Bag & Case Reviews

Since getting into Leica’s SL ecosystem, it didn’t take long to outgrow existing photo bags. Anyone using an SL camera and a couple of their German manufactured lenses will appreciate that they are anything but small, and I was very optimistic a few years ago thinking that an ONA Monterey bag would be sufficient. To be fair to the Monterey, it is fine as long as the system does not extend beyond a couple of lenses, which is where I thought my interest in the SL system would end. I soon became hooked on the outstanding (75mm APO lens build quality aside) performance of the lenses and have steadily grown our collection. More recently it became apparent that finding a place to store each one was becoming problematic, the tipping point being taking ownership of the substantial 90-280mm zoom.

mindshift backlight 36l photo backpack 1Not being someone who need much of an excuse to go camera bag shopping, I was soon casting the net far and wide to see what larger bags were available. I wanted something oversized as I strongly believe that a comfortable bag is something that is only filled to about 70% of its capacity. There have been a few times in the past when I have used bags that are stuffed full, only to find them becoming uncomfortable if I am walking for several hours. Due to ongoing back problems, I do not tend to take all of my kit out at the same time anymore, so as long as any new bag contained sufficient room to store all of my gear when not in use (with a little room for expansion), it would be fine when taking it out for the day as a larger part of my gear would not be with me.

The sheer diversity of camera bags on the market today is bewildering and even when drilling down to just backpacks, which are my preference, there is a staggering choice. A model that could comfortably hold a SL-2S body, several SL lenses, a 14 inch laptop, tripod, external hard disk and a bunch of non-photography related essentials (my one litre thermos flask springs to mind) whittled the selection down to a more manageable list. Onto this list a couple of Mindshift packs had found their way and as I had never owned anything by this manufacturer, I took a closer look at their features. Initially I was drawn to the Backlight series, specifically the 26 litre version. The dimensions seemed about adequate but after calculating the total volume of my gear, I realised that it did not have much spare capacity for future growth. So while it would meet my requirements out in the field, as a storage option it was already on the brink of obsolescence.

The 36 litre Backlight, originally dismissed as being too large, was now in the spotlight. I had not carried packs this large for many years and it looked overkill. However, it could hold all of my gear easily, with plenty of room to grow my system should I decide to. So it was this model in a Forest Green finish that I opted for.

I took delivery of the pack almost a year ago, but it would have been unfair to publicly remark on it until I had used it in different conditions for a period of time. All too many reviews are produced about products that see just a couple of weeks use - in my opinion this is no time at all to get to fully know an item’s strengths and weaknesses. So I wanted to gain experience of the pack long past the honeymoon period and through all seasons before typing this report up.

Upon delivery I was amused by the 36L Backlight’s enormity and convinced that my math (far from my strongest trait) had been very wrong when calculating how much storage and growth space I required. But for something that appeared so large to me, I was really surprised by its lightweight (a little over 2kg) feel. Okay, it was still empty at this stage but trying it on to adjust the harness and straps gave me a good indication as to just how much thought had gone into the comfort aspect at the design stage. The main shoulder straps are wide, well padded and reminiscent of the large 80 litre packs I used to shoulder when wild camping years ago. The hip belt, while not being as large as my old trail packs, is very comfortable and helps redistribute some of the pressure from the shoulders and upper back. Lumbar support is excellent. The sternum strap has a nice little feature that I have not come across before; it has vertical adjustment allowing it to be moved into the most comfortable position. Typically I have always found sternum straps are positioned a little too high for my taste, so to be able to lower it made a big difference to me. Externally the pack is manufactured from high density waterproof nylon which feels very durable and able to cope with harsh conditions. If weather conditions are particularly bad an additional rain cover is provided, adding an extra layer of protection.

mindshift backlight 36l photo backpack 2Once initial adjustments were complete, I set about exploring the many pockets external to the main compartment. For my purposes, there are more than enough and I risk temporary loosing things somewhere within due to forgetfulness. The laptop compartment is perfect for my 14 inch MacBook Pro and fits easily even with its protective case. Alternatively, my ageing 15 inch MacBook also fits comfortably. Internal pockets provide storage for chargers, power banks and portable drives with plenty of room to spare. Further pockets external to the pack are useful for stowing maps, snacks etc. A nod should be given to the zips used in the design. All are substantial and should withstand harsh environmental wear and tear. A year on and I have every confidence they will tolerate many years of use. As is to be expected in a pack of this caliber, all externally located zips are protected by storm flaps while each zip has a pull ring large enough to be used with gloves on. 

Side pockets are an essential component of any backpack I use. I am always accompanied by a flask of hot coffee when out in the hills and am really pleased with the pockets on the MindShift 36, as they are much deeper than I have been used to. Too many manufacturers include side pockets that are so shallow that water bottles and flasks easily fall out. Deeper pockets mean taller flasks are supported far better and run less risk of accidentally falling onto the ground when bending or reaching into the pack. Several lashing points are included that can be used for tripods, walking poles, ice axes, rope etc.

What is termed a ‘Cable Attic’ is featured at the top of the pack that, as the name suggests, is handy for stashing away cables and other small items. Using this comes at the expense of a small part of the main compartment space being sacrificed. This is no big deal given the voluminous interior, however I opt to store cables in the the front pocket leaving the interior completely free for bodies and lenses.

The spacious main equipment compartment is accessible from the rear, as has become fashionable in recent years. This is the first bag I have owned that includes this feature so I was keen to see if there was any practical benefit. I have read on many occasions that rear access compartments keeps gear more secure from thieving fingers. In reality I have never found this to be an issue with all of my previous packs and bags assuming they are fastened securely. Another advantage claimed is that the bag does not need to be taken off when wishing to access it for maybe a lens change. It may be that the ground is muddy or waterlogged so not having to put it down would be beneficial. Simply unfastening all but the waist strap means it can be rotated around me so that the equipment compartment is now in front of me, and presto! My gear is presented at waist level. Such is the attention to detail that a chord is included that is placed around ones neck to keep the main flap up and out of the way while rummaging around. This all sounds great but in reality I have never really got used to working this way. I thought after a couple of attempts rotating the bag to change a lens would have become easier. Alas not…shifting my centre of gravity while on a muddy slope with a nylon chord around my neck seems more likely to have a Final Destination style outcome than a successful lens change. I will stick to more grounded tried and tested methods.

mindshift backlight 36l photo backpack 3The main compartment is very well padded and comes with plenty of dividers. As the SL system components are typically large, I found the need to strip some of them out. However, smaller systems such as Fuji’s APSC or OM System ’s Micro Four Thirds formats would probably be able to put them all to good use. Every photographer will be familiar with the use of velcro to adjust dividers to suit their needs, and the sound of such adjustments is the same the world over. The main compartment of my Backlight 36L holds the following comfortably:

  • SL2S camera body
  • 28mm Summicron APO lens
  • 35mm Summicron APO lens
  • 75mm Summicron APO lens
  • 50mm Summilux lens
  • 16-35mm zoom lens
  • 90-280mm zoom lens

There is free space for two to three more lenses or an additional body and lens.

Of course, loading this thing up with all of the above gear amounts to some serious weight, and more so if I were to take a thermos of coffee along for the journey. But I would never do this and as stated earlier, my gear lives collectively in the pack for storage reasons only. I rarely take more than two lenses along on any photowalk and have never regretted leaving an item at home. I have days when I really enjoy taking just the 90-280 out, or maybe two of the APO’s. In which case the pack is predominantly used for food, drink and maybe some additional clothing. This means that it is never uncomfortable and it feels the same any of my old hiking packs - basically I can walk for miles and not experience any back issues.

Like any backpack the Backlight 36L benefits greatly from adjusting all of the straps and buckles to get a fit that is right for the individual. Tweaking them over several outings has got mine to the point that I can leave it alone now and pretty much forget I am carrying it. The team at Mindshift really got the design of this one right and a year on, I am not left wanting extra features or enhancements. Well…almost! While this pack is available in black or forest green colours, I would like to have seen a blue or teal version as I would have likely opted for this. Of course this is a personal opinion but I hope the above provides a small insight into one of the best Photo Backpacks I have owned.