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Review: Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter Backpack

by Mike Pouliot on 07/29/2011

Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve owned 10-12 different camera bags and roughly half of them have been backpacks. If I’m going to be traveling or carrying my gear for more than a few hours, I prefer to carry everything in a backpack. I find shoulder bags and slings fatiguing and awkward to carry. The down side with backpacks is they are usually big/bulky and restrict you access to gear. I have the Kata 467i and I genuinely like the bag as it holds all of my gear plus a 15″ Macbook Pro, but it will not fit under a standard airline seat and it is not very good at keep my non-camera related gear organized. Bummer. So what about a smaller bag? Smaller bags are, well, small. They usually can’t hold my relatively modest kit and most are still pretty bulky and rigid due to all of the padding and dividers. So how do you transport all of your necessary gear plus a laptop (if needed) without carrying a monster of a backpack? You need to think outside of the box (or padded dividers) and that’s exactly what Think Tank Photo has done with the Shape Shifter Backpack.

Features

Feature #1 Holds a full assortment of photo gear and laptops up to 17”
Feature #2 Compresses to 3 inches in depth when gear is removed
Feature #3 Interior photo showing CANON gear
Feature #4 Interior photo showing NIKON gear
Feature #5 Neoprene pockets for cameras and lenses
Feature #6 Interior pockets opposite of the photo gear
Feature #7 Holds up to 17” laptop even when compressed
Feature #8 Pro Speed Belt™ compatible (sold separately)
Feature #9 Modular and Skin™ compatible with Pro Speed Belt
Feature #10 Upper front pocket with organizer for accessories
Feature #11 Lower front pocket with organizer for accessories
Feature #12 Designed to carry a monopod or tripod
Feature #13 Air flow system on back for breathability
Feature #14 Shoulder harness pockets, D Rings, and sternum strap
Feature #18 Lockable YKK zipper sliders (padlocks not included)
Feature #15 Removable waistbelt
Feature #16 Seam-sealed, removable rain cover included
Feature #17 Camera Support Strap compatible (sold separately)

Technical Specifications

  • Outer Dimensions When Expanded: 20”H x 12.5”W x 7”D” (51.0 x 32.0 x 18.0 cm)
    Outer Dimensions When Compressed: 20”H x 12.5W” x 3”D (51.0 x 32.0 x 8.0 cm)
    Laptop Compartment Inner Dimensions: 19” H x 12”W x 1.5”D (48.0 x 30.5 x 4.0cm)
  • 3.75 lbs (1.73 kg)
  • Lifetime Warranty

Video Review

Likes

  • Size/Storage: The Shape Shifter is ideal for carrying around a pro or prosumer type body, a laptop (up to 17″), 3 lenses and a flash or 4 lenses and no flash. It will also take a pro sized body (e.g. Canon 1DMkIV or Nikon D3s) and another prosumer sized body (e.g. Canon 5D or Nikon D700) but you will need to cut down your kit to 3 lenses. Also, the pouches in the Shape Shifter are BIG. It can easily carry two bodies, a Canon 70-200mm, Canon 24-70mm, and a Canon 17-40mm. That’s a solid kid. In addition to your larger gear, the Shape Shifter has TONS of pockets for all of your documents and camera/laptop accessories.
  • Looks: I prefer to buy camera bags that don’t look like camera bags. Attention is not something I’m after, especially when traveling, so a stealth looking bag is key. As you can see from the video and photos, this all black bag looks like a regular backpack. It’s slim and it’s shape doesn’t throw up any red flags to would be criminals.
  • Attention to detail: I like when companies think of the little things that make life easier. Things like stretch pockets on the shoulder straps to hold batteries or memory, a rain fly that covers the ENTIRE bag, and lots of well placed and thoughtfully sized pockets.
  • Quality: It has a no hassle lifetime warranty, need I say more? OK, I suppose I should. If you’ve ever held or used a Think Tank Photo bag, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who have not, I can guarantee you will not be disappointed with the quality. All materials are top quality and the construction is excellent. These bags feel bombproof.
  • Comfort: The Shape Shifter is without a doubt the most comfortable camera bag I’ve used to date. The shoulder pads are wide and very well padded. Also, both the shoulder pads and the back padding is made of a vented mesh material that helps to keep the sweat off of your back…a common problem when using a backpack (especially a black one) on warm days. In addition to the shoulder pads, the Shape Shifter has an adjustable sternum strap,  a waist strap and compression straps. All of these straps work in unison to help distribute weight.

Dislikes

  • Quick access to gear: For me, the biggest drawback with this bag is the access to gear while shooting. Unless you want to chance dropping something, you need to take the bag off, put it on the ground, and then access your gear. Also, unless you are using a small prime, you almost always have to detach the lens from the camera to put your gear back in the bag. This may be a deal-breaker for anyone that shoots in dusty or dirty conditions as you’ll be exposing the inside of your camera every time you put your gear away. I think the bag is really catered to the photographer that takes their camera out and leaves it out until they are truly done shooting. If you’re constantly taking your camera in and out of your bag, you may be better off with a sling or should style bag, like the Think Tank Photo Retrospective series.
  • Protection of gear, specifically laptop: Because the Shape Shifter forgoes the bulky and space consuming dividers, it also has to forfeit some of the protection that the dividers provide. Don’t get me wrong, the neoprene pockets are fairly thick and they do provide some protection for your gear, it’s simply not the same level of protection you may get from a traditional bag that uses the divider setup. Again, I am very careful with my gear as it is so this is not a major concern for me. The area most in need of some added protection is the laptop sleeve. If you have a bunch of large or very heavy lenses, it feels like they bulge out a bit into the laptop area. Again, there is some protection, and I’m probably more protective of my gear than most, but I’d like to see that change in the next version of this bag.

Conclusion

This is, without a doubt, my new favorite bag. If I ever need to take more than my 5D and a lens, this is my go-to bag. It’s versatile and it works well with a few things or loaded up to the gills, not all bags can do this well. Also, it’s great for travel which is a main concern of mine. I need a bag that can hold my essential gear but it also needs to be discrete, comfortable and compact enough to fit in overhead storage bin or under the seat of most planes.  Yes, it has it’s limitations (e.g. quick access to gear) but I personally find that the positives drastically outweigh the negatives. I appreciate a company thinking outside of the box to come up with a solution that is going to make a lot of photographers happy. If you’re looking for a comfortable, compact and quality made camera backpack, the Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter should be the first bag on your list.

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