My experience with shoulder bags has not exactly been great up to this point. As much as I liked the idea of carrying equipment in a shoulder bag, that convenience of quick access, I’ve not found one that would serve the part flawlessly before. There was always something not quite right – it’s either too square or too wide, the strap – too narrow or likes to play heart-stopping jokes on you.
You probably saw the next bit coming. You may even think it to be a cliché of sorts. But, yes, I found the shoulder bag I was looking for. I absolutely adore the Seven. Whenever I use it, I am constantly fascinated by all the things it does just right. Almost as if people who actually do photography came up with the design! So I will go on and say the following: if you need a medium-sized shoulder bag for daily use, just go and buy this. Need a smaller one? Get the Retrospective 5. Need a larger one? Get the Ten or Twenty. It’s great, and I can’t see someone not liking it for all the things it does well.
Disclaimer: the bag was sent to me by Think Tank specifically for reviewing purposes. That said, the manufacturer has absolutely no effect on my impressions and, as always, my words are my own. I’ve done several reviews of different sorts so far, I’ve been harsh and complimenting. If you find this particular review to be a bit too positive, well, that’s because I find the Seven to be unexpectedly good. At just about everything.
Table of Contents
The Expectations and Choice
Perhaps there is no “perfect” camera bag (or at least we’ve not found one yet), but there are perfect bags for certain requirements. Me, I needed a shoulder bag that would handle work as well as casual strolls in the Old Town of Vilnius. So, on one hand, it had to fit a medium sized full-frame DSLR with a couple of lenses and a mirrorless camera mounted with another lens; on the other, it had to easily accommodate the mentioned mirrorless camera with a book and some light snacks. A compartment for an ultrabook/tablet was also a necessity since my work involves not only photography, but writing as well (often “in the field”). That means appropriate charger, too, as well as the usual possessions such as my wallet and mobile phone.
So, it needs to be quite spacious. At the same time, not too much so. What compartments there are, I want to use, and if I am not, the bag could be smaller without them. Finding such a sweet spot – large enough for work, small enough for daily use – is certainly no easy task, and I spent quite a lot of time deciding between the Retrospective 7 and 10. Interestingly, the biggest difference between the two is not the size. In that regard the two bags are very similar. What is different is the shape. The Ten is a bit more square, and the size of the tablet compartment also is a little different. In the end, I chose the Seven thinking the larger version is just unnecessary. And so it turned out that, for my needs, I got the sweet spot.
At this point I do think it’s worth mentioning a small issue with Think Tank’s lineup. Choice is a good thing, but in the case of Retrospective bags, there might be a bit too much of it. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the two bags, and even considered larger versions. The Retrospective lineup starts with a 5 and goes all the way to 50 with a total of seven bags, and that’s great, but the difference between some of them seems to be quite minor. The Seven and Ten are very similar, as I’ve mentioned, and the most noticeable difference in practice is perhaps the shape. I wish I had spent less time trying to make up my mind. Being able to try the bags on is a big help.
Design is always a very subjective topic to discuss, but that does not mean there’s no general directions that can be distinguished. In the case of this Think Tank Retrospective 7 shoulder bag, the most accurate one-word description I can give is – unassuming. The materials, textures, colours and shapes used are all very subtle and simple, and even in isolation I compliment such an approach. But the Seven does one better and gives a strong impression of sophistication, too. One of the biggest pluses for me is that the shoulder bag does not look like one meant specifically for cameras. In other words, it does not scream “I am carrying something expensive, why don’t you steal me?”. At the same time, once you unfold the extremely simple and clean cover, there are no practicality penalties to be found.
I believe that, by refusing to cover the exterior of the bag in pockets and zippers, Think Tank chose the safe, classic look, and Seven (and by extension, all the other Retrospective size versions) is no worse for it. But don’t think that by not including such visual (and, of course, practical) details, Think Tank was lazy and skipped design whatsoever. Look a little closer and you will notice the comfortable-feeling proportions of the bag, the muted, subtle colours, the warm, “organic” materials and textures used. It’s not as styled and, arguably, not as beautiful as some Ona bags, for example. On the other hand, I can easily imagine someone hating the mentioned Ona bags from design perspective, but can hardly see someone feeling such strong negative emotions towards the Seven – it’s just not as pretentious in that regard. In fact, that is perhaps something I love about the Retrospective the most – yes, I can see myself being tempted by a more stylish camera bag, but the outright honesty of the Seven is undeniably charming.
Exterior-wise, it’s just a shoulder bag, and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word. It does not attract much attention at first glance, but if you look closely, it is a very well sorted and sophisticated-looking object. The colour options – Pinestone, Black and Blue Slate – are all also quite muted, understated and compliment the looks well (I have the Blue one). Dig a little deeper, though, and you will be even more pleasantly surprised.
The Perceived Quality
Most manufacturers cut corners in one area or another. Quite often, the corner-cutting is noticeable, if not exactly objectionable. Rare few manage to design a tool or a product that feels every bit as or more expensive than it is. For example, the Fujifilm X-E2 that I own feels very high quality everywhere you touch, except the base where magnesium meets plastic body panels, and the thumb dial which is made from seemingly very cheap plastic. The Retrospective 7, from my experience, is one of those few products where the manufacturer did not end up cutting significant corners, or at least managed to hide it really well. During the several months of use, I did not find a single cheap feeling stitch – this is a properly made shoulder bag and everything you touch feels quite premium. More than that, the Seven managed to shrug off any abuse I might have thrown at it with ease and remains in pristine condition after almost daily use for two months. There are no noticeable traces of it being extensively used and I am certain it will serve for quite a few years.
It feels exceptionally rugged and strong. The strap is quite wide and very thick, but still comfortably soft to use. The padding on the strap is thicker still, so much so I was very surprised the first time I grabbed it – and it’s very comfortable, too, masking the weight of a fully-packed bag brilliantly. The underside of the padding has a rubber pattern to keep it from sliding off your shoulder, naked or otherwise. The silicon is quite soft and no matter the surface of contact or weather, does its job very well, the bag stays on the shoulder securely.
Overall, all the materials used are quite thick and give a sense of very high quality. Even the padding inside gives the sense of rigidity and quality. The zippers are easy to undo with one hand and the velcro is showing virtually no signs of wear. If you remove the separators from the main compartment, you are still left with a padded shoulder bag that offers good protection and does not become a formless mush. If I ever had the feeling of something being very much worth its price, this is certainly one of those cases.
The Size, Comfort and Ergonomics
As I’ve mentioned already, this bag is medium-sized. It’s quite hard to describe it better and the measurements probably don’t help much, either, but I will provide those anyway:
- Outside: 13.5 x 9.5 x 7.0″ (34.3 x 24.1 x 17.8 cm)
- Inside: 12.5 x 8.8 x 5.0″ (31.8 x 22.4 x 12.7 cm)
- Weight: 2-3 lb (0.9-1.4 kg), depending on the number of separators, etc.
The numbers really don’t say much. After all, it’s not a box, it’s a bag, and some of the dimensions depend a lot on what you are carrying and how. The best way to describe it is to say this is a normal shoulder bag. It’s not big, nor small. It does not look as if it is meant for a specific purpose, say, to hold a lot of equipment. It could just as well be a student’s shoulder bag to carry books and a bag of chips. That said, you can fit a surprising amount of equipment in. Hopefully, the product shots that I took will help you get a good idea of how large it is.
It is very practical, that I can say, and I don’t just mean the arrangement of separators. There are quite a few pockets in there: two outer and two inner side pockets; the small laptop/tablet compartment; an A5 sized notebook or notepad compartment inside with a zipper; main equipment compartment; another inside compartment for wallet, caps, pens, small notebooks and accessories with appropriate pockets; outside pocket where the rain cover is found, and it is large enough to hold a speedlight. Oh, and there is a see-through business card pocket on the inside of the main cover, too. In short, I can’t think of a better way to use the available space. There is pretty much a place for just about anything you’d want to carry with you, within reason.
I am even more impressed with comfort. The strap does not get twisted or entangled. It’s quite wide and very thick, but still soft at the same time. Adjusting the length is easy and, once set, it stays in place securely. You can slide the shoulder pad up and down with ease, but it does not slide around on itself as there is quite a lot of friction between the bad and the strap. Oh, and that pad has a lot of give, it’s thick and firmly shaped, but also very soft even under heavy load. Very, very well judged. I’ve never been worried the bag might slide off my shoulder even when I was wearing a jacket thanks to a pattern of soft and grippy silicon rubber. When loaded with equipment, the bag stays level and does not tilt, so it won’t rub against your leg unpleasantly. The tablet compartment’s zipper is very easy to undo with one hand, although you may find yourself needing two to undo the main cover as the velcro is quite strong.
Overall, I could find absolutely no fault, and it almost doesn’t feel right. No product, no thing I’ve ever used was this flawless at what it was supposed to be and do. The Retrospective is just so well thought through, it’s hard to believe. I fully realize I’ve been praising this product like crazy so far, but Think Tank really did come up with a very good shoulder bag, though that’s just my opinion. There was not a single moment where I thought – “what on Earth made them do that?”. Everything feels refreshingly well made and well designed. It should not be so surprising, but is, and that’s a stone in the garden of so many other manufacturers. Not just those that make camera bags.
The Lovely Little Touches
The thing that really gets me is how Think Tank came up with several truly ingenious and amazing solutions to some of the issues I used to take as a necessity of sorts. Firstly, those tiny flaps I mentioned already on each side inside the bag – they stop one from being able to pull the equipment from the bag without opening the cover first, and hold it securely in place all the time. And it’s just a tiny bit of fabric! What I like even more is the “silencers”, as you can see in the image below:
Basically, as you can probably figure out, the velcro on the main cover can be folded so that, when you close the bag, it doesn’t “stick”, and thus can be opened silently afterwards. In fact, pretty much every bit of the tape used to secure different compartments can be “silenced” like that. Very useful in sound-sensitive environment, such as churches or concert halls. Finally, there are a couple of straps inside the bag that you can use to attach something, like keys or memory card case so that they don’t get lost. One of the straps is, by default, attached to the rain cover. These little touches make the already great shoulder bag even more impressive.
The (Relatively) Bad
No other section of the review required me to think quite as hard. It was that difficult to come up with something that was not done well. And you know what? I failed. The only minor complaint that I do have (and it’s not really much of an issue) is the weight. The fact such high-quality and thick materials were used for the bag means it’s hefty. But even that is relative, as it’s not heavier than you would expect given the materials used. And… Yes, the business card pocket is quite snug. That’s it, sorry.
I adore this bag. It’s not just good and well thought through as a shoulder bag, it’s an insanely impressive example of how a product should be designed regardless of its function. I could not find a single serious issue with it, a single flaw in any area, be it quality, ergonomics or practicality. Save for the slightly boring, but charmingly honest design, I think it’s as close to perfect for its intended purpose and audience as it could be. If you are looking for a similarly sized shoulder bag, try it out at the very least. There’s a good chance you won’t want to give it up, ever. I know I don’t.
You can purchase the Think Tank Retrospective 7 bag from B&H in all three available colours by clicking these links:
- Click here to purchase the Retrospective 7 in Blue Slate colour, as reviewed, for $162.75 from B&H
- Click here to purchase the Retrospective 7 in Pinestone colour for $162.75 from B&H
- Click here to purchase the Retrospective 7 in Black for $162.75 from B&H
Think Tank Retrospective 7
- Practicality and Ease of Use
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating