First and foremost there is no such thing as the perfect camera bag! That’s simply a fact. There are numerous options out there which are brilliantly designed and manufactured but the fact remains that none are ‘perfect’. I have a number of camera bags ranging from cheap canvas Chinese imports through to higher end branded ones. Whilst each of these are reasonably good none of them suit my exact needs, which change depending upon what and where I am shooting. Browsing the camera bag section of the global supermarket that is eBay a particular offering from Manfrotto repeatedly kept cropping up. The Advanced Befree Messenger bag. Hailed as ‘the perfect solution for photographers wanting to have all the gear they need with them, including the Manfrotto Befree travel tripod’ could this be the Holy Grail I was in search of?
So brings me to my review of the Manfrotto Advanced Befree Messenger bag. According to Manfrotto’s website; “The bag‘s internal compartment is customisable according to the user’s needs. Removable padded dividers enable it to carry all types of equipment from a pocketable mirrorless camera to a full pro gear configuration. The top access feature makes this bag the perfect choice for photographers wanting to be ready to capture every shot quickly and easily. The bag holds a laptop up to 15” in a special padded compartment. It has multiple zipped pockets for accessories and media devices and a smart sleeve for documents. The Befree messenger becomes an everyday bag by removing its internal photo gear protection padding. It features an adjustable shoulder strap with an anti-slip shoulder pad so you can comfortably carry it everywhere. It also comes with its own rain cover.”
High claims indeed which certainly sparked my interest. At this point it is only fair to express that Manfrotto UK kindly offered to send me a bag (to be returned) with the sole purpose of testing and trying it out to determine its suitability for my own needs.
The bag is as you would expect for a messenger bag in terms of shape and styling, I won’t bore you with the technical specifications as these are readily available from Manfrotto’s own website. My first impressions however were that of surprise. Pleasantly surprised I might add. The quality and feel of the bag struck me straight away, the materials used feel, well, just right. The quality is as you would expect from a company with such standing as Manfrotto, it’s very high. The capacity of the bag is huge given its deceptive size. The internal layout of the bag is something which the designers have obviously put a great deal of thought into. It’s apparent that they have attempted to squeeze in as many storage options as possible to meet a varied range of usage and scenarios. I couldn’t help feel that this ‘one bag for all’ design approach was beneficial as a photographer’s bag alone due to the limited options for storing camera equipment within. The dividers are few and so reducing the layout configurations, which is something I feel is a big downside. That said, I am probably expecting too much from any bag let alone the Befree! For weddings I usually take my Peli 1510 case with pretty much everything I need for a full days shooting (and then some). The arrival of the Befree Messenger coincided with a wedding that weekend for which I was acting as second shooter. This gave me the ideal opportunity to try out the bag by filling it with my gear for the few hours I was at the wedding. I tried in vain to pack the bag with a gripped XT1 with 50-140 lens, an xPro1 with 18mm lens, an X100T a couple of spare batteries and a 35mm lens. I also take my laptop to every wedding for the purpose of backing up images. I shall be honest I struggled to find a layout which worked for the amount of gear. The laptop fitted perfectly in the dedicated compartment but it was the camera gear which proved to be a problem. In the end I fitted the padded bag insert from my cheap canvas bag and ‘et voila’ almost perfect! The Befree Messenger in conjunction with the insert was ideal for my needs. The only downside was access to some of the internal zipped pockets was rendered almost impossible but this wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t using them on this occasion anyway. The capacity of the Befree bag is huge! Considering the amount of gear I was carrying it never felt cumbersome or too heavy and I attribute this to the excellent shoulder strap, which it seemed distributed the weight evenly. The external pouches and pockets are very easily accessible and ideal for storing spare batteries and memory cards or other smaller ancillary items. One thing I did find brilliant was the zipper fitted into the main flap of the bag which allowed easy access to your gear quickly and without the need to un-buckle the whole flap.
I started this review by saying there is no such thing as the perfect camera bag. I still stand by that. There simply isn’t. The Manfrotto Advanced Befree Messenger bag however is very close to the ideal based on its ‘dual purpose’ intentions. Granted I had to use another internal insert to get all my gear in but that’s not too much of a bad thing, the bag did the job and it did it well. I can live with having to use the other insert, it’s not a deal breaker because it means the bag is far more functional than perhaps Manfrotto intended, albeit unintentionally. Although I have only been using the bag for a week or so I have taken quite a liking to it. It is very well made and the features which the Manfrotto designers have incorporated are excellent, even if my unconventional adaptations may temporarily limit their usefulness. Even when heavily loaded the bag feels comfortable to carry over the shoulder and the weight is distributed evenly. Having the capacity to carry a laptop is just brilliant, my only other option for this aside from the Peli case is my huge camera backpack which is not ideal and only ever comes out if I am travelling. Being able to take my laptop in this bag will make it so much easier for when I am travelling to do workshops and training courses for me this is when it does become a ‘one bag does all’ solution. The other clever little design feature which drew my attention was the built in Tripod compartment which is best suited to the Manfrotto Befree travel tripod. I have the carbon version of this tripod and it fits in the bag perfectly which is a huge tick on the requirements list. The bag also has its own rain cover which stows neatly inside, making it weather resistant.
Overall despite not being ‘the perfect bag’ it comes exceptionally close! It is well designed and made with more than enough layout options and configurations to suit most everyday needs. It feels and looks good and it carries very well as a shoulder bag. The huge capacity is far more than many other bag options in the same class and also benefits from the high quality standards you would expect from a company with such a pedigree as Manfrotto. For the price point this bag is a definite contender and should be a serious consideration for those who are looking for a high quality camera bag. I would recommend it without doubt!