Review: Think Tank Shapeshifter Backpack

Let's be honest, I own alot of camera bags. It's not like I need a bunch of bags to match my outfit, I just haven't found many bags I like. Until recently, my favorite bag was the Think Tank Urban Disguise 35 V2.0 (which I reviewed earlier in this blog). Unfortunately, that bag is a shoulder sling and doesn't allow me to carry a tripod. As a result, I only find myself carrying it when I'm doing shoots in broad daylight at a local site. I have two other backpacks, but I always dread using them. They are awkward to use and don't carry a tripod particularly well. 

A few weeks ago I started another quest - to find a new backpack that would be good for carrying my very large (and heavy) Gitzo tripod. Since I'd previously been happy with my Think Tank purchase, I decided to stop on their website first.

Think Tank makes several types of backpacks. While sling bags could be considered backpacks in that they sit on my back, I don't find them comfortable to wear for a full day of shooting. Two of the models offered by Think Tank jumped out at me from their website, one of which was the Shapeshifter bag, the other was the Streetwalker Pro. I headed to my closest dealer (Ace Photo) to check both out.

Shapeshifter vs Streetwalker Pro
After looking at all the options made by Think Tank, I settled on these two. The Streetwalker Pro has lots of pockets, lots of storage space, and is very narrow. The narrow back is appealing - as a small woman I often feel engulfed by the backpacks made for a 200lb guy. My concern with that bag, however, is that it wouldn't be different enough from what I already have (a Lowepro) to really solve my problem. I also wanted a bag that could potentially carry a laptop and that my husband would find comfortable to carry when he comes on shoots. The Streetwalker Pro is a very nice bag and if I didn't already have the Lowepro bag, I probably would have purchased it. Let's talk about the Shapeshifter and what I like about it.....

Shapeshifter Initial Impressions and Design
I was immediately impressed with the bag. It gets its name from a large zipper that runs around the top that, like many modern suitcases, allows it to expand if you stuff the bag full. At the same time, I can also zip the bag closed if I'm not carrying too much, which allows me to keep the bags profile slimmer and puts the weight of the tripod closer to my back. I recently tested and concluded that I can carry my D800, Nikon 24-70, Nikon 85mm and Nikon 50mm in the main pocket and can still zip it closed, however, if I put a larger lens such as the Sigma 150-500mm in the bag, then it needs to stay in the expanded mode.

Another great feature on this bag is the laptop slot. I don't tend to carry a laptop as I shoot, but on the few times when I do, this bag will comfortably swallow my MacBook Pro. And when the laptop is added, no worries about the extra weight as the Shapeshifter uses heavily padded shoulder straps and a waist belt to distribute that weight.

One of the "features" that I didn't immediately recognize was the top loading pockets that hold lenses. The slim profile of the Shapeshifter comes from neoprene sleeves that you slide lenses into, rather than the stiff and semi-rigid foam that most bags use. It offers less protection, but unless you really abuse your gear, it should be just fine. Since these neoprene pockets top load, I can actually unzip the bag and not worry about the contents dumping out like I would in many other bags (including some of the ones in my closet). My husband often volunteers to carry my camera bag, so this means he can keep the bag on his back while I do a lens change and we don't have to do yoga to make sure the contents stay in their place. 

Bag Size and Deployment
Let's talk about size. With the expanding zipper, this bag can carry a TON. As a test, I loaded all of my camera equipment into the bag and still had space in pockets to go! The pockets are well designed and you can tell the engineers at Think Tank are actually photographers themselves - there are pockets in all the places you'd actually want one. As a result, I find myself more organized and not having to dig through pocket after pocket to find my cleaning cloth, shutter release, etc. 

What About the Tripod?
The bag also features a nice tripod carrying system. My old bags would carry the tripod, but it was always very bulky and I had to remove the tripod to get into the main gear compartment. This bag holds the tripod on the outside, so I can still get into the lenses with a tripod in place (however the front two pockets are obscured by the tripod). Another pro is that my tripod sits flush with the bottom of the bag using their design. In my old now-retired Lowepro bag, the tripod stuck out of the bottom, meaning you couldn't sit down without having to first take the bag off. It's a little design feature, but it makes a load of difference.

Unsatisfied Desires
My biggest complaint is that there are no pockets on the outside where I could put a water bottle. For long hikes, this is going to be sorely missed, however, I'm considering trying to put a camelbak bladder into the back compartment where a laptop would normally go. If I'm not carrying a laptop, that space is nicely segregated from my other equipment and could be a nice place to slide a few liters of water.

A gripe many of you might have is that you can't store your camera with a lens attached. I don't mind this because my camera is usually out to take photographs and I only store it in a bag for long travel. In the case of such travel, I just need to make sure I have a body cap in the bag and I'll setup with a lens attached on location. If you walk around with your camera in your bag, you will miss shots!

Add-Ons
Think Tank allows you to swap out the waist belt provided for one of their more deluxe belts, which also allows you to mount waist pouches to put lenses in. Unless you are a photojournalist and can't afford a few seconds for a lens change that requires you to take the bag off, this probably isn't a feature you need. As a landscape photographer, the only appeal of the waist belt would be as a place to mount a water bottle! 

Speaking of water - the Shapeshifter includes a rain fly that comes in it's own pouch. The rain fly isn't sewn into the bag, meaning you can possibly loose it if you are not careful, but it also means you can leave it at home if you know you're shooting someplace dry. The construction of the rain fly is pretty good and I suspect it could handle a decent down pour before it started to over saturate. The fly also has an elastic draw string to cinch tight, however, you can't have a tripod mounted and use the rain fly at the same time, so be prepared to carry the tripod if it pours.

Recommendation
This bag is awesome. My other backpacks have already been relegated to the closet! Although I wish it had a way to carry a water bottle, the zip-up design on the back probably prevents the construction of a pocket. You can buy yours online from Think Tank (they retail for $250) or from your local dealer. It's expensive, but like most things, you get what you pay for, and buying this bag is a LOT cheaper than buying a few others before you break down to buy this one! It's also worth noting that Think Tank is famous for using materials that are the best available, so you'll pay more than you might with another company because they use the best zippers and material in building the bag. I am willing to pay for quality that's going to last, which is why I also use only the best quality papers and processes when I make my own prints. Although I haven't tried every backpack on the market, this one looks like it will suit my needs and should keep me from buying any new backpacks for a long time.