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Vanguard Skyborne 51 Rucksack / Backpack Review

February 01, 2012  •  Leave a Comment
Vanguard Skyborne 51 rucksack / backpack Review
I've been meaning to write a review of this bag for ages now and instead of a 'first thoughts' piece it has turned into a 'long-term' test.
Now I normally juggle my bags around, as I am lucky enough to have a great deal of variety in my work. Construction sites at night, boardrooms and newspaper shifts all have very different requirements and I have over ten bags, of which I regularly use four.

So what makes a good bag?

Protection: I carry well over £10,000 of camera gear with me and the bag has to cope with accidents, falls, rain, dust, being tripped over and, most often, being tossed into the boot of the car.
Comfort: Carrying up to 15kg of gear around is never going to be pleasant, so you want it to be comfortable and secure.
Accessibility: There is often a trade-off between comfort and protection. I have bags that offer great protection but you wouldn't want to walk with them and often the bags that allow easiest access have the least protection.

Functionality: This is an assessment of the bags ability to hold, store, separate and essentially not annoy!
Quality: I suppose this could be tied up with protection and comfort, but essentialy it is more an assessment of the durability, materials and stitching on the bag.

Vanguard Skyborne 51 - Harness
Vanguard Skyborne 51 - Rear View
Variety is the spice of life and as I work for many different clients I take different gear to different jobs. I have a portable studio crate that has lights, soft boxes etc and then a kit bag for camera gear. Normally that kit bag contains lightweight flash gear for those quick PR and press shoots. So basically for any bag to work for me it has to hold the following:

Camera and Lenses
Flash Equipment
2 x 5DmkII plus grip
1 x 580 ex mk II
Batteries AA and Button + Li-Ion
70-200 2.8 is L
OC-E3 flash cord
Gels and Gridspots as well as stofen diffusers
28-105 f4 L
2 x Manfrotto 5001B Light Stands - or Tripod
8 x CF cards  
17-40 f4 L
Godox Propac power pack
Lenses cloth
14mm Fisheye
Pocket Wizard Flex + Mini
Business Cards !
Laptop - with room for power cable and mouse + occasionally I carry a tripod and several head torches while working at night. One for me and one each for the light stands!

So as you can see from the above table, I typically carry rather a large amount of gear and finding any bag that can cope with all this without some compromise is almost impossible, so how does the Vanguard Skyborne 51 do?

The first impression I had of the Skyborne 51 on removing it from its delivery box was how light it felt, at 2.5kg. It is a strange thing to think about an empty bag but I used to use the Lowepro Vertex 300AW (follow link for review) and that beast is almost 4kg empty.

Despite its light weight the Vanguard Skyborne 51 offers generous padding on all sides and I can lob it into the car or place it on the floor with confidence. I remember my old Crumpler Zoomverse XL rucksack (see pic below) that was very well padded but it was huge and you felt as if you were wearing a massive turtle shell on your back. Conversely the Lowepro Vertex 300AW had less padding and relied more on a strong structure to protect the gear. This is a big ask for a large rucksack with one large compartment as the internal separators have to be really strong to prevent gear shifting and clever packing is required to store heavy items at the bottom of the bag.

Vanguard Skyborne 51 - Lower Compartment
The Vanguard Skyborne 51 gets around this problem by having two compartments, meaning internal separators in the lower main compartment offer the right level of padding without being too bulky or overly stiff. The outer and expandable laptop pocket is perhaps the least padded although Vanguard supply a padded laptop sleeve (up to 15") that sheathes your expensive computer very nicely. That said, care should be taken laying the rucksack down when there is a laptop in the outer pocket. Some other bags provide laptop storage against the users back which gives more protection to the laptop but creates bulk and access issues. As I only carry a laptop occasionally I prefer the Vanguard Skyborne 51 system but if you are a regular laptop carrier you may want to add additional padding.

The lower compartment protects all the glass and camera bodies and the outer lid has a big soft pad that doubles as lumber support while wearing the bag.
Vanguard Skyborne 51 - Lid is Lumber Support

The top compartment is a bigger space and offers no internal baffles or separators. I suppose as the Vanguard Skyborne 51 putting itself up against other 'Day Sack' models, this space is designed to provide an extra area for a coat, sandwiches, flask etc. I really don't use this space like that at all - I tend to use it for my flash gear.

I have worn the Vanguard Skyborne 51 in torrential downpours and completely forgotten about the waterproof case that neatly folds out of a compartment on the base by the lumber support. It has proved itself to be pretty waterproof without, but it's a good extra feature if the weather's really dreadful. As most of the zip closures are against your back, they naturally offer a level of protection against the weather. The side hatch is exposed and features zips with water-resistant flaps, but the back has never leaked and gives good weather protection. I have also used the bag in muddy and dusty conditions and find that as the closures are not left open when you carry the bag (unlike a shoulder bag where you often leave it open - if you're lazy like me!) less dust and crud gets inside.

Rain Guard fold out of base

So I'd say the Vanguard Skyborne 51 treads the fine line between weight/padding rather diligently and despite its small physical bulk (far smaller than the Crumpler or Lowepro) Ihave confidence that my gear is protected.

Upper Compartment
Finally on the subject of protection I just want to mention security. Not only does the bag not actually look much like a camera bag but the main compartment cannot obviously be opened from the outside (apart from the discreet side hatch) when you are wearing it. Both these features are good things if you are working in or touring around a busy city.

There really isn't a great deal to say here as the bag is really comfortable and has some venting across the middle to stop you getting too hot. It is by far the most comfortable camera rucksack I have worn and as I said before I have used at least six different types in the last 15 years. The removable waist strap is essential when you're climbing over and around things, as it keeps the bag far more securely attached to you than just the shoulder straps alone. The shoulder straps feature a chest strap which is always nice and the surplus webbing of the shoulder straps, which wrap around Velcro ties, is a good feature.

The only gripe would be that personally I would like slightly wider shoulder straps. Not much but maybe another 10mm, I am a broad chap though.

This is always a compromise for a rucksack because unlike a shoulder bag it has no wide and stable base. There are generally two approaches to this problem. Firstly the bag opens from the back but this means it has to be laid down on the strap side giving you potentially wet muddy straps. The second approach is to access the camera gear through the front panel (against your back) which means the rucksack is laid down on its back, protecting the straps from the mud. Obviously the back can still get muddy and wet but there is always a trade off and from me this is by far the better solution, and the one chosen by Vanguard for the Skyborne 51.

Splitting up the main compartment into two works well for me too, as I can keep camera gear and flash gear separate. This keeps me organised and when I'm setting up my lighting I can keep the lenses zipped away, safe from dust and moisture.

The really clever bit of the bag though is the side hatch. This allows you to remove a camera and lens without taking the bag off. Lowepro have had a similar system for a while and I have to say both systems work very well. You can sling the bag round and open the side hatch very quickly and easily. I have also found that keeping a flash deeper within the same compartment means you are ready to go in seconds. The hatch actually could do with being an inch deeper for the 5d MKII and battery grip but you soon get the knack of it.

Side Hatch
As I said before about access, all rucksacks have to find a compromise, but the Vanguard Skyborne 51 seems to be well thought out and practical.

When loading the bag the first time, I played with a few different options before realising that this might be a bit pointless for me. My camera bodies and glass fitted very snugly in the lower compartment but what to do with all the other stuff as the top compartment has no baffles and is essentially just a big space. I then thought about what was going to be in there and realised it would only be a flash and some bits and bobs (my pocket wizard and flashes live in little bags attached and ready on their light stands). So I just placed them in and threw a power pack into the outer compartment. I really haven't wanted to use another bag since I got this one as it's extremely easy and convenient to use. The zips all work well and logically, and there are double zips on the main compartments allowing for right and left handers as well as the option for closing them in the centre.

Velcro Webbing Tidies....nice touch

The fold-out tripod pouch and slidable (adjustable for height) strap is actually far simpler and easier to use than the Lowepro's system used on the 300AW.

I have actually slung this bag on my back with the top compartment open (accidentally) and nothing fell out due to its design. Old rucksacks that opened from the back (such as Lowepro's Trekker) range were renowned for killing camera equipment as many a trainee photographer would sling the bag onto their back with the zips not fully shut (or in one case it had failed) and ended up throwing camera equipment everywhere. I once did this with a 70-200 2.8 L-series lens - which amazingly still worked fine once the smashed filter was removed. This, incidentally, is another good reason why rucksacks that open from the back panel are ultimately better.

I love the bright orange interior of the bag. It not only really helps in low light but acts as a visual reminder that the bag is open. I only wish that the Vanguard Skyborne 51 had bright or even better fluorescent toggles on the zips (they are nice big toggles though). I do a lot of photography at night and would love to see a manufacturer not only incorporate fluorescent toggles but why not a small LED light?

The mobile pouch on the shoulder strap is perfect for a lens cloth and the side hatch has a clever pocket built in that can be accessed from both inside (with the flap open) or from the outside (without having to open the flap). This is a great place to stash things you need quickly, such as CF cards.

The carry-handle on the top of the bag is well padded and feels strong, as do all the straps. If you need a bit more stability on a hike or if you are carrying a heavy tripod there are some extra shoulder straps and security straps. I rarely use these and leave them undone but clipping them together does make the bag feel more secure on your back.
Mobile Phone or Lens Cloth??

On the opposite side of the bag to the hatch is a strap and pocket combo that are perfect for my lightstands. I suspect that, unless you have exactly the same models as I have, yours may not fit but you could certainly use these straps for bungeeing anything to. A coat or a foldable chair would be a useful addition for a sports snapper.

Quality of finish on this bag is certainly up there with the competition. If feels as well made as Lowepro, Tamrac or Crumpler gear I have owned and in the last six months shows virtually no wear after being used at least 4 times a week. When I first got the bag I was concerned about the usual area that these rucksacks fail (the inside of the shoulder straps) as there isn't any visual reinforcing. Actually the strong stitching has not shifted a bit and looking underneath the straps, you can see where Vanguard have double-stitched to give strength. So I have no quality issues with the Vanguard Skyborne 51 at all. It's well made and takes all the punishment I throw at it.

How could it be improved?

I'm very happy with the bag although if pushed I would like to see:

1) An internal light and fluorescent toggles (don't want much!).
2) A couple of options for dividing up the large top compartment

3) A slightly larger side hatch for even better access

I had not heard much about Vanguard as a company before I got the Skyborne 51 bag. I must admit that if all their products are of similar quality then I will pay more attention. I'm impressed with its comfort and functionality in relation to its relatively small size (hand luggage friendly!)

The Vanguard Skyborne 51 is clearly aimed at the travel, outdoor type brigade but it works well for me as the top compartment allows anything to be put in it and the option of carrying a laptop. The bag offers comfort and ease of use and certainly should be considered by pros and amateurs.

I won't bore you with all the spec as you should just click through to Vanguard's website. They have some intresting products. http://www.vanguardworld.com/index.php/en/pv/products/photo-video/detail-1-1-214-650.html
A little Walkaround video from our Youtube channel


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