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REVIEW: Think Tank Retrospective 10

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Yes. I'm reviewing this old-looking, boring-looking, old-looking camera bag. Yes. I said old twice. No. I'm not going crazy.

Like its name implies, the Retrospective 10 (manufactured by Think Tank Photo) is a retro camera bag, and at first glance...heck, even at second glance...it looks like a vintage 70's army bag. It looks like something you might dig up in your parent's attic; right between your father's leisure suit and your mom's Pet Rock. The cotton trim is frayed, the color is uneven, and the shoulder strap is so thick and heavy it makes your car seat belt appear flimsy. It looks...old-fashioned. However, it's actually a modern camera bag, designed for the digital age, with slots for memory cards, a compartment for your iPad, and something really special: convenient access to your gear. And it's all wrapped up in a perfectly-sized and inconspicuously retro package.

At the time of this review, the current price of the Think Tank Photo Retrospective 10 is $165.75.

NOTE: When I talk about the orientation of camera shoulder bags, I talk about it from the relative position of a photographer who is wearing the bag, has swung the camera bag around to his/her front and is looking down into the bag. The "back" of the bag is facing the photographer. The "front" of the bag is facing outward, away from the photographer's body. Left and right, top and bottom logically follow from there.

APPEARANCE & CONSTRUCTION

This bag has a tough and vintage look. It doesn't scream "camera bag" and you feel pretty comfortable walking almost anywhere with it over your shoulder. Of course, if you're actually going in and out of it to access your gear then it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it's a camera bag. Nevertheless, when it's closed and your camera is tucked way, I think it looks like an old messenger bag...maybe a satchel...definitely not a man-purse (crossing fingers).

It comes in three colors: Black, Pinestone and Blue Slate (that's what I bought). Black is made of 1100D polyspun polyester, while the Pinestone and Blue Slate are made of a thick, heavy, sand-washed cotton canvas.

The bag is treated to resist water and the underside also gets a special water resistant coating in case you have to set it down on wet ground. It also comes with a seam-sealed rain cover in it's own little pouch with a built-in tether so you don't loose it. However, don't be fooled into thinking this bag is good for a tsunami. After all, it's a cotton canvas bag with a wide open top covered by a big loose flap. Did you ever play in the rain as a child while wearing jeans? Remember what happened to your legs and underwear that resided beneath those jeans? Use common sense and you'll be fine.

There are only two zippers, and like all the zippers Think Tank Photo uses, they're made by YKK, and they're magical. The stitching is great. The velcro and dividers are all top notch. And as I mentioned before, the strap is insanely thick and appears to run all the way around and underneath the bag, which gives the comforting impression that the strap is cradling your gear...like a delicate newborn baby. The strap pad slides along the length of the strap and is well-padded, with wonderful strips of grippy material that keeps the bag from sliding off your shoulder. The hardware is "antique" nickel-plated, but all you really need to know is that it looks vintage and feels rock-solid.

It's an all around strong bag, and it comes out of the package looking and feeling like you've already owned it for years. The finish is uneven and worn, the edges are a bit frayed, and I like it that way. It fits the look. For added peace of mind, it also comes with Think Tank Photo's "No Rhetoric" lifetime warranty.

Personally, I didn't want to get a larger-sized Retrospective 20, 30, 40, or 50 and I didn't want to get a smaller-sized Retrospective 7 or 5. For me, I think going too far in either direction begs the following curious question: "I wonder what's so big (or little) that he'd want to carry it around with him in a shoulder bag?" The medium size of the Retrospective 10 makes it look like it probably contains a couple books, a binder and maybe an iPad (it can hold a 10" tablet). Sure, that may still sound like a lucrative target for theft, but in a time when everyone walks around with smartphones, headphones and tablets that are already worth hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of dollars, this bag is going to be about as 'low profile' as a full-size DSLR camera bag can get. This bag is definitely stealthy, but any given bag could contain something valuable, and as awesome as this bag is, it can't change reality. Let's be real.

SPACE & ORGANIZATION

Interior dimensions: 12" W x 9.5 H x 6" D & exterior dimensions: 13" W x 10.5" H x 7"D.

The Retrospective 10 isn't the bag I use on the set of large music group photoshoots where my brother and I are using tons of lights and gear. It isn't meant to carry all your gear. Instead, it's meant to carry all the gear you need. It won't hold my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR while it's attached to my Nikon D3S, but I only tend to use that combo for things like wedding ceremonies in large cathedrals when I'm not allowed to get close to the couple. The 70-200mm is the only zoom I use and it's the biggest lens I have. I prefer primes. So that beast stays home most of the time. To be clear, it will fit in this bag, but not attached to a camera.

What I often use this bag for is our 'walk around' engagement sessions where the whole session is mobile and we spend time walking around a town or park, casually talking to our couples and looking for photo opportunities as they pop up. In those situations, I personally don't want a big conspicuous camera bag that's full of heavy gear.

On the other hand, if I want to bring a speedlite then I also want to bring my remote triggers, because I tend not to like on-camera flash. But that means l also have to leave at least one more lens at home to make space, which is fine. Realistically, I'll probably need to bring a tripod to mount the speedlite on, and who wants to carry a tripod AND a crap ton of lenses? Not THIS guy. Yes, I know a lot of people use the front pocket to hold a flash (I've done it too), but that makes the bag look bulky, and to me, it defeats the whole stealthy purpose of this bag. Again, I precisely like that this bag is big enough to handle enough gear for most portrait jobs, but it can't handle enough gear for every type of job at once. I have to be selective.

My preferred set-up for this bag is the following:

  1. D3S with 50mm f/1.4 attached (pointing down in the middle section)
  2. 85mm f/1.4 to the left of the camera (accompanied by a spare battery and lens cloth separated from the lens by a divider)
  3. 24mm f/1.8...OR 35mm f/2.8 tilt-shift to the right of the camera (accompanied by an air blaster bulb, separated from the lens by a divider)

Although it can hold more medium-small lenses (one more lens on each side) those extra lenses would have to sit on top of each other, separated by 'shelves' (padded dividers attached horizontally). This is because the front-to-back depth isn't large enough to effortlessly handle two lenses side-by-side. They CAN fit side-by-side, but it's too tight and takes too much time and effort to get the lenses in and out. However, the 'shelf' method poses the same problem. So I only do it in a pinch.

Otherwise, I keep it simple: three main sections, with one lens per section, and the focal lengths get wider as I go from left to right. That way I reflexively know where things are without even having to think, and there's room to easily get lenses in and out. As I mentioned already, if I want a speedlite, I leave one lens at home. The other pockets and compartments hold various other odds and ends: Think Tank Pee Wee Pixel Pocket Rocket memory card holder, a pen, a memo book (a few old school paper notes are useful sometimes), a mini flashlight, chewing gum, car keys, a cell phone and the included Retrospective 10 rain cover. That's pretty much it.

OTHER NOTABLE FEATURES

VELCRO SILENCERS. So picture this: you're somewhere quiet and you see a beautiful candid moment unfolding, but your camera is in your bag. You stealthily reach down to get your camera, trying to be as discrete as possible, but when you pull it open it makes a loud tearing sound as the velcro peels away. All the attention is now on you. The moment is destroyed. Sure, that may sound like an over-exaggeration, but the truth is that every photographer eventually learns how velcro noise can mess up moments. So underneath this bag's big flap is a silencer system that lets you either completely expose the velcro for full security, or completely cover the velcro for quick and silent operation, and everything in between. Normally, I expose about an inch of the velcro. It's a nice middle ground.

FLASH POCKETS. Camera bags are often preoccupied with holding cameras and lenses...obviously. But sometimes that leaves strobists in the dark (pun intended). When you have a bag full of compartments that are designed to hold cameras and lenses, the flat long shape of a flash is inconvenient. This bag solves that. It has two flash-shaped pockets on the left and right walls of the main interior compartment. They have velcro straps that can hold the flash down securely, or can be velcroed down behind the flash and out of the way. They're great, but I think they led Think Tank Photo to make a design mistake that I'll mention after the next paragraph.

CONS

As you can tell by now, I really like this bag and it has lots of excellent features. But rarely is anything perfect, and as great as this bag is, there are a few drawbacks.

THE FLAP. It's both a blessing and a curse. It's great because it disguises the purpose of the bag, it opens with one easy motion, and unless you fold it back, it closes itself back on its own. But that's precisely the problem: IT CLOSES ITSELF BACK ON ITS OWN. Sometimes that floppy lid gets in your way when all you want is for the bag to stay open. There's no sugarcoating this: it's a big flap. One 'solution' is to curl it forward against itself, but that can still get in the way. Another 'solution' is to fold it back against your body. However...if you're wearing a sweater or any loosely-threaded clothing, and you haven't engaged the velcro "silencers," you'd better watch out. The giant patches of hook-side velcro on that giant flappy lid have now grabbed onto you. You and the flap have now become one. Good luck.

LACK OF CUSTOMIZATION. Speaking of velcro, another problem is that the interior soft-side velcro only covers the front and back of the interior compartment. There's no velcro on the left and right sides nor on the main dividers. In my Think Tank Urban Disguise 70 Pro v2.0 the whole interior is soft-side velcro. So in that bag I can attach dividers almost anywhere. In this bag I have to make small sub-compartments by bending the smaller dividers into half-circles and attaching each one completely against either the front or back interior wall. Unlike the giant flap, I see no reason why this bag 'had' to be designed this way. Sure, I could see them not wanting customers to attach dividers to the flash pockets, but there are simple ways around that. Shift the pockets forward or aft, put velcro on the back of the flash pockets so they're removable, etc. There are alternatives. It didn't need to be designed with these limitations, so that's annoying.

TETHERED METAL CARABINER. This a minor issue, but it's kind of odd. The metal zipper-slider on the inside of the bag has a little elastic pocket that it tucks into in order to protect your gear from scratches, and the pull-tab on that zipper is made of soft fabric, which also protects your gear. Therefore, I have to believe Think Tank Photo knows it's a good idea to keep metal hardware from banging on delicate glass lens elements. However...they saw fit to use metal on the most loose piece of hardware in the bag: the tethered carabiner. In all fairness, I understand that a common use of this feature will be to hold things like car keys, which are already metal. But if it was a plastic carabiner and you use it for car keys the responsibility of damage to your lenses is on you, not the bag. I believe they chose a metal carabiner to increase the level of quality and durability. I understanding their reasoning, but I openly wonder if a plastic carabiner might still have been a better choice.

CONCLUSION

The Retrospective 10 by Think Tank Photo is a great, stylish, understated, medium-sized camera bag for casual and inconspicuous work where you don't need to carry all your gear at once. It's not perfect, but it's darn close.

- Breighton