Review: Tenba Black Label Camera Bag

Several months ago, it came time to replace my aging camera bag.  A beautiful blue Tenba I bought used and hauled to ten thousand shoots had finally come apart at the seems and given up the ghost.  I showed the time-battered bag to Ray Olson, the regional manager for Mac Group (the U.S. distributor of Tenba, Profoto, Sekonic, Mamiya, Pocket Wizard, etc. etc.).  Ray, a seasoned industry veteran, couldn’t identify the bag’s vintage and was impressed with the wear, convincing me it was definitely time to replace.

Months later, a happy owner of the ancient bag’s closest contemporary, the Tenba Black Label Large Shoulder Bag, I present my findings to you, dear readers, after a song search for the perfect camera bag.  I tried the classic Domke shoulder bag (too small).  I tried the new ballistic nylon Domke (too big).  I tried bags from Kata, Lowe Pro, and Tamrac, and finally came back to the Black Label for its familiar fit, metal hardware, tough fabric, and beefy construction.

Why review the bag?  Last month, during a dramatic shoot on the San Francisco Bay, I took the wheel of  an 18-foot Boston Whaler while the driver fought his way forward to haul in a buoy.  With waves washing over our under-sized bow, I looked back to see the Tenba afloat, with $10,000 of my daily gear inside.  I made a mental note to call State Farm, our studio’s equipment insurance provider, and hoped the boat would just make it back to the dock.

While, at Photo Arts Monthly, we are not in the habit of reviewing camera bags, I am posting this review from a place of honest amazement that everything in the bag was safe and dry, and returned unscathed to regular, terrestrial duty on the Alameda dock.  Having tried dozens of other bags in search of my perfect fit, and having now unwittingly performed several destructive real-world tests (just this morning, my three-year-old son was caught using the bag, and its collection of camera gear, as a stool to reach the kitchen counter) I will breach journalistic objectivity to declare that it is an awesome bag, at home on the Bay or a black tie event (and especially for the thrilling weekends that have both).

Read on for our in-depth review:

Features

The Tenba Black Label bag is made of thick ballistic nylon with a smooth ripstop nylon interior.  Its seat-belt material strap clips to a custom 3-position metal D-ring.  The same seat belt material encircles the bag and forms both a handle on top and a strap for piggy-backing on a rolling suitcase.  Hefty perforated leather trim graces the lips of its main and side compartments, and its zippers are attractively-molded YKK hardware.

The Large Shoulder Bag model shown here is relatively simple in terms of pockets: two large side pockets, a flat rear pocket, two shallow front pockets, and two compartments built into the underside of the top flap.  Its interior is customize-able in the popular manner of positionable Velcro inserts – inserts that offer deep and cushy accommodations for a range of gear.

The Black Label’s foremost pocket, nearly at ground level and running the width of the bag’s face, has red and green coded card slots intended to keep clear and filled memory cards in order.  Immediately behind it is a wide pocket with an interior zipper pocket, key clip, and series of neoprene pockets for small items.

In the Field

The Tenba Black Label is a tough bag – easily the toughest such product on the market.  It is not heavy duty in the beefy manner of Porta Brace or Lightware, though its nylon is as tough.  Instead it is smartly reinforced and made from premium materials.  It is cushier on gear than any other bag I tested, with thick, reassuring padding.

The strap is thick and cushy, with a wonderful, pebbly texture that clings to shoulders.  It has a half-moon perforated leather insert for class and luxury and is molded in a familiar boomerang shape that is comfortable on either shoulder, worn across a photographer’s chest or on one side.  Now that mine is broken in, the strap is still extremely comfortable and seems to be wearing without detriment.  Its metal hardware, however, emits a faint squeak while on the move – an irritation that is offset by the reassuring solidity of the metal hardware.  In addition to the metal clips and D-rings, I’d like to see the buckle to adjust the straps length made of metal also.

Compared to the old Tenba, I find it more effort to buckle the top of this bag closed.  The two fat buckles are robust and worthy of the bag, but are difficult to attach with one hand.  It takes two, one to hold the bottom and one to insert.  The old bag was simple, slap it shut and shove the buckles in, one handed (its lower buckles – wimpy though they were – were attached to the bag, not hanging loose).  This top flap closing is one area in which bag makers vary – some Velcro, some metal clips, lots of buckles like these.  In the Tenba school, it’s worth noting, the flap has to be buckled for the bag to be lifted by its top handle, or it will swing open.  Below the flap, there is a zipper closing that really seals it up nicely when quick access is not important.  Gone is the old Tenba’s separation of top flap and zipper closure.

When compared to the old Tenba, this new one is missing the old zipper pouch that ran the length of the leading edge of the top flap.  I used to keep my memory cards there and miss it.  On the Black Label, the compartment has been relocated to the bottom of the front face – where it is difficult to access when wearing the bag.  Tenba added red and green slots for memory cards.  I have the whole pocket packed with cards and move filled cards to one of the zippered, water-tight pockets inside the top flap for greater certainty.

The other pockets are great.  The side pockets are a great size for batteries, lens cleaning kits, and the multitude of cargo we all carry.  They are big enough for an SB-900 or 12 oz can of Barq’s Root Beer.  They stay dry in light rain.  The soft and stretchy neoprene organizer in the front main pocket is snug and useful for filters, pens, tripod plates, etc.  Both the large top flap pockets and the inside front pocket are zippered plastic lined with mesh, that offers a nice combo of visibility, water-resistance, and sturdiness – any of them are a good home for cards, small electronics, batteries, etc.

Finally, the bag’s rear pocket is wide and flat, great for cards, mailers, travel documents, and other papers.  I frequently shove an iPad in for portable documents and photo viewing, though it protrudes an inch from the bag’s top.  It would certainly not fit any laptop I’ve seen.  I like that the bag’s sturdy strap for riding a rolling suitcase is separate from the document pocket.  At least one competing model combines the two by zipping open the pocket’s bottom.

The bag’s main compartment is very padded and holds gear securely.  Over the last months, I’ve carried – at different times – a Leica S2 with three lenses, a Hasselblad H4D with an extra lens, a huge Mamiya RZ33 (whose one extra lens had to ride in a separate bag) a Pentax K5 kit and a Nikon D7000 kit, and my usual Nikon D3 kit, including a 70-200 VRII, 17-35, 50, 60 macro, SB-900, and – on occasion – a Lens Baby.  The bag can be arranged to swallow any of these, though the bigger medium format cameras will leave little room for lenses.  It is certainly large – and photographers seeking to be discreet and not packing cameras as big as the D1s, D3, S2, H4D, 645D, 645DF, etc. should consider Tenba’s Black Label Medium Shoulder bag or one of the satchel style bags from the Black Label line.

The Tenba inserts are well thought-out and blend depth with a useful semi-circular cut out that allows, for example, a D3 with a 70-200 telephoto to sit flat in the bag.  Certain competing bags have less depth, some have lots of depth, but seem to be made for SLRs without lenses attached – Tenba’s got it right.  Nikon’s newest 70-200 protrudes a half inch from the bag’s top lip, but fits snuggly in place with the top zipped closed.

Market Place

As opposed to the cameras, lenses, printers, and lights we frequent at Photo Arts Monthly, camera bag makers are a bit less likely to set up directly competing products among themselves.  During my testing, though, I found the most likely competitors to this large, professional quality bag in unlikely places.  Tamrac, for example, makes some excellent camera bags that certainly deserve a look for a photographer on the market (Pro Camera rental, in San Francisco, a favorite vendor for my studio, often packs light packs, heads, and rental gear in Tamrac bags).  Think Tank is a relatively new player with a compelling product line.  Kata has a little more spunk to their design work and veer more towards light weight and modern materials.  Domke is a beloved classic, offering old school canvas and modern nylon bags.  They are tough and simple – perhaps too simple and of odd dimensions, at least for the gear I carry.

Here are some bags I’d consider as competitors to the Black Label.  I’ve had examples of all of these in our studio for testing, and would recommend them.  There are too many camera bags to possibly list even a decent representation of the market, these are just a few favorites – second favorites, I should say, to the Tenba.

Domke F-2B Ballistic Nylon – $160

Kata PR-440 Photo Reporter Bag – $150

Tamrac, Pro System 12 Camera Bag – $150

Selling Points

luxurious materials

sturdy build quality

flexible and well-designed configurable padding

comfortable to carry

good size for a pro DSLR and typical lens kit

Considerations

difficult to close with one hand

card pocket located too low on bag for quick access while on the move

not the cheapest bag on the market

Conclusion

The Tenba Black Label Large Shoulder Bag is attractive, well-designed,  and highly recommended.  It is luxuriously made of the finest materials and should last a whole career, in addition to offering a smart economy of useful and flexible storage features.  I owe the bag tremendously for saving my primary camera kit, because – DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME! – it both floats and is wonderfully weather-sealed.  The photos included with this article, I should point out, are of a relatively new, but already widely abused “real-world” bag, and it looks great.

Image Slideshow
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by Matt Beardsley  – all photography by Matt Beardsley

 

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