I have been purchasing so many different photographer's bag and luggages. I think I have 2 sling bag, 4 messengers, 3 backpacks, 1 roller, more than 15 smaller bags and pouches. The brands from Lowepro, Thinktank, National Geographic and other generic brands as well (mostly used for local weddings). I was trying to achieve these main points:
1) To not look like a camera bag / luggage so that its not too obvious and attract attention.
2) Cabin bag / luggage - To not look overweight during check in.
3) Cabin bag / luggage - To not hurt my back / legs during travel.
4) To include as much gears as possible in 1 bag / luggage.
5) Gears to be well protected.
Most domestic weddings are never a worry, because I have plenty of space in my car, but the challenge only arise when I have to travel further.
I started with a camera back pack, The Vanguard backpack was awesome, the shoulder padding was amazing! Very airy and comfy and it looks like a hiker backpack rather than a photographers backpack. Only problem is, it looks big, but since its a back pack, I can squish it down to fit the cabin luggage requirement. This would work for some but not me because I have quite a few gears and the weight on my shoulders after a long period of walking around is not really good for my back.
Then I tried the InCase shoulder sling bag. It is my favourite till today!!. I used it for every photoshoot including weddings. This bag can even fit my 12"inch macbook with 2 DSLR body with lens attached and one additional small lens. The size is remarkable, it looks small but packs a lot and the zippers is so well covered that the muggers in Italy struggled to open it as I escaped from them. Then its back to the weight on my back again and on one shoulder instead of 2. I still use this for wedding when I move around because 1 camera is already on me. But this bag is mainly for a photo session, not as a cabin bag because I could not pack more in.
The National Geographic backpack. Yes.. I thought ok..this is finally it. The backpack for travel photographer. Well, I used it to even hike up the mountains in Bhutan..(actually I didnt, my tour guide did for me, hehe). It doesn't look like a camera bag, it fits my 12"inch Macbook, 2 dslrs and 1-2 additional lenses. But then again, what about travelling between airports and transits, my back would hurt after long hours. Its also good for photoshoots but its a bit hard to grab my gears quick comparing it to my earlier Incase sling bag. So its back to square one. As you can see, I am not really lucky with my bags. (and don't get me started with shoes. haha).
Then came the Think Tank airport series (Navigator). This... roller luggage is amazing!!. Ticks all the boxes. It can be used as a shoulder bag when you have to walk up and down the stairs and its a roller cabin sized bag. Padding is very good, wheels is very durable. Bumped it so much during my travel in Italy ( a lot of pebbled road!!) and survived. Access to the gears is fast and easy and fits everything I need. Only one main problem! Every time I head to the counter to check in, I pray hard that they don't weight my bag. Coz if they did, its like 11kg and sometimes more. The luggage itself is heavy without my gears. A few travel photographers told me that it would be okay, you just have to let the counter staff that it is camera gears, well I guess it should work, most of the time. I got away with it a few flights but I still find it risky to exceed the cabin luggage weight requirement by so much. Oh one more thing, because this Think Tank luggage is actually horizontal and not vertical, it looks smaller than the normal cabin sized luggage. Outlook is good if it doesn't get weight at the counter.
Now to move on to my future travels... I am still looking for my ideal cabin or check in luggage. I would say I found it (for now..). I use a smaller looking cabin luggage, so that it looks less obvious that it would look heavy and it doesn't look like a camera bag. Then, I use the padding from my other camera bag and fit it in the luggage. Voila! It fits!!. I manage to fit in 2 camera body with lenses attached, a 70-200 lens, and a 24mm lens plus a flash. All this and still some spaces around to add some lighter stuff. Okay, the weight is 9kg because I have added the spare battery and the 70-200 lens. Without it, you are looking at around 7kg+ which is pretty safe. And because its a small looking roller cabin luggage I think I this would do for now.
I guess the key is also slowly reducing gears, getting lighter luggage but still well padded and not looking like you have a big luggage that will attract the counter staff to weight it. I think I was at the Bangkok airport once and we were just at the gate before boarding. Guess what? they airport staff decided to randomly weight our luggage!!. Anyways, I was sitting opposite a couple and a solo traveller. Both of them got randomly picked because, the first cabin luggage looked tall and the second luggage looked heavy and fat. It still may still be within the size of the cabin size, it was just the outlook. One of them had to handover their cabin luggage to the staff and have it put in with the rest of the check in luggage. I was lucky because I was using the camera backpack with my laptop in it. I think it actually weights around 9kg, but because its a rather small looking backpack (although its wasnt actually small), just looked small, he didn't approach me :). I guess if I am ever at a certain airport gate again where you can see they are weighing luggages, go sit next to someone with the largest or fattest looking luggage and place yours close to theirs. Very good size comparison :P. I do have another back up flash, batteries, and one more spare lens well padded in the check in luggage.
Here is the current plan for my next travel, I am sure it will change again, but this would work for now. Just a comparison with a camera backpack in terms of size. The macbook is 12"inch.