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Expandable Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter built for the news shooter  
Wednesday, October 1, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Later this year, photo bag maker Think Tank Photo will release the Shape Shifter, a way-cool photo backpack that expands to carry both photo gear and a laptop to the assignment, then contracts to about half its maximum depth to hold just your computer and accessories while you shoot. If you're a newspaper or wire service photographer, or you simply need to carry a minimum of equipment on your back while you make pictures, the Shape Shifter may be for you.

Sideline: The Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter in action (Photo by David Moll/Little Guy Media)

Defining the Shape Shifter

The defining feature of the Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter is expandability. The backpack is supermodel-thin when compressed and has an official back-to-front depth specification of three inches (nearly eight cm). When outfitted with a 17 inch Apple MacBook Pro (inside a Think Tank Photo Artificial Intelligence 17 sleeve), power adapter and other small accessories, we measured a depth at the bag's midsection of about 4.5 inches (about 11.5 cm). In other words, it's skinny.

When expanded to hold camera gear as well, the official back-to-front depth specification is seven inches (nearly 18 cm). We loaded in a Nikon D3, D700 w/MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Pack, AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED, AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED and Speedlight SB-800, plus the aforementioned computer gear and several other essentials such as a card wallet and grey card, then measured a midsection depth of about nine inches.

These numbers don't really tell the story as well as pictures of the Shape Shifter in its two configurations. The photo below, left was taken with the bag in its compressed form and loaded with the computer equipment described above. The photo below, right was taken with the bag expanded and filled with the same computer equipment, plus the Nikon gear listed in the previous paragraph.

(Whether expanded or contracted, the bag's other dimensions remain the same: 20h x 12.5w inches (51h x 32w cm).)

Chameleon: The Shape Shifter compressed, left, and expanded (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Why the Shape Shifter's split personality?

Doug Murdoch, president of Think Tank Photo, says the idea for the bag came out of a meeting with photojournalist Anthony Upton in London in 2006. Upton pointed out to Murdoch that he, like many shooters doing similar work, need a way to transport a decent complement of photo gear and laptop to the job, sometimes on foot or, in Upton's case, on the London Underground. This necessitates at minimum a reasonably roomy backpack. But once the cameras, lenses and flashes are taken out, Upton expressed his frustration that there was no way to shrink the size of the backpack, even though it had only to hold the computer gear at that point.

The result, says Murdoch, is that photographers like Upton end up carrying a mostly-empty "large foam box" on their back while shooting, which either interferes with their mobility in tight quarters or collides with other photographers covering the same event.

The Shape Shifter is the company's answer. Designed primarily by Think Tank Photo's Mike Sturm, it achieves its two sizes through the inclusion of a zippered expansion compartment. By going light on padding within the expanded area and its five neoprene pockets, it can hold a fair bit of photo gear when expanded, while the use of an Artificial Intelligence or comparable laptop sleeve will ensure a computer is amply protected in the separate laptop section. Plus, this section does contain a thin layer of padding throughout, and thicker padding at the base.

(If elements of the Shape Shifter, other than the expansion feature, seem reminiscent of the Lowepro Stealth AW from years gone by, that's no coincidence: both Murdoch and Sturm were on the design team of that neoprene-pocketed backpack also.)

The Shape Shifter's design is such that when expanded, it can be loaded with the following:
  • Two larger digital SLR cameras (Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Nikon D3 or similar)
  • One 70-200mm f/2.8 or similar size lens (with hood reversed)
  • One 24-70mm f/2.8 or similar size lens (the AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED will fit with either its hood extended or reversed)
  • One smaller-diameter lens, or portable flash up to the size of the Speedlight SB-900 (in the smallest neoprene pocket; at least two other Canon or Nikon flash units will fit in the outer zippered compartments as well)
  • One 17 inch laptop with sleeve (as long as the computer isn't too much larger than the 17 inch MacBook Pro; the new Lenovo ThinkPad W700, which is a 17 inch behemoth, will not fit)
  • Various accessories, including power adapters, card readers, cords and more
The mini-gallery below will give you an idea of what the Shape Shifter can hold, and how it does so.

Canon Outside: An example Canon configuration, showing the gear sitting on top of the neoprene pocket it fits into (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Nikon Outside: An example Nikon configuration, showing the gear sitting on top of the neoprene pocket it fits into (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Nikon Inside: The Nikon gear from the previous photo, placed inside the Shape Shifter's five neoprene pockets (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Sleeve Outside: A 17 inch MacBook Pro partially inside an Artificial Intelligence 17 sleeve partially inside the Shape Shifter's laptop section (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Sleeve Inside: A 17 inch MacBook Pro inside an Artificial Intelligence 17 sleeve inside the ShapeShifter's laptop section (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Double Up: The zipper at left provides access to the expansion compartment, while the zipper at right handles expansion and contraction (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Accessorize: Accessory pockets within the expansion compartment, opposite the neoprene pockets (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Kangaroo: Portable flash units, power adapters and other accessories fit comfortably in the outer two zippered pockets (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
At the Back: The Shape Shifter includes a shoulder/lumbar padding layout meant to encourage airflow, a shoulder harness with D-rings and small stretch pockets, adjustable sternum strap, removable waist belt, top handle and business card window (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Compressed, the Shape Shifter is sleek and comfortable (a minor quibble we have with the stiffness of the prototype unit's shoulder padding has already been corrected in the final design, says Murdoch). When expanded, and fully loaded, the Shape Shifter can start to look overstuffed, but remains comfortable and manageable, even when the included waist belt isn't used. Both site co-editor Mike Sturk (not to be confused with the bag's designer, Mike Sturm) and I have worn the Shape Shifter for several hours at a time without any problem.

Other features of the Shape Shifter include:
  • The Think Tank Photo Pro Speed Belt can be carried inside the expansion compartment, wiggled down the middle of the neoprene pockets. Once at the assignment it can then be attached to the Shape Shifter, under the lumbar pad (which is secured with a hook and loop flap).

  • Most camera bodies and lenses that will fit inside the Shape Shifter's neoprene pockets on their own can also be put into a Think Tank Photo Skin pouch first and then slid into a Shape Shifter pocket.

  • The Shape Shifter comes with a removable, basic, weight-supporting waist belt.

  • Included removable straps can be used to secure a monopod or tripod to the front, with the base of the monopod, or one or two legs of the tripod, placed inside the lower of the two outer zippered compartments. This arrangement works, but gets clunky quickly with anything other than small camera supports.

  • The shoulder and lumbar padding is cut to encourage airflow and discourage a sweaty back.

  • The shoulder harness includes two small stretch pockets, D-rings (for attaching Think Tank Photo Camera Support Straps, if desired) and a sternum strap that can be adjusted up and down (but not removed).

  • A rain cover is included.

Like most of Think Tank Photo's more innovative products, the Shape Shifter is geared towards a specific category of shooter, in this case the photojournalist or other photographer who makes a living shooting, editing and transmitting pictures on location. If you fall into this category, the expanding/contracting Shape Shifter is a clever, well-executed backpack that will be well worth a look when it ships in December 2008. The Shape Shifter has a manufacturer's suggested list price of US$249 in the U.S.

(You can sign up to a notification list if you wish to be alerted when the Shape Shifter is available.)

In the last several months, Think Tank Photo has also released refined versions of their Airport International and Airport Security rollers, a new Airport AirStream roller, the Skin pouch line and belt, Belly Dancer pouch holder, Urban Disguise 35, Hydrophobia 300-600 raincover, Lock It Up bag lock and Security Tag.
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