In order to review a bag like the Lowepro Fastpack 350, you have to spend some quality time with it. I'm not talking about making restaurant reservations or taking it to the pictures, but simply pointing out that a straight-forward dissection of the bag that tells you how many pockets it has and what you can fit in it could be completed in less time that it takes to read this review, so would hardly make it worth writing. No, in order to determine if this is the kind of photo bag you could happily live with, I need to do just that - live with it. So, having been presented with the Lowepro Fastpack 350 by the Wex Photographic bureau of bag borrowing, I determined to make it my primary - nay, my sole bag of choice for the 2 weeks that it would be in my possession.
Week 1, Day 1
My first reaction to being given the Fastpack 350 is that it's quite a large looking bag - bulbous, even. Of course, camera bags can be a little deceiving in this way. Most normal rucksacks/daysacks look small when empty because, with no contents to plump them out, they sag in on themselves, thus reducing their outline. Photo bags on the other hand tend to be made of sterner stuff, and as such retain their full-size shape even when empty. Nonetheless, the 350 is the largest of the Fastpack range, so you would expect it to be a little on the big side, with its smaller siblings - the 250, 200 and the 100 - being potentially better suited to carriers of lighter loads.
All 4 Fastpack bags are dual compartment rucksacks, with the lower half of the bag being the camera-gear compartment, complete with padded dividers for a customiseable layout. The top compartment is for personal and/or camera/laptop accessories and features a removable cable pouch. In addition, a separate laptop compartment runs the full length of the bag at the rear of the pack, keeping your notebook against your back safe and secure when the bag is being worn. There are also several external pockets, including 2 zipped pockets on the front of the bag and a mesh pouch on the side. Unlike many of Lowepro's other bags, the Fastpacks do not feature an all-weather cover or any means of attaching a full-size tripod.
In terms of contents, the Fastpack 350 offers a pretty substantial capacity. According to Lowepro it will hold a pro-body DSLR (or a regular DSLR with a battery grip) with a lens attached (up to a 70-200mm f/2.8) plus 2-3 additional lenses, a flashgun, 17" widescreen laptop, memory cards, cables and personal accessories, such as a mobile-phone, a light jacket and an MP3 player. Truth be told, I don't anticipate needing all that space, but I'll only know for sure once I get the bag home and my gear in the bag.
Week 1, Day 2
Nope, I don't need all that space. My digital SLR doesn't have a battery grip, my standard lens is significantly smaller that a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, and my additional lenses and accessories don't come close to filling the inside of the Fastpack 350's camera compartment. My laptop is a modest 15.5" screen model, so even the notebook pouch has space to spare. I would probably have been fine with the Fastpack 250, but the additional space in the top compartment of the 350 is certainly useful for holding my lunch and waterproof jacket as I cycle to work with it on my back. However, the journey to work also highlights something else about the pack - the harness system is particularly comfortable, a result of it being nicely padded and fully adjustable. There's also a SlipLock attachment loop on the right shoulder harness, so I'm able to attach my mobile phone in its Lowepro pouch directly to this.
Week 1, Day 4
A couple of photo trips prove the Fastpack to be versatile and convenient. Depending on where I'm going I use the mesh pocket to hold a Gorillapod tripod or a bottle of water, while the other zipped pockets are ideal for car-keys, a wallet, a USB stick and a pair of sunglasses. Being summer-time in Britain, the waterproof jacket is a permanent resident in the top compartment, except when it's whipped out for some emergency drizzle-proofing. The way the bottom compartment of the bag works is a particular revelation. The "flap" of the compartment comes across the front of the bag and around the side. By just undoing the zip around the side of the bag it's possible to pull out the SLR with lens attached in the same way that you would remove a camera from a top-loading zoomster bag, without disturbing the rest of the contents. To get to the rest of the gear in the compartment all I have to do is unzip the rest of the flap for full access. The bag still seems quite big, though...
Week 1, Day 6
During a trip to London for a Wex Photographic/Canon Seminar, the Fastpack 350 gets a slightly alternative use. Yes, it houses my SLR and a couple of lenses plus a card reader (all in the lower camera compartment), but it's also used to carry my wash bag and change of clothes for an overnight stay in a hotel, including an ironed pair of trousers and a shirt in the laptop compartment! A smaller bag would not have sufficed on this occasion.
On the way home I see a gent on the tube with his family, looking as though they were travelling from Heathrow having returned from holiday. They have the usual collection of wheeled suitcases, but the gent also has a camera rucksack with him...a Lowepro Fastpack 350 no less! Absolutely true, I promise!
With hindsight I suppose I should have approached him and asked what he kept in his bag, why he chose that particular model and several other useful questions. But no - I'm a typically reserved British male, as was he. I looked at his bag, he looked at my bag, we made eye contact, shared a nod of mutual appreciation and I mumbled "Nice bag" before getting off at the next station (not my stop) to avoid any further uncomfortable conversation.
Week 2, Day 2
Back on the cycle-commute to work the Fastpack's lack of an all-weather cover proves something of a concern as an early morning shower threatens to soak the bag and its contents (including my lunch). Luckily my route to work misses the worst of the wet, but the experience suggests that the Fastpacks are not designed as out-and-out outdoors bags - better suited to an urban walk-about than a rural trek.
Week 2, Day 5
Another fully-loaded workout for the Fastpack 350, this time to the launch of a new SLR from Canon (which turns out to be the EOS 60D). This time the Fastpack is being used exactly as it was intended and is all but full. My laptop is in the notebook pocket, my EOS 50D and lens are in the camera compartment along with a borrowed 550D and lens, an additional lens, spare camera batteries and a card reader. The top compartment holds the laptop's power adapter, battery chargers for both the 50D and the 550D, USB cables, spare memory cards and a notepad and pen. Even fully loaded the bag is comfortable to carry and convenient to use.
Week 2, Day 7
So with my 2 weeks up, what are my final thoughts? Well, the Fastpack 350 is a nicely designed bag that's particularly well built. It's a straight-forward no-nonsense rucksack and doesn't pretend to be anything but. The compartments are nicely laid out and convenient to use, while the extra pockets are genuinely useful.
My only real reservation is with the size of the Fastpack 350. I can't help but think that a photographer who is carrying the type and quantity of equipment that the 350 holds will find the lack of an all-weather cover a little disconcerting and the lack of a tripod mount plain annoying. For this reason, the Fastpack 250 and 100 make more sense as urban photography rucksacks, although the decent harness suggests that they could be so much more.
But if all you want is a basic rucksack that will hold a sensible amount of photo gear and your top-of-the-range 17" widescreen laptop and accessories, then the ridiculously low price of the Fastpack 350 certainly makes it well worth considering - and if a weather-proof cover is really that important, you can use the money you've saved to buy one from a camping shop.
Finally then, whilst it's true that you don't get something for nothing, with the Lowepro Fastpack 350 you do get quite a lot for not a lot, and you might like that - a lot.
A well designed, well built bag with plenty of storage capacity and versatility. Offers excellent protection and great value.
Maybe too big for everyday use about town and a lack of an all-weather cover and tripod mount may rule it out for serious outdoor photographers.
|Style||7/10||Looks like a camera bag. Which it is.|
|Build||9/10||Typical quality Lowepro construction.|
|Design||8/10||Great interior - just missing a couple of exterior features.|
|Handling||8/10||Convenient and versatile|