Think Tank Retrospective Backpack Review
It’s been nearly eight years since I found my first camera bag love.
It was a Think Tank Retrospective 20, and one of the first bags I found that didn’t look like a camera bag.
It started my love affair with stylish camera bags – one that has turned out to be expensive over the years. I liked it so much, I went on to buy a Retrospective laptop bag.
The Retrospective 20 disappeared when I sold my Nikon gear. The Laptop bag eventually wore out, a victim of many years of daily carry that destroyed the velcro on the flap.
I’ve had other loves but you never forget your first love. I’d always wondered why Think Tank never made a backpack in the Retrospective design.
It looks like someone at Think Tank asked the same question: In January this year, the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15L was announced.
So is it worthy of being counted as one of the best camera backpacks around? Let’s take a look.
Think Tank Retrospective Backpack Specs
- Construction quality
- Waterproof cover
- Non-removable sternum strap
- No airport luggage pass-through
- 20L of total storage: 15L enclosed space plus 5L additional for personal gear in the front pocket
- Configurable main compartment for camera gear or personal gear
- Tripod attachment on side or front panel
- Two collapsible water bottle pockets
- Compatible with Think Tank Modular pouches
- Organizer pocket
- Zippered pocket for valuables and small items
- Adjustable sternum slider
- Removable webbing waist belt
- Seam-sealed rain cover included
- Soft and form-fitting with minimalist outer appearance
- Top and rear-panel access to camera gear
- Dedicated pocket fits up to a 15” laptop
Build & Appearance
If you have a Retrospective Messenger bag like the 5, 10 or 20, the backpack is quite similar. It’s the Retrospective material with the same rectangular boxy outline in a backpack.
It’s surprisingly close to the messenger in design. It’s still quite boxy with a flap on the top, the only noticeable difference being the backpack straps and padding.
The Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 is available in two variants: black and pinestone. Colour is a personal preference, but the pinestone is my favourite.
I am a big fan of the aesthetics and styling on the bag. It has a retro style that doesn’t age, as can be seen with the styling on the Retrospective messenger bag range.
These bags haven’t changed much since the original Retrospective bags hit the market, and the overall aesthetics of the bags didn’t charge with the V2.0 release.
The changes were mostly functional improvements for usability and durability.
Build quality is high, as you’d expect from Think Tank.
The material, fittings and construction are highly durable. They’ve been tried and tested in the messenger range.
My only issue with the previous messengers was the velcro flaps, which eventually gave way after years of daily use. Think Tank has changed this approach with the v2.0 Retrospective bags.
The flaps now use leather loops over the velcro, so the velcro won’t be a problem. The backpack also follows this same new approach.
I think the edges could probably be a little more rounded on the backpack as I’m not sure if the boxy shape will appeal to everyone – but, overall, it’s an outstanding package.
Think Tank moved from velcro to leather loops on their Retrospective line and the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 follows this.
Think Tank put the access points to the interior on the top and the rear section which is against your back. Rear access always gets a big thumbs up from me.
If it’s on the front, you have to put the padded backpack portion on the ground to open your bag. That means dirt, mud, rain or water are going all over your clothing when you put the bag back on.
It’s also harder to clean the padded foam with air holes than a section of material with no perforations. Not everyone is going to go out in terrible weather, but at some point, you will need to put your bag down somewhere unappealing.
Having multiple access points gets another thumbs up from me. Top or side access gives you an alternative access point when the bag is still on you.
Like many of their bags, Think Tank provides the Retrospective Backpack 15 with a separate rain cover.
I know some people will argue that they should make the bag waterproof and for the most part, they did.
The problem is when you get a torrential downpour, and you can’t avoid the rain. The waterproofing on most bags cannot handle a sustained level of rain, and the rain covers provide added protection for peace of mind.
The second reason I prefer them is that if the bag gets muddy, it’s easier to clean a cover than an entire backpack. I have one of these stupidly impractical retro motorcycles that kicks dirt up and down your back when you ride it in the rain.
Having a cover means I don’t have to worry about what the bag will look like when I get home. This was a concern for me initially… it started raining on one of my first outings with the bag before I had even photographed it.
I had this picture in my mind of having to shoot a camera bag with oil stains all over it.
Apart from the usual straps and handles, you’ll find plenty of loops on the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 which you can attach any accessories to. These are found in the form of metal and canvas loops.
Think Tank offers their own accessories that will leverage these, but users can connect anything.
Think Tank provide a tripod attachment strap system along with decent size dual water bottle storage. The water bottle storage has a strap to ensure it’s kept flush with the bag.
The tripod system allows users to attach the tripod to either the front or sides, depending on preference. I think this high level of flexibility is essential where you are carrying light stands.
What would I change on the Retrospective 15 if it were up to me?
The sternum straps aren’t removable, and I don’t use them much. It would have been a relatively simple option to make them removable with their current design.
Having them fixed means they get in the way when you put on the bag, and if you don’t use them, it’s an unnecessary annoyance because they’re typically too short for strapping out of the way. You could cut them off if you’re not going to be using them, but it shouldn’t be required.
My second issue is the lack of airport pass through. You could probably get it to work by connecting the hooks on the back, but again, it should be standard on all camera backpacks as far as I am concerned.
When you start looking inside the Retrospective Backpack, it’s clear Think Tank worked hard on the design on this bag. It’s filled with small, cleverly thought-out details that really make a difference.
The top access point includes a zip cover with the option to velcro it against the top flap. You can also stow it under the main flap, so it doesn’t get in the way if you only use it occasionally.
I’m writing this review in a coffee shop in the rain, so right now I have it out and zipped up while I am outdoors, but 90% of the time it remains unzipped and stashed away. It means I have quick and easy access to my gear and the security when I need it.
There’s also a padded divider in the top access point that allows the user to create a separate top section and reduce the size of the camera compartment.
This is important for laptop users who may use a smaller portion of their camera compartment for everyday use, although the front pocket will store pretty much everything.
My initial concern was that the laptop compartment wouldn’t allow for a laptop and iPad. It’s a tight fit with an iPad Pro 12 (with a keyboard cover) and a 13″ Macbook Pro.
Bear in mind, that’s the biggest iPad with the keyboard which adds a bit to the thickness. While this is tight, the front (non-laptop) pocket is large enough to fit a 16” laptop in a padded case.
The only reason I would want to put it in there is if it was raining and I didn’t have the waterproof cover as it doesn’t have the same level of protection from the elements.
It has two inches of thickness which would allow anything from electronics to multiple smaller strobes like the Godox AD200. I could put my Sony 100-400mm in there with space to spare.
It also has a key lanyard and some small pockets inside for pens, memory cards, or any other daily carry items you might need to take with you. This is an everyday bag and Think Tank have made sure you have more than enough space for laptop accessories.
Storage capacity is about medium for a camera backpack. Think Tank made the dimensions large enough to fit a gripped full-frame, although that’s referring to a Sony mirrorless.
The Retrospective 15 isn’t the largest, so don’t expect to fit lots of glass inside.
- Sony a7R III with grip
- 13” laptop
- 100–400mm f/4.5-f/5.6
- 24–70mm f/2.8
- Batis 85 f/1.8
- 55mm f/1.8
- 2 x AD200
- Gitzo tripod and ballhead
- Lightstand (not shown)
The front pocket is huge and could easily fit a couple of Godox AD200’s, additional lenses, or a jacket. This adds to the storage substantially depending on the type of storage you need at the time.
I typically put one AD200 in the bag and another in the front pocket depending on what I’m shooting
Ease of Use/Comfort
Think Tank did a great job ensuring users have flexibility with the bag, which adds to the overall usability of the Retrospective Backpack 15.
Having the ability to adjust storage requirements and access via the back and top ensures that users can modify the bag to meet their daily needs.
I’ve noticed a considerable improvement in the Think Tank padding over the last two years, in particular with the new v2.0 bags. I tested a Streetwalker Pro v2.0 a few months before this bag, and it had some of the best back padding I have seen.
While the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 doesn’t match the Streetwalker on padding, it also doesn’t have the same capacity so I don’t have any concerns.
The padding is more than enough for the intended purposes, and I’ve never felt like I was carrying too much weight. The waistband will provide added support for those who need it.
Value for Money
The Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 retails for just under $250, which is what I would expect for the quality of the bag. There aren’t many bags to compare this with from a styling and price perspective; most are priced considerably higher.
It’s similar in styling to the ONA Camps Bay but offers a lighter weight and much lower price. The ONA is larger and targeted a little more at the premium market, but given the aesthetics are very similar some buyers may find themselves comparing the two.
Pricing is in the same range to the new Peak Design Everyday Backpack and Wandrd Prvke 21, both of which offer similar levels of quality. The choice between these bags, is more likely to be based on styling preference than price, as all three would appeal to different kinds of buyers.
Think Tank Retrospective Backpack Review | Conclusion
This bag has been a long time coming, and I can’t help but ask why Think Tank didn’t do it sooner. It’s one of these bags that just made sense, particularly given the popularity of the Retrospective line.
I like the styling on the bag, and I think the appeal on the bag will be high.
It offers an excellent combination of style, construction, and weight at a reasonable price, without having to make too many sacrifices.
With many bags, you end up with compromises. It’s either usability compromised for styling or styling compromised for usability.
The Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 does a great job of limiting these compromises to a minimum and still providing something that looks good and works.
It’s one of the few bags that maintains a high degree of usability despite the retro style.
There aren’t many improvements I’d like to see. The airport pass-through is one I always pick up but I travel a lot for work, so I’m biased.
The sternum straps are a small issue and not everyone will be bothered by this.
That says a lot about how much Think Tank got right on the Think Tank Retrospective Backpack 15 – i.e., a lot.
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.