Think Tank Shape Shifter Camera Backpack Review

Think Tank Shape Shifter before and after stuffing it with gear

Think Tank Shape Shifter before and after stuffing it with gear

The designers over at Think Tank are consistently bringing new camera products to the market, and they’ve hit a home run with the Shape Shifter camera backpack. It displaces the ubiquitous Velcro bins–common to most camera backpacks–and offers the ability to compress in size when packing less gear. The Shape Shifter has abundant storage space and is ideal for travel when the Airport Roller might be inconvenient–such as day hiking in a rural locale; on assignment at a potentially muddy music festival; or any event where carrying gear close to your body for extreme mobility is a necessity.

Where standard camera backpacks rely on padded Velcro fasteners to customize storage space, the Shape Shifter instead utilizes a number of heavy duty flexible pockets. While Velcro is great in the first few months of use, eventually the weight and stress of toting heavy gear will take its toll and begin to sag out of place. In this common scenario the camera equipment eventually settles toward the bottom of the backpack, potentially damaging items near the bottom of the bag. This is not going to happen with the Shape Shifter, the gear is held firmly in place when in transit. [Edit: Over a year of heavy use and the Shape Shifter continues to function as good as new–the pockets still provide solid protection to camera gear].

The main compartment has five stretchable pouches, fixed in size, that will hold: two pro camera bodies, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, a 24-70mm lens and a wide angle zoom (or their equivalents). Opposite the gear pouches in the main compartment is a zippered area to store filters, memory cards and extra batteries in the upper half, and two loose vertical pouches at the bottom half (perfect for a pair of external flashes, or equivalent). A 17″ laptop and/or a tablet can slide between the main compartment and the back of the bag through a separate zippered opening.

Cross-section of Shape Shifter interior main compartment with gear aligned with five storage pouches at capacity.

Cross-section of Shape Shifter interior main compartment showing gear aligned with its five storage pouches.

The front of the bag features two more zippered openings for flat storage. Space for media credentials, pens, flashlight, keys, phone, a small pad of paper and a thin guide book can occupy the upper space. The lower external space has room for a larger book (e.g., a Lonely Planet guide) and has additional interior zippered pockets of thick plastic that could be used to protect memory cards (or important documents) from the elements. Note that we don’t advise to ever carry a passport, or other essential documents, in an external bag that could be target of pickpockets.

The high quality YKK zippers offer the ability to lock both the laptop and main compartment with small padlocks. These come in handy when on assignment. The bag can be tethered to a table with a laptop security cable and the zippers locked when shooting between edits. While the bag could still be pilfered with a sharp knife, it’s not going to easily walk away in most circumstances.

The name of the Shape Shifter is derived from one of its features. It will compress from a maximum 7″ width, when fully loaded, to 3″ width when most of the gear is removed using a compression/expansion zipper.

Shape Shifter backpack on the road and "compressed."

Shape Shifter backpack in use and “compressed.”

Edit: We never attempted to carry a tripod in the original review. A Really Right Stuff tripod (TVC-24) was successfully attached to the exterior of the bag during recent photo adventures. Two legs of the tripod were tucked into the lower zippered pocket, while the top of the tripod was held against the bag with straps that are included with the bag. The straps easily clip onto the top (and bottom) of the bag to provide support as the tripod is held taut against the Shape Shifter. Note that carrying a tripod in bad weather would prevent the use of the included seam-sealed rain cover from being able to fit over the Shape Shifter. However, the main-gear compartment can still be accessed when the tripod is attached to the Shape Shifter.

Think Tank Shape Shifter with Really Right Stuff TVC-24 attached

Think Tank Shape Shifter with Really Right Stuff TVC-24 attached

The fixed-size pouches imply that you’ll be breaking down your gear during transit. That is, don’t expect to quickly toss your camera body with lens attached into the bag for quick access. The bag wasn’t designed for this and it’s a feature that we were able to appreciate after the first few uses. The bag is meant to store a large amount of gear in a minimal amount of space, and you’ll grow to appreciate that feature. A pair of metal D-rings are stitched into the arm straps of the backpack for fastening a camera body at chest level, if necessary, while on the move. A camera support strap is available from Think Tank to properly use this feature.

Edit: Over a year in and the exterior of the bag shows very little wear. A damp cloth is often used to remove scuffs or dirt after a day or two on the trails. The only sign of use is evident on the nicely padded back support, where some light pilling has occurred in the lumbar region (i.e., the area that suffers the most chafing during hikes).

The empty Shape Shifter is rather light for a high quality backpack, weighing in at 3.75 pounds (1.73 kg) when empty. The bag itself offers little in the form of padding, except for the high quality support padding to reduce the inherent weight on one’s back. High quality, water-resistant nylon fabric ensures that the bag will endure years of use, but it’s not going to shield your gear if dropped from a distance of a few feet. We placed a 1/2″ sheet of high-density foam core on the floor of the main compartment to add some protection when setting the bag down firmly on concrete. This might be our sole suggestion for production, it adds a minor amount of additional weight with added protection during every day use.

Build Quality 10/10

Ergonomics 9/10

Build to allow optional integration with the Think Tank pro speed belt and an option to attach a small tripod are much appreciated. The single caveat is the inability to store a camera body with lens attached–but that is technically a realized benefit after working with the bag for a few hours. The compactness of the bag requires removal of gear in a top-down fashion. That is, it can be difficult to remove a lens or body stored beneath another lens or body.

Weight 8/10

Not a featherweight bag but it’s built for heavy use and that’s going to add a couple pounds. It gets heavy when packed to the brim with fast glass and pro bodies. That said, its quality padding makes that heft quite manageable.

Interior dimensions (expanded): 20” H x 12.5” W x 7” D” (51.0 x 32.0 x 18.0 cm)

Exterior dimensions (compressed): 20” H x 12.5 W” x 3” D (51.0 x 32.0 x 8.0 cm)

Laptop compartment: 19” H x 12” W x 1.5” D (48.0 x 30.5 x 4.0cm)

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