In the world of photography equipment, there are two items of gear that are absolutely necessary and generally cause the most headaches when it comes to picking out from the selection: lenses and camera bags. When it comes to lenses, you’re balancing budget vs. quality and making compromises by picking features of one lens over another. For camera bags, most people who are aware of the Internet and take advantage of its abilities to harness the wisdom of the Gods, or at least the volunteering world, know already the daunting task of picking one out. Finding the right bag for you is quite literally finding a needle in a haystack. For every kind of commercial bag existing on the market, a camera company has designed something like it specifically for photographic use. The two bags that have the most configurations, purposes, uses, intentions, etc. are backpacks and messenger bags. If you’re looking for a camera backpack, then congratulations, you can start banging your head against the wall now. If you’re looking for a messenger bag, just give yourself a good face-palm. I did so for about two months before I finally made my decision on a bag. Thankfully, I got it right.
If you’re going to buy a new bag, start by making a list of what the main purpose of the bag is, what gear you plan to carry (both photographic and not) and set a price-point. Here was my list:
- Purpose: a messenger style bag that I can take to work, the airport, on "simpler" photo jobs, and use as a walk-around bag.
Gear to carry fully loaded:
- 15" Macbook Pro laptop
- Gripped Canon 7D
- Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II
- Sigma 35mm f/1.4 or Canon 17-55 f/2.8 IS
- YN-668 Flash
- Memory card wallet
- Business cards
- Spare documents/thin notebook
- Laptop charger
- External hard drive
- Water bottle
- Price Point: More than I honestly wanted to spend
For me the decision was narrowed down from the start to three companies: Lowepro, ThinkTank, and F-Stop. In my opinion, these companies are the best when it comes to camera bags. I’ve been using Lowepro products as my main carry gear and love their stuff. It is all very well made, thoughtfully designed, and looks fashionable. ThinkTank is known for their quality and functionally designed bags, though not necessarily for their looks. The bags are fantastic, but they’re built for function through and through. F-Stop is newer to the market when compared to the others, but they’ve made a huge splash with their Mountain Series backpacks and ICUs. If you want a hardcore outdoor backpack, buy it from F-Stop. I recently got my hands on a Tilopa BC, and I absolutely love it. It’s built like a tank, is brilliantly designed, and the bags have a very cool visual appeal to them (especially the new Malibu Blue color: WOW!). Between these three companies, I knew I’d find a solid bag.
When it came down to finally picking a messenger bag, I went with the ThinkTank Retrospective 50. I knew all bags offered by my preferred companies would be of great quality so that wasn’t a worry. Price point? Well, I was looking for a specific set of features and all the bags were approximately equivalent in price, so that was a nonfactor. What really helped me narrow things down was the look of the bags. I really wanted a canvas material looking bag; that old-school appearance. Lowepro’s messenger bags were all very traditionally black, nylon, and sleek. F-Stop’s Ando series were very radical looking, and obviously well built, but I didn’t like the way you had to access your gear. While looking through the ThinkTank bags, I saw the same old thing as Lowepro – boring, dull, black, and nylonish. Then I stumbled across their Retrospective series. Let me tell you, it was love at first sight. The bags are gorgeous. But before I bought one, I wanted to make sure I actually liked the layout and design of the ThinkTank bags. Luckily for me, my Uncle uses a ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60 as his messenger style bag, and he was more than happy to let me look at it. Needless to say, I was very impressed with the bag: loved the build quality, layout, and feel of it. I decided to pull the trigger on the Retrospective 50, the bag that suited my needs the best from a feature set and visual look.
I’ve been using this bag for about 6 months now and can honestly say I love this thing. It’s hanging off of my shoulder just about everywhere I go. Why is it so great? Let the review begin!
Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted a bag with that old-school canvas look. ThinkTank got it right when they decided to bring this retro looking element into the design of the bag. It honestly looks great, and what’s more, it doesn’t scream, “I’m a camera bag!” The bag itself is very well padded and the material feels soft. It’s not that slick, nylon feel. Its a very classy, clean, but rugged style that’s incredibly appealing to the eye.
This is not a small bag; it is hefty, and you know it’s on your person. Now, it doesn’t feel like I’m walking around in an inner tube, but I do have to be mindful of my space when walking through a group of people. Speaking of size, this bag can hold a lot, and I mean A LOT of stuff. It practically begs you to try and add the kitchen sink.
Below is an image of my everyday, walk-around set up (minus laptop). As you can see, there’s a bunch of room. In the bag currently:
- 7D with attached 35mm f/1.4 - hood extended
- Laptop charger
- iPhone charging cable
- Composition notebook
- External hard drive
- Sunglasses case
- Bottle of Excedrin (never leave home without it!)
- Spare 7D battery
- Card reader
- Apple AC to USB plug
- Memory card wallet
The main compartment holds the camera, notebooks, chargers, cables, and other larger items. It’s lined on both sides with Velcro-based attachment walls so that you can add dividers in several different configurations. The Velcro-based piece that I appreciate the most is the removable padding for the bottom of the bag. This is great if you’re carrying lenses with the hoods in reverse position, thus helping protect your gear. The downside is it really makes the bag sit at its fullest size. I take mine out so the bag slims down a bit when I’m just carrying one short lens, since I always have the hood in position. You’ll also notice there’s a spare strap. This is nifty if you want to carry the bag by your hand. It fits just over the top of the bag itself. The only time I add it is if I’m bringing this bag to the airport. It’s the kind of environment where quick lifting is a necessity and that’s substantially easier with a small hand strap than the main shoulder strap. The hand strap doesn’t feel flimsy or weak. It’s adjustable and comfortable to hold.
On both sides of the main compartment are two pockets with a Velcro cover strap. These pockets are where I hold my chargers, external hard drive, and spare cables. They’re big enough to hold a pro-sized flash comfortably. There is no added padding to these pockets.
The smaller front section has holders for pens, an attachment strap to hold either the included rain cover or your memory card wallet, and a couple small pockets as well as a small divider wall. There’s no configuration ability to this area, but there’s really no need. It’s simple, slim, and designed to hold small or thin items. It does its job well, and that’s all it needs to do.
The main compartment is fully capable of carrying a pro-sized DSLR with a 70-200 attached, lens hood reversed. I freaking love this aspect. It really allows me to walk around and take candid shots from a distance. Along with this set up, I can still carry two more lenses, each the size of a 70-200 if I wanted. Oh, and the laptop still fits snugly. Now here’s my only major gripe about this bag: when loaded with a pro-sized DSLR and a laptop, you cannot get to the slim front pocket. It’s simply not going to happen. You can still put some stuff in that pocket, but you won’t be able to access it with the camera in place. You’ll have to pick it up slightly to allow enough slack to get your hand into that section. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s annoying for obvious reasons.
Outside of the main compartment sections is an outer front pocket. It’s held down by two Velcro tabs and is big enough to hold two DLSR bodies, according to ThinkTank. This pocket remains unused for me, but it’s nice to know that if I want to overload this bag, I’ve got the space. I know my Uncle uses the same pockets on his Urban Disguise 60 quite often.
Next is the cover flap. ThinkTank made an ingenious design decision here that makes you go, “Wow, that’s such an obvious thing to do!” Most bags that boast quick access either have very little security for being closed, or use Velcro. Hey, Velcro is a wonderful thing, and it made my shoes as a kid super simple. But I know tons of photographers who end up in quiet venues, go to reach into their bag to pull out a piece of gear and have to risk that rip sound of pulling apart Velcro. It’s very unpleasant, and you usually receive some glares. Well, ThinkTank just fixed that. You’ll notice that there are two flaps with Velcro undersides. When open, they are held in position by two smaller Velcro tabs with Sound On and Sound Off options. Opening the regular Velcro tabs allows the flap cover to do its Velcro thing with the front of the bag. You get decent security and a decent noise when you lift it, and that’s fine for most cases. If you prefer no Velcro stick, just close the regular tab on itself and you now have a normal messenger bag type cover flap that is completely silent. Told you it was smart! I keep mine on the silent option 99% of the time. I just prefer it that way. I have no worries about anything falling out of the bag on a day-to-day basis. Only times I engage the Velcro is if I’m overloading the bag, going through the airport, or walking around the city.
At the back of the bag is a zippered space dimensioned for a few documents, maybe a binder, or something of that sort. This pocket is incredibly nifty for documents you need quick access too like at the airport.
Finally we have an ever so important aspect of the bag - the shoulder strap. All I can say is that it’s
fantastic. Very comfortable and bears the weight of the bag incredibly well.
Best of all, it doesn’t slip. Not much else to say about it. It does its job
well. Of note, however, is that
when this bag is fully loaded, it is very heavy. I would not suggest lugging it
around all day if you’ve got it filled to the brim with gear. A backpack is
much better for your comfort and health if carrying larger amounts of gear.
That being said, I’ll gladly walk around for hours with my base configuration
This really is an excellent bag. I’m very happy with my purchase and have zero regrets. Other than the few remarks I made about accessibility when the bag is fully loaded, the bag is damn near flawless. You do pay a pretty penny for it though. Most bags that have space for a 15” laptop are pricey, so the good news is that it’s not terribly more expensive than the competition. ThinkTank makes the Retrospective series bags in many other sizes, and I would highly recommend them as well. If a big bruiser of a bag performs this well, the simpler ones can only be better. I offer big props to ThinkTank for building a great product. Hopefully this review helps those looking for a new messenger style bag, and most of all ease the pain of your face-palm action.
Note: I am in no way affiliated or sponsored by ThinkTank. This review was written simply to help educate the masses and because I want to promote an excellent product.