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There are certain features most people would expect to find in any camera bag, such as spacious areas for holding gear, a shoulder strap, and pockets in and around the bag for carrying smaller items like memory cards, a flash, or even car keys. Judged by those standards, the Think Tank Signature 13 Shoulder Bag excels admirably. But handing out that kind of compliment for a camera bag is like giving kudos to a car company for including seats and a steering wheel on one of their latest sedans.
Pick nearly any camera bag on the market and you’ll find options and features similar to what you might see in Think Tank’s latest creation. But evaluating a bag like this by talking about a bulleted list of features kind of misses the point. This is one case in which the whole truly is much more than the sum of its parts, and the result is a capable and refined camera bag that will suit the needs of most photographers quite well.
I have owned and used many camera bags over the years, from freebies that were included with a camera to expensive models uniquely suited to specific purposes. In my closet right now I’ve got backpack-style bags, messenger-style bags, over-the-shoulder bags, sling-style bags, and even one small little oddity whose purpose I can’t even articulate clearly. The Think Tank Signature 13 easily rests at or near the top of this relatively crowded consortium. Not necessarily because it has one single standout feature, but because it does many things so well and with a level of craftsmanship and refinement that I don’t often see especially on less expensive bags.
The first thing I noticed when I got this bag, which held true for everyone to whom I showed it, is that the Signature 13 looks fantastic. Not that a nice-looking bag will help you take better photos or protect your gear, but if you value style then the Signature series is definitely worth a look. I have the Slate Gray version. It also comes in a greenish color called Dusty Olive, which I didn’t see in person although online it seemed a little too dull for my taste.
Bold leather accents and thick metal clasps made some heads turn when I brought the bag to my office. But these flourishes could also send a message to would-be camera pilferers that inside the bag is a lot of gear worth stealing. It’s not a drawback of the Signature 13 per se but is a reality of using a nice-looking camera bag. It’s also one of the reasons my father continues to keep his camera gear in what’s basically an old padded lunch sack. I do think even he would be tempted by the Signature 13 though, and it’s certainly a cut above some of the black and gray monochromatic nylon bags in my closet.
Small, but significant, design touches abound, and you’re not likely to find a zipper, clasp, or velcro that isn’t a cut above what you’re used to seeing. The material from which the bag is made feels quite soft and yet surprisingly durable. My wife remarked that it felt a little bit like wool even though it’s actually a blend of nylon and polyester. In terms of overall appearance I like the way the fabric is accented with thick leather trim, hefty and durable clasps, and a generously-padded shoulder strap that distributes weight quite nicely. One of my coworkers stated that this bag would easily be suited to a professional environment such as business travel or public presentations, even though its primary function is to hold camera gear.
The Signature series comes in two sizes. A smaller Signature 10 is designed for mirrorless systems or those without a lot of camera gear, and the larger Signature 13 which can accommodate more equipment and even a 13″ laptop. I have the latter version which I found more than adequate for my camera kit on any given day of shooting. Although if I wanted to put all my gear inside it probably wouldn’t fit.
A bag like this is not really comparable to something like my Everyday Backpack 30L whose cavernous compartments can swallow up cameras, lenses, laptops, batteries, and a myriad of other accessories all at the same time. The Signature series takes a more measured and thoughtful approach to gear transportation. Instead of lugging everything you own, it’s ideally suited for the times when you want a bag that is small enough to hold the essentials, yet large enough that you can take what you need without having to worry about trade-offs.
In terms of regular daily usage there are lots of little details that make the Signature 13 bag pleasant to carry, with a couple of small nagging items that cast a shadow on an otherwise outstanding product.
The main shoulder strap is, and I hope I don’t come across as overly effusive, exceedingly comfortable and ideally suited to carry a bag of this size with whatever gear you choose to put in it. Plenty of the bags in my collection seem to treat the shoulder strap as an afterthought, with basic nylon construction and perhaps a small sliding pad to keep your shoulder from hurting too much. The shoulder strap on the Signature 13 bag is almost worth the price alone, with thick luxurious (I’m serious, it’s really nice) padding running a full 20 inches throughout the length of the strap and a classy leather accent to boot. It’s a huge improvement over most other shoulder straps and makes carrying the bag an easy and pleasant experience.
There’s also a traditional handle for times when you want to grab the bag with one hand. While that isn’t generally how I use my camera bags I did find it to be sturdy and comfortable.
Inside the bag are other equally thoughtful considerations that are quite well suited to the needs of photographers. The main protective flap closes securely with two metal clasps on the front of the bag. They work just fine but did leave me frustrated a few times when I needed to open the bag quickly or close it without looking down.
The flap opens to reveal a front pouch with a dual-position strap to hold it shut, and an additional zipper pouch behind it for thin items like a cell phone, memory cards, shot list, etc. I did find myself fishing around in both of these front pouches a bit more than I thought I would, but it’s not really a design flaw so much as it’s a result of the pockets being so deep. There’s also a zippered top for the main storage compartment that acts as a second layer of protection if you’re a bit nervous at the thought of only using the main flap to keep your gear from tumbling out. But fortunately, this flap can be either buttoned to the top flap or tucked away altogether so it stays out of your way unless you really need it.
The main cavity of the Signature 13 bag is, in many respects, standard fare for this type of storage device. Look inside and you will see a deep and well-padded chamber with plenty of velcro-style dividers that you can customize and reposition to your heart’s content. Some people like this style of bag and others don’t, so I can’t say whether this will specifically work for every photographer. But if you are the kind of person who likes to use velcro dividers to separate your gear then the Signature 13 will certainly work very well for you.
It’s not so much the functionality of this bag that differentiates it from others on the market, but the thoughtful construction and design choices made when creating it. One example is the quilted nature of the inner pocket and dividers which help them feel strong, sturdy, and quite durable. I found the dividers just as easy to use and reposition as any bag of this type, but they did have a more solid, confident feel than most others.
Rounding out the design of the Signature 13 is a massive leather base that extends the length of the bag and wraps about an inch up on either side as well. I don’t know if it’s because of this leather base or the sidewall construction, but I never had issues with the bag tipping over when I set it down regardless of whether it was empty or stuffed with cameras and lenses. Combine this with the nicely padded exterior and I would feel quite comfortable taking this bag on an extended trip, knowing my gear would be safe whether tossed in an overhead luggage bin or sitting among suitcases in the trunk of my car.
It probably sounds like I’m heaping compliments on this bag and to some extent that’s true. But I feel like praise is best given when it is well earned and that is certainly the case here. Still, I do have a few issues with the Signature 13 and would be remiss in not pointing them out for other buyers.
For one, the bag is not entirely waterproof which could be a major drawback for some photographers who carry their gear in all kinds of weather. I do believe it would keep things dry well enough (though I must admit I am loathed to take it out in a rainstorm to test this out) but even so, the copious amounts of leather accents would likely get damaged or at least discolored in heavy amounts of rainfall. According to Think Tank the polyester/nylon shell is water resistant, so in theory, it should keep your gear safe and dry. It also comes with a collapsible nylon shell if you do find yourself caught in a downpour.
I also think the dual front clasps are a bit impractical, and at times I found myself getting a little frustrated when trying to release or secure them in a hurry. They work just fine for what they are, but I tend to prefer magnetic or snap-based closure mechanisms that are easier to use with one hand or without looking.
One other potential drawback is the price which, at $249 for the Signature 10 and $279 for the Signature 13, is not exactly cheap. For that price, you are certainly getting a high level of quality, but you are also paying for some of the appearance and design elements that just might not matter to some photographers. If the price is your primary consideration you might want to look elsewhere as there are certainly less expensive bags which perform most of the same functions as the Signature series. But you are also not likely to get a bag with such pleasantly pervasive flourishes and design touches.
Overall I have found the Think Tank Signature 13 Shoulder Bag to be outstanding and a fine addition to my carrying collection. It’s not revolutionary in any one single way, but it takes the concept of a shoulder-style bag with velcro dividers and enhances it to a level of refinement and craftsmanship that I don’t see in a lot of other bags. If you’re the kind of photographer who likes this type of bag, I heartily recommend the Think Tank Signature 13.