I have a thing for bags. Not fancy, name-brand purses or handbags, but functional bags. From REI to Kelty, to Timbuk2 to Swiss Gear, I have rather large collection of functional bags for a variety of travel situations, from overnight urban adventures to 6 month backpacking escapades in third world countries. You name the travel scenario, and I’ve got a bag (or two) ready for the challenge. Finding the perfect travel bag is no easy feat, but I may have found the answer in the most unlikely of bags: the Think Tank Shape Shifter Backpack. Manufactured by Think Tank Photo, this bag is intended to hold camera gear and accessories, but thanks to its versatile size and style, this bag can easily moonlight as a travel backpack as well.
Qualities of the Perfect Travel Bag
As a minimalist traveler, I almost always travel with carry-on sized bags to avoid the risks associated with checking in bags while flying. Thus, the top qualities of my ideal travel bag are:
1) Minimalist style without too many bells and whistles
2) Relatively lightweight, or easy for a single person to carry without help
3) The ability to expand or contract depending on the load being carried.
4) Meet TSA carry-on bag travel standards to avoid having to check in a bag
To date, my preferred travel bag setup has consisted of my beloved Timbuk2 Q laptop backpack (I love this bag so much I bought two) and my Swiss Army Architecture 3.0 wheeled backpack. When used together, I’ve comfortably packed and carried clothing and gear for 2-4 week trips to locations of all kinds including Montreal, New York, Thailand, Mexico, Belize, and Hawaii. The only shortcoming? Both bags are meant for general travel and use; neither is customized with enough secure padding to safely and securely carry expensive camera gear. In fact, the most camera gear I have comfortably carried with this old bag scenario was my mini travel photography camera kit: a Canon 6D with a 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens, and a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. Thus, I’ve been on a longtime search for a more robust bag that would allow me to carry my full photography kit with peace of mind.
Enter the Think Tank Shape Shifter Backpack
After chatting with a bunch of local photographers, they all recommended I try out the Think Tank Shape Shifter Backpack to meet my needs. Think Tank Photo camera bags are no stranger to my current bag collection. My first official camera bag purchase was a Think Tank Retrospective shoulder bag, which I loved so much I bought another. However, recent shoulder injuries have forced me to stop using shoulder bags, and turn instead to the Think Tank ChangeUp belt pack, which has been my go-to camera bag for the past year. I had never considered using a camera backpack, assuming it would exacerbate my shoulder problems, but the Shape Shifter seemed too compelling to resist at least trying on for size.
Upon unboxing the bag, my first thought was, “what an incredibly narrow bag!” True to its name, the Shape Shifter’s biggest selling point is its ability to easily contract or expand using its compression zippers. At its slimmest, the Shape Shifter is 3 inches in depth, and about 7 inches at its widest. For comparison, the Timbuk2 Q laptop bag sits right in the middle at 5 inches in depth, so the Shape Shifter is actually more narrow, which I prefer given my smaller body frame and 5′ 2″ height. There’s nothing I dislike more than wearing a backpack that is unnecessarily bigger than it needs to be.
In addition to its slim profile, I also delighted at the Shape Shifter’s incredibly thick, padded backing and shoulder straps, and accompanying chest and waist straps to help distribute the weight of a full bag. This bag’s padding is impressive, comparable and even better than many of the backpacking bags I’ve used, ensuring a very comfortable experience when wearing this bag, and taking the brunt of the weight off of my shoulders and neck.
When fully compressed, the Shape Shifter can’t carry DSLR camera bodies or lenses and thus it functions more as a laptop bag, with a generous (and lockable) compartment for laptops up to 17″ in size, and 3 more large pockets for carrying accessories such as chargers, external hard drives, etc. Unzipping the Shape Shifter’s expansion section opens up a whole new world. This larger compartment (also lockable) features 5 stretchy, padded neoprene pockets that can hold camera bodies and/or lenses, plus three large mesh zippered pockets for storing more gear. One thing to note: with the way to pockets are structured, it’s hard to securely store and carry camera bodies with lenses attached, which may be a turnoff for some.
Another huge perk of the Shape Shifter is its ability to attach a monopod or small tripod or light stand to the bag’s exterior, using a set of sturdy straps that come with the bag. This is a huge relief if you tend to carry awkward-sized items with you.
Using the Shape Shifter as a Travel Bag
I have an upcoming post going into full detail on how the Shape Shifter functions as a traditional camera backpack, but what about using it as a travel bag? If you’ll be carrying a lot of camera gear, I’d recommend using the Shape Shifter to hold your clothes and small camera accessories and bring along another dedicated camera bag such as the Think Tank ChangeUp belt pack to hold bodies and lenses. However, if you won’t be carrying a lot of heavy camera gear, the Shape Shifter can be used alone to simply hold clothes and a laptop.
Upon laying eyes on the Shape Shifter’s 5 huge neoprene pockets, I knew this would be the perfect travel bag. Having dedicated pockets to help organize and compress your clothing and travel gear is a huge perk that seems to be lacking in many suitcases and travel bags that seem more freeform, forcing you to purchase your own compression sacks to save space. Taking advantage of the neoprene pockets, here are the essential travel items I was able to stuff into the Shape Shifter, with room to spare:
(4) Lightweight size small t-shirts
(1) Pair of jeans
(3) Pairs of size small casual shorts
(1) Small sack of underwear and socks (5 pairs of each)
(1) Pair of Toms slip-on shoes
(1) Lightweight North Face jacket
(1) Toiletries kit full of essentials
(1) MacBook Pro 15″ Retina laptop with accessories (external hard drive, charger, cables)
(1) Tripod (attached to the bag’s exterior)
For me, this is enough gear to get me through one week of travel, potentially 2 weeks if I have access to laundry. Again, even with this load, there’s still some room to spare in the bag, so you could likely double the amount of clothing and still be able to comfortably zip the bag up.
The accompanying camera bag, the ThinkTank ChangeUp, holds almost all camera essentials including a Canon 6D with a 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and 580EXII flash. Note that this particular bag is just a hair too small to fit a large DSLR such as the Canon 5D Mark III.
After 2 weeks of testing out the Shape Shifter in a variety of photography situations including corporate events, food and restaurants, and professional sports (golf), I’m left with mixed impressions of the Shape Shifter. For pure photography purposes, this bag definitely shines in certain situations when you plan to carry a ton of gear, but have the luxury of space to lay out and fully unzip the bag when you’re searching for a particular item. That is to say, once the bag is planted on your body, it’s a bit of an inconvenience to take it off when you really need a lens or camera accessory. As a result, my work around is to stuff ALL of my camera gear in this bag to quickly and securely transport it on site to a photo shoot, but once I begin shooting I’d prefer using a ThinkTank belt pack or ChangeUp bag for easier access to my gear.
Despite some shortcomings as a camera bag, the Shape Shifter is a definite winner for travel purposes, given its flexible, expandable features and ability to carry both camera gear and travel items. The Shape Shifter may or may not be optimal for you; it truly depends on your preferences.
If you’re sold on the Think Tank Shape Shifter backpack, or any other Think Tank Photo products, please consider making your online purchase using this link here, or any of the links below. You will receive a Think Tank product for free with every order of $50 or more and free shipping if you shop my store, and I earn a little commission. It’s a win-win situation for us both, and I’d appreciate it!