In the last few years in the motorcycle industry the big chatter has been about "adventure" bikes. Whether you buy in to the idea or not isn't the point of this post, but the scenarios did raise the question for me as a creative about choosing a bag to take your gear with you when you go out adventuring, be that hiking, bicycling or motorcycling.
I looked at what was in the market and found tons of camera bags, but none really seemed designed for mobility, easy of use and keeping the hands and arms free. Certainly there are backpack styled designs, and some very good ones indeed, but they didn't seem to fit quite right when I wanted to go riding. When I say riding, I mean motorcycling, not bicycling. Fortunately my dear friend Gordon Van Spall is an accomplished bicyclist who regularly goes for very long rides that are not races or endurance events, and I have heard Gordon in the past talk about challenges finding a suitable bag, so I have engaged him to help me look at what makes a good adventure bag, especially for hikers and bicyclists.
I also reached out to my friends at Think Tank Photo. Regular readers know that I use Think Tank Photo bags exclusively for my production work. I just like them best, and I have bought so many over the years, I tend to have one ideal for any situation. But a long motorcycle ride on a bike without luggage was a gap that needed filling. So I chatted with my friend there, Brian E. and he suggested that I take a closer look at bags from their Mindshift Gear business. Mindshift is a lineup of bags for the adventuring creative. They have the Think Tank Photo quality but take a different design approach geared more to field carrying of gear when hiking or cycling.
Let's look first at Gordon's evaluation of the BackLight 26L
Intro and prologue
I have been fortunate recently, to be allowed to do an extended evaluation of a camera bag, touted as being aimed at the physically active photographer. I think that stores just tired of me rummaging through the camera bag section on multiple occasions , trying to find the suitable bag for me. The fact that I had spent significant sums of money already, didn’t hurt. I didn't hurt them at least.
And since I had every intention of putting the bag through its paces, before I spent anymore, I decided to share my experience with anyone who wished to read them.
The evaluation was a multipart one, done in a semi scientific manner, with much of the evaluation effort being dictated by the weather and a desire to not destroy the bag.
I was also cognizant of the fact this was not a full blown backpack, but a daypack designed for a more limited engagement, with outdoor sporting activities in mind. That said, this could be a full blown backpack.
First impressions and evaluation
The overall construction of the bag is superb. There is not a loose string, a shoddy padding or cheapness to this bag anywhere. The material, was durable looking and fit and finish superb. If I acquired one, there was a good chance it would last longer than I would.
The bag is designed as a rear opening pack. Advantages are webbing doesn’t get messed when you take the pack off, and ostensibly you can get to your gear without fully removing the pack
There were some things I noticed that I will mention as we proceed, that were different from the way other manufactures addressed these issues.
My first impression on doing a superficial inspection, was “Oh Wow”. Pockets everywhere, dividers everywhere and a lovely picture suggesting where all one could stuff ones stuff.
Lifting it after that would be another matter.
Since the weather outside was frightful, the pack was really quite delightful. First impression strapping it on was of stiffness coupled with comfort, generally two opposed characteristics . The overall fit of the bag is “slim”. The shoulder straps seem to attach higher than usual to the bottom of the bag. In spite of this the weight of the bag sits securely over the hip bones. I am a smaller than average person, but the bag fit like a glove with no protrusions, where one would not want protrusions. I tend to wear packs snug and there was no extraneous movement of the bag. Walking around the house with it on, it was not long before I was aware of not being aware of its presence.
At this time I should mention a feature that threw me initially. The waist strap is different . The usual setup for waist straps is a padded section attached to the belt section. This belt then loops through a sliding (usually Fastek type) buckle and is cinched tight by pulling the loose ends backwards .
These are different.The padded section is the same. But then it is different. Attached to tis section is a short length of strap to which is attached pulley part of the buckle. The buckle itself is fixed attached to another length of strap. The loose end of this threads through the pulley. The strap is cinched by pulling forward.
Big deal you say! I did. Then I cinched it. Reaction: Where have you been all my life. I believe the company on their website calls this a block and tackle. Either way it works better than anything I have used before.
With the bag in place, simulated movements of cross country skiing, Nordic walking, hyperextending the neck to scan the horizon or watch the bird in flight, or flexing the neck to look over the precipice , were not impeded in any way.
I then subjected the bag to a trial in two parts:
- I loaded it with what I would carry on day excursion and took it for a 3 Km excursion
- I climbed onto a bike trainer ( riding outside in icy weather was not in the cards. I am of the age where things break if I fall on them) On the trainer over a 40 minute period, I subjected the bag to conditions it would encounter on a ride
Real Life Trial
Bag weight was 15 lbs. Loaded with Nikon 610 with 28-300 mounted. Additional lenses: Nikon 105 f2.8; Nikon 50mm and Nikon 20mm G lens. Plus a Phottix flash, sundry cleaning stuff, and Nikon 7200 (no lens) just because I could. That still left space for more stuff. And I had not got to the front compartments
Should note: the layout of the bag is such that tells lenses generally fit down one side, and middle, which is wider. The other side is narrower and with a rearrangement of the dividers carry the flash extended on its side, filters, triggers and such.
Note again: Tripod can be carried either on the front, which is a pain because thats the side you lay the bag down on. Now you can also carry on the side, which makes huge ergonomic sense, since you can still get to your gear without taking off the tripod. Awesome.
For the first km I walked fast simulating cross country skiing and Nordic walking. I deliberately tried to unbalance myself. Did not happen. At the end of 1Km the weight still stayed firmly on my hips, with very little transfer to my shoulders.
I was aware of the outside edge of the strap rubbing on my arm, but on inspection noted I had not cinched the chest strap. This I did which pulled the strap away from my arm. At the end of the next Km done at a speed walking pace with lots of arm movement, this was no longer an issue. More importantly , at the end of 2Km, I was essentially unaware of the presence of a backpack , since it did not impair either my mobility or balance. There was absolutely no movement or swaying to effect my balance. I deliberately leaned over a bridge to look down (safely of course), to determine if it would make me tip. It did not.
At 2.5Km i tested the claim that this can be used to get to your gear without removing the pack. This has been claimed before, and I have tried before, but with limited success. By loosening the waist strap a bit, loosening one shoulder strap a lot, it is possible to swing the bag around easily. With knees slightly bent to take some the weight, the zippers with the large tags, unzip flawlessly and the bag opens. I always keep one strap wrapped around my forearm in the event the buckles don't hold.
A brilliant piece of design is a neck lanyard on the inside of the flap. This goes around the neck and adjusted to individual preference by a slider. It keeps the flap out of the way to allow access to gear until ready to close. Works like a charm. And then you reverse the process.
Over the last 800M of the distance, I switched pace to jog walk to determine if this would be impeded, or the equipment jostled around. I am pleased to say, it wasn’t
On the trainer, for 10 minutes, I rode in what I would consider a touring position, relaxed and upright. This is the position I would use and have used , when riding with camera.
Mounting the bike was absolutely not a problem. I have had sling bags get snagged on previous occasions, but this was not the case. Again, it was not long before I was essentially unaware of its presence.
Next, for about 10 minutes I came out of the saddle to simulate climbing, and again the suspension and weight distribution, did not impede the action at all.
Lastly I went into a sprint position, with a degree of neck hyperextension , and again neither neck extension and therefore visibility, nor weight shift, were adversely effected
It is hard to describe how effective this bag is for what it was designed to do. It will not carry everything, but neither would you. I doubt it would carry a pro-body with a battery pack (have not tested). But for a active day out, with space to stuff your personal gear when the layers start coming off (something I have complained about a lot) and the protein or Cliff bars for when the nibbles strike, this bag, for me, is darn near perfect.
Which led to speculate: Who would benefit the most from this bag.
- Pretty much anyone who would indulge in photography under any form of self power, which necessitates carrying your own stuff. I just put a Nikon 200-500 in the central compartment, and it would fit mounted. But that bulbous hood has to come off. There a lots of accessory attachment points that can hook onto.
- Daytrippers, who may need to peel layers and stuff them somewhere.
- I know I would use it at times when I combine my two hobbies into one . I have always been afraid of damaging my gear in the event of a fall. That fear is less now. I have demonstrated to my own satisfaction that the bag does not impair my ability to ride. Having said that, I have not seen a large number of cyclist carrying things on their backs. They are generally a Type A, high speed group, where weight is crucial. They would be unlikely to use this. More relaxed family types, or those for whom photography is the primary goal and cycling a means to get further afield, the secondary one, would be brilliantly served by this bag.
- The above comments would apply to speed walkers and joggers.
So should something like this be in your future…….enjoy!
Next we will look at the FirstLight 36L
My motorcycle riding involves one of three kinds of bikes. I ride what is often called a dresser, basically a big motorcycle with top and side hard bags. No issue here, as I have tons of safe storage. I also ride a cruiser that has minimal storage at all. Mine has hard side bags, but frankly they are too small for most anything photographically serious. No long lens is going to fit in them, and the amount of protection that they would provide would be highly questionable. The third type of bike that I ride is what is called a naked sport bike. There is no room for anything to be carried on that bike. If I'm going for a long tour, I will take the dresser, and that can accommodate me with gear and clothing for a three night getaway easily. More often, I head out for a few hours to a full day and that's where a proper bag would do the job.
My riding backpack is a Kriega 35, which is a 35L backpack designed specifically for motorcycle riders. It has no hard or stiff padding and expands to maximum as you load it up. Into it, I can get a pair of regular shoes, a pair of trousers and a couple of tshirts along with a pro camera and one medium lens, and a flash. It's perfect if I'm going somewhere to photograph where I may also need to be able to get out of my riding gear.
The downside to the Kriega is that there is no real padding other than the laptop sleeve for my MacBook Pro. The ability to carry a laptop went onto the must do list. So I looked for solutions that could hold a 15" laptop, provided good protection but could also accommodate more than just camera gear. I was not looking for an armoured bag. I wanted to keep the weight as light as possible with protection against damage due to jostling while on the road. If I go down, I have bigger issues to worry about.
It had become apparent as I looked at a lot of bags, that what worked for going through airports, or from the car to a place to shoot, in terms of taking on and off and carrying around, wasn't going to do the job on the motorcycle. Motorcycle seats, except on the retro style bikes, tend to have a butt bucket, to keep you from sliding all around and to provide you some tailbone and lower back support. This means that a regular length backpack is either resting on the lip of the seat behind you and bouncing around, or gets pushed up so high that it lifts off your shoulders and starts pushing the bottom of your helmet. I respect that some riders choose to go without a helmet. I'm not one of those folks and the smallest helmet that I wear is an Arai CTZ, and most photo backpacks rise up to high and push on the rear rim.
I also discovered, because I am an ATGATT rider (stands for All The Gear All The Time) that because I use armour in my jackets, that the bulk of the armour sometimes interferes with the strap systems, and I'm also a bigger fellow and I may find the straps too short. I had my Kriega modified for this reason too, this is not just a challenge with photo backpacks. When you are riding anything, you cannot have your pack interfering with the movements of your arms and shoulders, nor can where the bag sits create unpleasant back or shoulder strain.
I have found that all the traditional camera backpacks that I tried did not pass one of these test areas. The bag would be too heavy to start. It would be too tall. The straps would bind under the arms. The bad would hit my helmet. The sternum strap would move and turn into a garrot.
Mindshift FirstLight 30L
From a motorcycle perspective, what came closest was the Mindshift bag called the FirstLight 30L. The sample I was sent was finished in black, which is my preferred unobtrusive camera bag colour, but i might prefer a lighter colour for something strapped to my back for several hours in the summer sun.
For a hiker, this is a fabulous bag, and the only major downside is that there is enough capacity such that you could seriously overload yourself. I liked the flexibility of setup of the interior dividers and with some careful packing, I could get the 1Dx Mark II, a 70-200, a 16-35, 600EX RT II flash, extra t shirt, rain suit, and snack bars into the bag. Because my Ultra Classic has a back rest, and the VRod has hard bags, I spent most of my time evaluating the bag in the context of sport bikes, nakeds and sport tourers. In these bikes, the butt bucket doesn't rise as high on the back, and the rider tends to be canted more forward. This reduces the probability of the bottom of the pack resting against, or worse, bouncing against the pillion or the rear deck.
Initially I found that the bag rode too high and it interfered with my helmet when I was leaned forward with my head up. The FirstLight has a solution. The ability to control where on your back the bag sits is absolutely awesome. The shoulder strap system is anchored to a moveable plate that attaches to the bag with hook and look fasteners. Moving the plate is a lot of work because the fasteners are so robust, so have no fear of the pack separating from the harness plate in use. For a person with a long torso and shorter legs, this is a huge win, and since that's me, I think that this is brilliant. Even with the shoulder plate extended to maximum, I was able to keep the bag bottom high enough on a sport touring style seat. It would be too long on a deep bucket cruiser set however.
The First Light 30L also has a pocket for a dedicated water bladder, and a hose routing system. Access to hydration is very important when motorcycling particularly when it is hot, and your protective gear is retaining some body heat. Before I changed to the CE 2 back armour that I use now, I used to just wear a Camelbak under a jacket for long ridee, although I was also typically riding shorty or half shell helmets back then too. Paranoia about danger changes your load out.
As I will also like to take a travel tripod or monopod with me, I like that the 30L is designed to accommodate a side mount for such a device. It does accommodate mounting on the front as well, but that will not work on a motorcycle, other than perhaps a bobber style bike because of the seat style.
There are eleven points of adjustment on the First Light 30L harness. You know how sometimes we don't read the documentation? Read and keep the documentation handy when you are fitting this pack, to prevent frustration and wasting a lot of time. Once I read the documentation, (yes iI too ignored it at first) getting the pack fitted was a lot simpler and I was able to achieve a level of comfort and usability more quickly. There's really good back padding on the pack, but in my riding jackets it's lost of me because all of my jackets have an armour backplate. For those who do ride without protection, there are nice large airflow channels in the padding.
For my testing on fitment, I pulled out an older Joe Rocket Meteor jacket. This jacket was designed for cold and wet riding days, so has a removable thermal insulator, a double front panel and due to its age, the older and bulkier style of armour. This makes the jacket warm in the wet and cold but a bit cumbersome to move around in, particularly if one is not as flexible as one once was.
Putting the pack on is not difficult, but the shoulder straps are fastened to the bottom back of the pack with narrow webbed straps. I managed to snag these consistently on the elbow armour pockets on the test jacket. This would not be an issue on any of my current jackets as the armour pockets are inside the jacket and have no external seams. Once on, I was able to do up the waist belt, despite my size and the very bulky jacket and get the pack in a good place on my back. I had extended the shoulder straps but still found that they tended to bind under the arm, unless I really shortened up the sternum strap. It's certainly usable, but I did not like how it felt. I expect I am spoiled by the biker centric design of my Kreiga.
Once settled on, the combination of the shoulder and waist straps distribute the weight nicely and while I knew the pack was there, I forget about it enough to become a breakage hazard in my home when every turn was an opportunity to knock something over with the pack that I wasn't paying attention to. As I feared, there is more than enough space to overload the pack and I think that this would put a fair bit of strain on the shoulders on a long ride, because the pack is not being as well supported on the chest as a purpose built pack.
I believe that I set the pack too low on the adjustable strap plate, because while I did not have occasions where the pack was hitting the rear of the helmet, I did feel that the top of the pack was lifting away. This is tuning, not a product issue.
What I really liked are the enormous, tough ring style zipper pulls. I always were gloves when riding and while it is not likely that I would be pulling gear out of the pack and shooting wearing riding gloves, the zippers are completely manageable with gloves on. The sliders and buckles are less easy to grab on to, but I was able to tighten and loosen the straps with all but my winter gloves on.
The FirstLight 30L reminds me a lot of my Think Tank Photo Streetwalker Hard Drive in terms of size. The waist belt and the hydration capability make it more appropriate for the photographer on the go for an extended time. Build quality is excellent, what I have come to expect from this manufacturer. Like most Think Tank Photo bags, this one is water resistant, not waterproof, so there is a rain sleeve in the bag that will help you out. I have proven the ability to pull rain clouds out of nowhere simply by riding miles from shelter and this would help, although I have been in situations where even a GoreTex jacket told me that the battle was over and the downpour had won. On that day, the rain sleeve on the Streetwalker Hard Drive also passed along the same news, although it held the deluge back enough for an hour or so that none of the gear in the bag got wet.
Where the bag differs from the Streetwalker is the laptop pocket. On the Streetwalker, the laptop is under the camera section and above the back padding plate. It's very secure and well protected. On the FirstLight 30L, it's an unpadded pocket. This made me uncomfortable from a protection perspective because the pocket is tight and I could not fit my 15" MacBook Pro into it inside a protective sleeve. That's a mark against in my book.
If your adventure includes commercial aircraft, the bag is designed to fit under the seat in front of you, although where you put your feet is unknown. It is also sized to pass by those bag sizers for both US and International carry ons. I think that this learning comes from Think Tank Photo who were the first to recognize that carriers in Europe would not accept US approved bags because the US allowance was larger than the European one. Many a traveller has been snared when changing planes in Europe after successfully boarding in Canada or the USA and hearing the horrible "you have to check that" message at the new gate. Also be aware that while most North American airlines allow for one piece of carry-on and one personal item, many European airlines allow only one item. The FirstLight 30L is small enough to carry on, and large enough that you could keep your important kit with you. For myself, I checked that I could get a load out of camera gear, my laptop and my CPAP machine into the FirstLight 30L and I am pleased to report that I could. Just be strong and don't let anyone weigh the thing.
While I looked at a lot of packs for mobile photographers, only Mindshift actually stepped up to send me anything to do the review with, despite commitments from some others. The truth of the matter is that while I have a link to Think Tank Photo in the sidebar, it's really to help get readers a discount, I'm not earning money from it. I link to them, because the gear is excellent. I did check out stores and photo trade shows, and while I did see other packs that may do the job, neither Gordon nor I were able to test them in the real world and I don't like reviews that are basically regurgitations of press releases. Check out the complete lineup from Mindshift at https://www.mindshiftgear.com The gear is designed with photographers in mind, photographers who may need more than a simple backpack or shoulder bag.
If you like what you see, do click the link on the website to take you to Think Tank Photo or if you shop with B&H, please use the link on the page to buy from them that way.
Leave a comment with your thoughts, or any questions that you may have.
Thanks for reading, watching and listening. Until next time, peace.