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I’ve come to a grim realization recently and that is: There is no perfect camera backpack out there. And while that sounds like a bad way to start off a review, let me follow up my last statement with this one: The Shape Shifter is as close as I have been able to come to finding the perfect camera backpack! I get emails from various companies asking me to review products for DPS and my photography website and that’s always fun, but I want to start out the review by saying that I pursued ThinkTank to see if they’d send me a Shape Shifter for a recent trip to Italy. I searched the interwebs high and low for the perfect backpack for my trip. I had several different models from several different companies narrowed down, but in the end I wanted the Shape Shifter.
I can already imagine there will be some comments saying that I’m wrong and that the perfect camera backpack is actually (fill in the blank). Well, let me respond to all of those ahead of time by saying that I can find something wrong with any backpack (or product for that matter). The reason being that no backpack is perfect for everything. Unfortunately, in reality you probably need several different backpacks for different trips, different shoots, different styles, etc. A massive backpack that holds all of the gear in my office is great for getting from point A to point B. But what if when I get to point B I want to explore and be light on my feet?
On the flip side, a light and sporty camera backpack is great for day trips and long hikes, but what about when you need to get a large amount gear to a location?
See what I mean? So the challenge becomes doing your best to find a backpack that fits somewhere in-between these two extremes. A camera that can hold a LOT of gear, but can also tear down when you need to go out and about.
I. love. this. backpack. My good buddy Jacob Lucas suggested it to me and when I looked it up on the ThinkTank website I knew my search was complete. I went to Italy with more gear than I would normally bring along because I was shooting a wedding for part of the trip. Because of that I had to bring a bit more gear than I would if I was just going for travel photography. The Shape Shifter was the only camera bag I took and you will not believe what I fit into this thing! Here’s the list…
1 – Canon 1Ds Mark III camera body
1 – Canon 5D Mark II camera body with BG-E6 battery grip
1 – Canon 24-70mm lens
1 – Canon 70-200mm lens
1 – Canon 50mm lens
1 – Canon 15mm Fisheye lens
2 – Canon 580EXII flashes
1 – Canon ST-E2 Flash Transmitter
1 – 15inch Macbook Pro
1 – Small Wacom Tablet with mouse and pen
1 – Lacie 500GB Rugged External HD
1 – Canon TC-80N3 Intervalometer
1 – B+W 10 Stop Filter
8 – CF Cards
3 – Extra batteries for 5DMII
2 – Chargers for 5DMII
1 – Extra battery for 1DsMIII
1 – Charger for 1DsMIII
1 – Manfrotto Tripod Legs/Head
Now that’s a lot of gear in one backpack and one thing a manufacturer will never be able to do is make that much gear weigh less than it actually does (unless the backpack came with an assistant to carry it). This backpack was quite heavy but that was fine because I only needed it to all be with me while I was traveling from point A (Texas) to point B (Italy). There’s no way that I’m going to check any of my photography gear on an airplane, especially when clients are counting on me to photograph their wedding! Once I got to the hotel we were staying at I took out a lot of the gear like the laptop, hard drive, Wacom tablet, and anything that I didn’t need for that specific night. When it was time to move from one hotel to the next, I’d pack everything up again just like before. If you don’t believe you can pack all the gear listed, here’s a quick time-lapse video as I pack the gear from the list above. (Note: I don’t pack the tripod and the 5DMII because they were being used to film the video. I do pack the battery grip for the 5DMII where the camera body would normally go. The tripod connects on the outside of the backpack via the very front pocket and some straps that connect at the top of the backpack).
INSERT VIDEO HERE <http://youtu.be/Gga6_3SQClE>
There are actually quite a few reasons why this bag is awesome so I will touch on a few of them here…
Sure I could have brought more lenses and gear but then my backpack would just keep getting heavier and heavier. With the range of lenses I brought, I never felt during the trip that I should have packed more gear.
There were several days/nights in Italy where my wife and I were all on our own, free to travel and explore. On those nights all I really needed was a camera body, my tripod and my lenses. I could really strip everything down to just the bare essentials and that’s when you get to take advantage of the Shape Shifters ability to…well…shift shapes! If you don’t have much gear in your backpack, you can grab a zipper at the bottom of the packpack and zip the backpack down to only 3 inches thick. The zipper just compresses the width down and sort of streamlines everything. This can only be done in certain situations. If you have too much in the backpack the zipper won’t zip closed. Doing this make the backpack incredibly thin and low profile and really it just feels better in this configuration. I wish ThinkTank would find a way to shrink my camera bodies and lenses down to size so I could use this feature all the time!
Pockets are always a good thing and the Shape Shifter has plenty of them. And not just pockets mind you but every pocket seems to have a purpose, a reason for being there. Some pockets are there to hold CF cards, some hold batteries, others hold cell phones, pens, etc. They aren’t just big pockets to stuff anything into (although there are a couple of those). When you really pack this bag up to it’s limits, you will stand back in disbelief over how much you just fit inside of it.
This was a must on my trip to Italy. I wasn’t going to take a bag with me unless there was some way to lock it. Although the bag doesn’t come with the locks (I think that would be a great feature as well) you can find them at just about any store with a travel section. While I bought locks that came with keys, I would encourage any travelers out there to do the opposite and get a lock with a three digit combination. It was too complicated trying to keep the keys in a place that was easy to find but not too easy to find (if you know what I mean).
This is another must-have-feature for a travel backpack. If your backpack isn’t comfortable on your shoulder then really what is it worth? The Shape Shifter has exceptionally padded shoulder straps that sit very comfortably and never let me down. There were certainly times where I was sick of carrying this thing around at train stations and airports but that was just because of the weight, and we already decided there’s nothing they can do about the weight of my gear. The Shape Shifter also comes with a waist belt and a clip to connect your shoulder straps together. If you don’t want the waist belt it tucks away nicely inside the bottom of the backpack, or you can just remove them altogether. Very clever!
Like I said in the beginning: No camera backpack is perfect for everyone. So while I may love a feature about this bag, someone else could hate it for that very same reason! I understand that and I don’t think this would be a good review without stating the potential disadvantages of the Shape Shifter.
I bought this bag so my camera gear would be protected from potential theft. Because of that reason, the gear also takes longer to get to when I’m shooting on location. If you buy a backpack that has super fast access to all your stuff, then you might want to consider that it proveds super fast access for thieves as well! So, this really comes down to the question that you have to ask yourself: Why do I want/need this backpack? We live in a fast food world and some people get all fussy if it takes them 10 seconds to get a lens out of their backpack instead of 6 seconds. It doesn’t bother me but that is just me.
Again, I don’t mind this feature because it makes the bag thinner and lower profile. But I have heard a number of people complain about this so it is certainly noteworthy. Each compartment in the gear section of the backpack is specifically designed for either a lens or a camera body. There’s really not a way to pack a camera body with a lens attached. This means that if your walking around without a camera in hand and see something happening you’d have to unzip your backpack, grab a camera body, grab a lens, attach them and stow the lens and body caps, re-zip the backpack and then shoot.
My solution: Always have a camera in hand! Any time I’m walking around with my backpack, you can rest assured that I also have a camera body and lens around my shoulder via a Black Rapid RS-7 Camera Strap. I put the strap around my shoulder first, then put the backpack on second. It works perfectly and the backpack doesn’t constrict the movement of the RS-7.
The ThinkTank Shape Shifter is by far my favorite camera backpack that I’ve owned to date. The advantages to the backpack far outweighed any potential setbacks in my opinion and I really can’t think of a better solution. This bag gives me the ability to carry large amounts of gear, but also the option to strip everything down and go incognito if need be.
Get a price on a ShapeShifter at Amazon.