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)
Peak Design’s trademark, if you will, is out-of-the-ordinary photo accessories. They made their mark on the photo industry with the Capture camera and lens clips, which heralded a different way of carrying a camera and lens – essentially attached to your body. Now they’re looking to do the same with their line of Everyday line of camera bags, specifically the Everyday Backpack. Did they succeed?
Perhaps I should begin by saying that, while I thought the Capture clips were a clever idea, I never found them very practical. At least not for my style of shooting. And there’s the rub. We each have our own shooting style, so what works for one person may not work for someone else, or, to look at it another way, what doesn’t work for me may work for you.
A Little Background
I’ve been working with photo backpacks ever since Ultimate Experience introduced the very first one several decades ago, in the pre-digital age (look it up, I think museums have a hall dedicated to it). That pack was well-constructed and very lightweight, but it had numerous shortcomings, to the point where I was happy when new packs started to arrive on the scene. Back then Lowepro stole the show. Today MindShift Gear is setting the benchmarks in outdoor/wilderness packs and Think Tank Photo in travel packs.
Anyway, when the Peak pack arrived, the first thing that struck me was, hey, this is one stylish bag. I was really curious to see how well it would hold up under actual use. I took a peek (no pun intended, well, maybe just a little) inside the Peak, and, again talking to myself, said, hmmm, let’s load this baby up and take it for a spin. So I did just that.
Peak sent me the ash-gray pack, which features leather accents. Too early to tell how this leather will hold up, but it does add a modicum of refinement any way you slice it. The charcoal pack is entirely fabric (sans leather accents).
The backpack harness consists of thinly padded shoulder straps, with sternum (chest) strap and waist belt. The ends of the waist belt are hidden in the outside pockets. If you have arthritic fingers, you may have a tough time accessing them – get a friend to help.
In addition to the backpack harness, the bag features a handle on each side, as well as on top – nice touch. On the ash bag, the handle is a composite of fabric and leather layers.
There are stretchable pockets on the outside hiding compression straps. You can use one pocket and its respective compression strap for a tripod, the other pocket on its own for a water bottle.
What gives the side pockets their stretch are elastic bands. I was able to fit a 32 oz. Nalgene water bottle in the pocket, but I fear that over time the elastic may wear and break. (Other straps are hidden away under the front of the bag, in a hidey-hole, so to speak.)
There’s also a zipped sleeve, accessible at the top, on the back, which will hold various accessories, a tablet, and laptop.
The main zipped flaps afford you entry to the camera section, one zipped flap on each side. And that’s where the story gets especially interesting. You can access the bag through a side flap by swinging the bag around to the front, sling-fashion, while keeping the bag attached to your body via one shoulder strap. This way you won’t have to put the bag down, which is a decided plus when you’re standing in the muck or surrounded by water or snow.
But before we look inside, I should also note that there is a stiffened top lid that also leads to the bag’s interior. The top lid has a magnetic closure. There’s no way to lock the bag, although the side zips do provide a modicum of security. Still, most thieves will get at a backpack through the top, not the side, and they’ll have little trouble doing that here in a crowded setting. I would recommend keeping a rain cover on the pack to help keep prying hands out, but, alas, none is provided. That’s another point of contention.
The interior of the pack features three, what Peak calls, “FlexFold” dividers, with Velcro-type hook-and-loop fasteners. You position these three dividers as shelves. They can be modified to hold more gear in a somewhat unusual fashion, without adding more dividers: Each shelf end folds upward, forming a mini-shelf. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think of bookends. That’s kind of how they look, if not how they function.
It looks and sounds really cool, but here’s the problem…
The upshot of this divider system is that you can’t fully customize the interior. For starters, bookending either side leaves less cushioning on the remaining end section of the modified shelf/divider. What’s more, the end sections offer rather flimsy support. It’s even possible for something small to fall over the edge of a shelf, into the gap left between shelf and side flap, since the ends just float there, with nothing to secure them to the sides.
On top of that, the FlexFold dividers can’t be repositioned horizontally along the shelf – they’re locked in place at each end. You either use them or you don’t. But you can’t further modify the amount of space devoted to each piece of gear – that is without moving the entire divider up or down. Unless you wrap, say, a lens in soft foam or bubble wrap to keep it snug.
With conventional dividers, you can form a virtually unlimited array of shapeable modules, more with some bags than with others. And you can even shape dividers around lenses, so they don’t move, no matter how much jostling they undergo.
There’s another drawback to this system. Actually more than one. You can access some gear on the top shelf through the lid, but the rest of the gear must be accessed through one of the side panels.
So, what happens if you have one short lens on a mini-shelf on one side of the pack and a second short lens on a mini-shelf on the opposite side? You have to open each flap. And that assumes that you remember where you put which lens. Not to mention, there’s always the possibility of forgetting to close one of the two side flaps that you’ve just opened – unless you open and close them one at a time. (This is where accessing the bag sling-style can actually prove to be more of a bane than a boon.)
One more issue I have with this bag. The dividers use a very dense closed-cell foam. Open-cell foam absorbs vibrations and is ideal for dividers when not overly spongy (that Ultimate Experience pack used very spongy open-cell foam). Closed-cell foam is better shock protection, which works great for the exterior shell and to some degree for dividers. (I’ve always contended that a layered mix of open and closed would be the ideal.) The dividers here are so dense that things just bounce off them. So if there’s too much room, a lens will bounce around – and you don’t want that. You want the lens as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug.
I should add that there is a way to set this divider system up so that one very long lens can stand on end from the very bottom of the bag, but I found it highly impractical. And again, you’d have to cushion the lens against being bounced around.
I also need to point out that the side flaps each have pockets. However, don’t overfill these, as that may get in the way of the gear you can store on each shelf.
I strongly recommend you view the video on Peak Design’s website outlining all the features of the bag. But read between the lines. It’s not all as smooth-sailing as the video would lead you to believe. (Click here for video.)
I’ve already outlined all my issues with the interior design of the pack (see Design: Interior). So no need to repeat myself.
I like the magnetic latches, despite the fact that you can’t lock them. But what I don’t like is that the flap is open at either end, which, in a torrential downpour or with gusty winds at the beach, means water or sand will find a way in.
The bag desperately needs a rain cover. It was shortsighted of Peak Design not to include one, or at least optionally offer one custom made for this pack. Finding one online that fits just right is just too iffy. Not to mention, third party rain covers advertise some other company. I’d like to think that Peak Design would prefer to promote their own products, not someone else’s.
When I tried the empty bag on, it was a comfy fit. And I initially made a point of mentioning that to Peak Design. Fast forward to my experience after I loaded the bag up and the experience was radically different.
I found the shoulder straps with a loaded bag dug into my shoulders. To keep straps from sliding off, which is typical of most packs, I employed the sternum (chest) strap. I found this equally uncomfortable. The one-piece chest strap hooks onto each shoulder strap (instead of two pieces snapping together) – sounds simple in theory, more troublesome in practice.
Then I added the waist belt. Using a waist belt is supposed to take some of the weight off the shoulders. It didn’t do that. There was no added support whatsoever. And the waist belt is too narrow and neither contoured nor padded.
To make matters worse, I noted that, had I been a stockier fellow, the straps would not have fit. This bag is not made for someone with a stocky frame. I also wonder how it would do with layer upon layer upon layer of heavy winter clothing. I didn’t have to dress for winter to figure that one out. It would be a tight fit, if that.
Not long ago, I reviewed the Airport Security V3.0 rolling camera case from Think Tank. I couldn’t sing its praises loud enough.
Well, the TakeOff V2.0 may unseat the Security as my favorite roller, and here’s why. (For reasons why you should use a roller for your camera gear in the first place, I direct you to that earlier review.)
At the outset we should point out that all of Think Tank’s Airport-series rollers are what we’d consider “soft-sided” luggage. That means it's fabric-covered and pliable yet quite rigid.
Airport TakeOff V2.0 vs the Original Airport TakeOff
On the surface, they appear to be very similar. You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. However, there are a few noteworthy design changes, from what I can discern in the specifications.
To begin, the new bag uses a 1680D nylon shell, which is better quality, higher density, and more abrasion-resistant than the 420D used in the original. Second, whereas both employ user-replaceable in-line skate wheels, V2 uses “high performance, 80mm super-quiet wheels with sealed bearings.” Not having used the original, I can’t speak to a quantifiable difference, but I can say that the new wheels are smooth-rolling and super quiet. The Airport Security uses the same wheels, so there was no need to put them through the same tests. Suffice to say, they pass muster on carpet, cracked pavement, and grass.
Aside from that, the pocket that was originally inside the cover flap has moved to the outside, for faster access, except that it’s fully opaque nylon, not see-through plastic. There are also some cosmetic differences and the included tethered lock has been moved to the side, underneath the side padded handle.
Airport TakeOff V2.0 vs Airport Security V3.0
The TakeOff has a smaller profile than the Security, so it should be a better fit in the overhead on smaller aircraft. That said, you should always check airline allowances before packing your gear and leaving for the airport.
The Security is designed to serve as the name implies. The primary lock is built into the case, with both zipper pulls (the metal tabs) locking in place inside the combination lock – it’s an ingenious design! The tethered lock, however, is a standard combination lock and removable from the tether. Both are TSA-compliant (meaning TSA can easily unlock them if needed).
The TakeOff features only a tethered combination lock, also TSA-compliant, but this lock is permanently attached to the tether. And the tether is much shorter here than on the other bag, if that matters. Also, as mentioned, the tether is found on the side of the bag, in contrast to the top-loading tether on the Security (not sure if that really makes a difference from a practical standpoint). The zippers to the TakeOff’s camera section are interlocking to accept the TSA combination lock.
The front pockets on the two rollers are different, yet similar in some ways. Both will hold a laptop plus tablet. The laptop sleeve on the TakeOff is a smidge larger and appears to have thicker padding in front. The TakeOff will hold my 17” Gateway with protruding battery attached. This laptop is quite thick. The fit was snug, and removing the battery would have been a prudent move. The TakeOff features an organizer pocket, whereas, oddly, this feature is missing on the other roller.
The biggest difference between the two cases is in how you access the outside compartments. On the Security, everything but the outer mesh front pocket, is zippered, with interlocking zippers – hence, lockable. The TakeOff lacks the large outer mesh pocket, and only the organizer pocket is zippered – but with no way to secure it. The laptop/tablet sleeves are accessible via a snap-closure mechanism – not at all difficult to get into when your back is turned. So you wouldn't want to leave the TakeOff with a stranger while you head to the restroom or while you step away for a quick cup of java.
An even greater overriding concern for some of you: If you work with pro-grip DSLRs, then you'll definitely choose the deeper Security over the TakeOff. A point that should not be overlooked.
The telescoping handle is fully exposed on the Security, whereas on the TakeOff it is hidden beneath a zippered flap, and for good reason. What really sets the TakeOff apart from the Security and other Think Tank Airport rollers is the built-in backpack harness.
Why a Backpack Harness?
Despite the fact that Think Tank does a really nice job with its padded handles, making them ultra-comfy and ultra-strong, there are times when you want to move more quickly and with better balance over uneven, perhaps gravelly, rock-strewn, or muddy terrain, and hand-carrying just won’t cut it.
Carrying a roller by the handle makes you kind of wobbly. Besides, you may need your hands free to carry something else or to help you negotiate stairs or rough terrain. Enter the backpack harness.
Unlike the traditional backpack harness found on rollers equipped with these straps, where you first have to attach the harness or go through some lengthy process of digging them out, using the harness on the TakeOff couldn’t be easier. Unzip a flap on the back, and voila! You’ve unveiled the backpack straps. They slide out and back in effortlessly.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the flap leading to the harness secures to the bottom of the case and out of the way via hook-and-loop material, popularly known as Velcro. What you will notice is that these shoulder straps don’t extend all the way down to the bottom edge of the case – at least not from the outside. That means there’s no waist belt, which is unnecessary in this kind of arrangement. There is, however, a sternum (chest) strap to help secure the bag so it doesn’t shift weight as you’re trekking over rocky areas.
Granted, this is a heavier setup than a traditional soft-sided backpack alone without wheels or cart handle. But you won’t be going on long hikes. You’re just donning the harness to negotiate a short stretch of difficult terrain, or to climb the stairs. (Advisory: never drag the case up stairs or lift it by the telescoping handle. Always hand-carry it in such instances, or use the backpack harness.)
Rollers traditionally have one failing. To allow for the wheelbase and telescoping handle, sections of the interior are raised, leaving what we might describe as wells or channels. You can simply work around that without it hampering you in the least. I arranged my gear in minutes.
The interior lets you stash two bodies sans pro-grip with attached lenses and a whole slew of additional glass and one or two shoe-mounts besides. There are more than enough padded dividers and many of these are hook-and-loop compatible, letting you configure the interior to your heart’s content.
As for the backpack straps… Well, keep in mind this is not a traditional backpack. Owing to the constricted way the straps extend outside the bag (not as loose as the traditional harness), the straps did pinch a bit under the arms, but not to the point of unbearable discomfort. You should try it out for yourself, as all body types are different. Remember: these straps are just a temporary means of traversing terrain that would prove difficult for wheeled luggage. In the main, wheeling this case along is just a dream.
Materials (per Think Tank Photo)
Exterior: For superior water-resistance, all exterior fabric has a durable water repellent (DWR) coating, plus underside of fabric has a polyurethane coating. The roller bags are also constructed with 1680D ballistic nylon, YKK RC Fuse (abrasion-resistant) zippers, custom designed extra tall skid plates, high performance 80mm super quiet wheels with sealed bearings, SpanKodra front pocket, rubberized laminate reinforcement, nylon webbing, and 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
Interior: 210D silver-toned nylon, polyurethane backed Velex liner and dividers, 2x polyurethane coated nylon 210T seam-sealed rain cover, closed-cell foam and reinforced
Specifications (per Think Tank Photo)
Internal Dimensions: 13” W x 18.5” H x 5.3 – 6.8” D (33 x 47 x 13–17 cm)
Exterior Dimensions: 14” W x 21” H x 8” D (35.5 x 53 x 22 cm)
Laptop Pocket: 11.4” W x 16.3” H x 1.4” D (29 x 41.5 x 3.6 cm)
Tablet Pocket: 9.8” W x 9.4” H x 0.8” D (25 x 24 x 2 cm)
Weight: 7.0–8.7 lbs. (3.2–3.9 kg) depending on accessories used
Where can I get more info/order this product?
Think Tank Photo
Think Tank Photo
How much is it?
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.
MindShift Gear first came on the scene with rough-and-tumble photo backpacks. If you wanted to go into the wilderness with your camera gear, this was the way to go.
But with time, the company has mellowed in its direction, it seems, and has started producing photo backpacks with more mass appeal. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on which side of the fence you’re leaning.
I, for one, like some of the more city-slicker-oriented designs for those of us who don’t spend days trekking into the great outdoors. But, then again, I lament that the company feels a need to trim down their packs at the expense of all-around utility.
Enter the SidePath.
The SidePath – On the Outside
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to materials and workmanship, MindShift doesn’t skimp. Granted, a bag such as the SidePath doesn’t share the same go-anywhere body of this company’s heftier backpacks. After all, this bag was designed to be light on your back for light hikes, walks around town, and sightseeing. Toward that end, the materials are also lighter weight.
Where I feel MindShift has gone wrong with this lightweight pack is in the shoulder straps. They may be comfortable over several layers of clothing, but, as the day wears on, you may begin to feel it, especially if all you’re wearing is a t-shirt under those straps.
OK, granted, I did go ga-ga over the previous lightweight pack, the UltraLight. And I had used that bag for much of the year. But over time, I did notice a difference, especially after testing Think Tank Photo’s ShapeShifter V2.0 and MindShift’s Moose Peterson V2.0, with their heftier, more substantial backpack harness systems. And that made me long for those stockier backpacks.
But, then again, I’m a stocky person. Someone with a more slender frame will likely appreciate and prefer the lighter-weight of the SidePath. And, by extension, would be very happy with the existing shoulder harness.
On the Inside
This is a twin-tier design. That means that there’s a roomy upper compartment and a lower level. Traditionally, the lower level is where camera gear goes. Which is the case here. So you can expect the required padding and the customizable interior.
The upper level is where your personal stuff goes. It has a tent-like zipper flap. The front flap has an inside mesh pocket, which is quite spacious. There’s also a thinly padded sleeve to hold a tablet. Alternately, you can fit a hydration bladder in this sleeve. I personally avoid inserting a hydration reservoir inside a pack, for fear of leakage.
Who Should Use This?
Anyone out for a light hike, a walk around town, or sightseeing, or simply enjoying a fun outing with friends and family.
Despite my complaints about the lack of padding in the shoulder straps, they did manage to do a nice job. I would have liked a roomier top section, so I could fit a jacket in there with my extra gear, but I’m sure I could find a way to do that when push comes to shove. The lower section was a perfect size for my D610 and attached 70-300mm zoom. Alternatively, it would also carry my D610 with Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 attached just as snugly. If you don’t mind carrying camera body and lenses separately, you could fit more gear in here, provided none of the lenses were long or of wide girth.
I found myself liking this bag. Of course, when MindShift sends over their TrailScape, I may shift my attention to that roomier bag. Still, the SidePath does have a place among my other packs, but, more importantly, on my back. It’s compact, lightweight, and is the perfect solution for a day out with my camera.
Still, MindShift, you might consider coming out with a slightly larger version, with a heftier shoulder harness. That would be my perfect bag for sauntering about town.
Until now, my favorite photo backpack from Think Tank Photo was the StreetWalker. The original StreetWalker is compact enough to make it onboard practically any flight as a personal item, if you play your cards right. The Shape Shifter V2.0 might not make it as a personal item, but it will certainly fit in the overhead. Of course, you should check with your preferred airline prior to each flight, as carry-on regulations can change at a moment’s notice.
What sets the Shape Shifter apart from other packs is its morphing design. It starts out with a tapered look, but unzip the bag and it expands to hold your gear, going from 3 inches in depth to 7 inches. Apart from that, the bag wears just like any photo backpack.
An In-Depth Look: Let’s Start Outside
The Shape Shifter V2.0 has what’s needed for a comfortable hike or walk around town. Namely, it begins with contoured shoulder harness, sternum (chest) strap, and waist belt.
The included waist belt is not padded, but it works fine. It’s not removable in the usual sense, as it lacks clips. On the other hand, it can be removed with some effort. However, if you lift up the hook-and-loop-fastened bottom flap (which is padded to protect the bag at the bottom), you’ll reveal a hideaway behind the lumbar pad. If you don’t use the waist belt, then tuck it away. If you remove it, you can replace it with the padded Pro Speed Belt V2.0 (Think Tank, $41.75 - make sure to order in the right size). Instructions come with the pack for replacing the waist belt. The Pro Speed Belt is designed to carry extra gear, courtesy of the numerous attachment loops on the belt.
The back of the pack is comfortably padded, with an airflow design that makes it breathable. The shoulder straps are similarly configured to be breathable. And while the pack doesn’t have side compression straps normally found on outdoor packs, it does benefit from shoulder compression straps for a more personal fit. Another nice thing: the shoulder straps didn’t slip off my shoulders, which such straps have a tendency to do. That meant I didn’t have to use the chest strap, although to be thorough, I did carry the bag with all straps attached. It was a comfortable arrangement.
The main compartment has a single zipper. All other zippers are paired, and many are lockable.
If you want to use the pack as a daypack, for clothing and travel essentials, then you’d do best getting the Naked Shape Shifter. I would imagine that you could easily use the Naked Shape Shifter as a weekend getaway pack without adding any pouches. The Naked Shape Shifter is essentially the same pack as the one I tested, minus the sewn-in accoutrements.
Each Shape Shifter pack comes with a removable mesh water bottle pocket on the outside. I don’t know about the 15-inch Shape Shifter, but the pouch on the 17-inch version is large enough to easily hold my 32-ounce Nalgene. And the mesh means that condensation on the bottle’s exterior will be able to evaporate without the water forming puddles.
Before we open the pack, I did want to point out that the bag is surprisingly heavy, considering it lacks the usually dense padding inside and on the front and sides. But that’s also a sign of solid construction. As mentioned, the back is fully padded.
When expanded, the bag reveals an unpadded nylon shell along the top and sides. For this reason alone, I’d hesitate to take this pack on a strenuous outdoor hike where a backpack might be knocked about. But then again, that was never the design for this bag. It can easily take some jostling on a crowded bus or subway car.
Plenty of Pockets
One reason to love this bag: there are lots of pockets. First, there are 3 roomy pockets inside the front lid. Now move to the outside of the bag and you’ll find an abundance of pockets. For starters, there’s a padded sleeve that will hold a 17-inch laptop, along with a tablet in a separate padded sleeve – all in a section immediately to the rear of the main section. If you don’t carry a laptop, stick a jacket in here, or maps.
There’s a separate semi-padded tablet sleeve on the front of the bag. In fact, this sleeve offers protection for the camera gear, given the padding. I stuck the included rain pouch in a small upper outer pocket for additional padding from the front. There’s also an organizer pocket.
There’s even a pocket to hold the tripod legs, when carrying the tripod over the front of the bag (actually, this is the only way to carry a pod with this bag). That pocket can also be used for other stuff, since the included tripod straps should hold a lightweight tripod securely top and bottom (tripod straps included).
On the Inside
The expanded bag is deep enough to hold my rather girthy Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. However, the bag is not really designed to hold a camera with attached lens, and for me that was originally the deal-breaker when Think Tank first introduced the original Shape Shifter. I prefer keeping one lens attached to the camera, so I can be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. Still, not all situations require your camera to be constantly at the ready, and I was willing to give this a shot. And having said that, the new neoprene wrap may fit a body with a compact lens attached. I just didn’t feel it was worth the effort, since I’d have to swap lenses once I’d reached my destination.
In addition to the wrap, there are 4 pockets of varying size. I fit a Tamron 70-300mm zoom, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8, and Nikon SB-700 flash in the pockets, with my Nikon D610 going inside the wrap. I still had one pocket available. I added a small padded divider to the bottom of the lowermost pocket to further pad that lens against bumps in the event I set the pack down a bit too hard. I would have done likewise with the other lower pocket had I used it. There was also room for a sling strap. If you have small lenses, simply wrap them well and double up to take advantage of the available room. Or if you stack them, add an unused padded divider or other padding between them. These pouches may be sewn in place, but they still leave room for some astute arrangements.
The 17-inch standard version leaves you plenty of room to throw in a jacket and some other stuff. And despite what you’re told in the introductory video on the Shape Shifter page, never ever put a water bottle inside a camera bag. And don’t put food inside the neoprene pockets, or you may find crumbs mixing with your lenses – a bad combination. For that matter, I wouldn’t put food anywhere inside the bag if you’re carrying camera gear—accidents do happen, and you wouldn’t want your trail mix mingling with your camera and lenses.
Working out of the bag was a charm. Granted, I still would have preferred to be able to use the bag with camera and my lens of choice attached, but I easily worked around that.
This bag comes in really handy if you don’t like to carry too much gear. You can still fit a second camera body in the pack, in place of one lens. But all in all, the gear carried is modest in scope and size. No really long, fast lenses here. This is a pack geared toward a DSLR, with or without grip. Most mirrorless systems will be swimming in the available space.
One recommendation. It’s very easy to forget to zip a bag or pocket. One solution is to standardize on how you employ the zippers. For faster access, the left and right zippers should meet at the apex or middle. When it rains, I tend to move them to one side. In other words, I keep all the zippers either centered or on the same side, so a quick glance can tell me that everything is secure. By the way, a rain pouch is included, but I use these only during a downpour. You shouldn’t need it in a light rain.
The Moose Peterson MP-3 V2.0 photo backpack marks a departure for MindShift Gear in two respects. First, MindShift doesn’t normally take on camera bags designed and previously marketed by a third party. And, second, the interior is different from anything MindShift has offered before now. The first marks a prudent step toward expansion, which, in today’s world, makes economic and business sense for a forward-thinking company. The second signifies a long-awaited and highly significant step toward making MindShift products more user-friendly and utilitarian.
As you may have figured out, this pack is the baby of wildlife photographer Moose Peterson--for wildlife photographers. It’s a vast improvement over the original Moose Peterson pack, which I’d reviewed some years back for a major photo magazine. And it stands head-and-shoulders above a similar design from another camera bag company. In fact, even hinting at any similarity is an insult to the Moose pack.
An Inside Look
Professional wildlife photographers use long, fast lenses. These lenses are, by and large (no pun intended), ginormous. But many photo backpacks are not designed to easily hold them, without sacrificing much, if not all, of the available space, leaving little room for anything else.
What makes this bag eminently suited to this pursuit is its tripartite design. The longest compartment is specifically designed around a long, fast lens attached to the camera or an even physically bigger lens on its own. Two smaller sections house the camera (when detached from the lens), along with a second body and even a third, several additional lenses, converters, a shoe-mount or two, and filters. When the main section is not fully occupied, there’s plenty of room for other gear. In fact, whichever size Moose pack you buy, it will comfortably hold at least one body with pro-grip, with lens attached.
Each item of gear is securely nestled in place thanks to the thick but flexible Velcro-friendly dividers—a serious departure from the dividers MindShift has been using in its other packs, and a welcome change. The new dividers let you customize the interior almost infinitely, with various-sized sections. The new dividers also do a better job of hugging and grabbing your stuff so it doesn’t slide around, or out of the bag, should you open it while it’s in an upright position. All this is safely contained within a fairly rigid, padded wall that encompasses the pack.
Protecting everything at the front end are three separate zipped access panels, which are padded. What’s noteworthy about these panels is that, rather than remaining open and exposing the contents to the elements, they drop back down. Just make sure to zip the panels shut before donning the pack. What would have made this even sweeter is if MindShift would have used the magnetic-locking clips, similar to the ones used on the Rotation packs, so the panels would stay closed. Then again, someone might see that as an encumbrance to quickly getting into the bag.
Is It Perfect?
This pack will also hold a tripod over the large front panel or on the side, using the mesh pocket. However, I’m sure you’d rather reserve this sizable pocket for a large Nalgene water bottle. Either way, it’s a workable arrangement.
There’s no space for a hydration pack. In fact, as comfy as the bag is to wear, it’s best use comes from taking short hops away from your vehicle or traversing mild terrain. It’s too bulky to negotiate tight spaces. Still, I’m pretty sure you don’t plan to use this bag on long, arduous hikes over treacherous terrain or to scale steep slopes. And even if you did, feel assured that the bag will remain steadfastly on your back.
There’s no room for lunch, a jacket, rain poncho, first aid kit, guide books, and other hiker essentials, unless you want to clear out a section of gear. A spacious front pocket or upper tier, where stuff like this goes, is lacking. There is a small pocket on top, where you can store filters, lens tissue, and the like, plus mesh pockets inside each flap, but none of these is well-suited to a sandwich or a change of clothes.
The Moose pack is perfectly suited as a bag you’d want to work out of. The self-closing flaps help toward that end. When laid flat, the pack serves as the perfect workspace. And it’s designed to keep you well organized. To say that this pack is thoughtfully designed would be an understatement.
I loaded the bag up with about 25 pounds of gear. I don’t usually carry this much gear around and dreaded the thought. Still, once I got over the shock of how heavy it felt when I first picked it up (before actually weighing the load), after donning the pack, I must say that it felt good. In fact, I’d noted that the shoulder straps didn’t slide off my shoulders. Sliding shoulder straps are a big bane on most backpacks. Still, to make carrying this load even easier, I cinched the included waist belt and sternum strap. The shoulder straps, by the way, are well padded to handle the load, as well as contoured and breathable for a comfy ride.
I should point out that the waist belt, while included, does not come attached to the bag. Slide it through the lumbar pad on back of the pack. You’ll note that the strap has two hook-and-loop strips. They attach to their counterpart on the inside of the lumbar pad, so make sure to insert the strap properly (the breathable mesh goes against your waist). The tapered waist strap is thin enough to be easily stored out of the way when not in use, but ample enough to give you the needed support and comfort.
You’ll note that there are no compression straps anywhere. They’re not really needed. Compression straps are required on bags designed for arduous hikes and backpacking. But to protect the zippers, at least around the circumference of the bag, there is a narrow rain flap, just wide enough to do the job, not too wide that it gets in the way.
Speaking of straps, I almost forgot to mention a few things. First, there are two padded carry handles – one on top, another on the side, so you can carry the bag like a suitcase. While I haven’t had the opportunity to test it out, the bag’s squarish design makes it well-suited for overhead stowage on most airlines. And to further your efforts toward that end, the shoulder straps tuck neatly behind the airflow shoulder pads that lie against your back. (In fact, that’s how the bag is delivered to you.) Also, you can wrap the waist belt and secure it in front, to maintain the bag’s svelte lines.
On the face of it, this Moose pack looks like a piece of handsomely crafted luggage. In fact, the pack appears so innocuous that there’s nothing about it that even remotely screams camera bag. Well, if you don’t count the tripod hanging in front…
MATERIALS (Mfr. specifications)
Exterior: For superior water resistance, all exterior fabric has a durable water-repellant coating, plus the underside of the fabric has a polyurethane coating. The bag also features highest-quality abrasion-resistant YKK® RC-Fuse zippers, 420D velocity nylon, 600D polyester, 1680D ballistic nylon, 320G DuraStretch mesh, nylon webbing, 350G airmesh, nylon webbing, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
Interior: High-density velex, 210D silver-toned nylon lining, hexa mesh pockets, high-density closed-cell foam, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
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.
(Click highlighted text for more info.)
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.
(Click highlighted text for more info.)
Rotating belt pack streamlines access to camera.
My go-to photo backpack of late, when on the streets of Chicago, has been the ThinkTank StreetWalker Pro. The bag is compact and lightweight, yet holds just the right amount of gear securely. But it’s not the best pack for nature outings. For the hiking trails, you need a backpack with hiker savvy: fully protective, carries what you need, and comfortable. Translation: something more robust than the StreetWalker is needed—a backpack that moves with you and which seemingly bends to your will. Something like the MindShift Gear rotation180° Professional. This bag is, in my view, the ultimate hiking/backpacking photo pack, with practically all the accouterments. But it’s big and somewhat heavy. We don’t always need something of that caliber designed for a tortuous journey into the woods or over rocky or watery terrain. Often, we need something smaller and lighter. And that’s where MindShift Gear’s rotation180° Panorama comes into play.
Getting Familiar with the rotation180° Panorama
Available in blue or charcoal, the backpack has two sections. The one that justifiably gets the most attention is the rotating waist, or belt, pack that is securely attached to the backpack at the bottom. Release a magnetic latch and pull to the front to reveal this pack. Unzip the lid, and voilà!
Before releasing the small pack, first make sure to firmly secure the waistbelt end to end. Otherwise, you’ll pull the small pack free, with only a lightweight tether to keep it from dropping to the ground. This action might be enough to destabilize you and the pack on rough or uneven terrain, so exercise the proper precautions.
Accessed via a zippered panel at the top is the upper section. This is where you stow personal stuff, like a change of clothing, insect repellants, and anything of a bulky nature, including some light camping gear. Or, if you splurge for the optional r180º Panorama Photo Insert, you can stow a camera body with attached lens, a couple of other lenses, and a shoe-mount flash in this fully padded and adjustable insert. However, be aware that this occupies the entire upper section, leaving no room for your other stuff.
There are sadly few pockets, but I’ve managed to make do.
The Panorama features the full complement of straps: fully padded, contoured shoulder harness with compression straps up top; adjustable chest strap; contoured and padded waist belt (which is part of the rotating waist pack). And it has an internal frame.
In the Field
Working with the waist pack takes a little getting used to. There’s a special bungee cord that’s designed to make the flap fly more easily out of the way, but I still seem to have problems. For some reason, I found this procedure—from releasing (and relocking) the magnetic buckle to freeing and rotating the small pack—easier on the Pro version than here. But I’m sure that will work itself out in time, as it did with this bag’s big brother.
This design’s key advantage lies in that rotating belt pack. When you’re surrounded by water, snow, mud, or heavy vegetation, with no place to set the bag, the rotating pack is a lifesaver. It also works well on city streets and in public parks, where you don’t really want to turn your back on the scene in order to retrieve the camera.
There’s really only enough room for a D-SLR, such as my Nikon D610, with an attached lens, such as my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC or Tamron 70-300mm VC. You can store more, individually on end (upright), if you don’t mind putting all the pieces together in the field. My problem with that is this: What if it suddenly starts to rain? Not so easy to get everything safely put away, is it?
To allow me to carry more stuff for quick access, I use a photographer’s vest (using these pockets to hold a white balance test target, cell phone, lens tissue/blower, and lens cap when not in use). And I’ll wear MindShift Gear’s Lens Switch Case on my belt (or attach it to the pack). I usually keep a flash in this belt pouch, which was originally designed for a spare lens, or, more to the point, to make it easier to switch lenses on the fly.
The r180º rain cover is optional and strongly recommended for heavy downpours and dusty environments.
I would have preferred more pockets, especially a pleated outside pocket for a light jacket since the camera insert took up the entire interior, and a roomier mesh water bottle pocket. But by and large, I was very happy working with the rotation180º Panorama. I took it on a nature hike for openers. I even found it useful in the city, so I wouldn’t have to put the pack down and watch my back when accessing my gear. Especially at a busy skate park. And I managed to fit a sling strap in the waist pack by refashioning the included dividers around the camera with attached lens (the trick is to create a “basement” level out of the dividers and slide the strap in here). Still, if I did need to get at more gear, I found removing and donning the Panorama easy enough. OK, I’m still getting used to the rotating belt pack, but that hasn’t interfered with me getting at my gear in an efficient manner when I needed it. And wearing summer or winter garb, I was always comfy wearing this photo backpack.
Comfy & wears well; stabilizes load on your back; breathable airflow back padding with internal frame; rotating (and removable) belt pack facilitates use of camera with attached lens in mucky, wet surroundings and on crowded streets; protective of camera gear; roomy (if you don’t add the optional camera insert); built tough; largely weather-resistant (but benefits from optional rain cover); hydration sleeve; carries tripod; numerous lash points.
Serious scarcity of pockets makes it necessary to use optional pouches; rotating belt pack takes a little getting used to.
Serious or casual hikes over any terrain; nature, wildlife, and landscape photography; macro & close-up photography (keep straps secured while bending over); street photography. D-SLR system (full-size or compact).
None really, but I wouldn’t use it for wedding or portrait photography.
Where can I get more info?
1105 N. Dutton Ave. Suite C
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Toll Free: 855-757-2727
How much is it?
Direct: $199.99 ($199.99 at B&H or Adorama).
Overall size & weight: 9.8 W x 19.7 H x 8.3” L (25 x 50 x 21 cm); 3 lb (1.3 kg)
Construction: coated nylon (durable & weather-resistant); 3-ply bonded nylon thread (keeps seems weather-tight), YKK zippers (you can’t do better than this); polyester lining; closed-cell foam (anti-shock).
Does It Reach pixelPERFEXION? (100 pixels is best):
r180º Panorama photo backpack: 95 pixels, practical, protective, comfortable.