Review: Domke F-803 CAMERA SATCHEL – RUGGEDWEAR

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More and more photographers are picking up mirrorles systems as either their main system or as backups to their main gear. Either way, if you pick up a mirrorless camera, you are going to need a bag to carry your new gear. Yes, you could utilze the same big and bulkly bags that you use to lug around your big DSLR but that kind of defeats the purpose of having a small mirrorless kit. Not surprisingly, the bag manufacturers have been more than happy to expand their offerings by making smaller bags to accommodate the new onslaught of mirrorless camera systems. One not so new bag that looks like it could be a winner in the mirrorless market is the Domke F-803 Ruggedwear bag. Is this the holy grail of bags for mirrorless shooters? Let’s find out.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Looks great
  • Flexible inserts, perfect for Mirrorless camera setups
  • Can fit a tablet or small laptop in the back sleeve
  • Can be used with multiple inserts or none at all

Cons

  • You need to be very careful of the amount of wax you put on the bag, it can get greasy
  • No waterproof cover
  • Strap could use a pad
  • Most retailers sell with single FA-280 insert

Gear Used

Tech Specs

Taken from Amazon:

Ergonomics

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Once you get a hold of this bag, you can tell that it was designed by an actual photographer with functionality in mind. The bag is surprisingly light and it is very slim so it doesn’t protrude from your body and get in the way while shooting. There are four external pockets, two small zippered pockets on the main flap and two large Velcro pockets on the front of the bag under the main flap. These pockets are great for storing the equipment you need to grab quickly (memory card wallet, lens cloths, batteries, etc.). The large Velcro pockets are also large enough to hold a bottle of water or a snack which is a key requirement for me.

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Continuing on the outside of the bag you will notice that there are several well placed handles. Every side of the bag, with the exception of the bottom, has a handle which means grabbing the bag and moving quickly is not a problem. So it has handles? Big deal…lots of bags have handles. This is true but the handles on the Domke F-803 actually add to the bag’s appearance and do not get in your way when shooting. I have used camera bags in the past that have lots of handles that are just slapped onto the bag as an afterthought. They tend to get in the way and get caught on things when shooting. The handles on this Domke bag are integrated into the bag’s design which makes the bag sleek but still provides the user with fully functional handles that do not get caught on random objects.

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On the back of the bag is a large document pocket that does not have a zipper and it is not padded. This can easily hold 8.5”x11” documents, folded newspapers or magazines. But the real question we all want to know is will it hold an iPad? I can happily report that the Domke F-803 can hold a full sized iPad, including iPads in protective sleeves or cases.

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But, like with any bag, the main concern is the most important section because this is where you will store your camera and lenses. The main compartment is one large section that has moderate padding along the bottom and side walls. Along the two longer sides of the main compartment are thick strips of Velcro. These Velcro strips allow the user to add one of Domke’s padded inserts into the main compartment to store camera bodies and lenses. Most retailors include the Domke FA-280 padded insert. This insert is really only capable of holding a small camera with a lens attached. For example, I can fit my Olympus OM-D with the Olympus 17mm F1.8 attached but I couldn’t fit the OM-D in this insert with a larger lens like the Panasonic 25mm F1.4. The FA-280 insert is great if you only plan on shooting with a fixed lens compact or a small mirrorless camera and one lens as it frees up quite a bit of space in the main compartment. I use the FA-280 when I only want to take my OM-D with the Olympus 17mm F1.8. Using this insert give me room to bring a lunch or other items like a light jacket.

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Domke FA-280

If you plan on using this bag to bring more than the FA-280 can hold, you will need to pick up the Domke FA-230 (shown two images above). The FA-230 is a three compartment insert that is designed for the F-803 bag. Essentially, this provides you with three FA-280s in one single unit. One thing to note, the FA-230 has much better padding than the FA-280. The FA-280 does provide some protection but when compared to the FA-230, it feels rather cheap and flimsy.

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As you can see, the main compartment of the Domke F-803 is rather flexible. You can choose the insert or inserts that work best for you depending on your needs at that time. I often travel with the F-230 and bring the F-280 with me. If I know that I only want to use a single lens for shooting that day, I’ll remove the FA-230 and put in the FA-280 to free up some space in the bag. I then store the unused photo gear in my Pacsafe TravelSafe bag. If you travel a lot and you leave your gear in your room, you definitely need to take a look at Pacsafe’s products.

Build Quality

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The build quality of the Domke F-803 is excellent. The bag is made of a waxed canvas and all buckles, clips, and zippers are metal. Quality stuff here, if you ask me. As I said in the previous section, the bag itself does have padding along the main compartment but I would recommended putting your camera gear in one of the protective inserts just to be safe. The FA-280 insert that comes with the bag is cheaply made but it gets the job done. I highly recommend getting the FA-230 if you decide to buy one of these bags.

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One thing I do like about this bag is the attention to detail. For example, the shoulder strap and the handles on the side of the bag have two small rubber strips that run along the back of them. These rubber treads may not look like much but they make a noticeable difference when it comes to gripping the strap and the handles. Also, the rubber on the strap helps to keep this bag in place. I hate when I wear a messenger bag that is constantly moving around. I want to move it to one place and have it stay there and this strap does just that.

However, there are a few things that bother me about this bag and the first is the lack of rain cover. Yes, this bag is made of waxed canvas which is very water repellent, but unless you REALLY tighten down the top flap of the bag, it is very easy to get water in the main compartment during heavy rain. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s something to note. I just carry around a cover from another camera bag.

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The second item that is a catch 22, the waxed canvas. I love, love, love the look of the waxed canvas! It looks classy and rugged at the same time. The only problem is you have to be VERY careful with the amount of wax you apply to this bag. If you put too much on, you will get wax all over your clothes and your hands. Once it’s on your hands, then it’s on everything else…including your camera equipment. Domke does make the F-803 in a regular canvas (which comes in several colors) but I personally think they do not look anywhere near as good as the Ruggedwear version. I’ve learned to go very light on the wax.

In Use

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The Domke F-803 is an absolute joy to use. I recently went on a trip to New York City for a few days to meet up with a few of my colleagues at the Phoblographer and I took the Domke F-803 along with all of the gear listed in the “Gear Used” section of this review. The Domke F-803 swallowed up all of this gear with room for my hat, gloves and a bottle of water. Because the bag could carry all of this gear, including an iPad, I didn’t need to bring an additional carry-on bag for this trip. Score!

Because it is a shoulder bag, accessing your gear is a cinch. Simply undo the clip at the bottom of the bag, flip up the main flap and you’re good to go. Speaking of the metal clip at the bottom, I think Domke should have opted for a different closing mechanism. The metal clip works and you can open it and close it with one hand, but it can also shred your fingers if you’re not careful. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing this clip will take a chunk out of your finger like a rabid squirrel.

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As I stated earlier in the review, the pockets and handles on this bag are well thought out. I keep batteries, lens caps and my Colorchecker Passport in zip pockets on the front of the bag for quick/easy access. The large Velcro pockets store my flash, sd card wallet, lens cloth and usually a bottle of water and/or a snack. All of this gear fits into these pockets with ease, no bulges or stretching of pockets needed. I find that this bag has just the right amount of space for the way I shoot. I can bring everything that I want but it’s small enough so I don’t overpack the bag with things I may not need.

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After a full day of shooting, my shoulder and back have always been fine while using this bag. With that being said, I have only been shooting with this bag since late January so I’ve always been wearing a thick coat. When the warmer weather comes and the coats go back in the closet, I will most likely be looking for a nice shoulder pad to complement the bag. Don’t get me wrong, the strap on this bag is nice, but it isn’t super wide and there is zero padding. If you go out shooting for the day in a tee shirt with a full kit and no shoulder pad with this bag, your shoulder is going to get sore. Or maybe I’m just a wimp with scrawny shoulders. Nah, I’m sure it’s the strap.

Conclusions

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Finding the right camera bag is often a never-ending quest for most photographers. All camera bags have their good and bad qualities, it’s all a matter of finding the bag that meets most or all of your core requirements and for me, the Domke F-803 is one of them. I was looking for a well made bag that had a slim profile, could carry all of my Micro Four Thirds gear, was cool/handsome looking, didn’t scream camera bag, could carry an iPad or 11″ MacBook Air and was somewhat protected against the elements. So far, I haven’t found another shoulder bag that can best the Domke F-803 based on the above requirements and honestly, I haven’t really felt the need to look.

If you are in the market for a bag to carry a mirrorless kit or a small DSLR with one or two small lenses, the Domke F-803 should be on your short list. And if the waxed canvas just isn’t your thing, Domke makes this bag in several colors and they also make a less expensive nylon version.

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