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.
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
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
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.)
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.)