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Gear Reviews

Vanguard Skyborne 51 Photo Backpack – Field Review

By Matthew Saville on July 10th 2013

vanguard Skyborne 51 externalThe Vanguard Skyborne 51 is one of the larger photography backpacks we have reviewed here at SLR Lounge, and the second-biggest backpack in the Skyborne lineup of backpacks  from Vanguard.

We’ve put it through it’s paces over the past few months, and it has been a pleasure to use! It’s well-made, practical, and most importantly, it’s comfortable no matter how full you cram it with heavy gear.

windmills-self-portrait

It retails for around $190-$260, depending on where you shop.  To put this in perspective, The Skyborne 51 offers innovative features and functionality that you won’t find on similar size (and often more expensive) camera bags from the other big name makers.

This specific model is unique from the others- it is designed with two separate compartments instead of one giant compartment.  The main camera compartment is the lower one, for a low-gravity feel when the bag is on your back.  It can hold a camera body with a lens attached, (up to a 70-200 2.8) plus additional gear. A whole separate top compartment (no dividers) is also available for general equipment space, or things like food / water etc.  (It’s about the size of another two cameras w/ attached mid-size lenses, in case you need it for that.)

The divider between these two compartments can actually be removed to create a single large compartment, however if you plan on doing this even more than once you should probably be considering one of the other Skyborne models.

The details are awesome. Velcro to help curl and manage excess strap lengths. A magnetic zipper security flap. A removable accessory pouch, straps, and highly adjustable tripod mounting system. And while I’ve never been a fan of in-bag memory card storage, it’s there if you need it.  Oh, and did I mention how comfortable and lightweight this bag is?  “Lightweight yet durable” has always been one of Vanguard’s overall selling points, and the Skyborne series delivers-  I have never shouldered a more comfortable bag; even my older backpack that holds less than half as much gear is far, far more painful to carry!

Who Should Buy It?

At first glance you might think this bag is designed to be some sort of jack-of-all-trades, targeting everybody who needs to carry a ton of gear.  However in my experience the only way to truly optimize the entire bag is in certain conditions.  In fact because the interior space isn’t really made for 100% lenses and cameras in one big compartment, you might be disappointed.  The Skyborne 51’s dual compartments make it a little more diversified compared to the traditional “lens sherpa” type bags.

Here are the two main example scenarios:

The extended day hike

From landscapes to wildlife photography, or from timelapses to macro, this bag is perfect for any adventure or project where you need to be away from your car, campsite, or cabin for a full day.  I myself shoot a lot of night timelapses, and I had no problem cramming in all the various wide-angle / ultra-wide lenses that I love to carry,plus two full-frame mid-size DSLR bodies.  If you’re a general adventure photographer packing f/4 zooms instead of f/2.8’s, for example, you could easily cover everything from 16mm to 200/300mm, plus a specialty lens or two.

If you’re into macro or panoramas, then you’ll be able to fit all of your specialty lenses plus those odd-sized brackets, rails and clamps that you might need.

…And so on and so forth.  By the way, in case you feel like the sizable laptop compartment may go to waste, fear not!  Of course if you’re shooting RAW timelapse footage you might want to bring along a netbook or small laptop to download to in the field, or to re-program your timelapse equipment.  (Arduino, anyone?)  However if you just don’t need a laptop, then you can always do what I do:  use that compartment to carry a 1-2 Liter Platypus water bladder.  As popular as the Nalgene water bottle is among outdoorsy types, I hate it’s rigid bulky structure and I’ve never found a good place to store one in a camera bag.  A Platypus water bladder, on the other hand, slides easily into the laptop compartment of most camera backpacks, with room to spare. (Preferably for non-electronic accessories, but if you’re brave then go for it!  My favorites are a headlamp, a leatherman, a compass, and a small survival / first-aid kit.)

Yes, you could fit most of this gear into a smaller bag, and I always recommend using the smallest bag you need for any given adventure.  However if you’re like me then sometimes your mid-size backpack is just bursting at the seams, and you haven’t even found a place for your Cliff bars yet!  …Well, the Skyborne is your backpack.

As a bonus remember that you can change lenses and access both main compartments without putting your bag down, which is especially critical in sandy places like the beach or a desert sand dune.

The urban nomad

You “digital urban nomads” probably find yourselves in a similar situation-  Maybe you aren’t more than a block away from a Subway and a Starbucks, however you probably do need extra room for a laptop and/or a gaggle of wireless flashes for that on-location portraiture project you’re doing.

In other words: shoot, post-produce, deliver, publish, meet with clients, etc….all without having to go back to your car or apartment.

As a bonus, the extensive number of buckles on this bag help to deter theft, and the overall design is slick and stylish without blasting any iconic logos that attract thieves.

Why not just use a rolling bag?  Good question!  In fact if you can’t come up with any reasons yourself, you should just get a rolling bag; your shoulders and hips will thank you!  However there are plenty of situations where a backpack is more practical- urbex (abandoned buildings /structures) photography, for sure, and also in large crowds such as air shows or similar events. Also once again, anything where the elements (sand, water) are a challenge.

tidepools-self-portrait tidepools-b&w tidepools

Who should NOT buy it?

It’s not really meant for self-sufficient overnight treks, or ridiculous lens-sherpas.  The secondary compartment is just not large enough for more than one light meal, a single day’s water, etc. and the entire bag isn’t really practical for the likes of a 300mm f/2.8, etc.  However when traveling as a team you might be able to re-arrange the gear load so that companions are able to carry things like a tent, sleeping bags, etc….while you carry more of the specialty / tech items that they won’t have room for.

Either way, consider this bag to be perfect for serious all-day adventures, but nothing more and nothing less.

Pros

  • The construction and workmanship are definitely top-notch.  I’m very abusive of my camera bags, and so I need every last stitch to be secure, and all the materials to be ready to endure years of heavy use.  In these respects, the Skyborne 51 has thus far put up with everything I’ve thrown at it. 
  • The design and practicality is awesome, once you figure out where to put everything.  You can grab your camera from the side hatch without taking the backpack off.  In fact if you’re careful you can access the entire main camera compartment as well as the smaller sub-compartment while the bag is still attached to your waist.  This bag makes other designs from just a few years ago seem totally out-dated and impractical.  I remember with my first backpack, any time I wanted to access the main compartment I would have to take the pack completely off, and lay it down on the ground with the straps and back-pad in the dirt.  Other bags on the market also have this open-back design, but not nearly enough in my opinion.
  • Lightweight, comfortable, protective! Most bags compromise on one or two of these respects, or if they don’t then the price is incredibly high.  Somehow Vanguard continues to make light, comfortable bags that still protect your gear very well and yet don’t cost a fortune.

Cons

  • The overall organization of compartments and the usage of available space is very specific, and can be frustrating at first.  To be honest, I spent hours re-arranging things before I was even remotely satisfied.  But then again, I’ve done that with every bag I’ve owned, I think.
    Anyways if you aren’t specifically looking for a bag with each of the 51 series’ different features, including the 15″ laptop compartment, the mid-size lens /camera compartment and the additional mid-size compartment for misc. items, …then you might be wasting space.  You might be better off with multiple, separate bags.  Then again, the SKyborne 51 is so lightweight and affordable, if you can only afford one bag then maybe this is it!  This caveat isn’t a limitation per se, just an indicator of the bag’s specialization.
  • In short:  If you don’t envision yourself filling this bag almost completely most of the time you use it, you’re probably better off with a smaller bag.  But doesn’t that go without saying, about any large camera bag?

windmills-moon-meteorNikon D700, Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, Giottos Tripod
Raw frame of timelapse sequence, including a full moon and shooting star

Final Verdict

The overall two-compartment design isn’t for everyone, as we mentioned, however the Skyborne 51 series will definitely be the ultimate bag if you need exactly what it offers.  If you’re looking for an all-around day-trip backpack, or what you might call a “digital adventure pack”, this should be one of your top choices.

Especially considering the price, this bag is absolutely one of the best values on the market with many innovative features and plenty of functionality, durability, and comfort.  We highly recommend it.

4-of-5-stars

The Vanguard Skyborne 51 series backpack currently retails from $191 to $259, depending on where you shop.

Shop for the Vanguard Skyborne backpacks at:

BHPhotoVideo.com (currently $191)
Amazon.com (currently $191)
Adorama.com (currently $259)

Take care, and happy clicking!
=Matthew Saville=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Sebastian

    thanks for the review I’ve been looking for reviews of this bag and barely found them, I always wanted yo know if it could fit 2 Einsteins, a Vagabond Mini and a Dslr w/ battery grip attached to a 24-105L, any thoughts?

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    • M. Saville

      Two Einsteins and a Vagabond Mini? Probably, but add in all the accessories you’ll probably want to carry, and I’d recommend the 53 instead maybe. Unless this is only a once-in-a-while endeavor, and the rest of the time you’re looking to pack smaller flash heads…

      =Matt=

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