As an outdoor adventure photographer I find myself wearing a backpack and sometimes being caught between wanting to have fast access to my camera and wanting it to be secure and comfortable to carry while I scramble around.

The folks at Backcountry Solutions have come up with an answer to this situation. They offer the KEYHOLEâ„¢, it’s a camera harness system which lets you keep your camera at chest level but takes the load off of your neck while also making sure the camera doesn’t swing while you move.

They provided one for me to test out, which I’ve been doing for awhile now. I used it hiking, climbing (a climb I did to get to a vantage point, about a 5.2), and I used it snowshoeing.

Snowshoeing with the KEYHOLE (TM)
Snowshoeing with the KEYHOLE (TM)

How it Works

The KEYHOLEâ„¢ has a webbing strap and buckle system which attaches to 1″ webbing found on many backpack straps. The webbing centers a plate with a keyhole shaped cutout in which a round piece can be slotted. This piece attaches to your camera at the tripod mount. Once it’s on your camera, you just slot your camera into the keyhole and the camera hangs lens pointing down. A velcro strap is also included for you to attach to your camera’s lens cap, helping stabilize the camera as well. The get up is intended to be used with your camera strap around your neck, but the weight of the camera when hanging is mainly distributed on your shoulders via the harness system.

My Impressions

Pros: It worked as advertised. I tested it with my heaviest short zoom lens (24-70) attached to my Canon XSi, this combination is just slightly over 3lbs, an uncomfortable weight to have just hanging on a neck strap for any length of time. With the harness system my neck felt fine. And even though I did not use the velcro strap, I felt that the camera did not move very much at all. I hiked miles and was able to grab shots of wildlife showing up unexpectedly, faster than even accessing the camera from a special camera bag with side access that I usually bring. I was also able to use this system while using hiking poles, my arms had full range of motion.

Because the harness system attaches where a chest strap would be on a pack, you don’t have to use your other strap, also you will probably already be used to wearing something there (the buckles are the same as on my packs).

I loved that I could use this system with a backpack I already owned and that I could remove it to use with my pack of choice for whatever activity I was doing, thus converting a regular pack into a camera pack.

Cons: While I was able to use this doing a rockclimb, my camera was still sitting out in front of me so I had to be careful to not have it scrape on the rock face. Keep in mind of course that the climb was about a 5.2, thus low angled with many protrusions, a different climb with less jutting portions would’ve been easier to climb with the camera. Of course I could bring my camera inside a backpack up the climb but I wanted a lighter weight option than bringing up my heavy crag bag.

As a female I had a few misgivings about the placement of the harness and plate but once I wore it, it didn’t seem too bad. I’d not want to run a race with it on, but I did wear it snowshoeing and was fine (perhaps the extra padding of my jacket helped as well). If you had a lighter camera set up, for example I used my camera with my 50mm lens, the comfort factor was greater. In addition, with the 50mm lens being shorter, it also avoided hitting my backpack buckle if I scrunched down and I also had more room to move the whole system (up or down along the 1″ straps on my backpack).

The biggest con is that this can only be used with a pack with 1″ webbing (or a harness with said webbing). Two of my packs (newer models) have the “railing” system instead of a 1″ webbing on the shoulder straps. If they had a “railing” compatible version it’d be perfect for me to use with my usual backpack on long trips and even with my camera/crag bag.

Additional Thoughts

I really liked this harness, for its price point (around $35 including shipping and handling) I think it’s a great tool for photographers. As a climber we’re always hiking into a crag and already have a backpack full of stuff, being able to wear your regular backpack and have a camera handy during the hike to take pics as you see them is nice and also convenient. If you go with this system I suggest bringing a neoprene wrap or a small “bucket” camera bag, the kind that basically just fit the camera with a lens on it (I have one that I can squish down) to put your camera in when it’s not in use during those climb and shoot outings.

I think the harness really shines for backpacking, snowshoeing and regular hiking. When you’re putting in the miles you don’t always want to stop and dig out your camera and you definitely don’t want it swinging around on your neck by its neck strap for hours. Couple the system with a neoprene hood if you want a little more protection while moving but otherwise I think you’ll be fine.

Traffic Jam Malibu Creek Style
Traffic Jam Malibu Creek Style

To the right is a picture I took while waiting for the “traffic jam” on the water traverse to the back area in Malibu Creek. I would not have dug my camera out of my backpack at this moment but I felt secure enough to just lift it out of the harness to use it (and keep in mind, even when you lift it out, the neck strap is still around your neck in case you should drop the camera). While it’s not photographically a perfect shot, it does exemplify an interesting feature of the area (the water traverse you must do before you even start to climb) and for me it’s definitely part of the experience (though I don’t like the occasional traffic jams of course).  Kudos to the KEYHOLEâ„¢ for enabling me to take it.