An Almost Perfect Basic Go-To Camera Bag
I’ve met a lot of photographers who are gear hounds. I don’t consider myself to be one, with one exception: I definitely have a problem with camera bags. In my lifetime I’ve owned far more camera bags than cameras. Decades in, and I’m still searching for the one: that great, everyday camera bag. I get that different bags are needed for different shoots—depending on where the shoot is and the type of shooting. But that doesn’t discourage me from trying to find a basic go-to camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag (to discourage theft) and that will allow me to carry all the necessary gear formost situations.
Until last month, I carried my gear in a backpack-style bag. But I decided that a shoulder bag would be better given the type of photography I’m doing now. I used a smaller Domke bag years ago that I liked, but it was too small for my current DSLR kit. One thing that I like about the Domke, though, is the dense closed-cell foam dividers. I like the protection with minimal bulk that these dividers provide. Although I’ve noticed that I’m a little more careful about banging my gear around without the thicker padding found in other camera bags.
So this became my short list for my new “perfect go-to” camera bag:
- Reconfigurable dividers based on the camera, lens and flash use.
- The bag can’t look too much like a camera bag. I have been doing more and more street photography; and if my camera is in my bag, I didn’t want it to draw any unnecessary attention to it.
- Minimal padding.
- A shoulder bag.
- Must be capable of carrying two DLSR bodies and a couple of lenses.
- Water resistant/water proof.
The Bag I Chose
After a lot of looking and reading, I selected the Retrospective 30 from Think Tank Photo. I’ve been using the bag almost exclusively for about a month now. I’m amazed at the quality and versatility of the Retrospective, although it shouldn’t have come as a shock since I own two other bags from Think Tank that I adore (Airport Acceleration and Streetwalker Backpack).
There’s a lot to like about the retrospective series of bags. The features that I mention here are included in all the bags, with two exceptions:
- The Retrospective 30 has two front pockets each large enough to hold a camera body while the 10 and 20 series have a single pocket.
- The 30 has a larger main compartment size that allows you to carry additional lenses, bodies, and gear or to set different configurations.
Bag Interior Features
The soft-sided bag allows you to put in a deceptively large amount of equipment. The completely customizable interior allows you to setup a variety of configuration options for most types of gear that you might carry. The 30’s main compartment easily accommodates two to four lenses or, in my case, three lenses with one attached to a DSLR body. I was able to easily fit in a Nikon D700 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens attached, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 70-200mm VRII f/2.8, and a SB-900 into the main compartment. I also sometimes have it configured to hold the 70-200mm mounted on the camera and set sideways into the bag along with another lens and flash.
As I mentioned, the two front pockets are each large enough to carry an additional camera body. In my setup, I used them to carry some additional speed lights and the included rain cover. There are two organizational pockets in the main compartment as well. The front pocket has a built-in organizer that has a few small pockets and dividers to store extra gear such as batteries, chargers, pens, filters, etc. At the back of the main compartment is a zippered pocket that runs the length of the main storage area.
The interior has minimal padding, but it feels like enough to protect the gear through normal bangs and bumps. The thinner and denser foam is so much less bulky than other bags I’ve had that I wouldn’t want the bag to be dropped from very high or I suspect lenses and cameras might be damaged. I also think that they have trouble holding their shape once the lenses start to shift in the bag. However, this is a small trade off, since the bag isn’t advertised as luggage or complete camera protection.
I live in Seattle and so the bag is on the damp or wet ground a lot. I would have liked to have seen some soft of rubber feet on the bottom of the bag to keep it a little more dry in wet weather.
I found the “hidden” pockets that are just big enough to hold speed lights to be useful and well thought out. They have Velcro to keep them snug against the sides of the bag when empty, and the Velcro also keeps the lights from falling out as you take pieces of equipment in and out of the bag.
The main compartment has removable panels that let you adjust the configuration to match your needs. All of the dividers in the internal part of the bag are removable. This helps the bag fold relatively flat, which was great when I packed the bag into a larger suitcase for an extended trip.
One of my favorite features in the bag is the “Sound Silencers.” The silencers allow you to conceal the Velcro that normally keeps the bag closed. When opening and closing the main flap with this feature, the Velcro is hidden and makes the bag virtually silent. This feature will come in really handy for photographing weddings and in other locations where you don’t want to draw attention to yourself while taking things in and out of your bag.
Bag Exterior Features
The exterior of the bag consists of the shoulder strap with a padded non-slip pad that does a good job of staying in place. There’s also a small, detachable carrying handle, which I didn’t think I’d use but then found to be quite handy. There’s also another pocket on the back of the bag that is useful for storing paperwork, newspapers, and so on. I would have liked a way to remove the shoulder strap from the bag and to be able to use just the carrying handle.
The bag is available in two finishes: Pinestone or Black. I went with the Pinestone and really like the color and texture in the material. Think Tank support indicated that the bag has some (albeit minimal) water resistant properties in either finish material, so light moisture shouldn’t be an issue. But as with all Think Tank bags, they’ve included a seam-sealed rain cover, which has gone on quickly and worked flawlessly the few times that I’ve needed to cover the bag during heavy downpours.
It’s the little things
Think Tank seems to understand that small things matter and that attention to little details can really make a difference in the overall quality of a product. One detail that I absolutely love is that each of the internal zippers (that might come in contact with the gear) has a piece of cloth that the nob part of the zipper recesses into which prevents it from scratching or marking up any gear that might accidentally hit the zipper. There are also several small side pockets on the bag that work well holding a small water bottle or cell phone.
I like that there is a business card holder—with a clear window so the card is visible—on the inside of the main flap. Having extra cards in the camera bag is a great feature, and helps ensure that I don’t forget them at home.
The build quality is excellent. I haven’t found any issues with the stitching or the seams on the bag even after multiple trips on planes, in cars, and on foot around town. I’ve contacted Think Tank support a few times with questions about the 30 and other products they sell. They’ve always been fast and responsive to any of my questions.
This bag also comes with a No Rhetoric Warning. This is Think Tank’s version of a lifetime warranty.
I highly recommend the Retrospective 30 for anyone using a DSLR or SLR camera. The bag has held up great to everything I have tossed at it. It’s a great bag that allows me to organize and carry enough gear to get the job done but not so much that I break my shoulder from the weight. Which bag in the series you chose should depend on your shooting style and the amount of equipment you like to carry on a shoot. But regardless of which you choose, I think you’ll be happy with this series of basic go-to camera bags.