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Unconventional Camera Bag: Repurposing a Think Tank Photo Retrospective Lens Changer
NOTE: Images with an icon next to them have been artificially shrunk to better fit your screen; click the icon to restore them, in place, to their regular size.
Moss Macro Photography with Nicolas Joannin at the Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺) in the mountains of northwest Kyoto, Japan photo by Paul Barr  --  Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺)  --  Copyright 2012 Paul Barr
Nikon D3 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 60mm — 1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400 — map & image datanearby photos
Moss Macro Photography
with Nicolas Joannin
at the Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺) in the mountains of northwest Kyoto, Japan
photo by Paul Barr
Photo I Took  --  Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺)  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/640 sec, f/2.5, ISO 1800 — map & image datanearby photos
Photo I Took
Reverse Angle photo by Paul Barr  --  Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺)  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Paul Barr
Nikon D3 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm — 1/100 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
Reverse Angle
photo by Paul Barr

This post is about a new camera-bag solution I'm trying, and so far like, involving an unconventional use of a Think Tank Photo Retrospective® Lens Changer 3 shoulder bag. You can see it at my side in the photos above.

I usually bring just a few lenses when I'm out with the camera, often a Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 and a pair of Nikkor f/1.4 primes (24mm and 50mm). My normal bag is the v1 version of the Think Tank Photo Speed Racer, a nice bag with a silly name, and it's not bad with how I shoot, but I was looking for something less geeky. Think Tank's Retrospective line is advertised as "inconspicuous, soft-sided shoulder bag with a simple exterior that blends into the environment while carrying photo gear", so that seemed to fit the bill.

Since I carry the camera either free in my hand or on a Sun Sniper Pro camera strap, I need a bag just for the lenses and little knickknacks like WhiBal card, polarizer filters, GPS unit, wallet, phone, and such. I liked the idea of the Lens Changer bag because it has three large separate compartments for the lenses, allowing me to place the lens I just took off the camera into one compartment, then use the same hand to fetch the next lens from another.

But as it turns out, I found the whole “shoulder bag” concept inappropriate for the kind of moving around I do when I shoot — bending, kneeling, crouching, stretching, etc. — and with the bag's strap slipping here and the bag flopping there, the bag was a nuisance as often as it was a blessing. It's a fine bag that does exactly what it was designed for and advertised as, so the problem is not with the bag, but with its match to me and my style.

Also, with all the weight constantly on one shoulder, I found it felt heavy after a while.

I figured that if I could hang it off my belt, all those problems would be solved. Hips take weight much better than shoulders, and being attached right at the bag would mean that it wouldn't flop around. Most importantly, unlike a traditional waist-pack camera bag, clipping it to my belt would not garner “what a geek!” ribbing from attractive women. (Thanks go to Lauren for sending me down this relatively stylish path.)

So, I paid a visit to a local hardware store to see whether I could fashion a pair of clips of some kind, and ended up finding exactly what I needed already available, a $7 belt clip:

Added Belt Clip one of a pair  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/125 sec, f/16, ISO 6400 — map & image data
Added Belt Clip
one of a pair

As can be seen, I was able to attach the rings of the belt clips to the heavy-duty strap attachment points, one on either edge of the bag. They slip easily on and off my belt, allowing the bag to become part of my wardrobe.

photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 — 1/250 sec, ISO 100 — map & image data
photo by Nicolas Joannin

The bag's shoulder strap is sewn-in captive and can't be removed, so it just hangs there below the bag. The captive strap makes perfect sense for what the bag was designed for, but I'd prefer is wasn't there, so I may cut it off. I haven't had the guts yet, though. [Update: I did cut it off, and now it's a much cleaner solution for me.]

In Use going after the Nikkor 70 -200mm f/2.8 photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 — 1/250 sec, ISO 100 — map & image data
In Use
going after the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8
photo by Nicolas Joannin

The bag's materials and workmanship are first class, but I'm not quite so sure about the design. I'm not in the bag industry so grant that there are likely considerations — of material, manufacturing, and marketing — that I'm not aware of, but the design seems to me to have striking flaws.

For example, in the photo above you can see the two large Velcro patches on the outside of the bag. Those are the closure for the cover flap, and they seem gratuitously large for their intended purpose. One of the big selling points is that they have a method to shut up the noise that the Velcro makes when detached (they have a separate piece of Velcro that covers the first, rendering the exposed side non-Velcro), but maybe they wouldn't need that in the first place if the patches were not the size of a soccer pitch.

Worse is the design of a small zippered compartment on the body-facing side of the bag. The captive strap's attach points are right there snug against the top of the zipper, blocking almost completely access to the zipper when it's fully open or fully closed. Here's what it looks like when I've gone to the trouble to pull back the strap to reveal, as best I can, access to the zipper:

Ill-Conceived Design the dark brown thing to the right of the blue ribbon is the zipper tongue  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Friedl, http://regex.info/blog/
Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/400 sec, f/16, ISO 6400 — map & image data
Ill-Conceived Design
the dark brown thing to the right of the blue ribbon is the zipper tongue

It would be hard enough to gain access to the zipper without this flaw because the pocket is on the side of the bag pressed against your body (why is it not on the other side, with clean access protected by the flap?) but all the more awkward to access due to this design.

And notice that blue ribbon? That comes from inside the compartment, and is meant to secure your keys, I suppose. The problem is that the ribbon is sewn inside the compartment right at the zipper, almost guaranteeing that it will get caught up into the teeth. It took five minutes of my life the very first time I touched the zipper because it so effectively jammed the whole thing. It's one of those “What were they thinking? Were they even thinking?” times that make you just shake your head.

It would have been nice if the blue ribbon had been placed on the other edge of the zipper so that you could close the zipper while leaving the blue ribbon out, thereby allowing, if you wanted, access to whatever you attached to the ribbon while the zipper was closed. It seems to be an obvious choice, but perhaps there's some other consideration that makes that design unattractive?

Besides the body-facing zippered compartment and the three cavernous lens compartments, the only storage is a small pocket on the outward-facing side (just below my hand in “In Use” above). It's good for a cell phone or a GPS unit.

Overall, the design of the storage with this bag seems really sub par, especially compared to that of the other Think Tank bag I have. We're back again at the “I'm not a bag designer” nor an expert in the bag market, but I think it could have been done much better. I'd start by putting little memory-card pockets just inside the lip of the main bag, just as in the other Think Tank bag I have. I'd add a low-profile pleated compartment on the outward-facing side of the bag instead of the dinky cell-phone pouch, and I'd throw away the entire flap-closure “solution” (their ridiculous, bulky, kludgy, uber-geeky “Sound Silencer” expanses of Velcro) and design something... anything... else.

And since it's a bag explicitly for lenses, I'd also have thin pockets at the lip, opposite those for the memory cards, for filters or lens caps.

(For the record, I wouldn't make the strap detachable, since my personal desire for a detachable strap is outside the bag's target use.)

Despite these silly design decisions, on average I'm pleased with the setup I've come up with. It feels great, looks stylish (except for the hanging strap, and for the person it's attached to), doesn't get heavy even after many hours trekking through mountain paths, is easy-on and easy-off, but is held secure, and as I said, the bag build quality is first rate.

Here are some other random shots I collected from Paul and Nicolas, who joined me on the trip to the temple....

photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 + LUMIX G VARIO 14-45/F3.5-5.6 at an effective 84mm — 1/320 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100 — map & image data
photo by Nicolas Joannin
Chatting With Fellow Visitors photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 + LUMIX G VARIO 14-45/F3.5-5.6 at an effective 42mm — 1/13 sec, f/4.5, ISO 100 — map & image data
Chatting With Fellow Visitors
photo by Nicolas Joannin
photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 — 1/160 sec, ISO 100 — map & image data
photo by Nicolas Joannin
photo by Paul Barr  --  Joushoukou-ji Temple (常照皇寺)  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Paul Barr
Nikon D3 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 42mm — 1/500 sec, f/4, ISO 1600 — map & image datanearby photos
photo by Paul Barr
photo by Nicolas Joannin  --  Kyoto, Japan  --  Copyright 2012 Nicolas Joannin, https://plus.google.com/u/0/116578079434506112628
E-P2 — 1/80 sec, ISO 100 — map & image data
photo by Nicolas Joannin

I'll probably end up getting rid of the shoulder strap, but may try to rubber-band it out of the way behind the bag, or something, before I bring the knife to bear. Update: I did remove the strap and now it's much nicer to use in practice.


Comments so far....

Can you wear the bag over your shoulder opposite to the camera (rather then on your shoulder)? The clip seems tenuous for carrying expensive glass.

BTW, I think your “moss” is lichen, at least the red parts, called British Soldier Lichen in my New England Audobon Guide.

I’ve slung the bag over the opposite shoulder for when hauling tons of stuff up from the car, but it’s not really intended to be used that way, and isn’t comfortable. The clips I used are very secure… they actively lock onto the belt, so they can’t be accidentally removed. The one situation I can think of when they might come off on their own is if I were in a weightless environment, such as on the IIS. I will take care if I use them there. And yes, you’re right about the lichen. Nicolas (the biologist/photographer seen in the pics with me) had corrected me at the time, but I was too lazy to look up how to spell “lichen” when I was writing the post, so went with “moss” which I can spell all on my own. :-) —Jeffrey

— comment by Werner on May 14th, 2012 at 1:58am JST (2 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Ingenious solution but I’d be concerned that the shoulder strap hanging down could get caught on something.

I figured out a few years ago that the optimal way to use a shoulder bag is with the strap diagonally across the chest, so that the bag is resting on your hip opposite to the shoulder bearing the weight.
I use Domke J-1 bags and with the Domke Post Office Shoulder Pad I typically carry 2 bodies and several lenses for hours without discomfort.

Hello from Racine, WI.

— comment by Jim_N on May 14th, 2012 at 5:38am JST (2 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

I agree that the strap dangling like that is less than appealing. I also can see some concerns over safety on it dangling that low. Most of the straps, though, will allow you to tighten it down to the point where it will stay tight to the bottom of the bag. That will also add a small amount of bottom support and bottom padding if you ever put it down.

— comment by Hughman on May 14th, 2012 at 12:31pm JST (2 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Anyone else find it ironic that the bag is branded “think tank” if thought doesn’t seem to have been a huge part of the design? ;) That back pocket should have just been designed maybe an inch below the straps.

The velcro strips are huge but I bet they are so that the flap can close flat regardless of whether the bag is empty or crammed full. Plus, a tiny strip probably wouldn’t hold the flap shut as well and risk damage to expensive equipment.

Also, I get a real kick out of the fact that, on your knees, you are almost as tall as the fellow visitors you are chatting with! :D

— comment by Kat on May 14th, 2012 at 11:52pm JST (2 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Do you just attach the bag to your normal belt or do you have a special (eg wider) belt?

Usually when I have something clipped to my belt it feels awkward at the beginning and gets annoying pretty fast, especially when it’s pretty heavy (as a 70-200 2.8 would be)…

Is there a reason why you don’t use a backpack? (I have a Lowe Minitrecker, which is quite OK, but to access it you always need to take it off, open it, do stuff, close it, put it back. So it’s quite cumbersome. But on the other hand it’s the best thing to carry around some 10kg of photo equipment, as any single strap solution results in a bent spine and anything attached to the hips is either requiring a huge belt or results in a bent spine as well…)

(If I ever manage to visit Kyoto I have to invite you for a beer or whatever you do there, I really like your photos of Japan)

I wouldn’t want to use a backpack… I’d get all sweaty on my back, and they always seem to get very heavy on the shoulders. I clip the bag to my normal belt, which is slung through the pants’ belt loops at various points so doesn’t drag down. You notice the weight, but it doesn’t really get heavy. It’s odd. I was out with it for a couple of hours today, and was pleased. Beer sounds great! —Jeffrey

— comment by Nils Pickert on May 16th, 2012 at 6:30am JST (2 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink
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