Wotancraft Commander (City Explorer)
Last updated February 2, 2015
This is a full review of the "Commander" camera backpack, which is part of the City Explorer line by Wotancraft Atelier. You might be asking yourself - who? They're relatively small; four people in fact - and located in Taiwan. Their name is a bit misleading but entirely international. "Wotan" is German for Odin - the Norse god and "Atelier" is French for workshop. True to the name, each product that they offer is handmade by the artisans themselves.
They actually make a variety of products, but the camera bags encompass two lines - City Explorer and Urban Classic - and they also make several accessories for them. What they all have in common is a similar sense of style - which is vintage, leathery and entirely WWII era. Think of a comfortable old bomber jacket and cross it with an ammo pack and you'll get an idea of what to expect. The materials are primarily leather and waxed canvas, coming in a "military spectrum" of colors (that is grey and brown). They are all of a high quality. The leather is soft and supple, the canvas tightly woven and water resistant.
Another thing that all Wotancraft Atelier camera bags all have in common (especially as you go up in size) is that they have more features and smart design elements packed in per square inch than you can shake a stick at. It almost seems that every time you check out the bag, you discover something new. They're all really well thought out, and it shows.
Note that Wotancraft Atelier made updates in 2014 to their bags; notably adding a lightweight insert and improved W.A.L. canvas. Since this backpack was introduced after these changes took place, it incorporates all of them. See the linked article for a more in-depth look at the specifics.
Modeled after a Swiss Army backpack (but built way better), the Commander is the largest bag in the City Explorer line - larger than the Scout, Avenger and even the Ranger bags (see links for our full review of each!). While it's primarily targeted at DSLR shooters, thanks to its highly configurable nature - it can work for rangefinder and mirrorless shooters as well as multi-platform shooters.
The specifications (via Wotancraft) for the backpack are:
- Capacity : 2 DSLR bodies, 4-5 lenses (fits 70-200mm lens), pro flash and accessories
- Size (Exterior) : 17(W) x 33(D) x 44(H) cm
- Size (Interior, top) : 11(W) x 23(D) x 19(H) cm
- Size (Interior, bottom) : 15(W) x 28.5(D) x 24(H) cm
- Strap Length : 60~87 cm
- Outer Bag Fabric : Vegetable tanned leather (sheepskin bottom, cowhide straps)
W.A.L (Wear resistant, Abrasion resistant, Lightweight) canvas
- Inner Bag Fabric : Lightweight fabric, high-density foam padding, five microfiber dividers
- Weight : 2.6(with insert) kg
The bag itself isn't tossed into a plastic bag for shipping. Oh no. It has its own "cotton dustproof bag" tied together with black rope. There is nothing cheap feeling here and you just get the distinct impression that you're unveiling a high-end leather good. From the initial unboxing to exploring the bag itself and its many features, subtle touches and smart design elements, the excitement level remains high. The smell of leather permeates the air. Rather than a large logo - medallion or silk screened on - there's instead a discreet, embossed leather tag sewn onto the bag. Going into this, we're already impressed. It's just a cool looking bag with nice, eco-friendly packaging. The style might not be everyone's cup of tea - there's clearly a WWII aesthetic happening... From the name to the color scheme to the overall design and individual touches.
The dustproof bag is heavy duty and can be used on its own as a sort of tote or storage bag; though it lacks proper handles (which they used to have) you can use the rope. Either way, it makes the typical plastic bag found wrapped around most camera bags appear simply bourgeois by comparison.
The Commander backpack, like all City Explorer bags, is primarily constructed of what Wotancraft Atelier calls "W.A.L. canvas" which is short for "Water resistant, Abrasion resistant and Lightweight." This material was one of the 2014 changes; it used to be a slightly heavier canvas but substantially more waxy; what they called "paraffin infused." The weave of the canvas is also tighter. The new material represents no loss in performance, but quite a savings in overall weight - especially on a bag of this size. It actually feels more like canvas "should."
The other key material of the City Explorer bags is leather. Leather for the straps, loops, bag bottoms... It's all vegetable tanned sheepskin and cowhide, and is relatively soft and supple. It should stand up to a lifetime of use without issue. It's also one of the unspoken "features" of these bags... The smell! There's no escaping the smell of leather - and it's divine.
Note in the picture above the extremely subtle Wotancraft logo. It's the only indication on the bag of who makes it or what might lie inside. We love this aspect of Wotancraft Atelier bags. They're instantly recognizable by those that know, yet could pass relatively undetected in less savory areas of town - they just look like surplus military bags from a distance. Also worth pointing out - check out the ultra-clean stitching. It's like this everywhere on the bag. Not a stray thread to be found anywhere!
To properly describe how the backpack is designed, let's first take a look at what Wotancraft's intent for the bag design was. As we mentioned above, it's primarily designed for DSLR shooters, carrying one or two bodies, multiple lenses - including a 70-200mm zoom and of course, all the things that go with. The following Wotancraft product photo illustrates this best:
There are several key design aspects to point out. You'll notice that the backpack has a top and a bottom section - unlike most camera backpacks that open like a suitcase. In the top section is what Wotancraft calls a lightweight insert. It's a very Velcro-friendly, soft padded insert that you can configure as you wish with multiple provided dividers. It's possible to replace it with a completely waterproof insert if you need bombproof protection. The bottom section is more interesting. It too is padded, and comes with only a "T" divider, which you can position as needed. You can store two pro DSLRs on either side, or just on one side - stashing lenses on the other - or removing the divider completely, should you want to use it for a really big rig, or say, a jacket. We'll explore each section and the possibilities in detail below.
Another neat design feature is the fact that you can remove the insert and zip open a divider between the top and bottom halves of the backpack - making one large space. You could drop a pro DSLR with an attached 300mm f/2.8 lens in there, no problem. Or you can use the backpack for more pedestrian things, like clothing and snacks while hiking. If you want to bring your camera, that's okay too - simply put the insert back in, which now rests in the bottom section (or just keep it up top). It's this configurability that makes the bag usable with multiple platforms and even non-photographic tasks.
The unpadded, top most flap of the backpack keeps the elements out of the top section and offers a storage pocket; it secures with leather straps on one of two studs per side, depending on if the insert is removed or not. More on this below. With that moved out of the way, you have another zippered flap for greater security and protection. If you look at the picture above, you'll notice it has two large magnets sewn in on each side. You can unzip the flap just half way (for security and/or easy access as needed) and the magnets will hold the flap halves together, quite nicely. If you don't need it at all, it can be folded into the top section, in between the bag and insert. As mentioned earlier, the top section holds the lightweight insert, which you can configure as necessary - or remove it altogether.
A Leica M Monochrom with a Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH mounted for scale, you can get a sense of how big the top section is. You can fit a Leica M with lens mounted, horizontally (with the lens facing down) and a lens to either side. Or an entire Fujifilm X-T1 camera system with three zooms, covering the focal lengths from 10mm to 200mm. If you prefer DSLRs, you can fit something like the beefy Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (with hood reversed for storage) along with another, slightly smaller lens - such as a fast prime.
Yes, that's a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, standing vertically in the bottom section. It's a perfect fit from top to bottom. There's room for two lenses; one on either side of the "T" divider - with a camera (and lens) on the other side of the bag. What could fit here? A Leica M body with even the largest lens is somewhat dwarfed by the spacious cavity. A Fujifilm X-T1 camera with pretty much any lens, save for the newest Fujinon Lens XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR will fit in most orientations. A Canon 1D X with a medium-sized lens, like a fast prime, will fit nicely. You could even shoehorn the camera with the 24-70mm attached in there.
Why do we have a separate section for pockets? Simply because there are eleven of them (sort of - and this is just on the outside) and we have a lot of ground to cover here. There is literally a pocket covering every conceivable location around the outside of the backpack, for things ranging from keys, cell phones, wallets and lens caps to more bulky items such as cords and even flashes.
On the front of the bag is one large, unpadded pocket with a snap closure (located on a leather reinforced loop). It's large enough to hold a flash or other bulky items. Super easy to access, even one-handed. The only downside is that as we mentioned earlier, with a tripod lashed to the bag, the contents are somewhat limited to flat, less-bulky items. Access may also be restricted as the tripod passes right over the middle of the pocket.
At the very top of the bag, on the flap that covers the top section, is a full, flap-sized zippered and unpadded pocket. You can fit all sorts of things up here for quick access. From travel documents to a variety of photography doo-dads such as filters and remote cable releases. Things you might want to have handy when the bag is sitting on the ground and you're shooting with a tripod, for example.
Near the top of the above picture, you can see the two studs that the top most flap's leather straps secure to. You only use one at a time; the leftmost (top one when normally oriented) is for use with the insert fitted into the top section, the rightmost (bottom one) for when it's removed. This scrunches the top of the backpack down some for a shorter overall profile.
Moving down a little, but still near the top of the bag are four unpadded "pockets" - though not all is as it seems... Two pockets accessed from the back/sides of the bag are as tall as your hand and about palm-deep. Great for eyeglass cases, phones, wallets, 4x4 filters, battery and SD card wallets and similarly-shaped items, even just pens. There are two more pockets, accessible from the front/sides of the bag. One of these pockets, accessible from the right hand side, is larger - spanning the width of the bag and as tall as the previous two. The surprise comes when accessing the other "pocket" from the left hand side. It actually gives you access into the top section of the bag. It allows for fast access to things contained within (though not so much within the insert, which is only open at the top). The benefit is that items stored here are most-protected from the weather, under additional layers of waxed canvas.
Towards the bottom of the backpack and on each side of the bag are what look like large zippered pockets. Rather, they are flaps that allow access into the bottom section of the backpack - and the gear contained within. With the divider removed, you could essentially reach in one side of the bag and pop out on the other - the space goes clear through the width of the bag. With the divider in place, you can access the gear located on each side appropriately. Sewn to the outside of each of these faux pockets however, is a smaller, unpadded and open-topped one. Great for quickly stashing a lens cap, for example. See "bottom section" up above for more.
Finally, moving to the right hand, back corner - is one long zipper reaching from the top of the bag to the bottom. At first glance, you might even miss it (we almost did). Zip it open and you have a huge, padded compartment for up to a 15" laptop. It was just shy of fitting a 17" MacBook Pro (which has been discontinued anyway). Shown above is actually a 13" MacBook Air - which we happen to find is the perfect travel companion.
Now moving inside the bag and in the top section, there is one more, zipped pocket. You could fit something small, like a smartphone here, as it will receive more protection from knocks than the outer pockets might provide. You can't really access the contents of this pocket through the front zipped "pocket" opening on the front/left side of the bag however.
Another neat feature that you'll find located all over the exterior of the bag are eight heavy duty D-rings, for lashing things to the backpack. For example, other "industry-standard" cases and pouches. You can really go nuts and use bungee cords to strap a jacket or other items to the backpack as well.
No need to worry about mounting a tripod via the D-rings however, as there's a purpose-made set of leather straps and adjustable buckles for carrying a tripod horizontally across the front of the bag. You can cinch the straps down for a monopod or small tripod - or really open them up for a rather sizable one. Clearly inspired by sleeping bag/mat straps; they work well here in their new role. One thing to note however, is that with a tripod fitted, it does interfere with the use of the one large pocket in the center, at least somewhat. Not really a big deal unless you need every last bit of space available.
The shoulder straps are a neat design and seem quite robust. Rather than simply attach one end of the strap up top, the other at the bottom... These are attached at the top - first on a very heavy duty D-ring (which is attached to the bag through a riveted and sewn, heavy piece of leather). The strap makes its way to the sides of the bag, where they're captured by another, medium duty D-ring. The straps can be adjusted here, to place the bag higher or lower upon your back. So up top, there's essentially four locations where the strap is held on!
The straps continue down to the bottom of the bag, where they're buckled to leather tabs - which let you adjust the length of the shoulder straps. But they bothered us a little, as they're located right on the corner... So if you put the bag on your lap, they'll dig into your legs - or take a beating when placing the bag on the ground. It might be a good idea here to extend the leather tabs by about two inches or so. This would solve both problems. While the tabs themselves appear pretty robust, there's only one large rivet for reinforcement (to the stitching). Thus, the weakest part of the shoulder straps. While unlikely to be an issue, we'd have preferred to see some more beefiness here.
One thing we missed having, is a grab handle located dead and center up top. When fully packed, this backpack can be quite heavy and when it's down on the ground and you need to pick it up - the only way to currently do that is via the shoulder straps. While it's certainly doable, it's a little awkward.
Finally, it's entirely possible that you'll pack more gear into this bag than will be comfortable wearing for a long period, as the shoulder straps, while wide - are not padded. Though this applies more to the DSLR crowd, especially those schlepping heavy glass like the aforementioned Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lenses. Of course, Leica M system and mirrorless shooters won't have this problem... But we digress.
This is one neat backpack. Sure, we've all seen photo backpacks before - you've seen one and you've seen them all, right? Not this one. First, it's not laid out like most photo backpacks, and secondly, there's the whole design aesthetic - bringing to mind the old Swiss Army backpacks... And for good reason, as it was inspired by - and designed after them - just built a lot better! Using a color scheme and materials reminiscent of this military gear (the same as all other Wotancraft Atelier "City Explorer" bags), it looks good, smells divine and should last a lifetime.
Inch for inch, every bit of this bag offers usable space, either in the interior in padded compartments that are highly configurable - or outside in one of eleven (well, nine actual) pockets. From lens caps to a 15" laptop, you're covered. For the coup de grâce you can lash a tripod across the back of the bag securely. It seems this backpack offers all the utility of a Swiss Army knife, too.
Like every other Wotancraft Atelier bag we've handled (which is to say, all of them) - this backpack should stand the test of time. And should the materials or workmanship fail, it's backed up by a three year warranty. So if this backpack ticks your boxes, by all means - we highly recommend the Wotancraft Commander! You can pick yours up from the Wotancraft Atelier website or one of their many dealers for $699 USD (624 €).