Photo backpacks aren’t for everyone or every occasion. Even hardened backpack users find themselves turning to a shoulder bag or sling bag to carry their precious camera gear. And if you’re looking for a modestly priced shoulder bag that also delivers on quality, then a good starting place is Think Tank Photo. And you might want to consider the new Vision series.
Test Report: Think Tank Photo’s Retrospective 10 V2.0 Shoulder Bag – Same Chic Styling, Look and Feel, with Added Features
There is something about Think Tank’s Retrospective shoulder bags that has to be experienced personally.
I’d previously tested the leather version of the original series and found it eminently suited to my trip to New York. (Read about it here.) But that was a small bag that I chose because it would fit inside my luggage. And even before that I’d worked with the original Retrospective. Yet another small bag.
This time I thought I’d go for something bigger, but not quite as spacious as MindShift Gear’s Exposure 15. And I certainly wasn’t about to tote around an even bigger shoulder bag, although, if you are of that mind, there are two larger versions of this bag available.
I was especially curious to see what improvements were made to this series. I would not be disappointed, though I did find room for improvement.
The Handy Water Bottle Pocket
A water bottle pocket has been added. I would have preferred a stretch mesh pocket, but I can see Think Tank’s thinking behind the design they used. A nylon pocket would not be in keeping with the retro-canvas styling of the bag. Either way, it now means you don’t need to add an accessory pouch just for a water bottle. You can, however, add a lens case by way of the loop on the flip side of the bag (more on Think Tank’s new lens cases in a later review).
You could hold a lens in this side pocket, but I would hesitate to do so for any length of time. There’s no real way to secure the pocket, and a lens could slip out when you’re not paying attention. You know what would have been cool? A sealable lid, via Velcro, a zip, or even a snap or clasp. But, again, it could come in handy when changing lenses, if not already occupied by a water bottle. (Here’s a thought. Attach a carabiner to the opposite side and your water bottle to that, if the water bottle provides some means by which you could do that.)
The one thing that bugs me, and I found it to be somewhat of a nuisance on Think Tank's Signature 13 as well, is the tuck-away interior flap that has been added to the new Retrospective bag. As I’d commented previously, I would have preferred a double-zip system. But I’m not sure that would have helped. And here’s why… The pliable shell of the Retrospective, while imbuing the bag with that retro-chic feel, makes it difficult to close the flap.
I recommend either not zipping the inner lid all the way once you arrive at your destination, or not using it entirely. If you take the latter route, it means using the noisy and somewhat resistant Velcro system to keep the bag closed. There are noise-silencers built in, but using them (and not closing the inner flap) means you leave the bag entirely open – not a smart move in a crowded bus or subway, or while dashing around town, or putting your bag down on an uneven surface where it may topple over. So you’ll have to use one or the other once you start shooting. But let me make myself clear: Until you arrive at your destination, unless you expect to stop along the way to shoot, use both means to keep the contents secured. You’ll keep dust and dirt out, as well as prying hands.
It may be picayune to quibble over this, and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, one way or the other. But, hey, I like to quibble over the small stuff. If the world smelled entirely of roses, we wouldn’t have carnations. Okay, not sure what that means, but maybe you do. Anyway, none of that matters in the long run. The bag does the job it’s designed to do.
Oddly enough, I find myself lately taking a shoulder/sling bag out, even on my nature walks, preferring it over my backpacks for immediate accessibility to my gear, provided I’m not toting a heavy load or very long lenses, and don’t need to carry a trail kit or light jacket.
Would I use this new Retrospective V2.0? In a heartbeat. Regrettably, I miscalculated. I thought I’d be able to fit my D500 with attached Tamron 100-400, but it didn’t prove to be a comfy fit. A deeper bag would have done the trick. So I’ll stick with my Exposure 15 for that rig. It wouldn’t be a problem if I carried body and lens separately, but I prefer having my gear at the ready – hence my rationale for using a shoulder bag in the first place.
All in all, as with its progenitors in the Retrospective lineup, the Retrospective V2.0 looks classy, feels classy, and, in short, is a class act. You’ll look good with this bag hanging off your shoulder or sling-style and you’ll feel good knowing your gear is well protected and within your grasp when the moment counts.
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.
While the Spectral series from Think Tank Photo may not share the same elegance as this company’s Signature series, the new shoulder bags do weigh in with a couple of nice features I would have liked in the Signatures. On the other hand, a few of the trademark elements found in the Signature would have been welcome additions to this bag. (Click this link for my review of the Signature Series.)
Still, all in all, the new bags have much going for them. I chose to review the smallest of these, the Spectral 8, since it’s primarily aimed at the mirrorless camera (as well as compact DSLR) user and I wanted to address a market segment I tend to overlook. The two larger bags, Spectral 10 and Spectral 15, address more robust DSLRs, but without grips.
The cover flap has a magnetic clasp. Nice touch. Pull a tab to release; just drop the flap back down and it should close on its own. I would have preferred this mode of closure to the metal buckles used on the Signature, although it doesn’t reflect the same level of chic. (I’m always afraid the metal buckles will come crashing down on the camera’s LCD when I use the Signature.)
Lift the flap and you come to a small outer sleeve that will hold a cell phone of any popular size. Behind that is a zippered pocket designed to hold an 8” tablet, or accessories, such as maps, a guide book, and such. Sleeves within the pocket will hold spare batteries and a memory card wallet. (The larger bags will carry 10” tablets, and the 15” bag will carry a laptop.)
Before we go inside, we encounter a secondary cover flap. As on the Signature, this one is zippered and designed to keep out prying hands, as well as the elements. Unlike the one on the Signature, it’s not pleated (which would have been nice – to accommodate lenses that protrude just a bit when standing on end).
Open this second flap to access your gear. You can leave it open and fastened to the cover flap via a Velcro-style hook-and-loop attachment, or tuck it into a sleeve inside the cover flap. To be practical, don’t tuck this inner lid away. Instead, use that additional pocket as a “secret” compartment for valuables (it closes with hook-and-loop fastener). By the way, I prefer this arrangement to the one used in the Signature bags.
If you use a sling strap that fastens to the camera’s tripod socket, you may be able to leave it attached, since there is enough room for it.
One convenience feature carried over from the Signature line of bags is the trolley sleeve (luggage-handle pass-through). This lets you easily piggyback the bag on your roller luggage.
Unlike the much more costly Signature series with its leather accents, the comfortably-priced Spectral series is low-key. Yet the Spectral does carry a certain degree of panache with it.
More important than looks is functionality. The bag wears well and is easy to work out of.
KEY FEATURES per Think Tank Photo
MATERIALS per Think Tank Photo
Exterior: All fabric exterior treated with durable water resistant coating while fabric underside is coated with polyurethane for superior water resistance. The bag also has YKK RC Fuse (abrasion resistant) zippers, 420D velocity nylon, double PU coated P600D, heavy-duty nylon tarpaulin, UltraMesh pockets, antique plated metal hardware, Fidlock mangetic buckle, 350G 3D air mesh, 3-ply bonded nylon thread
Interior: PE board reinforced removable closed cell foam dividers, 200D liner, PU backed nylex liner, 2x PU coated nylon 210T seam-sealed taffeta rain cover, 3-ply bonded nylon thread
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS per Think Tank Photo
There are occasions when even a hard-nosed photo backpack user like myself must resort to a shoulder bag. In these times, sadly, backpacks may be seen as something other than the innocent carriers of your photo gear. There’s even one institution here in Chicago, namely Shedd Aquarium, where I’ve had the unfortunate experience of a security person literally ripping through my MindShift Gear photo pack to gain access, instead of simply using the zippers as intended – or asking me to open the bag. Happily, no harm done, except for some frayed nerves on this side of the inspection table (good thing MindShift uses high-quality hardware that resists such mistreatment). It was more intrusive than past TSA inspections I’d experienced (although maybe not as bad as some recently reported).
In the past, I was very happy using my Think Tank Retrospective 5 Leather bag, although over time I’d come to realize the small size was both a boon and a bane, keeping me from carrying too much but often proving too small for anything more than the minimum of gear. Even a 15-30 f/2.8 or 70-300 attached to a DSLR was too much and the 24-70 f/2.8 on the camera just barely made it. So it was time to trade up.
Thankfully, the Signature series entered the scene. Here I had a choice between two sizes. And this time I opted for the larger bag for one very good reason: The bag was longer and deeper than the Retrospective, but it still maintained a slim profile. That would remove the temptation to overfill the bag and also meant it would ride comfortably at my side, without bulking out.
What’s more, as I was soon to find out, I could shift the bag around to my back when wearing it sling-fashion. Of course, as a shoulder bag, it lends itself nicely to being worn over the shoulder. In fact, this bag is almost perfect. Almost.
Think Tank seems to have reinvented camera bag fabric when it came to the Signature series. This is a softly textured polyblend with the feel of finely woven wool. Unlike the Retrospective, this bag does not use Velcro-style hook-and-loop fasteners on the outside. In fact, I’d caution you to keep Velcro away from the exterior, as it may ruin that clean look (and, no, I didn’t test it, out of fear of ruining the bag). And if you’re wondering, the bag has been treated with a water-resistant finish. That aside, there is a rain cover included, which came in handy when I found myself pelted in a downpour.
Enhancing this bag’s sophisticated appearance are leather accents. Soft leather graces the bottom of the bag. And there is leather on the carrying handle and shoulder strap, as well as the fastener straps. The buckle fasteners are metal, not plastic, further heightening the impression of quality.
Advancing the impression that this is a well-crafted bag is this: There is not one stitch out of place, not one loose thread.
This is where the Signature bag really shines, for the most part. The entire interior is Velcro-friendly. You can reposition the padded dividers to your heart’s content. Better still, they are more heavily padded than the typical Think Tank dividers. What’s more, the two central dividers are supportive enough to hold a camera upright, with attached lens facing downward. And if you feel you need more dividers, they’re included. I originally put these in storage, since I found the original set of dividers did the job well enough.
Two things I did not like about the interior centered on the bottom of the bag. Instead of one contiguous cushioning base, there are two, what are essentially, padded dividers lining the bottom. And the bag lacks a stabilizing bottom platform to help keep the bag’s shape and prevent a sagging bottom, while offering enhanced protection to gear. So, I pulled the three extra padded dividers from storage and lined the bottom of the bag with them. Now the bag is firmer at the base and offers even better protection for my gear.
Keep in mind that a soft-sided bag is intended to be pliable. A heavily padded, stiff outer shell would make the bag less convenient to carry. The back of this bag is the most heavily padded, enough so as to cushion you against bumps and practically prevent anything from bulging out intrusively. The front of the bag is more pliable, so keep the top of the camera to the front. That also places the grip on the right, for a quick grab.
There is enough room in the Signature 13 for me to keep a BlackRapid sling strap attached to my Nikon D610. BlackRapid straps tend to protrude more than most sling straps when attached to a camera body, which is why it’s worth noting.
A couple of more points worth noting. Unlike the Retrospective, the Signature bags feature an interior zippered lid. Keep this zipped when on the move, prior to reaching your destination or when in iffy spots to keep out prying hands.
In theory, the top flap fully covers the top of the bag. In practice, the sides bulk out just enough to leave a tiny bit of the interior exposed on each side. Which is why you may want to keep the inner lid zipped when moving about, or in situations where dirt or debris or errant water drops or snowflakes might enter the bag.
And speaking of this inner lid. I would have preferred two zippers to make it easier to open and close more rapidly. That aside, Think Tank thoughtfully designed it so that it could be attached to the main flap for quick opening when unzipped. And they’ve added another option: You can tuck the lid inside the bag, so it remains out of the way entirely. I prefer the first approach, since you can leave it attached to the main flap and still zip it open and closed. This inner lid, by the way, is pleated, making room for a lens that may stand taller than would ordinarily be accommodated.
KEY FEATURES per Think Tank Photo (with my comments in italics)
GEAR CAPACITY per Think Tank Photo (with my comments in italics)
MATERIALS per Think Tank Photo
Exterior: All fabric exterior treated with durable water resistant coating while fabric underside is coated with polyurethane for superior water resistance. The bag also has 240D wool-like 195G nylon/poly blend, full-grain leather, antique-plated metal hardware, highest quality YKK RC-Fuse zippers, 550D polyspun, nylon seatbelt webbing, neoprene, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
Interior: 210D silver-toned nylon lining, polyurethane-backed quilted Velex liner and dividers, high-density closed-cell foam dividers, 2x polyurethane coated nylon 210T seam-sealed taffeta rain cover, nylon binding, 3-ply bonded nylon thread.
PRODUCT SPECIFICATIONS per Think Tank Photo
Right off the top let me say that I’m not a shoulder-bag guy. In fact, I loathe shoulder bags. Want to know why? Look at any photographer who walks around stoop-shouldered from bearing the burden of a ton of gear on one shoulder. Even slung over the neck, it’s a wearisome weight to carry around. So why am I writing about Think Tank Photo's Retrospective Leather 5 shoulder bag, you ask?
Well, let me just add this. There is decidedly a place for a shoulder bag - for some people, on certain occasions. If I were a wedding photographer, I wouldn't want to show up at a wedding wearing the backpack I normally use.
But I’m not a wedding photographer. In my role as nature/wildlife photographer and travel/street shooter, I head out these days with one of my MindShift Gear photo backpacks. When I have to travel light, as when I'm flying, I carry gear in my Think Tank Photo StreetWalker pack, because it’s compact yet holds a fair amount of gear - and it will fit under the airline seat in front of me. Provided I’m not carrying my clothes in a second, larger backpack, that is - which would be the case in this instance. Toting two backpacks just didn't make much sense. Which brings me to this compact shoulder bag.
My Camera Bag Solution
For my recent trip to New York City, I needed a small camera bag, one that would easily fit inside the backpack. I wanted my hands free of any additional luggage and didn't want anything else hanging off my shoulder. What's more, if I'd decided to carry it separately, the bag had to be small enough to easily pass as my “personal” carry-on item when boarding the plane.
That carry-on backpack, by the way, was originally a photo backpack from which I’d removed the padded insert. And, no, it’s not one from Think Tank Photo or MindShift Gear – I’d never relegate those packs to such lowly a task. I’d stopped using photo backpacks from other manufacturers to carry photo gear because I realized that they were not as comfortable or as practical or as protective of my gear as these packs from MindShift or Think Tank.
I knew of one bag that would fit my needs for this trip. My solution was Think Tank Photo’s Retrospective Leather 5, the smallest size in this series.
What I Had in Mind for This Bag
On this New York trip I was planning to carry my Nikon D610 with Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC lens attached. And this bag was the perfect size for that. I wasn’t planning to take extra lenses.
I often set out with just one lens to challenge myself to explore the different perspectives and viewpoints in my compositions this lens would allow. What I especially like about this 24-70mm lens is that it’s image-stabilized. And it’s a great all-purpose lens, especially under dim lighting conditions!
What’s more, I don’t like carrying body and lenses detached because that slows down your response time immeasurably. Yes, carrying separate components – body and lenses - would have allowed me to carry an extra lens – but then what happens when you have to put the camera away, especially in a rush? There would be no room, unless you detached the lens. So why start out at a deficit was my argument! Not to mention, you may not be in a dust-free or weather-conducive environment when it comes time to attach or change lenses, or somewhere that you’re comfy letting your guard down while messing with the camera.
Oddly enough, I still had room for one more key item: my flash. I was able to comfortably stuff my Nikon SB-700 into the outside front pocket without bulking the bag out much. Yes, there was room for the flash inside the bag, but I found it hindered quick access to the camera, and worse, got in the way when trying to replace the D610 inside the bag. This proved to be the best and most practical carrying solution, giving me easy access to camera and flash.
(I should also note that I wear a photo vest - a great way to carry lots of small stuff, including a pocket camera, while getting around carry-on restrictions, although it does go through the airport security scanner, along with my bags.)
Retrospective Leather 5 Key Features
The leather Retrospective is a more elegant version of the all-canvas version released several years back. Not that the original wasn’t stylish in its own right. Still, leather, especially when it’s of good quality, does have a nice ring to it. And it’s considerably more fashionable. The leather series comes in three sizes, whereas the original Retrospectives are available in numerous configurations.
Here are the key features, from a Think Tank Photo press release (with my comments/observations added).
In the Field
For starters, the bag was a perfect fit under the seat in front of me, even on a relatively small commuter jet, Endeavor Air, to be specific.
Because the bag was so small and held a minimum amount of gear, carrying it was not uncomfortable in the least. In fact, I slung the shoulder strap over my neck. I hate it when a shoulder bag keeps sliding off the shoulder. I should add that the shoulder pad on this bag is quite nice, with strips on the underside designed for a secure purchase on the shoulder.
Still, simply carrying the bag on your shoulder invites someone on the street to grab it. Which is also a good reason for using a sling strap on the camera. And, thankfully, there was room enough for that camera sling strap as well inside the bag.