Durban-based photographer Emil von Maltitz tried out the BlackRapid BackPack Strap, here is his in-depth review.
I have never really been a fan of the traditional straps that our cameras hang from. In the days of film, the straps were a little too thin for my liking, although they did exude a quality that seems to have vanished from the membrane like thin ones that come with our cameras today. The broader straps that come attached to our cameras today are certainly more comfortable, but are now made from cheaper material so twist easily and fall apart even more easily (compare the strap of a Nikon D4 with the one that came with a 90s era F5 and you’ll get my point).
The problem extends beyond the actual strap, to the way it attaches to the camera itself. Traditionally two lugs have connected the strap to the camera at either end of the camera body. In a nod to ergonomics the lugs have moved slightly forward toward the faceplate in a few cameras, allowing the camera to hang slightly better when a heavy-ish lens attached. For the most part though, any lens larger than a traditionally sized prime causes the camera to drop forward and hang somewhat uncomfortably from your neck or shoulder.
To add to the issue, the lugs themselves are not necessarily the most solid part of the camera body. Several years ago when my pride and joy was a Nikon F4s, I was shooting in the Hogsback mountains with some friends. Somebody called me over and I rather over exuberantly ran across the hillside to get to where they were standing. I did this while holding my F4 by the grip and the wildly swinging strap became caught up with my booted foot. I didn’t trip. No instead the lug tore from the side of the camera body. We’re talking a Nikon F4 here. A camera built like a Sherman tank in comparison to modern fair. So no, the lugs are not necessarily the strongest point from which to dangle a camera and lens.
Several strap manufacturers have also considered this thorny issue. Enter BlackRapid and their tripod mount attached strap system. The heart of the BlackRapid system is the small metal ring attached to the 1/4 inch thread tripod mount of the camera called the ‘FastenR‘.
The FastenR is screwed into the tripod hole and is held in place without unscrewing thanks to a thick rubber lock washer. BlackRapid produce a range of slings that connect to the FastenR via a small but tough and durable locking metal carabiner on a rotating D-link (made from solid stainless steel with a black nickel coating). The joy of this system is that you can remove the strap completely by simply disconnecting the carabiner or ‘ConnectR lock’ as BlackRapid call their small carabiner.
Despite a number of my colleagues using the BlackRapid system I have always been quite wary of their products as I am at heart a ‘tripod guy’ and BlackRapid have been in the past somewhat tripod unfriendly. The quintessential user of the BlackRapid straps is a wedding, sports, journo type photographer who is often slinging two camera bodies over the shoulders and likely has a 70-200 on one of those bodies. Anyone who has ever had to carry a pro spec DSLR with a heavy 70-200 attached will know the issues involved with using the conventional camera strap. It just isn’t comfortable or particularly user friendly (and you have a habit of slamming the lens into door posts, trees and passers-by if you try to carry the rig over one shoulder). The BlackRapid system is undeniably one of the best carrying systems around if you are toting a big lens and are doing fast paced shooting, but, it’s still tripod unfriendly.
My interest was piqued when SunshineCo. sent me a BlackRapid BackPack Strap along with several attachments that make the BlackRapid system more tripod friendly. These were a SIRUI TY-LP70 Arca-Swiss style plate with an additional thread to accept the FastenR attachment while still allowing the camera to be mounted on a tripod.
I was also sent the replacement FastenR Tripod (FR-T1) thread that is essentially a beefed up thread for the Manfrotto RC2 quick release style plate. The C-ring, now made of a sturdier stainless steel, not only locks the plate to the camera, but acts as the loop from which the camera can attach to the BlackRapid ConnectR lock carabiner. Now, rather than having to remove the FastenR attachment from the base of the camera and then reattach a tripod plate, the tripod plate can stay on permanently and the sling can simply be unclipped from the camera before locking the camera down onto a tripod.
Sadly the FastenR Tripod (FR-T1) is not compatible with any of the other brand Arca-Swiss style plates that I have (SIRUI, Kirk, Benro and Badger Gear). Either the circular block of the FastenR Tripod (FR-T1) is too deep or the neck of the 1/4 inch thread is too short to clear the depth of the tripod plate itself. So you can’t simply turn any tripod plate into a BlackRapid friendly connection.
The strap itself is a variation on the sling concept that BlackRapid originally made their name with. It’s a simple tough nylon strap with tough hardened plastic clips at either end. The one end has a tightener buckle and the ConnectR lock slides up and down the strap. You can set where the ConnectR sits on the strap by sliding and locking two small clips into place. These work very effectively incidentally, and allow you to set where you want the camera to hang from very easily.
The strap clips themselves are made from ABS plastic with a simple metal spring gate. The usual method of connection to a backpack is to hook one clip onto the D-ring of the backpack strap and hook the second clip via the supplied aluminium carabiner to the bottom of the opposite strap. This means that the camera can hang low down on either the photographers right or left side, making it easy to lift the camera and shoot in one movement.
Here is where I have to say that BlackRapid are sticking to their event and sports photography roots. Shooting fast paced action the strap works brilliantly and is more comfortable than having multiple straps and a backpack to boot. It slows down however when you need to get into the backpack. Now you have to unclip the strap to get the bag off. In practice it doesn’t take too long to get used to, but it is also not as fast as having the strap separate to the backpack. So, if you are a PJ and have your principle gear dangling from the strap and want comfort and your bag, then this is the answer. If you are needing to constantly dip into your backpack then this isn’t necessary the best system.
A quick comment on that last statement. I have been shooting with backpacks since 1999 and have yet to find a perfect solution to carrying strapped equipment along with a backpack. Quite frankly, if you need to access a bag frequently while shooting, a shoulder tote is far more effective. Then one of BlackRapid’s usual straps is an ideal solution. I personally have a much abused Billingham 335 that I have used since 1996 for event work. But, I am also very serious about my landscape photography, and that does require a backpack to haul gear into the mountains with.
My first hurdle was when I discovered that my go to photo backpack for hauling tons of gear comfortably (an old Lowepro Photo Trekker) didn’t have D-loops on the straps. Instead I had to jimmy the BlackRapid’s clips through a thick nylon loop on the top of the strap. This is not ideal. After that I had to get used to how the camera hung via the SIRUI plate. It worked, but took some getting used to. Then I tried my Think Tank backpack and suddenly everything worked smoothly. So you need to make sure that this style strap works with your backpack. The Lowepro’s straps just didn’t work as well as the ThinkTank’s did.
The BackPack Strap with a heavyish semi-pro camera body attached via the FastenR. The top of the strap is the lower clip with the tighting buckle.
A smaller mirrorless camera attached to the Backpack Strap with a FastenR Tripod (FR-T1).
One thing that I seem to lose a lot of are eyepieces. They either get bumped off (Fujifilm, Canon and Nikon semi-pro and enthusiast) or unscrewed (Nikon pro cameras) as the camera bumps and bangs against your body when you are walking. The Drakensberg has managed to swallow up several eyepieces over the years as a result of the way that the camera hangs from your neck or shoulder when you are carrying a backpack. I see an advantage in the BlackRapid backpack strap in this regard as the camera doesn’t necessarily rub against the eyepiece anymore. Now it either rubs against the back of the camera and the LCD or against the front side of the camera near the lens release catch (no I don’t think the lens is going to unlock as a result of this).
I really liked the connection to the camera. It made life really simple when moving from the strap to a tripod (if you use the FastenR Tripod (FR-T1) or a compatible tripod plate). I did find the included LockStar plastic sheath a touch annoying though. The LockStar is an ABS plastic sheath that secures to the ConnectR hook and swings closed over the lock of the hook. This is to ensure that the lock cannot accidentally be loosened as well as protect the camera body from coming into direct contact with the metal ConnectR (potentially scuffing up the paintwork on the camera). If you are regularly disconnecting the camera from the ConnectR lock then this bit of plastic can be a little fiddly. It also stops the ConnectR Lock’s gate from opening fully which means that you have to jiggle the FastenR a bit to get it off the lock. But, it does stop accidental unlocking, so it does serve a purpose. Personally I ended up removing the LockStar as it just got in my way.
Setting up and adjusting the strap is a pleasure. The tightener buckle and sliding stoppers on the strap mean that you can adjust the weight and how the camera hangs in a fluid heartbeat. With practice it was easy to adjust the weight while walking so that you could have it hang at your side, up near your chest or anywhere it was convenient while negotiating a particular obstacle. Here is where the strap does become useful. When you have the camera connected to a conventional strap the weight gets thrown about a lot when you are crossing streams and climbing over boulders. I have whacked several lenses against rocks while climbing in the Berg in the past. The BlackRapid strap minimises these knocks and bangs by optimising where the camera hangs for a particular maneuver. I even ended up attaching the strap to a tripod strap that I had so as to extend the BackPack strap to be used without a backpack. This was really great and I found I could have the best of both worlds as a result: caring a camera with backpack or without.
At the end of the day BlackRapid equipment is – in my mind – really designed around fast shooting and the event and sport’s photographer’s workhorse; the 70-200mm f2.8 lens. If your shooting style is documentary or sports, their straps and carrying system are really one of the best available and you won’t be disappointed using them. I also found it to be the most comfortable way to carry a pro-sized body with heavy lens and flash attached. Smaller, lighter lens systems are a different matter though. Here the BlackRapid system works well, but not necessarily better than the traditional way of carrying a camera, just differently.
The major hindrance for me has been the lack of tripod-friendly features, but this has changed and there are components that allow the use of a FastenR without the removal of the tripod plate. The added advantage of not knocking the eyepiece cover off the camera (ala the traditional carrying mode) make it a compelling option for carrying gear while carrying a backpack. I also really like the fact that it means the camera can go from strapped to no strap in a matter of seconds thanks to the small ConnectR Lock carabiner.
A small downside is that with additional bits of stainless steel in close contact to the camera body, there is potential to scuff the camera’s paint. To me this has never been an issue anyway as my gear gets used heavily, so scuffing is par for the course. If you like to keep your gear in mint condition though, you would be advised to use the LockSafe attachment (photographers who treat their gear like precious objects de arte tend to be a bit slower with how they pack and unpack gear so the LockSafe wouldn’t affect them in any case)
This is a long review for something as simple as a strap to carry your camera with. How we tote our gear is a very personal matter though. The BlackRapid backpack strap can fit quite neatly into how a photographer carries their gear. If you already use the BlackRapid system then it’s a no-brainer purchase if you intend to shoot while hauling gear in a backpack. If you are new to the BlackRapid style of things, you might want to try one of their excellent slings first. Either way, the BackPack strap is a very useful addition to carrying gear and shooting with it at the same time.