The Think Tank Retrospective 5 gets high marks from our bagaholic. It comes in three colors. Photo courtesy Think Tank Photo.
[Note: If you want to support TOP, you could buy your bags from Amazon or B&H Photo. The author has no interest in you buying a bag, and TOP had zero input on what he writes here. —Mike the Ed.]
Written by John Camp
My experience with some of the bags themselves:
I only had one. It was a really, really expensive shoulder bag ($230 at Amazon, for the "small" version), nicely made, that always felt a bit awkward and 1950ish-Kodak to me, and looked sort of overcooked. Heavy, for what it was. (I think you can get a better street bag from Think Tank for about $140 from Amazon.) People talk about Billinghams on Leica forums. If Gwyneth Paltrow shoots a DSLR, I'm sure her assistant carries it in a Billingham. All right, I'm being snotty.
Blackhawk Tactical Packs
Blackhawks are basically military packs, and I don't even know if they make one specifically for camera equipment. They are very sturdy, water resistant, and are not especially comfortable to wear, possibly because you’ve got too much weight inside. They will carry everything you've got, if not on the inside, then tied on the outside. When you see one at the airport, there's a 90% chance it will include a carabiner or two on the grab straps, so they can be attached to the bulkheads of C-130s. I bought the medical pack version, which had lots of pockets for small stuff. Then I ripped out most of the guts, and replaced it with the guts I'd ripped out of a Kata pack. It worked, but it was heavy.
Inexpensive, crappy. I only buy the very small bags, and use these to segregate miscellaneous equipment in bigger bags—those pouches that should come with the bigger bags. I once bought a very small Case Logic bag that would carry a Panasonic GX1 and two lenses, and also fit inside my carry-on, after I pulled a couple of dividers out of the carry-on.
I think of my Crumpler (I don't know where it is—possibly a Goodwill store in Hudson, Wisconsin) as a high-fashion bag with some utility in carrying cameras. Mine had a top half and a bottom half, that operated like a clamshell, and neither half really quite accommodated the equipment I wanted to put the bag. Mine was sturdy, well-sewn, with a colorful silken-like interior fabric, and, when I did get the right set of gear inside, it was comfortable to wear. If you like the looks of a Crumpler, and are willing to pay the price, try it out first—make sure it'll take the gear you want to put in it. My default position on Crumplers is that they are as much about looks and fashion as practicality. I could be wrong.
Domkes were originally made by a former photojournalist named Jim Domke, but the company was bought by Tiffen, the photo supply company. Since then, the line has expanded, and I'm not familiar with most of the "Tiffen" bags. I'll speak here only of the canvas Domke shoulder bags.
The Domkes, of course, are the classic photojournalist bag, and are pretty good if you're a photojournalist. They provide some protection, especially if you drop the bag (there was a rubber-like pad in the bottom of mine, but reviews on Amazon now refer to a "cardboard"-like bottom pad, which would not be so good.) The classic bags provide little protection against sideways blows—you wouldn't want to run through the woods with one; other, larger bags are more padded. They are somewhat water resistant, but not in any way waterproof or dust-proof. You can see all the equipment, and get it out fast, which is good. They are light—about all the weight is in equipment. You can squash these things almost flat in your luggage, so you can take a big carry-on full of gear when you travel, but then when you're walking around, use the Domke. They come in several sizes and two or three colors.
There are some downsides: They do shout "camera bag," and because they are primarily about fast access, they're not secure against theft—probably the least secure of the major brand camera bags. Another problem, if you carry quite a bit of gear (and some Domkes are large) is that they put all the weight on one shoulder. Since most people like to carry the bag either right or left, and rarely switch, I think this is probably bad for your health, in that it puts a fairly severe torque on your torso. Domke classic canvas bags usually don't have shoulder-strap pads—they have "slip-proof" straps which aren't all that slip-proof, which is why you often see photojournalists walking around with one shoulder up in the air. Some Domke advertising compares them to jeans—I think that's apt. They are like a good old pair of jeans, with all the benefits and problems that implies. Domke also makes (or made—I'm not sure if they still do) probably the best photo vest/jacket, but I hate those things. Some people treasure them, and they do carry a ton of gear and distribute the weight across both shoulders.
Good bags, well-made, but way over-padded in my experience. One of the better backpack strap systems. If you go for one, make sure it'll carry the equipment you need, because they generally carry much less than they look like they'll carry. I've had three of them, and I've pulled the guts out of two of them to use in padding in other bags. The guts are great. The padding is bright yellow, which tends to attract the eye.
I had their belt system, and I can't imagine that there's a better one. Everything was top quality, the attachment system is extremely secure, and they've got belt bags for very wide range of photo equipment. I felt like an idiot when I was wearing it. I felt like I should at least be in the Rangers, or have a Beretta stuffed away somewhere. If I were a sports photographer, I might have one; otherwise, no. I also suspect (and I'm semi-serious here) that if you were to wear one on the street, in the present climate of fear, that you might be stopped by the cops, checking to see if it were some kind of combat gear.
Not much to say here. Good bags. I've had both rolling cases and packs. They work fine, in my experience, but the packs are over-padded and heavy. But then, I've mostly used their packs on car or truck-based trips. I've never had one break down on me. My basic problem with LowePro (and Tamrac and Tenba) packs is that for me, they are often (usually) impractically big. You look at all that space inside the packs, and so you put stuff in it. For the first ten minutes, it doesn't seem all that heavy—but after that, it's like you’re carrying a mule on your back. If you're going to carry that much stuff, I think it might be better to buy a bunch of inserts and put them in a real high-quality backpacker's pack; or buy a rolling case. But it'd be much better just not to carry that much stuff.
This was a small nylon bag, that I got a long time ago. It was excavated from my attic and went to that Goodwill store. I think I got for free, as a premium. I carried a camera (an F4, I think) and two or three primes in it. Nothing special.
The Osprey pack I had was for backpacking, and it was very good and comfortable, and put the weight on my hips; I just couldn't get the photo equipment out in a reasonable amount of time. I no longer have the use for one, but for anyone who backpacks, these are pretty good.
Good, reliable hard cases. May not fit in airplane overheads or under the seat, because they don't squash. I no longer use them for cameras, because I don't have the need.
REI Dry Bags
I used a couple of different ones when I was doing a lot of canoeing. They are absolutely waterproof, and will float, and give the gear some impact protection. Access is very slow. On the other hand, if you roll the canoe, you'll get the camera back, and it'll be dry.
Eh. Can't think of much to say here. Mine were like the LowePros, but didn't seem as well-made. Had both packs and roller cases. Can't really think of one that broke down, though.
"In my opinion—just an opinion—
Think Tank is at or near the top of the heap in design and quality."
Only had one, in design much like a LowePro roller case. Ten years ago or so, I took a brand new one to Israel, where I was working as the photographer on an archaeological dig. I had to roll it about thirty feet across a gravel driveway to get on a bus, and then, getting off the bus in the afternoon, roll it back across the same patch of gravel. On the third or fourth morning, a wheel broke in half, so I then had a one-wheeler. A couple of days later, the other wheel broke. Then I had a no-wheeler, and I had to carry the case by the grab strap. Then the strap ripped loose. I wound up spending almost a month carrying the case around like a huge, over-weight baby, wrapped in my arms. I may have had a bad sample, or I may have been expecting too much of it; but I won't buy another one.
I've had four. The first was a small black shoulder bag in which I carried an abbreviated subset of the Panasonic system, and it worked fine for that and I've still got it. That case, I think, would be terrific for people who street-shoot with Leicas or with Fujifilm rangefinder-form cameras, and only carry a few lenses. I'm not exactly sure which model it is, and it's in a different city than I'm in now, as I'm writing this, so I can't look—but I think it was an Urban Disguise 40. I recently bought the Retrospective 5, which is smaller than that first bag, also for selected walk-around use. The bag is very, very good—not too padded, but with more side padding than a Domke. There is a flap top, which pulls down over the bag, secured with Velcro. Think Tank has a clever system of Velcro silencers, which you can use when you want quick access to the contents of the bag, or if you don't want that loud "rip" sound when you open the bag. That rip sound, of course, is a decent burglar alarm, against pickpockets, when you carry it over your shoulder.
I also have the Streetwalker HardDrive pack, which is also fine for transport, if not so much for actual street-walking (too big—and it's too thick, sticking far out behind. Bags like that kill your back and shoulders.) And I had one more, a small one from the Airport series, but I think my son has that now. In my opinion—just an opinion—Think Tank is at or near the top of the heap in design and quality.
Not exactly a camera bag. It's a big rolling soft briefcase of heavy black nylon that will fit in the overheads of all standard jets (but not the smaller regional jets.) The thing is, I can get a GH3 and several Panasonic lenses in the main compartment (in Domke wraps) plus a Mac Air, a Verizon Jetpak, a cell phone, spare glasses and sunglasses, keys, necessary papers—passport, tickets, schedules—a couple of legal pads, all the cords, power supplies and rechargers, and a paperback or two, in the other compartments. This is really my go-to general travel pack, when I'm not taking a separate carry-on camera bag—and sometimes when I am. The Victorinox has a fairly sturdy handle, and you can pile another bag on top of it, and roll the whole thing through the airport. Tumi has an excellent bag of similar design.
And finally, I have to put in a word for Eagle Creek's Pack-It System bags and pouches. I use these all the time, and my partner has stolen several of them for her own use. They are zippered mesh-and-plastic envelopes that are almost waterproof and come in several different sizes. I use them in camera bags, briefcases and packs, and regular luggage, to organize all the small crap I carry around with me. They are most useful for segregating out things like electric cords, batteries, chargers, spare lens caps and body caps.
Michael Reichmann, he of the Luminous Landscape, has had many good things to say about Gura Gear bags, designed by a serious wildlife guy. I've never had one, but I'll probably get one sooner or later. Looking at the specs, they may be close to my perfect bag. Wonder if they have that waterproofed bottom and ring?
I could go on for a while, but I won't. I would like to hear arguments for and against what I've said so far, because I do have this conceptual interest in bags, and like to hear what other people use and what they do with them.
Now if I could only find a place to write about jackets. Or no, wait: the search for the perfect hat....
John Camp is a former reporter who is now a novelist. He writes thrillers under his pen name, John Sandford. And he is a bagaholic.
©2013 by John Camp, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
xfmj: "I hate to parrot but...I was lucky enough to look for a camera bag at a local pro photo shop that, at the moment I did look, had a Retrospective 5 in stock. It is a beautiful bag. It has all the features, is very well-thought out, but does not have that gear-heady feel or look. It's like the camera bag version of the perfect denim jacket.
"The overdesigned pockets and straps and yellow cords and everything with a zipper and all the vecro and the rubber slide pulls that other manufacturers employ—even on the smallest bags—are a really weird form of display. Darwinian archipelagian market forces gone wild. We've all seen compact cases that triple your camera's size but hold barely anything more. What the hell? Some Crumpler brand bags I've seen, for example, house more bag material than they provide storage void, and their velcro clings stronger than superglue—eventually ripping the canvas that holds the velcro. Bad breeding like a pug's respiratory wheeze. That kind of product design drives me crazy.
"Instead, my Think Tank bag is just right. All the details are attractive and functional-looking, tastefully just right, carefully trimmed, and work great. It is a beautiful and useful bag. Appears minimal but is instead chock-full of perfect surprises and options. I couldn't believe the velcro silencer feature; hadn't noticed it at first, but it is such a cool, simple idea that I deploy in varying situations: in a quiet cathedral or in a crowded subway.
"It even comes with its own raincoat, one that is easily stored and hidden (it can serve as an extra tethered lens pad should you want that) when you don't need it. It too is small, trimmed, and tasteful, but I do use it now and then in the rainy northwest.
"Oh, I could go on...."
Paul Richardson: "I have to say I always thought people were overly fussy about bags, but then I got a Domke and I love it. I have a Crumpler also, but it has fallen out of favor with me."
Jeff: "People talk about Billinghams on Leica forums? Yes, if they're talking about the mid-priced bags; the Fogg bags also discussed there are twice the price.
"Bags are one the most frequently discussed topics on the forum, generally with strong recommendations, typically followed by praise, disdain and laughter. Besides the bags mentioned in this article, the usual suspects also include Artisan & Artist (A&A). And many folks use only the inserts from various bags, e.g. from Billingham's Hadley series, to place inside other nondescript bags, not necessarily made for camera gear, including various messenger-type bags. Some, especially those across the pond [you don't say which side of the pond you're on, so that's not very specific... —Ed.], prefer various expensive hand crafted bags from companies such as ONA and Wotancraft."
David Bennett (partial comment): "I was tempted by the ThinkTank Retrospective 5, but how exactly do the Velcro silencers work? And with the 'silencers' working—is the bag secured in any way? I am not so much concerned about someone dipping their hand in the bag (although it is a factor) as with the contents tipping out while I am running (for a bus etc.)."
John Camp replies: The Think Tank silencers are simplicity itself—just additional pieces of material that fold back up across the Velcro patches, thus covering the hooks so they can't hook on to the closure patch. At that point, the cover is not secured—but the Retrospective 5 has a flap cover that closes down almost to the bottom of the bag, so nothing is likely to fall out unless the bag is upended. I'd give you more specific details but I'm in NYC today and the bag is back in Santa Fe, and I can't look at it.
Rob L: "I'm 38, and have been using my beloved Domke F-2 for...lordy, 23 years. Still the best working bag I've every had, and still my only must-have bag. Simple is good, although for transport the Think Tanks are amazing."
Manuel: "I'd rather spend a three-digit sum on a secondhand lens (I bought an Olympus OM 135mm ƒ/2.8 yesterday) than on a bag. I'd love to have a Think Tank Retrospective 5 as much as anyone else, but I find it too expensive for an accessory that is no more than a means to carry your gear. Especially when that money can buy you a good piece of equipment. Billinghams and Gura Gears? Don't get me started...."
Stan B. replies: "Manuel—Lowepro Exchange Messenger Camera Bag at Amazon—$30!!!" [$30.23 to be precise. It does seem quite similar to the Retrospective 5. —Ed.]
Steve P.: "I guess it all comes down to the type of travel you are doing when it comes to bag selection. For my needs: the Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home Bag is absolute perfection. I want to be able to go anywhere and not be encumbered by my bag. And I really do not want my bag to scream 'photographer here with lots of gear!' So for me, the fact that the bag actually looks a bit like a woman's purse is great!
"I can carry a Canon 5D in the middle along with an EF 16–35mm L mounted, EF 70–300mm L in the left side, and the 50mm ƒ/1.4 on the right side on top a couple of spare batteries—I have more than enough room for filters and memory cards in the flap zipper pouch. I also have room for two ColorSpace O PhotoBanks in the front pouch!
"It's an extremely versatile and accessable setup for my needs. I have traveled for a combined total of about two years with this type of setup. I can't imagine a new bag coming out that will trump this setup."