Domke F-803 & F-5XB Shoulder Bags
$80-150/£63-118 | www.tiffen.com | Buy Now

The small camera bag has long had a place in the hearts of serious photographers. Yes, most of us all have giant backpacks, bags and even hard rolling cases that get used for the 'big' jobs. But many of us also appreciate the ease of a small, unobtrusive shoulder bag and the simplicity it represents. Could it be the long memory of the classic National Geographic photographers and their Leica rangefinders? Or is it just that we’re tired of breaking our backs with big F2.8 zoom kits all the time?

For almost 40 years now, Domke has been in the business of making no-nonsense hard-wearing bags for photojournalists and working photographers. Unsurprisingly, many of their bags quickly found favor with enthusiast photographers as well. This has been particularly true of some of their smaller bags. The satchel style F-803 and the compact shoulder bag F-X5B are two examples of smaller Domke bags that have been popular with many photographers. In fact, a black canvas F-803 was one of the first camera bags I owned and it has seen many miles of use with rangefinder, and nowadays, Micro Four Thirds gear.

Specifications

F-803

  • Exterior: 34.29 x 8.89 x 24.5 cm / 13.5 x 3.5 x 10.0"
  • Interior: 30.48 x 7.62 x 22.86 cm / 12.0 x 3.0 x 9.0"
  • Weight: .89 kg (1.9 lb)

F-5XB

  • Exterior: 25.4 x 11.4 x 18.4 cm / 10.0 x 4.5 x 7.25"
  • Interior: 24.1 x 10.2 x 15.2 cm / 9.5 x 4.0 x 6.0"
  • Weight: 0.56 kg (1.2 lb)

Both bags come in most of the combos of classic Domke canvas (sand, black, olive) as well as their newer RuggedWear waxed canvas (brown, military green). Some special editions such as those for Fujifilm or Best Buy (the green RuggedWear bags pictured here) may have leather trim/accents.

In use

F-803

The F-803 has a single main compartment with light padding. It is most typically sold with a single padded insert, the FA-280. There are two pockets on the front of the bag with velcro closures sized for small accessories such as batteries or a cell phone.

There is also a document pocket along the back however, this pocket has no closure and as such, you may not want to put anything of value or that could be damaged if it fell out. That said, I typically find it useful for maps, papers and a pen or two.

The main section is covered by a flap closure with a single metal buckle and a stiffening bar with a handle along the top. I find the single buckle simple to operate with one hand and this makes access quick and easy. The handle is very useful, but due to the fact that it attached to the flap itself, it doesn't work as well if the buckle isn't clipped.

Photo courtesy Tiffen

The stiffening bar is a little unfortunate as it does not allow the bag to conform to your body as well as it might otherwise, but it is a minor issue and if it really bugs you can be removed with a minor bit of 'bag surgery'. To be honest, while I’ve thought about it from time to time, I’ve never gotten around to bothering to remove the one in my bag.

The F-803 is very lightly padded on the sides and bottom, with no padding on the front or back. The pockets on the front provide a measure of protection as does anything you have stuffed into the back document pocket. But it cannot be stressed that this bag, like many of Domke's bags, is not for those who require complete protection for their gear.

As you might expect, storage in a bag this slim is going to be tight. The F-803 is sized well for just about any mirrorless system. A DSLR will work, I’ve even used a 6D in there. But it gets a bit tight for my taste, particularly with zoom lenses, and I would encourage you to try before you buy if this is your intended use. The FA-280 doesn't help matters. Because of its narrow and full-height design, it can really only reasonably fit a mirrorless body with a slim to medium sized prime lens.

Storage in a bag this slim is going to be tight

My solution was to attach the insert over to the left or the right and then put my body/lens into the open space and an extra lens into the insert. One thing I particularly liked about this layout is that my body lays on its side and I felt like this made it quicker to grab the grip and start shooting.

Another solution that is popular, but I myself have not tried, is to purchase the Domke FA-230 insert.The FA-230 is a three compartment design with dividers that are not full-height. This allows you to insert many body + lens combos in a lens-down orientation. The FA-230 will run you an extra $23, however. It is also more padded than the F-803 itself and while this does give you additional protection, it also takes up internal space and makes the bag feel bulkier.

The F-803’s biggest asset is its slimness and light padding. On a crowded subway or slipping through a crowd at a sold-out concert, you won't feel like you're at risk of smacking people with your camera bag at every turn. This can also be a drawback as the F-803 will not stand up on its own in most situations; if you try to set it down, it will topple right over. Couple this with the fact that the light padding doesn’t give all that much protection, and you have to understand that you can’t go tossing it around like you might with a bulkier bag.

It also doesn’t look much like a camera bag at all, If anything, it looks like a small messenger or laptop bag. Now, is a laptop less enticing to thieves than a camera bag? Who knows. But for those who don’t want to look like they are carrying a camera bag, the F-803 has you covered.

F-5XB

First off, it must be pointed out that the F-5XB is quite a small bag. While it may be possible to use the F-5XB for a small DSLR, this bag is really a better bet for mirrorless system users. An Olympus Pen and a few lenses fit perfectly. The front back and bottom of the bag are lightly padded with sewn-in foam, the sides are unpadded. The strap is Domke's standard canvas-with-rubber-threads 'gripper' style that you will either love because it stays on your shoulder or hate because it won’t slide around your body.

Photo courtesy Tiffen

Two dividers are included and realistically, I’m not sure you need more in a bag this size. Access is via a velcro flap cover with an additional zipper that can be closed or left open. The zipper is big and easy to use with quality YKK teeth/pulls. Honestly, I rarely use the zipper –only when I’m not going to be using the camera for a bit and want an added measure of protection against anything falling out.

There is also a belt-strap pass-through on the back in case one wants to make the F-5XB into a waist/hip bag instead of a shoulder bag. I can’t imagine using this myself, but others may feel differently. I would have preferred to see that area used for another small pocket or two. On that note, organizational pockets are at a premium on the F-5XB, with just one on the front of the bag that can’t hold much more than a couple pens or a spare battery.

I’ve rarely used bags this small in the past. They seemed too little and purse-like for me to fit into either my gear organization or shooting style. Even when I was using tiny Leica rangefinders back in my film days, I preferred something like the F-803 over a little box like the F-5XB. But now, a few years (and camera systems) down the road, I find myself surprised as just how useful the F-5XB is in some situations. It's a handy 'grab and go' size for taking to a picnic, birthday party, or wedding where you aren’t worried about ergonomics or stealth and just want a way to carry a body and lens or two.

I find myself surprised as just how useful the F-5XB is in some situations

What was even more of a surprise to me was how useful it was for stashing in my luggage for a business trip. I frequently take a camera and a couple small lenses on even the most boring of trips. But I typically have them in my overloaded laptop messenger or backpack carry-on. Bringing the F-5XB along meant that I could lighten my load and just use it for a morning or evening photo adventure. It’s a use I wouldn’t have thought to specifically get a bag for otherwise, and the F-5XB worked perfectly for the task.

The strong velcro on the flap is the most common 'dislike' mentioned by photographers about the F-5XB, and I’d have to agree. The amount of velcro is overkill for the size and use of the flap.

This is an instance where it would have been nice to see the velcro 'silencers' used on some of Domke’s newer bags. Or, even better, the 'silent' velcro that Tenba uses on some of its bags.

Perhaps more strangely, for some reason, the velcro on the flap and bag doesn’t line up when the flap is folded over. I’m not sure if this is a design feature or a bug, but it is odd. I suppose one advantage is that less of the velcro is engaged, making for less of a rrrrrriiippp sound when you open it?

It’s also a bit of a shame that a bag of this size and design doesn’t have a grab handle of some sort. If my use is any guide, there are going to be a lot of times when you aren’t using this bag on your shoulder and are just grabbing it to pick up or set down. I think if I were going to use this bag a lot, I would fashion one of the basic webbing-style handles like those on the Domke J2/F2/etc that clip onto the strap rings.

There is no avoiding the fact that the style of this bag won’t appeal to some

Finally, there is no avoiding the fact that the style of this bag won’t appeal to some, as it looks very much like a 'camera bag'. A nondescript camera bag, to be sure, but a camera bag nonetheless. In fact, the only other thing you could perhaps convince someone that it was, is a small purse. Either way, it’s not going to suit some photographers for this reason alone. Us camera nerds can be a picky bunch.

What’s the bottom line?

First things first, as I’ve repeated a couple of times, these are small basic bags that feel more at home with mirrorless systems than even compact DSLRs. They do not have expanding water bottle pockets or laptop sleeves or weight distributing straps. Anyone looking for all-day comfort or highly customizable organizational options will be disappointed. They are for unobtrusively carrying a small camera kit and little else, in a tough non-descript package. But what they do, they do quite well, and if my experience is any guide, will keep doing so after years of hard use.

Anyone looking for all-day comfort or highly customizable organizational options will be disappointed

While the two bags aren’t exactly similar, I will say that the F-803 is the clear winner here for me as far as a small bag for a mirrorless system. This is not surprising when you consider the fact that I’ve owned and used an F-803 for the better part of two decades now. While the F-5XB was handier than I thought it would be, I can’t say that it fits my needs as well and I find its design in need of some updating. That said, it is a quite popular bag and I’m likely to hear about how wrong I am in the comments. So, read both sets of opinions and come to your own conclusion based on what your requirements are.

F-803

What we like:

  • Slim
  • Very nondescript
  • Easy access with a single buckle closure
  • Proven simple tough design
  • Made in the USA

What we don't like:

  • Can’t stand up on its own
  • Not much padding
  • Few organizing pockets

F-5XB

What we like:

  • Compact size
  • Zipper close is easy to use, single flap is easy to open
  • Can use as an insert inside luggage when traveling
  • Made in the USA

What we don't like:

  • Too much velcro on flap, yet doesn’t line up properly
  • Appearance will not suit some
  • Not for large cameras/lenses
  • Only a single small pocket
  • No top handle

F-803

F-5XB