Camera bags are a funny thing. Especially with male photographers. It can take us FOREVER to choose a particular bag. And there are some of us, who have a dozen bags or even more. The only reason I can think of for most people, it says something about the person using it. I just don’t get why people will get a dozen. Well, it’s sort of like why photographers will have a dozen cameras and lenses. It’s called G.A.S.: Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

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I don’t have that problem. I don’t like waste. I don’t like ‘stuff’ sitting around. So, if I get a shoulder bag, I’ll probably only have one. Maybe a second.

When I first started photography, I asked my much more experienced colleagues what I should get. All of them. All of them. Think Tank camera bags. They told me that Think Tank bags are what are the professionals use. There is nothing else at that that level.

Being the independent mind I am, I didn’t go for it. I thought they were overpriced. Quality? Certainly. But I thought there were other options. And after about 2 or 3 years, I started to agree with those photographers I spoke to. Why?

Camera bags go through hell. Camera gear can weigh a bit. It’s usually metal rubbing against canvas or nylon. Then using the bags in all sorts of different conditions. Zipping it open and closed a couple dozen times a day.

Zippers. We’ll get back to this soon enough.

I couldn’t afford what I really wanted first: The Think Tank Airport International V2 roller bag. So what did I do? The Think Tank Spectral 15.

The Think Tank Spectral 15

I was actually surprised when this series of bags came out and how relatively inexpensive they were. I think I bought my Spectral 15 bag for less than $150. I was so happy for that. When I bought my bag. I couldn’t wait to get it home and set it up.

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Me and my brand new Think Tank Spectral 15 on a super-cold yet lovely New York City morning. Stylish. New York. Totally.

I’ll cut to the chase: it’s been a fantastic bag. While it doesn’t look as new as I bought it, I still think it looks at least 95% new. And I’ve put it through hell. The materials and construction are fantastic. I had a zipper issue once and it sort of fixed itself. I mean, how often does that happen?

Did I mention support? Send them a message. Tweet them. They’ll respond quickly.

The Think Tank Airport International V3

It finally happened: I finally was able to buy my all-time dream camera bag. The reason is that having that bag with all my gear inside of it, rolling into a client’s office or location is an image I’ve had as a successful photographer.

And it took me about 8 years to get one.

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By the time I got the bag, I finally got enough gear to fill the bag! There was that. And by the time I could buy it, version 3 of it was available. There were some nice upgrades but the biggest thing that was missing from version 2: an external and lockable area for a laptop. That was a huge issue for me with the previous version. Before, you would slide the laptop into a stretchy pocket on the front of the bag. But it was totally exposed to theft and weather.

My biggest use for the bag is for event photography and environmental portraiture and headshots. If I need to bring a light stand and modifier, I have a perfect bag for that that I strap around my body like a sling bag.

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Probably the only issue I have with the bag, and it’s not the bag, but because I take mass transit frequently, is carrying through the subway tolls. It’s super awkward to pay the toll and carrying the bag through the toll. So what I do is leave the bag in the gated area, go through the toll, then go around and open the gate and roll my bag in. Could it get stolen while I leave it alone for a few seconds. Not really. It’s always in my sight and go through the process when there is minimal people around. And the reputation New York has with crime is exaggerated. I don’t think it’s any worth than anywhere else.

The Think Tank Production Manager 40

As great as the Think Tank International bag is, it’s simply not big enough for bigger shoots. I could use several different bags or use a larger one. It’s already quite the ordeal to use my International bag and use a soft bag to carry light stands and modifiers. Especially on public transport.

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The 40 & 50 Production Manager bags were on sale and tried to figure the right size. Sure the 50 is bigger and I could fit anything I wanted in it. But it would also be tougher to transport. Especially in the trunks of cars.

I bought the 40. The biggest issue is that I have 13’ light stands and they won’t fit into the PM40 bag. But when I talked Kelley Cox, sports photographer, about how she likes the PM40, she told me it was great. She can fit her light stands in the bag. And she photographs some rather tall people. Basketball players. She also used to use several bags to carry everything that is now replaced with the PM40 bag. I totally get it.

So I bought some 7.7’ Manfrotto air-cushioned light stands. Kind of an expensive way to resolve an issue. Right? Well, the 13’ light stands, are good. But I love the Manfrotto stands. I love using them. They interlock with each other when folded up to make transporting them easier. The quality is superb. And they were on sale so… When I need the bigger stands, I’ll carry the separately. I’m considering selling them. I rarely use them.

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I love the bag. For a big shoot, it holds everything I need quite well. Everything. Cameras. Strobes. Stands. Modifiers. Everything. You get like 3lbs of dividers for super configuration of the bag. One of the first times I used it was for an elopement I photographed and was able to have the bag in the back of a Subaru SUV sideways. It made a sort of command center. It was great. Pop open the back of the SUV and there’s all my stuff.

It gets heavy though. Obviously. Though, I’ve carried it fully loaded up 3 flights of stairs once. So you can do it. But the wheels are fantastic. There are also rails on the bottom of the long side if you need to slide it up some stairs. I just don’t see the bag wearing out anytime soon.

The Think Tank Urban Access 15

I purchased this bag for my trip to California just over a month ago. I was debating whether to get this bag or the Airport Commuter backpack. I chose the UA15 because it’s much more casual. It doesn’t look like a camera bag. The Airport Commuter is the exact opposite. It’s a fantastic bag. But for casually walking around town, it’s just too much. Its features are geared for a business bag. Not a multi-purpose photography bag.

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Me on my trip to San Francisco and my buddy @epocenter taking this fun pic of me photographing the glorious and all too popular tourist attraction: The Golden Gate Bridge. I can wear the bag, fully loaded, all day, no problem. No strange shoulder/neck pain using a shoulder bag. No weird fitting with cheaper camera bags. Still tuning the strap adjustments to make it fit even better. Love this thing.

And after over a month of using it, it was the right decision.

Maybe the best thing about it: it looks like a normal backpack. A somewhat stylish one at that. I’m a fashion photographer. I have taste. Good taste at that. Think Tank back packs are either uber-pro or too sporty. I like the styling of the Backstory series but there is no side access. I also like the color. But the lack of side access is too much for me. Having to completely remove the bag every time to get something, that would be annoying for me.

So the things I like about the bag in order of my favorites:

• Styling. There are a lot of bags out there. But so many of them just don’t do it for me. At least as far as backpacks go. For me, it’s the feature that put it over the top.

• Comfort. The backpack shoulder straps are incredible! I can wear the bag fully loaded for hours. No problem. No fatigue. Super configurable. If I were a camera backpack maker, I would copy this design. But it’s also probably expensive. So you can’t sell a cheap backpack.

• Quality. I don’t know about how tough this bag is yet. I’ve used it many a dozen times. I dropped some water on it this morning. Looks perfectly new. The zippers are fantastic.

• Internal Configurability. It’s good. How it’s better than others backpacks are the quality dividers.

What I don’t like:

• Dividers. I think it’s more about having the right combination of dividers you get with the bag. My thing is, I would like to have another divider that keeps its stiffness all across the width of the bag. You don’t get any. Not a big deal. But it would be nice.

I think that’s it? Here are some other things which I think could be good or possibly not:

• D-rings on the shoulder straps. To clip on other things onto the shoulder straps to make it more modular? The thing is, I like the clean look of the backpack. D-rings would make it busier and messier looking.

• More color options. I’m a fashion photographer. I’m Latino. I love color. Style. I really love the light-gray that’s available with the Backstory bags. How about a dark green? Sheesh, Think Tank’s favorite color: black. Look at the colors Billingham uses. I love those bags. I’m getting one of those shoulder bags sooner or later. Selling my 445 was a heartbreaker. Needed to make the rent. Not sure why Think Tank doesn’t do color. Billingham isn’t a large company.

My Think Tank Future

The Airport Commuter

I am definitely going to get this backpack. Basically, it’s a tiny bit smaller and backpack version of my Airport International 3.0 roller bag with shoulder straps. Why? Speed and convenience. Try taking the International bag through New York City via public transit. I think the International bag is very professional look. It makes an impression. But I think when I can, which will be many times, the Commuter bag will work. I can carry the amount of gear I need for that kind of shoot in the Urban Access. All day. The Commuter is just a business version of the UA.

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Image: Think Tank Photo. The Airport Commuter Backpack. It was a tough choice between this and the Urban Access 15. But this just screams "Professional camera bag" and I would want to be much more discreet when walking around town. 

The Production Manager 40

I will probably purchase at least one more Production Manager 40. While one of them works for a big shoot, I know it’s not going to be enough if I need to carry more strobes and video gear. Like for a big fashion shoot on location. Or a big wedding with another photographer. Probably in 2022. Not quite there yet to need a second PM40. But it’s coming. How about a 3rd? That’s probably it.

I would need to carry c-stands. But I don’t think a bag is absolutely necessary to carry them. Not sure. There are plenty of big, movie shoots in New York City and you never see them carried in bags. Usually, they are just strapped to the side of a truck. I’ve seen pro photographers just throw them into the back of an SUV.

The ThinkTank Way

Like Porsche, when you have a great car, you just don’t need to come out with a totally brand new model every year. There is an evolution for new materials and technologies. To keep everything relevant. But you know a Porsche when you see one. This is ThinkTank.

Their core bags evolve but don’t really change much. The International got a dedicated laptop slot and some other little bits of updates. But that’s pretty much it. That’s what’s so great. It’s smart. There is less need for research and risk.

They aren’t perfect. There have been some new and cool models they came out with that were discontinued. There was a range of bags geared for women. The Lily Deanne line. Which, I actually liked and considered getting. They had style. Cool colors. I REALLY like them. But, didn’t sell. And for a small company like Think Tank, that’s rough. They don’t even sell my Spectral 15 bag anymore. Just the smaller versions.

I don’t know what’s coming up with Think Tank. You shouldn’t expect a drastically new model ever year. But that’s not their demographic. It’s professionals. And professionals need to get work done with proven gear. They tend to be business owners who don’t buy new gear every year. They need to make a profit. Buying new gear every year is most of the time, bad business sense. It eats into profit. It makes hugely more sense to buy a better, more expensive piece of gear and keep it for many more years than that un-tested piece of gear.

You know I have shoes that cost $400 - $600? But these shoes will last me 10 years. That’s $40 - $60/year for shoes. Great shoes. Fantastic quality and style. How good are shoes that cost $40 - $60. How long will they last?

Ricardo Gomez Photography

Originally from San Francisco, Ricardo is now a New York-based photographer specializing in editorial and commercial photography.
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