In Defense of the Photographer’s Vest

Not everyone is a fan of the humble photographer’s vest. If you read through the 90+ comments on Peter Phun’s post, “21 Signs You’re a Real Photographer Now,” quite a few ridicule the very idea of pros wearing vests.

As one put it:

Photo vests look stupid… on anyone… unless you are fishing for trout.

I beg to differ.

Better Than Shoulder Bags

Unless you’re wealthy and can afford to hire a sherpa, probably the worst thing about traveling with camera equipment is having to haul it around with you.

Shoulder bags are convenient for carrying your gear on and off planes and trains, but when it comes to actually going out for the day shooting, forget it. They’re a giant albatross.

That’s why I always transfer the gear I need to a photographer’s vest when I arrive at my destination.

Sometimes, I skip the shoulder bag altogether. If I’m flying to a shoot, I don’t have to pack the vest since I’m wearing it on the plane, and all of those pockets are perfect for airline tickets, schedules, itineraries, bottles of water and a pound or two of trail mix.

My primary vest has about 20 pockets and allows me to carry these accessories:

  • Two extra lenses (including my 70-300mm Nikkor)
  • A pocketful of memory cards in a Think Tank lightweight wallet
  • One or two extra camera batteries
  • Several micro-fiber lens cleaning cloths
  • A polarizing and at least one or two neutral density filters
  • A map and pocket compass
  • A rain poncho
  • A few ziplock bags to use as impromptu camera rain covers
  • A city guide or topo map, which fit nicely in the big rear pocket.

Easy to Carry

Most good vests have a number of inside pockets, too. I carry my passport and wallet in a hidden interior pocket. There is room for tickets, train schedules and the like. I can also carry a sandwich and a bottle of water with me.

If I buy a few postcards or a small souvenir, I can toss them in an extra pocket and keep my hands free.

Because you’re wearing the vest, you never really notice the weight — especially if you’re careful to distribute larger items carefully. I can literally spend 12 straight hours in my vest, and while I’m thrilled to get if off when I get back to the hotel, it’s completely comfortable.

I suppose there are downsides to wearing a photographer’s vest. Critics would argue that a vest makes you stand out as a photographer — or, worse, makes you a target of thieves.

Of course, you’re a far bigger target if you’re carrying around an expensive-looking shoulder bag with an expensive-sounding brand name.

Choosing a Vest

When choosing a vest, look at several different brands and designs. The most expensive vest I have costs less than $100, so there’s no need to break the bank.

It can be tough to judge one vest against another when shopping online, so I prefer going to a professional camera store or big sporting goods store to compare my options. Hunting and fishing vests are very similar to photography vests.

I’m aware of the fact that many photographers won’t wear vests because they think they’re “stupid.” This is another way of saying that the photographer would feel stupid — a.k.a., self-conscious — wearing one.

And yes, I’ll admit it — I’ve been on the receiving end of jokes about my vest.

For example, I was deboarding from a tropical cruise a few years back when I noticed one of the crew members carefully eyeing my outfit, which included the vest and brown fatigue shorts.

“Visiting or invading?” he asked me dryly.

I guess it was a little funny.

24 Responses to “In Defense of the Photographer’s Vest”

  1. Had a vest when I shot film back in the 80's. Moved away from them over the years, but lately have been thinking of moving back to one.
    Fondly remember it being much better then a bag. Like you said, the bag become an albatross.

  2. Some links to actual vests would've been helpful, or at least mentions of them.

    Like most, I think they're kind of dorky looking. But I would entertain the idea of wearing a vest if I found one that didn't look like something the mounted police would wear to a raid.

  3. I keep almost exactly the same things in mine, adjusted slightly less work-travel related needs.

    In addition to carrying everything I need (and the ability to move heavier spare lenses to back pockets is just awesome for preventing back and shoulder pain) I actually really appreciate the fact that I stand out as a professional photographer.

    As a portrait and event photographer half of my competition is "Uncle Joe" who may have the same camera, there are just certain touches that while I am shooting set me slightly apart. That slight separation just makes some shoots easier and after 8 hours on location... easier is better.

  4. I love my Scottevest. While not a traditional photographers vest, it works perfectly and doesn't have the photographer vest look.

  5. Who cares what others think? I love my vest and will continue to wear it. The numerous pockets is perfect as you mentioned. It sure beats the shoulder pain with a traditional shoulder bag.

  6. Photo vests work really well for any kind of photography, but they do look a little strange. For my wedding photography, I'd rather have a living vest (my assistant).

  7. I need to look into this more. For the hot summer days I need to wear a cooling vest for medical reasons. But when cooler weather returns, the photo vest might be great!

  8. I'm thinking this wouldn't work quite so well for a female - it would make us look fat!

  9. The combination of a vest with lots of pockets and a Cotton Carrier vest for carrying two DSLR bodies is all I need to stay comfortable on a long trail with my gear at the ready. I appreciate Scott mentioning the Scottevest above as an option for a photographers vest. I've been looking for a lightweight vest for summer and the new lightweight looks like it might work for my needs.

  10. The practicality of a vest depends on where you work. I work a lot in the Third World, including slums. In the US, I work in "inner cities."
    The last thing that I want is to be identifiable as a photographer. I have a great jacket that I got at an army/navy store with abundant pockets. The gear goes in a back pack. I do not walk around advertising that I have several thousands of dollars of equipment on my body.

  11. I started out into amateur photography thinking vests are a really neat piece of "kit" but never found one that was adequate. Some links or recommendations would definitely have been helpful here.

    I've gone from using a 2-3 backpacks, to a shoulder strap bag, to the currently very useful Lowepro messenger bag. Messenger bags are nice because they sit on the body in an easily accessible spot- allowing you to carry 2-3 lenses, a flash, and your camera body without much of a fuss in switching lenses during a wedding. I like the messenger bag, but I'd still try a sturdy vest if it came along.

  12. I love your post! Not only is it entirely entertaining but in an informative way. I bought the ugly safari vest years ago. Used a few times then hung it up and honestly forgot I had it. While I'm a fine art and documentary photographer over the past few years I have shot quite a few weddings. That damn bag is my nemeses! I have a backpack, shoulder bag and messenger. I hate them all! The shoulder bag handles broke under the weight (2 bags). The messenger bag absolutely kills my neck and shoulders (not to mention carrying one or two bodies and lenses around my neck). But the vest is perfect. It is ugly and obvious but unless I have an assistant following me around like a slave I need a way to carry my equipment in a manner that allows me immediate on the fly access. During a fast paced wedding and while running backwards in front of a second line parade with what feels like a military ruck sack I don't have time to stop and change lenses or whatever. The vest is the answer. Thanks for reminding me to dig it out of the closet! Crap. I hope it still fits!

    Long live the vest! Now make a nice black one so I can blend in.

  13. Somebody bought me a black Dommke vest. I tried it a couple of times, but it now lives in the wardrobe. It had TOO MANY pockets. Like, pockets inside pockets. I could feel my equipment, but could never get to it! Make me an offer, there might be a 50mm lens still in there somewhere πŸ™‚

  14. Jeff,
    Thanks for the mention. After my last post, I can use all the friends you have here. πŸ™‚

    I actually do think the vest is useful for some situations.

    The last time I wore a vest, I was either at a football game or a golf tournament.

    From a news photographer perspective, sometimes you do want to blend in and wearing a vest in those situations can make you an easy target.

    Where can I send my old Domke vest if it will fit you, Jeff? πŸ˜‰

  15. Alternate suggestion: the Duluth Presentation Jacket . I have one (now discontinued) in hemp which saw me through the DNC a couple of years ago. Not as many pockets as a vest (13, IIRC), but lots, and several of the inside ones are nicely protected for documents or memory cards.

  16. Peter,

    Don't worry, we'll gather the Black Star Wagons around you and protect you. πŸ™‚ Actually my first vest--and I still have it some 25 years later--came from Banana Republic, back when they were a kind of war surplus clothing dealer. They said it was rugged enough to go to Africa on safari and they were right! But the canvas fabric is a bit heavy. Today I occasionally by vests at fly fishing websites, hunting catalogs, etc. and they are much lighter. Someone above suggested that I include links and he's right--I usually do include a list of them when I write about things like this, but they got left off of this posting. But just Google "photographer's vest" or "fishing vest" and you'll find tons.

    And try that Domke again Peter, you might want to keep it! πŸ™‚ jeff

  17. Jeff, well written. I have been a fly fisherman for over 50 years and a "hobby" wildlife photographer for about the same time. I have worn the flyfishing vests for both for all that time and I find the arguments against photography vests pathetically weak, especially for wildlife photography. Vests have had me photos while others rummage in their bags or backpacks for batteries, cards, lenses etc.. I also find it amazing how some in the same field, wildlife, will put their bags/backpacks on the ground while they wander about taking photos.....sheesh!
    The one thing you didn't mention though is type. 50+ years has taught me that you only ever need a lightweight version. It should be one or two sizes bigger than your everyday body requires and be adjustable at the sides and have a coat style collar to stop a camera strap chaffing your neck. The reason for this is that during warm months like summer you can wear it over a T shirt or even on its own, top wise anway!. In colder times you open out the side adjusters and wear it over additional layers, weather protection coming from the poncho or waterproof jacket you keep in the back pocket. In even the heaviest winters, rain, hail or snow you wear it immediately beneath your main coat. If the weather turns dry but freezing you can wear it over your outer coat. Genuine "photography" vests can look a bit obvious so I always use a hunting/fishing version, plain not camo. However, you do need to remember that if you are not wearing a vest for discression but are showing your camera, rest assured, they know you've got gear and a backpack/shoulder bag is much easier to steal and maybe just as obvious.
    Great article Jeff.

  18. I have a Tamrac World Correspondant's vest; the thing has more pockets than I can use but there are times I'd rather have it and carry my gear in it than my sling pack or other bag. I do a fair amount of landscape shooting, and on a long hike not having the strap eat into my shoulder is a good thing!

  19. It sounds like you need a Cotton Carrier system Matthew. I wouldn't be without my Cotton Carrier set up. Hiking in the Cotton Carrier is a joy.No neck straps digging into my neck ever again.
    I do wear a Cabella's vest when I'm wearing the Cotton Carrier to hold my cameras. The Cabella's vest is soft with strong fabric and good pockets that expand as necessary. Between the Cotton Carrier and the Cabella's vest, I can carrier just as much as I could in a small Domke shoulder bag.

  20. What do you all think of the new Manfrotto Vest?

  21. Hi, I was sorry to see the posts drop off, but did check out the Manrotto. Seems like one that may fit me as a woman. I dont find many that are made for women specifically and would appreciate those links and if any women could post about vets or jacket vests that fit women well in particular. I think the Manfrotto would be fine in a large, but mfg sizing does differ and fit be a bit deceptive. I want to buy a used one as am ill and dont get out as often as I would like to. With the paraphenalia that I carry a vest of similar article of clothinbg is necessary in both lightweight and heavyweight fabrics. Whether in New England ranges from nearly a hundred F to below zero. Very good article btw. G

  22. I hate to even tell this story. I had a Banana Republic photojournalist's vest--the one everyone still wants and can't find. It was in A+++ condition. When my wife and I got married, she decided one day that she'd go through the closets and throw away anything that she hadn't seen me wear or that looked "old." Along with several brand-new L.L. Bean stone-washed shirts, she chucked my vest. I didn't know it for a week. No, I didn't kill her...didnt' even get angry. Newlyweds. But I do bring it up everytime we take a trip overseas. Oh, I've got a new one, but it doesn't measure up to the old Banana Republic model.

  23. Oh my goodness Don. That makes ME sad!

  24. I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm getting a light weight vest for my gear; it beats hauling around my purse and a backpack that's a black hole when trying to find stuff.; including a pocket for lipstick, comb, sunglasses and wallet. ????

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