DigitalCameraReview.com
Mountainsmith Capture AT Camera Bag Review
by David Rasnake -  3/13/2008

It seems that the bags we've been getting in for review around here lately have been getting bigger and bigger. With the recent arrival of Mountainsmith's Capture AT, we're wondering if we've reached the practical limit.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
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A considerable bag in every sense, the highly functional, well-speced Capture takes a slightly different approach to configuration and design than many of the pro bags on the market. While it's certainly not right for every shooter, or even every shooter with a large lens collection, the Mountainsmith's ability to handle larger lenses, especially, potentially makes this gear hauler an excellent choice for a certain group of photographers.

Design and Construction

Designed by Colorado-based Mountainsmith, a longtime staple in the outdoor/backpacking world, the Capture AT is a rather sizeable photo equipment bag made specifically for working professional photographers and serious amateurs looking to haul a lot of gear. With an internal volume of more than 1200 cubic inches, the larger Capture weighs nearly 6 pounds before you even begin adding cameras, lenses, and laptops.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
(view large image)

The layout of the bag is almost completely modular, with nearly every divider and pocket inside the main cargo area being removeable or adjustable. More so with this bag than any we've tested, there's not really a default or preferred layout (which, as we'll see, may or may not be a good thing).

Mountainsmith Capture AT
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Constructed out of heavyweight ballistic nylon all around, the Capture seems to be extremely well made, with some of the tightest stitching we've seen on a photo bag. Zippers are a bit difficult to open at times, owing to what appears to be rubberized weather sealing; in the same vein, the bag comes with a self-contained rain cover.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
(view large image)

Mountainsmith has done an excellent job of making the Capture look little like a photo bag. Its basic black appearance makes the AT as inconspicuous as anything this size, and badging, logos, and flash are kept to an appreciated minimum. Overall, the look and feel is all business, but certainly not in a bad way.

For an overview of what the Capture AT has to offer, check out our quick video tour:

 

Note that we took a look at the larger Capture AT for this review; the bag also comes in a slightly more manageable medium size.

Cargo Space and Capacity

In case it wasn't obvious, our size large Capture AT is a rather considerable piece of luggage, especially for a shoulder bag. The Capture comes with an ample supply of dividers of various sizes, and the soft, fleece-like interior of the inner sleeve allows dividers to be moved and repositioned as needed.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
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The bag is clearly very large, but depending on your lens collection its actual capacity may not be. Though we toyed with several arrangements, I couldn't come up with any satisfactorily secure way to use the Capture's impressive depth for multi-level storage, meaning a 3-inch 50mm prime is forced to take up one whole pigeon-hole that could just as easily accommodate a 12-inch wide-aperture telephoto. Part of the stacking issue resides with the fact that the supplied dividers, while providing a lot of padding, are simply not rigid enough (or, perhaps, the Velcro connections simply aren't strong enough) to support the weight of even a modest lens. Forget stacking your 100mm macros: you'll be lucky to get a plastic-bodied kit lens to rest comfortably in this arrangement.

Even so, the bag is so large and has so many pockets (and in some cases pockets within pockets) for sorting out accessories that there's still room for a pretty sizeable kit within the Capture's padded confines. There are spaces in front of the main compartment that appear to have been custom designed for an average-sized bounce head flash units, which frees up even more space in padded interior. An adjustable laptop sleeve also gracefully stows notebooks up to 15.4 inches, and can be pressed into service for a 17-inch model if absolutely necessary. Mesh side pockets are a great place for water bottles or the like.

Two large front pockets will also work especially well for working photographers needing a place to stow papers, notepads, or business cards. A zippered pocket between the front of the bag and the main gear hold also has spots for storing pens, keys, a cell phone, a wallet, or anything else you don't want to carry in your pockets. In this regard, the Capture has clearly been thought out as a piece of gear for working photographers with specific storage and transport needs that aren't all about photo equipment.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
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A supplied memory card wallet, with its own tether and custom-fit pocket, is also a nice addition to the total package, providing slots for six CF or SD cards and a large mesh pocket for miscellany.

In Use

As suggested previously, how well the Capture AT works for you is highly dependant on what your equipment needs are. While it is a bit on the large side for general use, the Capture is surprisingly comfortable in this role - owing in no small part to a good, grippy shoulder strap. This assumes, of course, that you don't load it down with too much gear: with five or six heavy lenses, a couple of flash units, two DSLR bodies, and a 15.4 notebook you can easily push 40 pounds or more, and it seems doubtful to me that anyone who needs to haul as much gear as this bag could hold would prefer to carry it on a single shoulder as opposed to in a backpack or roller bag. Ultimately, this makes the large AT something of a conundrum to consider: it can hold a good bit of gear, but if you can't comfortably carry that much gear when it's loaded does this defeat the purpose of all that capacity?

For working with several telephotos, keep the weight under control and there aren't many bags as convenient as the Capture. Birders/nature photographers will appreciate the default setup that positions big lenses vertically, making swapping telephoto units literally a snap. In terms of fitment, with a little work on the configuration I was able to comfortably and securely load a 400mm f/4 lens, though anything much larger may push the Capture's vertical-position capacity. For wide to moderate telephoto wide-aperture zooms, the sizing is often perfect: we found the fitment of a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 to be about perfect.

The zippered quick access slot on the top flap is also a great feature, allowing you to get at gear easily without taking the back off your shoulder. I found that I could, in most cases when shooting with smaller lenses, work out of the bag without ever actually opening the top flap.

In addition to concerns about divider system rigidity and the overall potential weight of the Capture when filled, I've yet to find a divider arrangement that holds my camera body with lens mounted in a secure, easy-to-reach position. Unlike many backpack systems, which imply a certain positioning for the primary camera body and lens, no such clear layout exists within the Capture. The "choose your own adventure" quality of the Capture makes it extremely flexible, but it can also make it difficult to find a setup that works consistently.

There are a few concerns with the strap system as well. The shoulder strap has a nice feeling, but plastic mounting points that appear somewhat under-speced have us worried about this being a potential failure point under the kind of loads this bag is capable of hauling. I should note that the mounts held up just fine during our testing, so we may be anticipating a problem here that doesn't really exist.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
(view large image)

Finally, given that the entire padded equipment storage area is removable, the Capture also proves to be one of the most versatile bags we've come across. Remove the padding and the AT makes an excellent duffel or general equipment bag. For even more fun, add 20 pounds of ice and 12 longnecks.

Mountainsmith Capture AT
(view large image)

Yes, we really did fill the Capture up with ice (and beer, and a waterproof Olympus compact) just to see how it would work as a "mobility solution" for office happy hour. As with the camera equipment, if you can tolerate the weight, the Capture's good for it, and while it's not as well-insulated as a true soft-side cooler, the top flap works well enough at keeping the cold in that you can throw the AT on your shoulder and play baseball game beer boy ("Coooold beer! Get your cold beer!") all afternoon.

Conclusions

There's not much to complain about in terms of the Capture AT's build quality, with almost everything exuding a first-rate look and feel. The layout can be a bit awkward, and if you're a shooter with lots of slower or smaller lenses, there are simply too many bags that use their space more efficiently to make this one an ideal choice. For photographers with lots of big glass, if you can get around some of the Capture ATs quirks, the large version can be excellent in real world use. For almost everyone else, the smaller M model would probably make more sense.

Pros:

Cons: