A SlingShot in the park

Sometimes the stars and planets align, coincidences occur and things just all fall into place. With less than a week until I was due to take my children to Disneyland Paris, I still hadn't sorted out how I was going to carry my camera gear. My Lowepro Toploader Zoom 55 AW will hold my camera and lens, but very little else, and my DryZone 100 would be overkill for a long weekend in a theme park. As such, I was in a bit of a quandary. Then, as if conjured up by magic, an email arrived in my inbox asking if I'd review the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW. Eureka! Two birds, one SlingShot.

The bag

Once upon a time if you wanted a camera bag you had to choose which type suited you best; a rucksack or a shoulder bag? A rucksack may be more comfortable to carry, but needs to be removed to access your gear. A traditional gadget bag allows you to add and remove your equipment on the go, but can be a real weight around your shoulder after a day’s shooting. Decisions, decisions.

Then, sling-bags came along that offered the benefits of both. They can be worn on your back like a rucksack, making them comfortable to carry over long periods when full of gear. But the genius is that, with a clip and a swish, they can be swung round to the front allowing instant access to your camera for those shots that just appear out of nowhere. The process looks something like this:

Moving a sling-bag from the back to the front - I call it 'Doing the SlingShot'.

The 302 is one of the largest of Lowepro’s SlingShot bags (only the 350 AW is currently bigger) and will hold a Pro DSLR (or a standard DSLR complete with battery grip) with attached zoom lens (up to 70-200mm f2.8), 4-6 additional lenses or flash units and accessories, a compact tripod or monopod and personal items. I had no intention of taking that much photo gear, but by the time I’d packed my camera and lens, small flashgun, compact camera, associated chargers plus personal gear, the bag was reasonably full. I didn’t take a tripod or a monopod, but had I needed to one can be attached down the side of the bag.

The 302 AW with gear - sadly, not mine.
The SlingShot plus three-legged friend.

So with the Lowepro and cases packed and the kids sedated – sorry, I mean settled - in the back of the car for the journey to the airport, it was time to see if the SlingShot, and I, could cope with Disneyland.

The Ups...

As with most things Lowepro, the SlingShot 302 AW feels well made and well designed. Although I didn’t fill it to capacity, the customisable layout of the interior dividers meant that I was able to stow my camera gear safely and securely. Because I would be travelling with the bag, I opted not to use the exterior pockets, choosing instead to keep my phone and wallet within the main compartment of the bag. The only exception to this was a rolled-up waterproof jacket which was stowed in the top compartment of the bag which is meant for personal rather than camera related accessories.

The single shoulder strap, waist-belt and back-panel are reassuringly padded. With the straps properly adjusted, the SlingShot is an extremely comfortable bag to carry. The plastic buckles that snap the shoulder strap into the body of the bag and that join the front of the waist-belt also feel solid and are large enough to inspire confidence that they won’t accidentally come undone.

The back (or is it the front?) of the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW.

The Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW comfortably fits into the hand-luggage basket you find at airports and that dictates what can and can’t be taken on board the plane with you. I’m not sure that a metal tripod or monopod would be allowed on at all, regardless of size, so for air travel you would need to bear this in mind. The SlingShot also fitted easily into the overhead storage lockers and is robust and padded enough that I didn’t worry about any uncomfortable squishing as other, much larger hand-luggage was wedged in next to it.

The bus that shuttled us between our hotel and Disneyland itself was a little cramped to say the least; just when you thought it wasn’t physically possible to cram another human being into a bendy-bus, we would pull up outside another hotel and somehow manage to squeeze yet another flock of excited children and considerably less excited parents in too. Despite being a decent sized bag, the SlingShot rarely seemed to get in the way on my back, but when it did I simply unclipped the waist-belt and slid the Lowepro round to my front.

If this feature of the SlingShot was useful on the bus, it really came into its own in the park. Disneyland, it turns out, is quite big. As such, there was a fair amount of walking involved. When the kids spotted a ride they wanted to go on, or a Disney character signing autographs, there was also a fair amount of running. It also transpired that in France queuing is regarded as a competitive contact sport, so there was also a fair amount of pushing and shoving. As a result, the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW spent most of each day strapped to my back, quietly and unobtrusively getting on with the job of carrying my gear. Then, on the odd occasion where we would suddenly round a corner to find a genuine Disney celebrity walking towards us, or the children had managed to force their way to the front on the autograph scrum (“Knees and elbows, kids, knees and elbows”) I could unclip the waist belt and swing the bag round to grab my gear and shoot away, paparazzi style.

Papping the celebs was made easy with the SlingShot.

The main compartment of the Lowepro is opened via a large zipped flap which covers most of the front and one side of the bag. This allows full and easy access to the main storage area, making loading and arranging your camera gear straightforward. However, in use the flap is prevented from opening fully by 2 buckles which, with the bag swung round to the front, are at the top-front edge of the SlingShot 302 AW. With these in place only the side section of the flap can be opened, allowing you to quickly grab your camera and attached lens without the risk of spilling the remaining contents onto the floor. A neat little addition to this access system is the inclusion of a soft cloth on one side of the opening. This can be used to cover and protect your camera’s screen when stored in the bag, and ensures you always have a lens cleaning cloth to hand should somebody’s sticky ice-cream covered fingers get a little too close.

The quick access opening also has a protective and useful cleaning cloth.

Another handy feature which is found on many of Lowepro’s camera bags is the All Weather cover. This handy raincoat is what gives the SlingShot 302 its AW suffix. When not in use, this waterproof cover lives in a thin flap at the very bottom of the bag. Although the main material of the SlingShot is weather resistant, there may be times when the amount of rain or proximity to a water-based ride (both were issues during our time in Disneyland) require some additional protection. In these circumstances the cover can be pulled out and stretched over the bag, covering every side apart from the back-panel.

The All Weather cover - there's rain on them thar hills...

Other AW covers I have used, including the one on my Toploader 55 AW, require the carrying strap to be removed to fit the cover, and then reattached via slits in the waterproof material. Although the AW cover is useful, that arrangement has always annoyed me slightly. However, the SlingShot 302 AW is the first Lowepro bag I have used that doesn’t require this strap removal when fitting the cover. Instead, the AW raincoat has a couple of Velcro taps that simply wrap around the top of the shoulder strap, keeping the cover in place without the faff (a technical term meaning a small but disproportionately inconvenient process) of having to remove and then reattach straps.

All in all, then, a good, solid performance from the SlingShot 302 AW. As I would expect from Lowepro, the bag is functional and well designed, with a few extra tweaks that I wasn’t expecting but that make perfect sense and have impressed me. Still, if there’s one thing that a few days of Disneyland roller-coasters have taught me, it’s that the ups are only part of the story.

The Downs…

The first slight negative reared its head when packing the SlingShot ready for the trip. To quote Lowepro themselves:

Our newest, fast-access SlingShot AW series builds on the inventive design of the original and incorporates what many photographers are looking for: faster access, extra space for personal items, improved organization, and the ability to add a tripod.

The bit I’m particularly interested in is the “extra space for personal items”. The SlingShot 302 AW’s top compartment is the space designated for personal accessories, yet with my waterproof jacket (a particularly compact and lightweight model) rolled up tight in there I had very little room for anything else. The Saturday we were in Disneyland was particularly sunny, so I left the waterproof in the hotel room and just took a thick jumper in case it got colder later on. This only just fitted into the top compartment and required some wedging and a little straining of the zip. I know that the SlingShot 302 AW isn’t marketed as a day-pack type bag, but if you’re going to make space for personal accessories, at least make it a worthwhile usable space. If, as Lowepro say, this new SlingShot series offers extra space, then I can only assume that the original series must have barely provided enough room for your car keys.

Ok, it's a thick jumper, but still...

Putting the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW on and off also presented a bit of an issue. Because of the way the strap goes diagonally across the body, it has to go over your head, and there’s not a lot of room. As such, it easier to unbuckle the shoulder strap, put the bag in place, and then re-buckle it. The problem is that this is easier said than done when the bag contains reasonably heavy camera gear. More to the point, you have to make sure you’ve got a firm hold on the bag before unbuckling to take it off or the SlingShot will slide backwards and to the floor as soon as you unclip the strap. Yes, I speak from experience.

Hold tight before unbuckling.

There is a final downside worth mentioning. It wasn’t an issue for me, but I have raised it when looking at other bags, so it’s only fair to point out that the SlingShot 302 AW is lacking anywhere to put a laptop. I rarely take mine with me, but many photographers do and that’s simply not an option with this bag. It seems a bit harsh to list this as a particular downside of the SlingShot, so perhaps it’s fairer to just say that if you absolutely have to carry your laptop with you, you’ll need to look at a different bag.

The Round and Rounds…

Ok, so that title makes no sense and there are no round and rounds – I just liked the roller-coaster theme. And speaking of roller coasters, the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW came on all of the rides with me. Yep, all of them. It would either be on the seat next to me or wedged in by my feet, but every twist, turn and loop-the loop that I did, the SlingShot did it too. On one occasion, I even considered using the AW cover for a far less appropriate purpose (sick-bags are not provided on simulators) but luckily it didn't come to that.

I think that says a lot in itself (the fact it came with me - not the sick-bag issue). There was never a time where I thought "I'll leave the camera gear in the hotel today" or asked someone to hold it while I went on a ride. I've said it before and I'll say it again now - the best thing a bag can do is protect and look after your equipment without you having to give it a second thought. The Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW does just that. Sure, the personal space could be greater, but not without making the whole bag larger, and the strap system does require some thought, particularly when removing the bag, but that's a worthwhile price to pay for the convenience it offers.

100% tourist

So would I buy one myself? Well, that’s a difficult question. I’m not sure I can justify a third bag for the odd occasion when the Toploader is too little and the DryZone too much. That said, I could buy another 5 bags and still not match my other half’s collection of hand bags. Gratuitous sexism aside, I’ll probably stick with what I’ve got and aim to beg or borrow another SlingShot as and when I need to.

That said, if I was in the market for my first bag, or already owned one but needed a second, the Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW would be right at the top of my list. This was my first interaction with a sling bag, and I’m a convert – the system works. And, speaking personally, carrying a backpack with both straps is slightly un-cool – we used to call those people “two-strappers” when I was at school. Yes, I should have probably grown up by now, but I stand by the fact that the SlingShot looks far less geeky when being carried than a traditional camera rucksack, and although it doesn’t manage to completely disguise what it is, it doesn’t shout CAMERA BAG anywhere near as loudly as some.

The Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW, then – plane proof, Disney proof, and French-queue proof. Très bien.

Ratings

Build quality 9/10 Typically Lowepro - solid and trustworthy
Design 8/10 Clever, clever sling bag - just watch those buckles
Capacity 7/10 Could just do with a bit more non-camera space
Style 8/10 It's still a camera bag, but considerably smarter than many

Overall score:
8