Good Gear: Old Dog, New Bag
When old habits meet a new camera backpack.
April 22, 2023 Good Gear / Equipment
It's retirement time -- for my favorite photo backpack. Semi-retirement is more like it. We've been many places together and it still has some miles left in it, so I can't say farewell to this old friend yet.
My LowePro ProTrekker AW is more than 25 years old. Some parts of it show their age and others don't. The zippers show it the most. They have grown chronically stubborn, sometimes refusing to close without a struggle and a curse word or two. But then there are old parts of me that are chronically stubborn, too, so I've learned to be gentle and forgiving with both old timers.
It still carries the 500mm f/4 lens better than any bag I've owned. The generous interior space and the comfortable shoulder straps, hip belt and back padding are perfect for a heavy load and a long walk. For that reason alone, I'll keep this old friend in the rotation.
A MindShift Backlight 36L is the new bag in town. MindShift is a sister company of ThinkTank. Both make outstanding photo gear. I've been using this bag for about two-and-a-half years. From the start, I was optimistic about the Backlight's design, materials, construction and comfort. Never one to rush to something new, I studied the catalog, read reviews and, most importantly, I asked friends who own it to give me their opinions. All of them had good things to say about it. Now I know why.
The Backlight's shoulder straps and hip belt are well designed, easily adjustable and comfortable. I'm particular about how a fully-loaded bag feels when I first put it on. The belt and straps have several points of adjustment, so I took my time to tighten and loosen them for the right fit. I'm also concerned about how I can adjust the bag along the way. I found I can quickly shift the load from my hips to my shoulders and back again with a few easy adjustments without taking off the bag.
It has good interior space with the traditional adjustable padding for camera bodies and lenses. We've come to expect customizable layouts, but the padding, fabric and Velcro-like pad covering in this bag are the highest quality I've seen. I've found that the padded walls don't shift even when they support the heaviest bodies and lenses.
Commonly, I carry two camera bodies in it -- on flights and when I think I'll need two different camera/lens combinations at the ready in the field. Otherwise I'm fine with one body. It rests in the top-center position in the gear compartment without a lens attached to it. The second body would be in a spot just left of that and a little lower.
The lower-center area is configured to hold one of the longer lenses. That's where I place a 500mm f/5.6 PF, an 80-400mm or a 200-500mm, all Nikons. Along the right side, three spots can handle shorter lenses in any combination of a 14-24mm, a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm, a 24-120mm, a 45mm tilt/shift, and a 24mm tilt/shift, again all Nikons. Along the left side, there's a longer place set up for a 70-200mm or a 200mm macro. Other slots hold small binoculars, extra batteries, lens cloths, a blower ball, a filter wallet, an SD card wallet, sunglasses, reading glasses, a Leatherman multitool, a small flashlight and other odd and ends.
When I fly, I'll pack one of the short lenses in my checked luggage and put my tripod ball head in its place. I like to keep it with me in case my checked bag, which includes my tripod, gets lost or delayed. I figure I can borrow or buy another tripod at my destination, but finding another head is less likely.
Zippered pockets on the inside of the back panel hold small accessories. Things like spare lens and camera-body caps, Allen keys for quick-release plates, a small notepad, pen, mechanical pencil, and a Sharpie are quickly accessible here.
In the large outer back pocket, there's more room for personal items like clothing and food that are separate from the camera gear. I can pack my hat, gloves, light rain jacket, down vest or sweater and a few snacks in the full-length compartment on the back. A water bottle fits in one side pocket and a thermal travel mug in the other.
If my rain jacket is wet or muddy, I can lash it to loops on the outside with web straps. There are plenty of strong lash bands, so I can strap on other bulky or dirty things like tall gaiters, wet rain pants, a fleece jacket or a heavier Gore-tex jacket.
I wish the zippered pocket on the crown of the bag was bigger. I'd like to use that space for an SD card wallet when I'm in the field and for my phone, wallet and wristwatch when I go through airport security.
I've grown accustomed to using a Samsonite Compact Folding Luggage Cart for wheeling my camera pack and briefcase through airports. When it's folded up, the cart slides into the Backlight's outer pocket, wheels up, and the bag still fits in the plane's overhead compartment.
The backpack meets most carry-on standards for domestic and international airlines. I pull the shoulder straps and the hip belt around to the front side where I clip them into carabiners before I carry the bag on board. It slides into the overhead bin easier this way. For short flights on small planes, I have to gate check the bag. A TSA combination lock slips through the zipper pulls and secures the contents.
The new trick my old brain had to learn is how the bag opens. Instead of laying the pack on the ground straps down, you place it face down/straps up and unzip the back panel to access the main compartment of the bag. It means breaking an old habit that's second nature to me. That is a mind shift.
This feature is meant to keep the straps and back padding clean and dry when you're working in the field. It does just that which is another happy reason for making the Backlight 36L my new everyday photo backpack.
Every time I use the new bag, I prove to myself that this Old Dog can still learn a new trick. Who's a Good Boy?