This guest article was written by Lane Hartwell, a San Francisco-based freelance photographer whose images appear in Wired News, San Francisco Magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Diablo Magazine. You can follow Lane’s photography on Flickr.com and view her portfolio at fetching.net.
Think Tank Photo is a Bay Area based company making making bags and belt systems for cameras and lenses. I saw a belt system on a pro shooter several months ago and watching her work with it, I was convinced it was the way to go. If you saw a carpenter walk around with a bag or backpack and take it off every time he needed a different tool, you’d buy him a toolbelt. The think tank belt system is a tool belt for photographers. I’ve been using the Think Tank belt system for several months now and thought it was about time for a review.
Like most photographers, I’m in search of the perfect bag. I own 3; The Lowepro Slingshot 200, the Lowepro Rover, and a Domke shoulder bag. Each are great for specific uses; I use the Slingshot for general light use (although I used it as my main bag for awhile and you can load ALOT of gear into it), the Rover for my abandoned location night photo (it has space for your gear on the bottom and a general backpack area on top where you can stash food, gloves, even a sweater. And the Domke for when I can go straight from my car into a location and shoot. It’s khaki colored canvas and doesn’t look like a camera bag at all. In fact, none of my bags really scream “CAMERA!!!”, which is good when you’re shooting in sketchy neighborhoods, or even have to just walk alone to your car in a parking lot at night after a shoot. For all anyone knows, you’re a student carrying books.
But in most cases, these bags are useless when actually shooting. You want to grab another lens, and you have to do some complicated maneuver to get the bag open and the gear out without dumping everything on the sidewalk. By the time you do this, you’ve missed the shot. The slingshot was the best for addressing this…you can actually pull the bag around, open it and use it as sort of a shelf as you change lenses. But it’s not a perfect solution and for me, actually caused more problems. I get frequent migraines and headaches. The Slingshot goes over one shoulder, and it’s my headache side. So after carrying my gear in it for hours, I would develop alot of shoulder and neck strain and end up in pain, or with a migraine.
So the belt system looked appealing. I checked out their different systems on their website and decided to buy one.
The only retailer in the Bay Area is Bear Images in Palo Alto. So I made the trip over there, and I am really glad I did. That’s one thing I really recommend when buying this system…don’t buy it without taking your gear and fitting the bags to what you have and need. I guess I could have bought the bags for my lenses online without seeing them in person, but the belt was nice to try and also the bag that carries the camera really needs trying out in person. I actually exchanged the original bag I bought for that purpose. Take your gear to the store, think about what you would want to carry on any given shoot and load it up. See what it feels like. You can get alot of stuff on there, which is what I actually configured it for but I’ve actually never used it like that (maxed out) once.) (Update: I just looked on the Think Tank site and a store called Shutterbug in Petaluma sells them now too.)
By the way, the people at Bear Images were great about helping me choose my stuff. They allowed me to spread myself out all over the floor and load up the bags. I was there about an hour. They never pressured me and in fact, tried to help me configure a system that worked well and was priced well…well, sorta well, at least (see below).
So I’ve been using the belt since around Sept/November and on a scale of 1-10, I’d give it a 7.5. It does the very basic job of holding my lenses in bags on a belt on my hips well. It’s comfortable and feels safe. It’s well made and sturdy. So it gets an A there. But where it lacks is in innovation, which is kind of what it promises. Other companies make belt and bag systems, too. Think Tank boasts a design board made up of pro shooters who are supposed to be constantly testing and refining the design to make it easy to use and versatile.
On their website they say: “(The) modular set does something no other modular system does: the components can rotate around the belt or they can be locked in place for security, letting you configure them exactly the way you need them to work.”
Which is true, but in my opinion the system doesn’t work all that well. When I first read this, I envisioned a system where I could easily move a component from the front to the side as I was wearing it. Which would be amazing. But this doesn’t work like that. Whether you lock the components in place or not, you really have to take the belt off to do that. The locking system is just a plastic tab that slides into a loop, then the bag is attached by velcro. The velcro sections are large and sturdy and you can’t really slide them easily, even when the belt is off. The bottom line is, even when not locked in, you can’t slide one component past another one to reconfigure it on the fly. I guess you have to ask, is this important? Well, they advertise it as an important feature, so I assume they think it is. Do I think it is? Yes, I do. And I don’t think the current design is all that successful. I have ideas about how they could refine this, but I’m not a designer so I don’t know if what I envision would be practical or possible.
Another issue I have with the belt system is, How do I get my gear safely to and from the event without calling attention to the fact that I am carrying camera gear? It doesn’t make sense to carry your gear in a camera bag, then load it into the bags and belt at a location…where would you store the bag? So I purchased a bag that goes on the belt and holds the body, without a lens. It has room for cards and your wallet and so on. But once you pull the camera out, you’re left with a near empty bag just taking up precious space on your hip. I have no idea how people who use two bodies deal with this. The same with the bag for the flash. I actually prefer to carry my flash in a lens bag rather that the bag made for the purpose, because then I have a spare bag to pop the lens into while I am swapping them. The flash bag could also be made an extra inch longer to accomodate my Stofen Omnibounce. It fits with the Stofen on, but just barely. And each lens case comes with a rain cover that’s a bit on the clumsy side. Could they make the bags from waterproof materials with some type of zipper that is covered on the side so you don’t need an extra cover?
So when I’m prepping to go to a shoot, I have to consider all sorts of factors before I can take the belt, when really I just want to always take the belt. Sometimes when I really want to use the belt, and want to carry more lenses, I’ll configure the belt as I plan to wear it and carry the camera and flash loose with me in my car and just throw them around my neck when I get out of the car. I know this is kind of stupid; what if it starts raining? And there’s that whole safety thing of my gear being so visible. And laying without protection in my car.
One of my favorite bags is the one for the 70-200mm called “Whip it out”. It has a long zipper on the side and zips snug to keep the lens safe or loose to allow you to whip it out. I think they need to extend this design to all the lens bags. Some of my bags I have to really dig the lenses out of, which kind of defeats the purpose. The bag for the flash is poorly designed to access the flash quickly.
Think Tank offers the belt system by the piece, or in 6 or 12 piece systems with a price break of 20 to 25% off for ordering a set. I bought 8 pieces because I wanted to buy exactly what I needed and I ended up paying more than the 12 piece set. I wasn’t too happy about that…and it honestly doesn’t seem very photographer friendly…who is going to have the exact configurations they offer? I think they should just offer a price break to anyone buying more than X number of pieces at once, regardless of what the pieces are. I do think the system is a bit pricey, especially if you buy it by the piece. And honestly, I would be happier if they manufactured them in the Bay Area instead of Vietnam, but I feel that way about most things from smaller, local companies.
Another thing, Think Tank offers (offered? I don’t see if on their site anymore) a program to pros called “Test Drive” where you can apply to try the gear and give them feedback. I was kind of surprised to find that several of my bags were maked with a tag that designated them as test gear. So I’m not sure if the gear I got was still being refined design wise, or even if it had been used at some point. I know that Bear had lots of them like that, so I assume that’s what they were given by the company.
In spite of a few issues, I really like the system. It’s not for everyone…it screams “photographer”. It makes me hip-ier than usual so sometimes it’s tough getting through a crowd with my ass the size of a…well, you get the idea. It’s better than one of those photo vests, yech, no thanks. My neck, back and head don’t hurt after a long shoot. I can access my different lenses quicker and therefore get better photos.
To find out more about Think Tank, or to buy the system, you can visit their site at www.thinktankphoto.com.
About the author: Lane Hartwell. Website: http://fetching.net/