Lowepro, the name rings a bell even if you've never owned a camera once in your life. It's a name that can be trusted, a brand you'd consider to be at the top of your list when time comes to search for that perfect camera bag. My first camera bag was a Lowepro, and chances are yours was too. And although Lowepro has a strong repertoire for making backpacks, the company also makes slings and shoulder bags designed to carry camera gear in comfort. The most recent shoulder bag to come out is Lowepro's Pro Messenger AW series of photographer-friendly soft sided bags that can carry pro-sized gear just as well as prosumer and entry-level camera gear. Will it be worthy of your precious gear? There's only one way to find out.
Lowepro dominated the backpack camera bag medium, but the same can't be said when talking about shoulder bags. That is an area where Lowepro is hoping to settle in more comfortably with its new Pro Messenger AW series. And with it, Lowepro has reached back into times where soft canvas bags where used to carry camera gear in remote places like the African safari and the Amazon rainforest. The Pro Messenger AW bag has a classic design with understated qualities that make it an attractive shoulder bag. No logos are visible when wearing the Pro Messenger AW and there aren't any clashing patterns or unneccesary details resulting in a clean look that doesn't shout "hey I've got an expensive camera kit in here".
Hold on just a moment, because from the looks of it Lowepro's Pro Messenger AW bags look a lot like Think Tank's enormously popular Retrospective bags. In fact, the resemblance both in design and in features is so easy to spot that you'd have a really hard time picking one out of the two if you were shopping online. And that's also because the two respected brands have done a remarkable job at putting each and every one of these shoulder bags together, it's tough to point out a negative difference. And yet there are some small differences which we've found to be better implemented and that we like better having put the Pro Messenger AW thru its paces.
I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there's something about fabric and canvas-made shoulder bags that feels so right. And I have Think Tank to thank for thanks to its Retrospective series that first made me aware of such brilliant and well designed soft-sided camera bags. Wax-treated canvas camera bags are becoming insanly popular now and for good reason, they look so flipping good - that's arguable of course but you'll agree. Right now it looks like there are very few, however, superb options for those who have an affection towards camera bags made out of this stuff such as the Domke by Tiffen - which is probably the most classic one of them all, true to its heritage and olden era. But then there are of course the more modern, slick yet minimalist bags like the Retrospective and now the Pro Messenger AW.
Backpacks like the Chrome Niko Camera Pack we recently reviewed are great carriers of heavy loads over a long period of time thru arduous journeys, yet they're not required if you're just heading out for the day. The Pro Messenger AW is just the type of shoulder bag you can comfortably wear over your shoulder or strapped across your chest in a typical messenger style. It's also extremely durable from the way it is constructed to the materials used.
The material itself is a nylon fabric, but you'd never notice the difference between real canvas and this faux canvas. This particular woven material is supposedly more durable than real canvas and can withstand more wear and tear. And if we compare the Pro Messenger AW against the Retrospective in terms of materials, the Retrospective is built with thinner materials, it's a little more flimsy compared to the sturdiness of the Pro Messenger AW. At a side by side close up, the Pro Messenger and the Retrospective share an exact woven fabric pattern that is indistinguishable when felt.
The fabric can withstand rain and moister to a certain degree, but for additional weather protection you have access to a built-in all-weather cover that is concealed underneath the front side of the bag where it is kept under a Velcro closure and secured onto the bag with a stretchy cord so you won't ever lose it.
An important key to every great shoulder bag is an amply padded strap you can count on. The shoulder strap is awesome on this bag, meaning it has the right strength to last a lifetime and it's amply padded to the point where it looks like a pillow almost. Notice the curvature and wide base this pad has, it's rigid and holds its ergonomic shape and lined with an anti-slip compound that ensures the bag won't slip off of your shoulder very easily. The strap can be adjusted length wise using the metal buckles.
If you prefer to grab your bag rather than wearing it, you will find a carry handle very similar to the one found on the Retrospective at the top which is also adjustable. These handles are an essential part of these types of bags, and I find that I use the Pro Messenger AW's handle more often than not.
The flap covering access to the main camera compartment as well as the front situated zippered pocket is probably the best flap I've ever used in a shoulder type camera bag. Lowepro's FlexFlap uses a magnet to secure the flap for silent flap operation by folding in half to conceal the lower portion which features a Velcro tab closure system. Unlike Think Tank's silent Velcro tabs which simply cover the tabs and let the flap simply hang shut using nothing but gravity, the magnet closure is a welcome improvement that goes the extra step in quietly offering a more secure flap operation, and I really admire Lowepro's ingenious FlexFlap feature. A must have for wedding and special event photographers, including anyone that despises the screeching noise Velcro makes which is probably all of us.
When folded, the flap only meets the rest of the bag halfway leaving the bottom two Velcro strips exposed. Not that it's much of an issue as these will not attract much if any debris.
Once the flap is out of the your way, you'll find a familiar interior camera compartment arrangement consisting of a large space in the middle where you would top-load your camera with a lens already attached where it'll be easily grabble, followed by two individual lens compartments on either side which are split by Velcroed padded dividers that you can of course rearrange to fit your needs. Like the Retrospective series, the Pro Messenger AW also features a zippered pocket running along the width of the camera compartment where you can store soft and flexible items like your cleaning cloth and other things that you aren't afraid of being pressed up against by your lenses and camera.
This particular Pro Messenger 160 AW bag is capable of fitting a pro-sized DSLR (Nikon D600, D4, Canon 5D Mark 3) with or without a battery grip and lens attached or alternatively any smaller camera, as well as two additional lenses and an external flash. Really the quintessential bag of tricks a photographer would need for a normal day of shooting out and about. My D7100 with an 18-105mm lens attached along with a number of prime lenses including a 30mm, 35mm and 40mm lenses all fit into the 160 AW in an organized fashion so that I could quickly grab the things I need without thinking twice.
And if you've got some really serious lenses you need a cozy home for, Lowepro's Pro Messenger 180 AW bag is a taller version of the 160 AW designed to fit a longer telephoto lens attached to any camera body like a 70-200mm f/2.8.
Furthermore, the interior is amply lined with a microfiber material identical to that of the Retrospective. The bag while soft, has a tough construction you know will keep your camera protected if tossed around during a long day outdoors. In comparison, the Retrospective 7 is a little roomier than the Pro Messenger 160 AW, albeit both are designed to carry the same amount of gear and lens arrangement. Conversely, the Retrospective 7 is a bit wider enabling it to carry a 10-inch iPad or an 11-inch MacBook Air.
There's a secondary zippered pocket compartment located just in front of the main camera compartment where you'll find a set of individual slip pockets for little things such as memory cards, backup batteries, pens and business cards. This compartment is big enough to either store one camera body should you decide to keep all of your lenses separate in the larger compartment, or a flash as well as a few more additional accessories or small personal goodies.
Around the back side is where you will find a dual-purpose zippered pocket that opened up at the bottom and top to serve as a wheeled suitcase handle sleeve when traveling. Its other purpose can be used as a standard back pocket for important documents like your tickets or even a place to slip in your iPad. The space isn't wide enough to store a full sized iPad though, but the iPad mini fits in perfectly with little room to spare too. Suffice it to say the larger Pro Messenger AW 200 bag will be able to fit a larger tablet with ease.
But it's also worth noting that there is no padding to help protect your tablet from impact as this pocket wasn't designed to store electronics like the padded tablet pocket on the Retrospective 7. It'll do though if you're careful enough.
While were on the subject of external pockets, there are two additional side pockets with stretchy bands that help them expand and tightly contract to secure various types of inserted items. You can carry your energy drink in one pocket, and another item of low value in the other. Because I wouldn't recommend putting things out there for people to easily snatch like an expensive light meter or a flash. Also, the more you load and use every single pocket available on this bag, the more it'll become unbalanced to set down.
A phenomenal must have soft canvas-like shoulder bag for professional and novice photographers alike
Lowepro's Pro Messenger AW camera bag is a invaluable must have, and one of our top favorite camera shoulder bags. Next to Think Tank's Retrospective series, Lowepro's own Pro Messenger AW is one fantastic series of quality shoulder bags any photographer will absolutely love using out in the field. Currently the selection is a little small at just three bag sizes, and hopefully Lowepro introduces more options in the near future to accommodate more photographers and their precious gear. Other color options like black and true gray would also be greatly appreciated. Lowepro's Pro Messenger 160 AW can be had for a little under $160 on Amazon or for $196 retail directly thru Lowepro.
As far as carrying your camera and the rest of the gear that goes along with it from point a to point b, and back again, Lowepro's Pro Messenger 160 AW and beyond will handle your load like a champ. It's extraordinarily well put together, beautifully simplistic and such a tremendous pleasure to use even when fully loaded - we highly recommend it.
If spending less sounds good, Lowepro's Event Messenger 150 is an incredibly affordable $60 shoulder bag equivalent with more room for a large tablet or an 11-inch MacBook Air. The difference is in the materials. You're getting a much higher quality bag at the $200 mark with the Pro Messenger AW series, but you can live without the luxury and all that is bells and whistles too. Although we have listed the specifics of the Pro Messenger 160 AW, if you're unsure as to which Pro Messenger AW bag is right for you, Lowepro's detailed guide lists every gear combination that is compatible with each and every one of its camera bags.