The Domke Bag: Badge of the Working Pro
More than three decades ago a photojournalist in the trenches designed a revolutionary new kind of camera bag to help pros work more efficiently. His brilliant inventions and commitment to quality created a living legend.
No line of camera bags in the world is held in higher esteem by a wider variety of photographers and video shooters than Domke. Originally designed to meet the rigorous demands of photojournalists in the field, these rugged, practical, supremely durable bags offer more than just a great way to protect and organize your shooting equipment. Their extraordinary accessibility transforms them from being mere cases into active photo accessories that actually help you take better pictures more conveniently. That’s why Domke bags are the top choice of so many serious enthusiasts and pros who press them into service for everything from nature, sports, reportage, street, and outdoor adventure photography, to creating memories of the family vacation or covering their kids’ soccer games.
What is it that makes a Domke bag so special? To answer this question it helps to get a handle on the basic idea that inspired Jim Domke to create the original Domke bag in the first place-- a simple but profound concept that’s embodied in every single Domke bag ever made. That’s why we asked Jim Domke himself to tell you the remarkable story behind the legendary camera bags that bear his name, and he graciously agreed. It is a fascinating tale of daring and adventure that combines creative genius, hard work, unlikely circumstances, perfect timing, and phenomenally good luck.
Jim Domke on the Domke bag
“Back in 1975, when I was working for the Philadelphia Inquirer as a full-time photojournalist and editor of the Sunday Page, the rules of the game suddenly changed. Instead of each photographer having his own private company car, we now had to sign out cars from the press pool, As a result we could no longer use the car’s trunk as a de facto camera case for storing and organizing our gear —we needed a sturdy, no-nonsense camera bag that could hold enough stuff and also function as a portable base of operation.”
“At the time, there weren’t any bags that would fill the bill. The carry gear of the day was based on the concept of a hard case, like those metal Halliburton cases. You had to stop and set it down to get at your equipment—not exactly the hot ticket for shooting active subjects on the fly. And with the typical foam-lined cases, you had to cut out shapes to fit particular lenses, flash units, etc. These box-like bags were also made of stiff materials, so they were heavy and the equipment tended to bounce around.”
“I was confident I could come up with a better bag for our staffers, and I was lucky enough to be given the chance to do it—the newspaper said they’d pay for 20 shooters’ bags if I designed them myself and had them made at reasonable cost! My inspiration was the fishing bag I was then using to tote a basic outfit. It was made of heavy canvas and it had some of the features I was looking for, but it was far too small and had tiny compartments. I knew we needed a bigger bag that had pockets on all sides, and compartments large enough to get my hands into to get a good grip on the lens. I also realized the compartments had to be flexible to accommodate a variety of equipment since each photographer carried a different set of lenses, strobes filters, etc. It was beginning to dawn on me that that in my own modest way I was creating the ideal bag for the working pro—a bag you could work out of, not just stuff equipment into.”
“I made prototypes of my new lightweight, practical, rugged camera bag and vetted them with staff photographers covering the Republican National Convention prior to the 1976 elections. I listened carefully to their feedback because I knew these seasoned working pros would tell me how to make it even better. One veteran shooter said ‘make it like a six-pack’ so lenses can stand up; another suggested movable inserts (the originals were sewn in); a third wanted a ‘gripper strap’ so a loaded bag didn’t slide off your shoulder. All these ideas were eventually incorporated into Domke bags and movable folding padded inserts with Velcro strips for creating different numbers and sizes of compartments eventually became a patented Domke feature—it’s U.S. Patent #4,260,004 if you want to look it up.”
“Once the design for the original F-3 Domke bag was finalized, we went into limited production using #8 Canvas Duck and sail thread stitching. It was an instant success and word got around so fast we were soon besieged with orders. By summer 1976 we had already sold 800 bags, and were advertising them in major photo magazines. We also saw the need for a smaller bag for carrying a minimal outfit and the F-3 Compact bag was born. This was not simply a smaller version of the F-2—it was a completely new design based on carrying a smaller volume of pro equipment efficiently. By 1978, the line steadily expanded to include a Super Compact F-3 with integral pockets on the ends, accessory slide-on pouches, a number of different straps and a greater variety of colors. By that time the Domke bag had become a bona fide icon among serious and professional shooters, and I found myself in the unlikely position of being the best-known camera bag designer in the world.”
“The rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, we’ve constantly improved, innovated, and refined our designs, perfecting exciting new sizes and configurations of Domke bags—everything from ultra-compact bags to satchels and backpacks with laptop compartments. The Domke line now includes a staggering array of contemporary models in a variety of materials including Nylon, with rubber woven into the strap webbing, and Velcro closures. As we expanded, we outgrew our original small business model and the company was sold to Saunders in 1990, and then acquired by Tiffen in 1999 to better serve our loyal customers worldwide.”
“One thing that will never change is the underlying concept that was first embodied in the original Domke bag I created over three decades ago. Every Domke bag from the first to the latest is a shooter’s bag designed as a dynamic tool for the photographer working in the field. Ultimately that’s why every bag that bears my name is supremely practical, durable lightweight, and environmentally friendly—a camera bag that plays a crucial supporting role in helping you capture the action.”