a great start.
If only they had picked a different name.
last updated 29 june 2012