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23/6/2008 – The Mountainsmith Correspondent : A Versatile, Rugged, Do-It-All, General Purpose Rolling Camera Bag
For years I have used and trusted the Mountainsmith Tour pack as my ‘do it all’ shooting bag. Having used the Mountainsmith Tour waist pack as a versatile multi-purpose platform, as well as the Tour’s ‘larger brother’ the Mountainsmith Day pack and the Mountainsmith Parallax photo backpack, Mountainsmith seemed like the logical option when searching for a new soft-sided rolling camera bag.
When looking for a new soft-sided rolling camera bag I kept in mind that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect bag,’ however the Mountainsmith Correspondent came across as the most versatile rolling camera bag. When choosing my equipment I generally choose versatility over all other deciding factors. In the business of traveling as a photographer every assignment is different, ever need is different, every packing situation is different, and versatility is key.
Having now used the Mountainsmith Correspondent for approximately two months, I have used this rolling camera bag on a variety shooting and travel situations. From ‘valet’ checking the Correspondent on small regional jet flights, to rolling it down the aisle of a Boeing 747-400to right now, as I write this review of the Correspondent while sitting on a Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 with the bag in the overhead above me in Seat 3D, the bag has exceeded my expectations.
What makes the Mountainsmith Correspondent different? For starters the versatile design of the bag has at times let me travel with only this bag. No backpack or secondary camera bag. I can do my job in just this one bag and a waist-pack/belt system (which is what I wear and work out of when shooting). Being able to place everything I need inside a single bag when getting on a place is great.
A unique feature of the Correspondent is it’s interior main compartment. The interior main compartment can be configured for all camera equipment by utilizing two independent and padded zippered ‘cubes.’ These ‘cubes are secured by heavy Velcro on three sides. The interiors of the ‘cubes’ come with a variety of semi-rigid dividers that allow you configure each ‘cube’ individually. The padding around each ‘cube’ is not space consuming, however it is significant in its protections abilities. Having been forced to ‘valet’ check my Corresponded loaded with camera equipment on a number of regional jet flights (and a turbo-prop flight) I have had not once single piece of equipment damaged. The Correspondent is now one of only three bags I would trust to ‘valet’ checking on a regional jet (although I would still never check this bag as baggage with camera equipment in it, that is still reserved for only Pelican cases). If I packed a little tighter could add a third body, and two more ‘short’ lenses.
In the two fully packed cubes can hold a significant amount of equipment. Generally my wedding photography kit consists of two full-sized bodies, 8 lenses, a flash (sometimes two), an ETTL cord, battery CF card wallet, and 3 spare sets of “AA” batteries
The Correspondent’s design of two individual cubes makes configuring the bag for multi-purpose use very easy. For short overnight-trips where my camera equipment needs are not extensive, or when traveling to meetings, I can remove the top ‘cube’ leaving only the bottom ‘cube’ in place. With this set up I generally place two full-size camera bodies and two lenses (16-35f2.8 & 70-200f2.8) in the lower ‘cube’ while packing my clothing in the upper open interior compartment. Being able have one bag do double duty is fantastic. This set up for minimal camera equipment and space for clothes is also nice for a weekend getaway where you want to pack some gear, but don’t need all the usual trappings of traveling as photographer.
The front pocket of the Mountainsmith has a full-size laptop slot that can accommodate a laptop up to 17″. While many rolling camera bags are missing a laptop slot, or only have a smaller laptop slot, this is a nice feature. Along the front flap of the exterior of the front pocket are slots for your pens, as well as a small mesh pocket which I tend to use for loose change and my keys. Having this mesh pocket at the top of the flap makes accessing my keys easy when the bag is loaded and I’m wandering through the parking lot looking for my car.
When traveling with a full camera kit with me to shoot a job, I often use the large front pocket to pack my clothes. In this front pocket I place my folded shirt inside the laptop slot to keep them neat and unwrinkled. The main compartment holds two t-shirts, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, the laptop slot holds two dry-cleaned (folded) shirts, and a space pair of pants can be folded and placed in the main compartment over the ‘cubes.’ This is actually how I am packed at the moment for my travel over the next two days.
The exterior wall of both the ‘cubes’ and the main pocket are lines with see-thru plastic pockets. I tend to use these pockets for space camera batteries, flashlight, at times travel documents and other random items. With the Canon 5D/20d series bodies (with extended battery grips, roughly the same size as a Canon 1D or Nikon D3 body) I use the lower pocket on the wall of the main pocket to hold four compact battery chargers and a Manfrotto 3007 mini-tripod, while the pockets on the flaps of the ‘cubes’ can be a bit tight, they are a good place to store lens caps, body caps and a CF card wallet.
When the front pocket is packed with clothing I obviously travel with a backpack or other shoulder bag to accommodate items such as my laptop. Depending on my needs, this bag tends to be either North Face Surge when I need to carry more gear or a Mountainsmith Day when I need less gear. Despite the Mountainsmith Day’s compact side it easily holds both a 13″ MacBook or a 15″ MacBook Pro.
On the top of the bag, under the business card slot, you’ll find a small zippered pocket. This pocket is an idea place to store your spare lock and zip-cable. I like keeping my lock-and-cable combo in a location that requires no digging around so I can quickly get it out and lock up my bag when I sit down.
From a security point of view, the design of the zippers make locking the bag very easy. I prefer zippers that are durable rather than ‘tied rope’ as quite a few camera bags have, as this zipper style appears to be much harder to breach.
The exterior front of the bag is an ‘open slot’ to carry a tripod, along with a lashing strap to secure the tripod. Since I don’t travel with full-size tripods, and rarely if ever secure a tripod to the exterior this feature is lost on me, but I know quite a few photogs who do, so I thought it was worth mentioning
Just above the tripod slot are three lash tabs, this is a feature I have used a few times. I have at various times, for a variety of reasons use a carabineer to secure a Newswear pouch to the outside while in transit. I have also use a Velcro securing strap to lash a fleece vest or water proof shell to the outside of the bag when walking through an airport.
I’ll end this review of the Mountainsmith Correspondent with its ability to withstand Mother Nature. At the base of the Correspondent, on the front main flap, is a raincoat tucked away in it’s own pocket. Affixing the raincoat is ease and can come in very hands when weather turns on you in a hurry!
If I could change two minor features in the bag they would be this
1) Make the retractable handle I use when rolling the bag 2″ (5cm) longer, but that is a common request I have for nearly every rolling bag I have used.
2) Have the front entry flap open to the side instead of out to the front. This is a personal preference as I know many people prefer the ‘lay-flat’ front entry.
For my purposes the Mountainsmith Correspondent has an excellent bag. I look forward to continuing to schlep this bag through airports with me when my travels require me to use a rolling bag.
Below are a few detail photos of my Mountainsmith Correspondent. These photos show certain details of the bag, as well as different ways I sent my bag up for different shooting/travel needs.