A fellow lost tourist near Trafalgar Square. I took my ThinkTank Shapeshifter pack for a walk around London on a recent 10 hour layover.
A while back, I noticed a post on Facebook from ThinkTank asking for input on the new version two of their classic Shapeshifter camera pack. I’ve been carrying one around for the last four years on a pretty much daily basis, and although I really love it, there’s always a few things that pop up in daily use, so I sent them a full page letter of suggestions. Six months later, a prototype V.2 bag showed up on my doorstep with an invitation to tell them what I thought of it.
I have a bunch of ThinkTank products, including an Airport backpack that dwarves the diminutive Shapeshifter. The Shapeshifter is a totally different animal than pretty much any other camera backpack you’re going to find, from any manufacturer. Most packs are basically big bulky foam boxes with shiftable velcro dividers inside. They have fantastic protection for your gear, but they’re also really big and bulky The Shapeshifter is unpadded, except for neoprene rubber pouches for the gear. It’s designed to fit two pro cameras, a wide, medium, and short tele zoom lens, a couple of flashes, and a few pockets for this and that, and really not much of anything else. This isn’t accidental, as that’s pretty much the standard load of gear that most professional news photographers use on a daily basis. If you need to walk around all day with your gear, day in day out, these are the bags for you.
When I’m skiing or biking, I use a more traditional camera pack. The tradeoff for the Shapeshifter’s compact size is a big decrease in gear protection. This has been the mindset for the design of photojournalist’s camera bags since the 1970’s, with the thinking being that if you’re a professional, you’re a lot less likely to drop the bag.
I took a solo trip to South Africa in November, and decided to skip my large Airport bag and just take the Shapeshifter. I was able to get everything I needed into the bag, plus some clean socks, underwear, and a t-shirt for my layover in London. On my way home, it turned out I had a 10 hour layover in Heathrow Terminal Three (which looks just like the Port Authority bus terminal, circa about 1975), so I checked out of the airport and jumped a tube train into London to poke around for a few hours. The Shapeshifter was great for cramming into the crowed tube train and walking around London. It really would have been a shlep with big Airport bag.
The new V.2 bag is on the left, with my bag on the right. On first inspection, they look pretty similar. It tells you something about how well built the ThinkTank bags are, that my original bag has been dragged around on a daily basis for four years and is still in really nice condition.
Here’s what has to go in it. A couple of Nikon D3 cameras (the Ford trucks of the camera world), three pro f/2.8 zooms, two flashes, computer and iPad, plus a bunch of other assorted stuff.
There it is with the camera gear inside the pack in pretty much the mode that it’s designed to be packed in. The big difference in the new bag is the new neoprene material, which is grey instead of black and is way stretchier than the original material, and the redesign of the middle camera pocket. Two of the big suggestions that I sent to ThinkTank were to make the middle camera and lower lens pocket slightly larger. It was pretty tough to get my 17-35mm into the lower pocket with the lens hood in place (and it’s held in place with gaffer tape to keep it from getting knocked off, so reversing it isn’t an option), but with the stretchier neoprene, it’s a ton easier get it in. The middle camera pocket has been totally redesigned with three velcro flaps, and is a huge improvement for different sized cameras. More on that later. The grey colour makes it a lot easier to find stuff in the bag when it’s dark, which is a small, but nice touch.
This is the way I usually load the bag, with the camera laying on top of the pouches with the mid-zoom on. This way I can get the camera out and ready to go really quickly, rather than putzing around putting the lens back on the camera.
Here’s why I love the redesign of the middle camera pouch. Now if I’m walking around with camera and mid-zoom lens out (like I was in London), I can have the other camera with the tele-zoom and the hood in place, ready to go in a hurry if I need it. With the old bag, no way you could do that.
There are a couple of large pockets inside the bag designed for holding camera flashes, but I found it tough to get at the flashes without totally opening up the bag (the pockets are great for clean socks and underwear when you’re travelling), so I put the flashes in the large outside pocket instead. There is a piece of nylon that separates the pocket into two sections in the original bag, which has been replaced by a thin foam sheet, which is another good move.
There’s another pocket on top of the large outer pocket designed to hold the legs of a small tripod. I hardly ever use a tripod, so I have my radio scanner (which tells you how long I’ve been a news photographer for), and a Petzl headlamp in there instead. It’s a pretty large pocket, so it also holds stuff like the power block and cord for my laptop.
Most of the rest of the stuff I carry goes in the smaller upper outside pocket. It’s a squeeze, but it all goes in.
ThinkTank has added another pocket on top of that one, which is lined with some kind of soft material. Good for iPods and phones.
There’s a separate large pocket for computers, which is a ThinkTank signature. It’s great if you’re going though airport security, as it’s a cinch to get your laptop out for inspections. The new Shapeshifter has added a special pocket for an iPad, which is awesome. I use the iPad for proofing in the field a lot, along with an Eye-Fi card for wireless transfer, and before I was just putting the iPad in the same pocket as the MacBook. They were rubbing together, which is far from ideal. The computer pocket is designed to fit an old 17″ MacBook, which was a really huge computer. My 13″ MacBook swims in there, and even a large Windows laptop would fit in the pocket without a problem.
There’s a new removable pocket on the outside for a water bottle. You wouldn’t think it’s a big deal, but if you have spend the day at a dusty music festival or something like that, having a convenient place to put a bottle is a huge improvement. There was literally nowhere to put a water bottle on the outside of the old bag. The pouch comes off easily when you don’t need it.
It took me a while to figure out what this ring of material on the back was for, until I came up with securing the backpack straps. That will make it a lot easier to move around in compact spaces, like airliner aisles. When the bag is full of gear, it will fit sideways in an overhead storage bin on an airliner, which is a real pleasure. The bag comes with a waist band, but I found it just gets in the way when you have to take the pack on and off to get gear in out of it, so I just took it off. It also comes with a rain cover, as do all ThinkTank bags, but I’ve never had issues with the waterproofing on the bags and I live in a temperate rainforest, so I never carry it around.
One of the big features of the Shapeshifter is that is zips into a thinner version when it’s empty. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty big guy to start with, but’s one feature I never use. For what you can get into it, it’s a already a very compact bag.