Still, backpacks come and go in my photo arsenal. So let’s see how the Explore 30 measures up inside and out - and whether or not it has staying power for the long haul.
I’ve worked with photo backpacks of every design imaginable, big and small, and always managed to find one thing or another that bothered me about the pack. Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but I like comfort, especially on a long, hot day, and I like a pack that fits my outdoor shooting style – whether that be on remote trails or in more familiar surroundings. Is that too much to ask? In particular, I like shoulder straps that don’t slide off the shoulder and to store gear so that it’s not only well-protected but also immediately visible and readily accessible. And I believe I found just that pack in the Shimoda Designs Explore 30.
Still, backpacks come and go in my photo arsenal. So let’s see how the Explore 30 measures up inside and out - and whether or not it has staying power for the long haul.
There’s no question that, when it comes to outdoor photography, whether close to home or far away, my go-to camera bag is a backpack. Which is why I welcomed the opportunity to field-test MindShift’s new entry in their PhotoCross lineup, the PhotoCross 15. So, did the PhotoCross 15 meet all my expectations? Will it become my go-to camera bag on outdoor adventures? And what features set it apart from the traditional sling or backpack? Let’s see…
Test Report: MindShift Gear Impresses Us with Two New Outdoor Bags - BackLight 18L Photo Backpack and Exposure 15 Shoulder/Sling Bag
A Quick Look at the New MindShift BackLight 18L
I’ve previously written extensively about the BackLight series, which, until now, consisted of two larger bags, first the 26L, followed by the 36L – the model number reflecting capacity, in liters. That makes this bag half the size of the largest version, at least in carrying capacity.
I still use the 26L, having gifted the 36L to a friend who routinely carries a load of gear, and when the 18L arrived, I thought it would be too small for my Tamron 150-600mm G2. I first tried the 18L out with my Nikon D500 attached to the new Tamron 100-400 (look for a review of this lens shortly). It was a perfect fit. Next came what I thought would be the impossible task.
On its own, the 150-600 settled in comfortably. But could I say the same when attached to the camera? Well, I did have to move a couple of the padded divers out of the way, but I managed a good fit. Of course, that shift in the partitions negated the use of the other half of the bag for a second camera with attached lens. Well, I could always carry a second body and lens separately – plenty of room for that.
In the backpack's factory configuration, when situating the camera with 100-400 attached (at the top of the bag, lens downward), there was plenty of room for that second body with attached lens (cradled from the bottom of the bag, lens upward). Long and short, I’ll still use my 26L for that monster glass and relegate the 18L for the D500/100-400 combo riding side-saddle with, say, a D610/90mm macro attached – and still have room for a Nissin flash.
You can read my earlier reviews by clicking these links:
BackLight 26L review
BackLight 36L review
I should point out that I was so happy with the BackLight 18L that I gave my trusty TrailScape 18L to a friend in favor of the new bag. I prefer the interior layout of the BackLight 18L, considering it will hold two cameras with attached lenses right from the get-go.
MindShift’s Exposure 15 Shoulder Bag
When it comes to shoulder bags, my preference runs to smaller bags. I find it more fatiguing when wearing even a small shoulder bag or sling bag than when carrying a fully loaded backpack. Still, a shoulder bag does come in handy on occasion. You won't carry a backpack to a formal occasion, or even when visiting friends. Not to mention, it's so much easier to stow a shoulder bag on the floor underneath or alongside your seat when dining.
I already own and use the perfect shoulder bag, Think Tank’s Signature 13 – elegant styling, functional, and small enough to carry just what I need for streetshooting. So I wasn’t about to make that bag redundant with the Exposure 13. Besides, the larger Exposure bag sported more spacious pockets – and I love pockets.
Still, the Signature bag lacks one thing that, to my mind, would have made it perfect: a waist belt to take the weight off my shoulder. It would have been very easy for Think Tank to have fitted the bag with a removable waist belt, but that probably would have run counter to the fashion statement that bag makes.
Fast forward to the Exposure series. These bags don’t feature a waist belt, but they come with the next best thing: a security tether, or what MindShift calls a "cross-body stabilizer strap." This keeps the bag from slipping off your shoulder – or swinging around and in your way when you bend down to shoot something low to the ground. It also prevents someone from pulling the bag off your shoulder. You can also wear the bag sling-style, which is how I’d been using it, and how it was primarily designed to be worn. The neoprene shoulder pad is sewn in and runs much of the length of the strap, rendering the strap well suited to either mode of portage.
This bag also features new materials that make it practically impervious to the elements, and the lid has flaps at either end to keep out dust, flying debris, and rain/snow. It does not have a zipped inner lid, a trademark of the Signature bags. However, the Exposure uses only a single plastic buckle for fast access. Some Velcro-type closure system wouldn’t have hurt, so you wouldn’t have needed to constantly snap the buckle shut. It’s a noisy prospect when you’re trying to remain quiet while focusing on birds or other wildlife.
As for the interior of the bag, it too lacks the finesse of the Signature bag, but, having said that, it does provide the needed protection. I was able to fit my D500 with attached 100-400, standing the rig lens downward inside the bag. With a shorter lens, the camera could have been supported by the dividers along both sides. Still, even with this long lens, the flap closed without any unruly bulge. BTW – carrying this combo was another reason, perhaps the main one, I’d opted for the larger Exposure 15. The Exposure 13 would have been too small.
I should also note that the Exposure 15 will carry a 15” laptop, along with a tablet. There are numerous other pockets, along with a luggage-handle pass-through so you can piggyback the bag on your roller luggage. A tripod is carried at the bottom – straps included. Also included is a rain cover, not that you’ll need it in a light rain, since the bag is sufficiently weatherproofed on its own. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s also a water-bottle pocket that will comfortably hold your average-size water bottle.
It was nearly a year ago that I tested the progenitor to the BackLight series, the BackLight 26L, from MindShift Gear. That pack has become a staple in my stable of carrying gear, which includes a variety of MindShift and Think Tank Photo products. I’ve grown to rely on them for their utility and durability. And these days, I’ve been leaning toward smaller bags that limit what I carry. I prefer to arrive home after spending hours on my feet little worse for wear, and lighter loads allow me to do that. I also find I work faster and more efficiently if I can work economically.
Anyway, so this BackLight 36L arrives on my doorstep. It’s a full 10 liters bigger than the previous model, which I use mainly when shooting with my Tamron 150-600mm G2. In fact, what that translates to is, the 36L is taller, wider, and deeper. So the question you have to ask yourself when choosing between the two versions is, how much backpack do you really need?
But even before you go there, take a closer look at the pack and you’ll notice something different – something that sets it apart from other MindShift (and competitor’s) backpacks. Hint: it has to do with camera access. The name should give you a hint.
The Design - The Good and the Bad
In contrast to typical backpack designs, the BackLight employs a rear-access panel, rather than a front panel. (Front outer pockets hold a variety of other stuff, as we’ll see.). It’s a zipped, drop-down panel, but by giving you access to your gear from the rear, you keep prying hands away from your precious cameras and lenses. It may take a little getting used to at first if you’ve been using a more traditional pack, but, provided you’re not switching back and forth, as I am wont to do, you should have a firm handle on it after one or two outings.
MindShift will try to tell you that you can change lenses on the fly, without removing the bag from your body, thanks to this rear panel and a short neck cord found inside the bag. I tried it with the 26L. It didn’t fly. And with an even bigger and heavier bag, I’m not even going to attempt it. Frankly, I wish they would have removed that cord, since it always came undone on the smaller bag. And it was not very comfortable.
Room for a Laptop, a Tablet – and a Tripod
Rear access means you can carry a tripod centered over the front of the bag for better balance on uneven terrain. All the accoutrements are in place, but neatly tucked away top and bottom. Or you can carry the tripod on either side, with a water bottle on the opposite side. If you’re mostly traveling over flat terrain, side-carry is not a problem.
Keeping the tripod over the center makes more sense for the long haul, but it does get in the way when laying the bag down to get at gear. And if you carry a tripod, you definitely do not want to use that neck cord to change lenses while still wearing the bag.
I don’t know about you, but I never take my laptop into the field. Still, if that’s your preference, this bag lets you do that – inside a padded sleeve. Not only that, but you can also carry a tablet. The tablet sleeve isn’t padded, but the surrounding pocket is so voluminous that you’ll likely keep a jacket and other stuff in there to cushion against bumps.
When Kata first introduced the Bumblebee photo backpacks (distributed by Manfrotto), they soon became a favorite – at least for a time. What I liked about one bag in particular – and forgive me for not recalling the exact name – was its light-gray reflective exterior and the bright yellow (or yellow-orange?) interior that revealed every piece of gear stored.
Fast forward to the present. These bags no longer come under the Kata brand, being instead not just distributed by Manfrotto, but manufactured under the Manfrotto brand as well. The Bumblebee backpack I received kind of resembles the old Bumblebee, but that’s largely superficial. So has Manfrotto improved the backpack in the redesign? (Spoiler alert: read past the first few paragraphs to find out how I really feel about the bag. Don’t be dissuaded by my introductory comments.)
Preliminary Observations: New Pro Light Bumblebee-230
The reason I’d requested the larger Bumblebee-230 was because the 130 was touted for CLC mirrorless systems. And since I’d planned to use the pack with either with my Nikon D500, possibly with battery grip, or D610 and various lenses, the larger bag seemed the logical choice.
So the bag arrives. And now I remembered one thing that had always bothered me about the original bag. The design of the backpack harness adds depth to the bag and it extends out in front like someone who’s had a few too many beers. What that means is, this bag will very likely not fit in the overhead bin on any aircraft I’ve been on, despite claims to the contrary. OK, technically it may fall under carry-on guidelines. However, you can’t argue with airport personnel or airline crew, especially if you’re among the last to board – what they say goes, and if they say it’s not a good fit, it’s not a good fit. And this is not the time when you can turn around and shift gears to a sleeker, more airline-user-friendly bag.
Okay, forget about air travel. What about everyday use? Well, try using public transit with a backpack that sticks out as far as this one does. You won’t get many smiles from the people you’ve jostled. Then let’s head to the woods. As you attempt to negotiate narrow trails and dense thickets you realize it’s going to be a tight squeeze and you approach the hike with some trepidation.
That aside, the interior design is a bit odd. There’s an upper shelf with an aperture for a lens to stick through. But the aperture is not centered over the central channel in the lower part of the bag, so how exactly do you fit things properly? You have to shift one of the main dividers over to align everything.
What’s more, the interior is dark. And the foam is thick – too thick, in my opinion. Yes, I like my gear cushioned and cuddly in a pack, but the thick foam kind of imposes itself and gets in the way. It takes on a cavernous appearance.
Okay, you’re saying, pull out the upper shelf and stretch the two main red dividers to their full length. Well, guess again. These were apparently fitted for the 130 and they’re too short to extend fully top to bottom in the larger 230.
So, where does this leave us? Well, all is not lost. In fact, there’s quite a lot to be said for this backpack.
Now, What I liked About the Bumblebee-230
The pack is well constructed and will deliver years of good use. The backpack harness works admirably. I especially like the padded pocket in the padded waistbelt – keep a lens or flash here (a 70-300 will fit, although a flash would be a better choice, just in case you hit a lot of bumps in the road).
And the bag is comfortable. Which brings us back to the backpack harness. The waist belt does a beautiful job of keeping the weight off your shoulders. More to the point, it puts it on the hips – exactly where it should be. Few photo backpacks (or I should say backpack manufacturers) understand this, or even among those that do, few follow it in all their backpack designs.
Carrying a tripod comes second nature to this bag. There’s even a laptop sleeve. And there are enough pockets to house all essentials. Well, except for a jacket. The outer front zippered pocket should have been pleated to allow more room. I tried getting a lightweight jacket in there without luck.
I should also mention that there are two ways to get inside the bag. The upper and lower sections zip open separately. However, there is a flap that stands between the zippers on one side. Lift this flap up (it uses Velcro-type hook-and-loop material) and you can gain access to the entire interior with one smooth zip movement.
Field Report: Think Tank Photo's StreetWalker Series Photo Backpacks Take to the Streets as Version 2.0
I used my original StreetWalker for a long while, eventually replacing it with MindShift Gear’s TrailScape 18L when that bag came along. What I liked about the StreetWalker (version 1.0) was its small size: It could easily fit under the seat of a commercial airliner and would be a comfy fit in a puddle jumper as well. But when the TrailScape came along, I figured, Hmm, a bit bigger and a roomy outer front pocket for a light jacket – OK, I’ll use this one when I need a smaller bag.
Now that the StreetWalker V2.0 (SW V2) is here, I find myself switching back to this smaller pack. After all, if I need something larger, capable of storing a jacket and some extras, I still have my MindShift BackLight 26L, which I recently discovered will snugly hold my Nikon D500 with attached Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens (look for a review of both products soon).
Think Tank also sent me the new StreetWalker Pro V2.0 (SW Pro V2) – the larger sibling in this family, but not the largest in this series by any means. There’s an even more spacious pack, the StreetWalker HardDrive V2.0 (which fits a full-size laptop), and new to the lineup, the StreetWalker Rolling Backpack V2.0 (roller and backpack in one). The two largest bags looked tempting, but I felt that two bags was enough to deal with for now.
Inside and Out
The new SW V2 and SW Pro V2 are roomier on the inside than their original counterparts and slightly larger overall. Other than that, the new models add room for a 10” tablet on the bag. The tablet sleeve is the same size on both bags.
One of the problems I had with the original SW V2 (can’t recall if this also applied to the larger pack) was the small water-bottle pocket on the small bag. Think Tank addressed the issue in both V2 bags with an expanded, pleated zipped pocket behind the mesh pocket. Small water bottle? Use the mesh pocket. Large 32 oz Nalgene, use the zipped pocket.
I would have preferred that the pockets were pleated all the way around to the bottom. That would make an easier fit for a large water bottle and allow for a grommet at the base. A bottle with cold water subjected to a warm, humid environment will form condensation, and that condensation will pool at the bottom. A grommet allows the water to safely drip free of the bag.
The pocket on the left (with the bag on your back) has a small smartphone sleeve as well. I don’t know about you, but I carry my phone in a vest pocket, where I can easily reach it, not in the backpack, where it’s impossible to reach (unless you’re a contortionist) without taking the pack off your back. Some things appear cool on paper but are not very practical in the real world.
One of the more subtle changes revolves around the main padded partition. It’s now hinged toward the bottom to make room for a second camera with lens attached. Simply swing the hinged section over to the right to make room. When carrying two cameras with attached lenses, this provides for a well-balanced carrying situation, which your back will thank you for. Obviously, this reduces your ability to carry very long lenses, but, hey, you can’t have everything – unless you switch to a larger-size pack.
Any way you slice it, either bag is roomy enough to hold fast lenses attached to a DSLR, within limits. I would even venture to say that each bag could hold a medium-format camera, possibly with a lens, at the bottom. At the very least, the larger bag should hold two gripped DSLR bodies with attached lenses; the smaller one should accommodate one DSLR at the top and, on the bottom, one gripped body, each with lens.
Air-flow mesh padding in the back and shoulder straps was welcome relief on a hot muggy day as I found myself walking around several popular birding areas in the Chicago area, wearing the StreetWalker Pro V2, on a bird photography outing with a friend.
I had the SW Pro V2 loaded with my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm G2 – lens attached, I might add, and resting comfy, cozy, and snug inside the pack. I also added a Nissin Di700A shoe-mount (which I’m also testing) and sling strap, that I sometimes left attached to the camera – or more correctly, the tripod mount for better balance.
And yes, I kept the tripod mount attached to the lens. Otherwise, you tend to forget these things when you need them, or misplace them entirely. I also find it much easier to carry the camera by grabbing onto the mount, although at times I may cradle the camera, varying with the moment or the situation.
The tripod mount was positioned fully downward inside the pack, an arrangement I found raises the entire assembly to the point where camera and lens practically hug the closed lid for a snug fit so things don’t bounce around. Still, as a further precaution, I tend to secure lens and camera with either an elastic band that attaches to either side surrounding and hugging the lens, or I position an unused padded divider over the lens barrel for this purpose. I should add that I left the lens shade reverse-mounted on the lens.
The lens being this new, I take one more precautionary step – I slide the packing Styrofoam collar that came with the lens in place beneath the hood, just as it arrived from the factory, to prevent distorting the hood. It’s probably overkill, I know, and I may discontinue this practice, but it stands for now.
One thing that bothered me about both bags: the lack of headroom above the camera. The D500 has a very deep grip. The Nikon D610 not so much, but it still had difficulty being comfortably seated in the smaller V2 pack. I almost gave up, till I realized I could reshape the central divider somewhat to make room. And that worked. I have the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 attached to the camera, and there appears to be room for a bulkier and longer lens in its place. The fit in the larger Pro V2 was also tight with the D500 in place, but not to the point where I had to make any further adjustments to the main divider.
As for comfort level, I’m not sure why – and this will no doubt differ with the individual – I found the smaller of the two packs rides more comfortably on my back. Perhaps it’s due to the heavier load packed into the Pro V2. Then again, I’ve loaded the BackLight with the same gear, and it was a smooth ride – as good as it gets. It may have something to do with the added depth of the SW Pro.
As a side note, I should point out that the added depth on the StreetWalkers offers one distinct advantage: It lets them stand upright easily, unassisted and without having to lean against something for support, without fear of the bag tipping over, which is certainly a plus.
FEATURES (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Backpacks V2.0
WHAT FITS (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Pro V2.0
MATERIALS (per Think Tank Photo)
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS (per Think Tank Photo)
StreetWalker Pro V2.0
Internal Dimensions: 9.4” W x 17.3” H x 7.5” D (24 x 44 x 19 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 9.8” W x 18.5” H x 8.3” D (25 x 47 x 21 cm)
Tablet: 7.7” W x 10.4” H x 0.4” D (19.5 × 26.5 × 1 cm)
Phone Pocket: 3.9” W x 7.5” H x 0.6” D (10 × 19 × 1.5 cm)
Weight: 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg)
Internal Dimensions: 9.4” W x 16.1” H x 6.3” D (24 x 41 x 16 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 9.8” W x 17.3” H x 7.1” D (25 x 44 x 18 cm)
Tablet: 7.7” W x 10.4” H x 0.4” D (19.5 × 26.5 × 1 cm)
Phone Pocket: 3.9” W x 7.5” H x 0.6” D (10 × 19 × 1.5 cm)
Weight: 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg)
The moment I unpacked this photo backpack and unzipped the main flap, I had a sense of déjà vu. I’d seen this bag before.
Then I took a look at my Think Tank Photo StreetWalker and realized where I’d seen this design.
The new TrailScape largely mimics the interior of the StreetWalker, or perhaps more correctly the StreetWalker Pro, since the dimensions more closely match that pack. But there are substantive differences. What are they? Read on.
The TrailScape – On the Outside
Gone are the two zippered side pockets found on the StreetWalker. They are wisely replaced by two roomier stretch pockets. Granted, some may lament the loss of these zip pockets, but I always found them a bit too cramped for my taste.
Instead, you now have room for a 32-oz. Nalgene water bottle on one side, counterbalanced by your tripod snugly secured by compression straps, with two feet (spikes retracted) resting inside the opposite stretch pocket.
On the front, there is a very spacious pocket that will hold a 13” laptop and a 10” tablet, not that I ever carry either into the field. But I do make use of these sleeves for maps, pads, and various accessories. There are also organizer pockets in this section.
In front of this large pocket sits another pocket, diminutive by comparison, designed to carry your sunglasses, with a very softly textured fabric lining that shouldn’t scratch. I’ve got a pair of those sunglasses that are so bulbous when closed that they require a custom case. They fit here. But I was so afraid they’d get crushed at some point, that I removed them and put them back in their hard case. In their place went my Giotto’s rocket blower.
The zippers run very smoothly. However, I would have preferred contrasting colors for the zipper pulls on the front pocket. Yes, the zip pulls, which are designed to be easily handled with gloves, are smaller on the pocket. But I did manage to grab them by accident. So my solution was to rest them on the side, with the main zips up top. Problem solved.
Because this is a trail pack, in contrast to the zips on the StreetWalker, the zippers are not interlocking (for the purpose of inserting a TSA lock). Besides, locking a bag only makes it that much more tempting to those looking to steal it.
There are four lash points on the front of the bag, but you’ll have to supply your own rope or bungee cord. If you need to carry stuff inside the front pocket to keep it safe from the elements, you can lash a jacket to the front of the bag. I keep a light jacket inside this pocket.
There’s a carrying handle on top – more of a strap, really, coming to rest on the back of the pack. While not nearly as substantial as the one on the StreetWalker, such straps have been used on other packs (I believe also from MindShift or Think Tank), and I’ve never known them to fail. Besides, in contrast to that other bag, this handle doesn’t add to the height of the bag – which could make a difference when you’re trying to squeeze into a tight overhead bin or under a seat. (By the way, if you’re going to carry the pack for any distance, by any means other than fully on your back with both straps, use one of the shoulder straps, not the carrying handle.)
On the Inside
This pack is not nearly as deep as even the original StreetWalker. What does that mean? Forget about carrying a pro-grip camera, unless you insert it face-up sans lens. That said, my Nikon D610 rides much more secure in this bag, because it’s less of a bouncy house (although, I must admit, I always secure the camera with a Velcro band over the dividers or I’ll seat another divider over the lens for a snug fit).
There are plenty of padded dividers. As is, this pack is fitted for a slew of lenses, accessories, and a flash. My dividers never sit in one place for very long, however. That’s the beauty of a customizable system.
There are also two mesh pockets inside the front lid for small, chiefly flat items.
The first thing I have to comment on is the backpack harness system and airflow/lumbar padding. In a trail pack, this is of utmost importance for your comfort and safety during long treks, especially over arduous terrain. While this pack is not meant for such outings, by its very nature, still, it’s comforting to know it will stand the test.
The harness system on the TrailScape feels better than the one found on the StreetWalker. The straps are wider at the shoulder. The straps on both packs are contoured top to bottom to fit the body nicely, but this one is decidedly a better fit.
As with the StreetWalker, the unpadded waist strap is removable. (Keep it inside the bag, or you’ll lose it. Better yet, leave it attached – reattaching can be a chore if you didn’t take notes on how the straps originally attached to the bag).
The sternum (chest) strap on the TrailScape is longer and a bit stretchy for larger chests or someone wearing lots of winter layers. On my initial outing, I didn’t find it necessary to use either the waist belt or chest strap. The pack rode comfortably on my back without requiring constant adjustments.
By the way, when you first get the pack, it’s important to loosen all straps. Tighten them when the pack is on your back, and adjust them once on the trail.
You’re probably thinking that it’s odd this pack doesn’t allow for a hydration bladder, whereas the more compact SidePath, which is essentially an enhanced daypack, will accommodate a bladder. I’m guessing, that, when you start with one basic design, namely the StreetWalker, it would be difficult to create a custom passageway for a drinking tube without destroying the solid fabric of that pack. And frankly, I’m not a fan of bladders, so this doesn’t bother me in the least. If you must use a bladder, MindShift has several alternatives available, currently the rotation 180 packs.
Field Report: MindShift Gear’s UltraLight Dual 25L Photo Backpack – Light in Weight, Heavy in Functionality
I've had a love affair with MindShift Gear photo backpacks from the first. Over time, with the introduction of newer packs, I’ve had to displace older ones – not because I disliked those older packs but because the newer packs more closely addressed my needs and style of shooting. Not to mention, I just didn’t have the space for all of them.
The Rotation180 Panorama pushed aside the Pro size pack, but was in turn replaced by the Horizon because this pack was of the right size to hold the camera/lens combos I often use stored ready for fast retrieval in that built-in rotating waist pack.
Then along came the FirstLight 20L, which I really liked, but it did not meet my needs for a pack I could use in the snow or in muddy conditions without laying the pack on the ground. So the Horizon stood its ground, even though I found it (and the Panorama) a bit on the heavy side.
More recently, MindShift Gear introduced the BackLight 26L, which lets you work out of the bag while still wearing it – hence a workaround when negotiating snowy or muddy terrain. But that pack wasn’t enough to push the Panorama and FirstLight out of contention. I still wanted a pack that would only carry a limited amount of gear while I was running around Chicago yet would also let me carry some extras - more than would fit in an outside pocket, as spacious as the one on the BackLight is.
Specifically, I often challenge myself to make the most of a one-camera-one-lens combo, which usually means my Nikon D610 with attached Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 primarily for landscapes and architecture, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 for landscapes and street shooting, or Tamron 70-300mm for wildlife, or sometimes the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro for the obvious, but also for wildlife and scenic views with a different perspective.
Enter the UltraLight Dual 25L. Would I now being saying goodbye to my Horizon and FirstLight packs as well?
Light Weight But Not a Lightweight
The UltraLight Dual is not MindShift Gear’s first dual-tier system, since technically the Rotation180 series would also fall into that category. Then again, the Dual is not your typical two-tier pack either.
Two-level packs traditionally have separate top and bottom compartments – the bottom compartment thoroughly padded to accommodate a variety of camera gear, including one camera with attached lens; the top compartment unpadded for personal items (lunch, books, jacket, etc.), as is true here. Often, and applicable in this pack, the partition separating the two sections opens to let you extend one compartment into the other, for whatever reason (converting the entire pack to a daypack, for example).
Traditional two-tier packs feature either a clamshell camera section (opens like a clamshell) or a camera section that opens from the front. I used to like either design until I realized that opening a clamshell can become rather inconvenient if it’s top-heavy. And when the camera section opens from the front, the view or access inside was often obstructed in some way. And both designs required you to put the pack down.
MindShift’s UltraLight Dual builds upon a combination of two concepts: the dual-tier combined with a side-access panel. The side-access panel means you don’t have to put the bag down to get at your camera. Instead you sling the bag off the left shoulder, lift the bottom up so the bag is level, and reach over with your right hand, unzip the panel, and grab the camera. And to make things even sweeter, that camera compartment is actually a removable bag that comes with its own shoulder strap. You can even loop a belt through the back so it doesn’t shift as you’re moving about. The internal bag has its own zippered lid as added security (I usually leave this zipped only partially for faster access to the camera, unless negotiating rough terrain). If you keep the removable bag inside the pack, which makes more sense to me, rather than toting it on your shoulder, make sure to keep the outer panel zipped.
How I Use the UltraLight Dual 25L
First, I begin with a lens attached to my D610. That really doesn’t leave room for an extra lens or flash, so I do the next best thing. The Nikon SB-700 came with a nice, semi-rigid, padded pouch, which I now use so I can store the flash in the upper compartment. When I get where I’m going, I can transfer the flash to a pocket in my photo vest.
Now, with regard to extra lenses. That’s where the MindShift Switch Case comes in handy. I added some extra padding on the bottom of the Switch Case. This also goes into the top compartment. I can transfer this pouch to the outside of the backpack when needed. And if I need more lenses, I’ll find a workaround. For now, this is fine. As I said, I don’t usually run around with a slew of lenses. If I’m traveling, then I’d likely use one of my other backpacks. Which pack? Depends on where I’m going (Think Tank's StreetWalker is often my go-to pack for travel). Then again, I may just decide to take this one. You have to remain flexible, and owning more than one photo backpack allows me to do just that.
Features (my comments in parentheses)
Field Review - MindShift Gear's FirstLight 20L and rotation180° Horizon 34L & Think Tank Photo's StreetWalker - Photo Backpacks Worth Owning & Using
I'm a big fan of photo backpacks, and always have been. I find them eminently suited to practically every type of shooting I do away from my home base. In fact, I keep specific gear packed in individual backpacks so I'll be ready to go, with just minor tweaks, as needed.
Over the past few years, I've grown to love packs from Think Tank Photo, and more recently from their affiliated younger sibling, MindShift Gear. In fact, packs from these two companies have been my go-to bags for practically every photo outing and are the only backpacks I trust to do the job these days. Think Tank has packs geared more toward travel and location photography, whereas MindShift directs its efforts primarily toward the great outdoors, as well as travel. Bags from the two companies are distinctly their own - there's nothing else like them on the market. And each company's packs are easily distinguishable from the other.
Now, with regard to the packs we're reviewing, the newest are (with the latest first), MindShift's FirstLight 20L and rotation180 Horizon, followed by Think Tank's StreetWalker. The FirstLight series is geared toward DLSRs with physically long lenses attached, whereas the rotation series aims at instant readiness in any environment, with considerably shorter lenses on the camera, to put it simply. The StreetWalker has been around for awhile. As the name implies, it's primarily designed for use on the street, but is so compact and utilitarian, you'll want to take it everywhere.
These three packs are water-repellant and constructed with an ultra-strong, ultra-durable nylon shell. The MindShift packs in particular are designed to weather the harshest of conditions. All these backpacks are fully padded, with customizable interiors. What's more, they're relatively lightweight without compromising construction or their ability to protect my valuable gear.
FIRSTLIGHT 20L (Click highlighted text for more info.)
I loved this bag from the moment I laid eyes on it. First, it's sleek in appearance, with nice, clean lines. Second, there are two ways to carry a tripod built in--over the front or on either side. I carried a compact Sirui carbon-fiber pod, but my larger Giotto's would also have made a good fit. The side that's free can hold a water bottle (something in the order of a 16 oz bottle). The FirstLight 30L and 40L (L = internal capacity, in liters) will also hold a hydration bladder (optional), as well as more and bigger gear. Third, it comes with its own seam-sealed (translation: keeps water out) rain cover.
To further ensure your comfort, the pack comes with an aluminum stay. The backpack suspension system is especially noteworthy. Unlike most photo backpacks, this bag is adjustable for torso length. This affects how you carry the pack and your comfort level for the long haul. The only pack in recent memory that was arguably a better fit is the rotation180 Pro. To further ensure your comfort, the pack comes with an aluminum stay.
In addition to the heavily padded, contoured, breathable shoulder harness, the pack comes with airflow back padding with lumbar support, a fully adjustable sternum (chest) strap - with a whistle, no less, and fully padded and fully adjustable waist belt. In fact, the waist belt was designed to wrap around to the front so that it takes up less space in storage and to keep the padded wings (flaps) out of the way. There are also compression straps to further secure the bag and add to its comfort: load lifters attached to the shoulder straps on top, stabilizers on the waist belt. Remember, the basic idea behind all these adjustments is to take the weight off your shoulders during long hikes and to keep the bag stable on uneven terrain. The sternum strap also helps keep the shoulder straps from sliding off the shoulder. On city streets, you can make do with just the shoulder harness, as I did - makes removing the bag that much quicker.
The only way they could have made this a more pleasurable experience is with an instructional video illustrating the torso adjustment and overall fit of the pack (I had to play around with it to get it just right). There is, however, a set of instructions inside the bag.
The pack has two roomy front pockets, plus one small one on top (I would have also liked an organizer pocket for a pen, pad, and other small stuff). The largest of these pockets will hold up to a 15-inch laptop, but you'll have to provide your own padded sleeve. I'd normally carry a light jacket in that pocket. There are additional see-through pockets inside.
Now to the key feature of the FirstLight series. These packs are designed to hold a DSLR (HD-SLR) with long lens attached. For the FirstLight 20L, maximum lens size attached to the camera body, according to MindShift, is a 200–400mm f/4 or 300 f/2.8, with room to spare for additional lenses, shoe-mount flash, and accessories. Because of the bag's shallow depth, some lenses that I would have stored vertically (upright) in another pack had to be stored horizontally (lengthwise). Still, what I particularly liked is that the bag holds the camera snugly in place. I had to adjust one of the vertical (long) partitions to accommodate the width of my Nikon D610, but that was it.
The limited depth did have one other consequence: I had to detach the sling strap that I normally leave attached to the bottom of the camera (this may vary with sling strap design). The 30L should have no problem dealing with sling straps or with standing some lenses on end. That should be even less of a problem with the much more spacious 40L.
Street price/FirstLight 20L: $229.99 direct; $229.99 @B&H
ROTATION180 HORIZON (Click highlighted text for more info.)
There isn't that much more to say about this version of the rotation180 other than it's bigger than the Panorama (read that review here).
Well, concomitant with that larger size comes a roomier rotating waist-belt camera pack. Aside from that, the Horizon accepts the same optional camera insert as the Panorama, but leaves room to spare, which is a big plus in my book. With the insert, the Panorama left practically no room for anything else. Now, with the Horizon, you can store that light jacket, some snacks, and a guidebook or two, and even make room for a tablet, plus additional pockets give you added space. There is a pocket on the side that will hold a water bottle, but it's not mesh, meaning the bottle could slip out on a rugged trail. To counter that, this pack will also hold a hydration bladder (optional). Rain covers for the main pack and belt pack are optional.
While not on the same level as the rotation180 Pro, the shoulder harness and related straps on this pack make for a comfortable and secure carrying system. Inexplicably, I found the waist belt release mechanism that governs the rotating belt pack easier to use on this backpack than on either the Pro or Panorama.
Suffice to say, this pack has replaced both the rotation Pro and Panorama packs. I do wish it stood on its own (which is true of the Pro, as well as the other packs reviewed here). Still, it awaits the next snowfall, when I won't need to put the pack down on a wet or muddy surface to get at my camera with lens attached - that's what the rotating belt pack is for. And if I do set it down, I'll know I can access the remainder of my gear through the top panel, without laying the bag flat on the ground.
Street price/Rotation180º Horizon: $259.99 direct; $259.99 @B&H
STREETWALKER (Click highlighted text for more info.)
The StreetWalker proved the ideal choice for a recent trip to Hawaii. I wasn't initially certain whether I'd be checking any luggage or not, but, in case I didn't, I wanted to be sure my camera bag would be big enough to hold the needed gear yet would fit comfortably and unquestionably underneath the seat in front of me on each flight, going and coming. And all this without compromising the security of the gear or my comfort. What I didn't know at the time is that the bag would have to fit in the storage compartment on a helicopter and a storage locker on a boat.
Prior to this trip, I'd been using the StreetWalker Pro when tooling about town, but found it too spacious for my Nikon D610. Plus, as I mentioned, I wanted something small - something that would accompany me onboard as a "Personal" item if need be. When the smaller StreetWalker arrived, I inserted my D610 with a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens and Nikon SB-700 flash. That left room for the Samsung NX500 and any additional Samsung lenses I'd be receiving (on loan) during my Hawaii stay. And it all fit uncrowded yet snug enough so nothing would be bouncing around (I generally make use of unused dividers to ensure a snug fit, or add a couple of spares from an old bag).
Several pockets, including an organizer pocket, keep you organized, with additional pockets for a water bottle on either side. Carrying a tripod with this pack is not as convenient as with the larger StreetWalker Pro, but is certainly doable and without any major inconvenience. And it comes with a rain cover.
So, not only did the StreetWalker fit nicely underneath the seat on the plane, but it had no complaints when relegated to the storage area of either the sightseeing helicopter or the whale watching boat. And I was a happy camper - er, photographer.
Street price/StreetWalker: $169.75 direct; $169.75 @ B&H and Adorama
I can't say enough good things about MindShift Gear's newest FirstLight 20L as well as the rotation180 Horizon and Think Tank Photo's older StreetWalker. They're all comfy, do a great job keeping my gear well balanced on my back and protecting my gear, and are a perfect fit for my various needs, whether it's communing with nature, walking the streets of Chicago, flying in a helicopter, or whale watching in a motorized inflatable craft. I always felt assured that my gear was secure, and I never felt worn out after any shooting experience with these packs.
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Which Backpack Should I Get?
Listed in order of preference under each criterion...
- If you carry a long, fast lens attached to the camera: FIRSTLIGHT 20L
- If you carry a short, fast or short zoom lens attached to the camera and need it ready to go at a moment's notice: ROTATION180º HORIZON
- If you're a wildlife, landscape, or travel photographer: FIRSTLIGHT 20L, ROTATION180º HORIZON
- If you expect to be on foot for long periods at a stretch: FIRSTLIGHT 20L, ROTATION180º HORIZON
- If you expect to be negotiating rugged terrain or spend extensive time in wilderness areas: ROTATION180º HORIZON, FIRSTLIGHT 20L
- If you expect to be on snowy, wet, muddy terrain (especially anywhere you can't conveniently put the bag down to access gear): ROTATION180º HORIZON**
- If you need a backpack that is airline-friendly*: STREETWALKER, FIRSTLIGHT 20L, ROTATION180º HORIZON
- If you carry a tripod: FIRSTLIGHT 20L, ROTATION180º HORIZON, STREETWALKER
- If you carry a laptop: FIRSTLIGHT 20L
- If you carry a tablet: FIRSTLIGHT 20L, ROTATION180º HORIZON
- If you want a backpack that's compact and cozy yet capable of carrying a small DSLR outfit comfortably: STREETWALKER
- If you want a backpack for light travel photography: STREETWALKER
*Subject to individual airline carry-on allowances.
**The FirstLight 20L has a ruggedized bottom panel, but does require it to be positioned on the ground for access to gear, whereas you can grab a camera and lens out of the Rotation180º rotating hip belt on the fly while still wearing the pack.
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