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Gear Review: Finally, A Camera Bag That Doesn’t Say “Rob Me”

By National
Geographic Adventure Contributing Editor Steve Casimiro, editor of
The Adventure Life

Try as you might, you will never blend in in the souks of Marrakesh, nor will your Nikon or Canon DSLR nor the fancy adventure camera bag you bought to protect your gear. Despite your best intentions, nothing screams “rob me” in a hectic Third World market like an expensive piece of electronics and the shiny nylon that encompasses it. That’s why Think Tank’s Retrospective 20 ($159, shown in pinestone) has become my favorite camera bag for travel of any sort: While I’ll always have to be careful about flashing the camera, the Think Tank’s tweedy exterior could be mistaken for a hemp hippie satchel or natural fiber messenger bag filled with nothing more than a Lonely Planet guidebook.

But the Retrospective is anything but a simple messenger bag. It’s padded and organized to hold a professional-size camera body and up to four lenses, including the workhorse 70-200mm. Removable dividers separate the main compartment into three sections to start; I turned it into two so I could store my Canon 5D Mark II with 24-70mm lens flat, while in the other section I stash dust blower, lens cloth and cleaning solution, memory card holder, and the other detritus of photography. Configured this way, whenever I want to shoot, I reach in, grab the waiting hand grip on the body, and go. The body slides in and out smoothly, quietly, and quickly. The lack of zippers, which you find on most travel bags, makes the process less conspicuous and speedier. So, too, does a clever feature in which you can cover the patches of Velcro on the cover flap so opening the Retrospective is completely silent.

Carrying the bag is equally pleasing. The shoulder strap is soft and wide, the pad is thick and features grippy rubber tabs to keep it from slipping (it works). Interior cushioning is just the right amount–you never feel the hard edges of gear against your body, but it’s not so bulky as to be klunky to use. And perhaps my favorite feature–there’s a handle sewn into the bag where the shoulder straps attach, so when you pick it up, the bag doesn’t tip. Messenger bag manufacturers could learn from this simple but clever idea.

The Retrospective has a zippered rear pocket and accordianed front pocket, both of which will hold an iPad or guidebook. It comes with a waterproof cover and small organizing pockets. About the only thing that could improve it would be a tuck-away waist strap so you could secure it when riding a bike or running. Laptops won’t fit, but that should be seen as a strength, not weakness: It’ll make you faster, lighter, and less obvious, and no matter what world you’re shooting in, that’s a good thing.