Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Field test: ThinkTank belt system

After years of hauling around a compartmentalized bag, I was determined to get something with a slimmer profile: a courier style bag. Unfortunately I could not find one that held my full-frame camera with three lenses and flash. A fellow photographer introduced me to the ThinkTank line a year ago. While I could not find a single bag that met my requirements, I was able to build my own using their modular system that used smaller bags attached to a belt. After several weeks of testing, I can recommend the system with some reservations.

The Belt

The foundation of the system is a belt. I chose the thickly padded Steroid Speed Belt because I needed to carry a lot of weight. The first problem I encountered was the size of the belt. The large size was too small for my ample waist. Oddly enough, the extra large size was too large (I had to cinch it up as much as possible). Large is listed as 35" to 41" but that, apparently, only holds is you're shooting naked. Add a pair of pants and a shirt to a size 38 waist and you're now a size 42.

This necessitated a shoulder harness to support the belt. I recommend using a harness anyway as the belt is liable to slip if you attach much weight to it.

The second complaint I have about the belt is the poor cinching mechanism. The clasp is a fairly standard quick release mechanism, but the tightening system is inadequate. To tighten the belt of my hiking backpack, for example, I simply pull the strap (loosening it is a simple matter of tugging the buckle). The ThinkTank belt, however, requires threading the strap through the buckle and clasp to tighten or loosen it. If you put on a jacket, expect to spend five to ten minutes adjusting the belt (instead of five to ten seconds).

The padded belt is equipped with a semi-rigid exterior strip to which attaches pockets or small bags (how many depends on the size of the belt and the bags). The selection of bags is formidable. I chose four different bags for my needs. All four came with waterproof covers. I am disappointed that the bags are not already waterproof but this is likely a design consideration given the different methods for closing the bags.

To keep the belt from slipping, I attached the Pixel Racing Harness. This has two thinly padded shoulder straps that join to form a single strap at the back. The padding is not really required as it supports very little weight. The two straps at the front are equipped with D rings and two small elastic pockets.

The Bags

I chose the Digital Holster 30 as my main camera compartment. It's just large enough to hold a Canon 5D with a long lens. In fact, it can handle a very long lens as the bag has a zippered extension system to increase it's depth. It is actually deep enough without the extension that I was able to keep two filters at the bottom. The bag's thin, closed-cell, padding protects the camera from bumps and jars. It includes a Velcro divider for the interior should you have a smaller lens. The bag also has a long, slim interior pocket and a smaller exterior pocket (ideal for holding media cards).
The zippered lid opens away from your body and has a small translucent pocket on top for an ID card and a larger zipped pocket on the inside (large enough to hold a passport). This bag is a good stand-alone solution for minimum requirements as it comes with a detachable shoulder strap.

While the holster sits on my left hip, the Skin 75 Pop Down holds my medium telephoto on my right hip. This is an unpadded sack with a very long flap top held in place by a generous amount of Velcro. The opening is equipped with an elastic draw string that easily keeps large items from falling out. The sack has an ample zipped pocket on the exterior flap and a large pocket between the flap and bag exterior (large enough to hold a case for sunglasses). At the very bottom of the bag is a small zippered compartment.

Although ThinkTank makes bags specifically for lenses (the Lens Changer line), I had trouble getting my extra-wide lens in and out of the bag easily. I was determined to leave the hood on the lens and this made it too wide. The Skin 75 is very flexible; its large opening accomades my wide lens and it's deep enough to hold even my long telephoto.

I used a Lens Changer bag for my long telephoto lens. The LC 75 Pop Down bag is made with closed-cell padding and has an elastic draw string to keep the lens inside (a fabric flap helps keep out the dust) . The exterior of the bag includes two mesh pockets. Like the holster, the Lens Changer 75 include the ability to extend the length of the bag. Attached to the belt, the bag sits over my back right pocket.

My flash and other accessories go into the Slim Chimp Cage next to the holster bag. This sack is simply a wider version of the Slim 75 Pop Down – which make me wonder why they didn't name it the Wide 75 Pop Down. The bag holds a surprising amount of stuff.

The System In Action

Wearing the complete setup is a delight. With the twenty-five pounds of camera equipment resting on my hips instead of my shoulders, I was able to comfortably spend a full day walking around and shooting without the usual fatigue. The system, I should note, is very ostentatious; don't expect to walk around unnoticed while wearing it. In addition to its vaguely military appearance, your arms don't hang at your side but against the bags.

Picture a cowboy in a showdown in an old western – your arms sort of look like that. The gear bags add six to ten inches to your width so you'll have to turn sideways to get through crowds and other tight spots.

Changing lenses is fast. With the camera around my neck, I could remove the lens and put it into a sack while pulling out and attaching the next lens. It became so second nature that I was able to perform this task in less than ten seconds (while walking through a busy market).

I did not use the system for excursions, but as my main camera bag for three months of extensive shooting. With the bags properly organized and closed, there was no fear of any items falling out. Going shooting meant sliding into the harness and closing the belt.

Occasionally I left the belt unclasped and let the harness carry the weight on my shoulders. I found this balanced the load and was much more comfortable than a single bag on one shoulder. Furthermore, because the harness was supporting weight at the front of my body, it proved to be even more comfortable than a standard backpack.

Holding it from the harness, I found that the belt coiled neatly when I set it down. This kept the kit tidy and easy to put on when I was ready for shooting. The harness was also an excellent way of keeping the bags off the ground by hooking it on a convenient protuberance. While it hung this way, I was able to access all the bags with no difficulty.

Traveling with a tripod turned out to be easier than I had imagined. After some weeks of carrying it in my hands, I discovered that I could carry it on the system with no difficulty. I slid two legs of the tripod between my back and the rear strap. The weight rested on the belt and closing the leg held the tripod in place. This is a viable solution for small or light tripods.

Apart from the excellent design, I appreciate the effort ThinkTank has put into the details. Unobtrusive pockets, cords on every zipper, expandable bags and other details help to make this a flexible system. Apart from issues with the belt, I found no complaints when using this system and have no qualms about recommending it to a serious shooter on the go.


Harry SK Tan said...

Thanks for a great review of the TT system you put together. I am considering a belt system myself but not sure whether to go with the belly dancer (which is an integrated strap and belt or e belt and pixel strap. Have you considered the belly dancer and if so would you rate it below or better than the system you have right now?

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