Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter Review – by John Lill

John LillJohn Lill is a twenty year veteran photographer who has worked in varied assignments all around the world including the White House during the Bush and Obama administrations. He has served as lead photographer aboard USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) managing 35 junior photographers and most recently, USS Makin Island (LHD 8), which is known as the Navy’s largest hybrid powered vessel. John currently resides in Seattle, WA serving as a Public Affairs Officer for the Navy and covers the local music scene as a freelance photojournalist.

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

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 ominous way to start off a review, let me follow up my last statement with this one: The Shape Shifter by Think Tank Photo is as close as I have been able to come to finding the perfect camera backpack! From time to time I get emails from various companies asking me to review products for my photography website and I always appreciate the opportunity to try something new. I want to be completely transparent and make it known that in this case I pursued Think Tank Photo to see if they’d send me a Shape Shifter to use during a recent trip to Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim and in anticipation of the summer concert festival season.

The Problem With Finding The Perfect Backpack For You Gear

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). Let’s be real, no one backpack can anticipate the thousands of potential needs from the user. 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 bag that can hold a LOT of gear, but can also slim down when you need to go out and about.

Enter The Shape Shifter

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

I’ve used Think Tank Photo products exclusively for the past three years (Rollers, Sling Bags, Shoulder bags, you name it) but because of the nature of my travel and concert photography, I’ve had to reevaluate what’s best for the majority of my work. In past experiences I have found shoulder bags to become painful after several hours of use. A multi-day music festival can quickly become torture if your bag is bugging you during hour three of the first day. My primary concern for any bag in a situation like this is mobility and comfort. Recently I put the Shape Shifter to the test at the Sasquatch! Music festival held at the Gorge in George, Washington. The festival is four days long, with multiple stages that are a decent trek apart. This was the perfect opportunity to test the limitations of the bag to see if this backpack was “The One.” The Shape Shifter was the only camera bag I took and you will not believe what I was able to fit into this thing!

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

Here’s the list…

1 – Nikon D4s camera body

1 – Nikon D3s camera body

1 – Nikon 24-70mm lens

1 – Nikon 70-200mm lens

1 – Nikon 14-24mm lens

1 – Nikon 2.0 Teleconverter

1 – Nikon SB-910 flash

1 – 15inch Macbook Pro with power brick

1 – iPad Air

1 – Lacie 2TB Rugged External HD

1 – set of Bose QuietComfort headphones

1 – Black Rapid dual strap

8 – CF Cards

4 – XQD Cards

2 – Extra batteries for D4s

1 – Charger for D4s

2 – Extra batteries for D3s

1 – Charger for D3s

Now that’s a lot of gear in one backpack! One thing a manufacturer will never be able to do is make that much gear weigh less than it actually does (unless of course, the backpack came with an assistant to carry it). With all the gear in the backpack it was quite heavy, which was fine because for I only needed it to all be with me while I was traveling from the parking lot to the secured media room. For air travel, this bag is perfect in that I don’t have to check any camera gear and it counts as my personal item since it’s on me and I still have a small roller that could hold extra items if needed.

Why This Bag Is Awesome

There are actually quite a few reasons why this bag is awesome so I will touch on a few of them here…

It Holds All The Gear I Need

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

Sure, I could have brought more gear by attaching the Think Tank accessory pouches but then my backpack would just have kept getting heavier and heavier. With the range of lenses I brought, I never felt during the trip that I should have packed more gear.

It’s Ability To Shift Shapes

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

If you need minimal gear, say a camera body and a couple of lenses but need to stow and carry with you throughout the day, 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 backpack 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 Think Tank would find a way to shrink my camera bodies and lenses down to size so I could use this feature all the time!

Plenty of Pockets for Accessories

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

Pockets are always a good thing and the Shape Shifter has plenty of them. And not just pockets for the sake of having pockets.   Every pocket seems to have a purpose or 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.

Lockable Zippers

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

This is a must have for any pro camera bag. 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. I would encourage any traveler out there to do get a lock with a three-digit combination.

Comfortable Shoulder Straps

Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter

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. 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!

Potential Setbacks For Some Photographers

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 what I see as the potential disadvantages of the Shape Shifter.

Camera Gear Tough To Access When Actively Shooting

I got this backpack to avoid carrying everything in a shoulder bag, which was always great for access to my gear but bad on my shoulder and back. Because of that 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 provides 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 my personal feeling.

Can’t Carry A Camera Body With Lens Attached

Again, I don’t mind this feature because it makes the bag thinner with a lower profile. 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 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.

Conclusion

The Think Tank 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 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.

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