The bit of kit that every photographer will use the most also usually turns out to be one of the most uninspiring to talk about.  Thankfully, when it comes to bags, Thinktank have created the best camera bag in existence; the Shapeshifter.

The Thinktank Shapeshifter

Having tried pretty much every option on the market over the years including Lowepro‘s Stalinesque and unforgiving backpacks, through to Crumpler‘s truly awful uncompressable and rigid turtle-back affairs, the Shapeshifter was an epiphany when I first tried it in 2008 and five years later, it still is the best out there.

You can really see when you pick one up that it’s been designed from the top down by working photographers that know exactly what is needed, from the wide range of pockets to the removable rain cover for those long days in Downing Street.  When you’re needing to go all out, you can fit two full-sized DSLR bodies, a 70-200mm, a 24-70mm, a 14-24mm, a Rode VideoMic, up to a 17″ laptop and charger plus a whole pile of assorted necessaries such as cables, adapters, batteries, chamois cloths and an umbrella.  If I get rid of a couple of those lenses, I’ve carried a 300mm f2.8 in there too but it becomes a little less streamlined with that crammed in!  However, once all of your main toys are out and in use, the bag has a unique compression zip that flattens the whole bag down to three inches thick, allowing you to work in close crowds such as festivals or riot situations with ease.

Speaking of close environments, the padded rear of the bag has contours and channels that allow cool air to enter and warm air to leave the gap between the bag and your back which is a real blessing if you’re trying to move quickly while wearing it.  Some time ago, I was covering a novelty charity fun-run and ended up running half of the 20km course with all of my gear to get to a second position that made a decent picture.  That channel design proved itself on that day alone…

Shapeshifter with some nikonic stuff

Earlier versions of the bag had one small issue that they’ve now addressed.  When storing lenses in pouches on a vertical line (above right), the knurled edge to the lower lens cap could wear a hole in the base of the neoprene pouch above over time.  In recent years, a tougher neoprene section has been added to the bottom of each “pocket” to prevent this issue.  In other areas, I’ve adapted mine in two ways.  Firstly, I found that it was lacking a little protection on the base of the bag (below the 70-200mm lens above) when you place it on hard ground so have added an off-cut of stiff foam that adds a few grams to the weight but adds vital protection. Secondly, I’ve added two cheap keyring clips onto the metal rings on the front of the main shoulder straps so that I can clip a camera strap onto this point, instead of having the weight around my neck.  It’s not something I use on a daily basis, but on days when I’m heavily loaded, it’s proved really handy.  I expect a name-check when these features are added to V3…  ;)

Aside from my enthusiasm, the biggest advert for these bags is the sheer quantity of them in use on a daily basis by professional photographers, as the picture below illustrates.  I’d say a safe estimate would be 80% of news photographers on the London streets have this thing.  Having an ID card in the little clear pocket is vital as the gear mountain on bigger jobs soon becomes a giant advert for Thinktank and if you have to grab your bag and run, it could prove difficult! Considering the amount of rival companies and even the range of different designs made by Thinktank, it’s clear that the Shapeshifter just works.

4 out of 6 ain't bad.

The only argument that I’ve ever really seen against this bag is the fact that you can’t carry a “pre-assembled” camera inside it as lenses have to be detached to fit the pockets.  While I can see how this might niggle some people, I’ve never had an issue with is as I combine this bag with a Thinktank belt-pack, holding a body, a 24-70mm lens and a flash.  This allows me to quickly assemble a cover-all kit without even taking my bag off my back.  The benefits of having a pre-assembled camera in the bag are hugely outweighed to me by the negative points of the necessary designs needed in housing such a bulky object (see my previous comments on Lowepro and Crumpler).

When I first bought my Shapeshifter, I was also a little put off by the price but five years down the line, it’s taken more of a hammering than any of my other kit and has proved itself the best thing on the market time and again.  The Thinktank Shapeshifter costs around £180 and is available from most large camera stores and plenty of online retailers.  Buy it.

Beard'n'Bag

For those in need of the numbers, here you go;

  • Outer Dimensions When Expanded: 20”H x 12.5”W x 7”D” (51.0 x 32.0 x 18.0 cm)
    Outer Dimensions When Compressed: 20”H x 12.5W” x 3”D (51.0 x 32.0 x 8.0 cm)
    Laptop Compartment Inner Dimensions: 19” H x 12”W x 1.5”D (48.0 x 30.5 x 4.0cm)
  • 3.75 lbs (1.73 kg)
  • Lifetime Warranty

6 Responses to “The Thinktank Shapeshifter”

  1. 5 years? That there is a dedicated review! I still roll with either Peli 1510 or a Lowepro AW Trekker, but I struggle with the 2nd body if I’m loaded out. I’ve always liked the TTP gear, purely from the point that, like you said, it seems to be developed by photographers for photographers. Their social media guy, Simon Pollock (@gtvone on twitter), is a cracking guy & pretty good music photographer in his own right. Definitely someone you might want to talk about in regards to those camera starps *wink wink*

    Posted by Kris
  2. Ha! Yeah, I realised that having promoted Thinktank stuff on twitter and to anyone that asked for the last half decade that I should really write something about them too! I already know Simon through Thinktank and 3LeggedThing actually. Fingers crossed that they take heed of my suggestions! ;)

    Posted by tabascokid
  3. Leon, you can also put in a 300 F4 between the 70-200 and the bodies, outside of the padding, doesn’t rub against any of the other kit as they are protected by their own neoprene.
    Hang a couple of pouches from the bottom of the shoulder straps allows for even more back braking kit to be carried!
    All in all, as you say, a great bag for a working editorial photographer.
    Anyway, I thought you liked plastic carrier bags!

    Posted by Ant
  4. Hey Bud,

    That’s really a what a tog using a Shapeshifter would say. I have added a wad of Bubblewrap at the base to ward off any knocks to the gear….

    Posted by @thisisindra
  5. @Ant – Cheers for that tip! I don’t have a 300mm f4 so didn’t consider the fact you could slip one in as well as the other stuff. As for carrier bags, I save those for the Olympics… :)

    @Indranil – Great minds think alike!

    Posted by tabascokid
  6. I use one for travelling internationally with my gear and it is good for that (although I wish it had a shoulder strap option and the ability to pack away the harness). However, once I get to the hotel the Shapeshifter is emptied and I just take the two camera bodies, a wide and a tele and hit the streets with a belt rig.
    I simply cannot walk around all day in places like Cambodia where it is 30+ degrees and 90% humidity with a backpack on!

    Posted by Marcus

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