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Gear Review: MindShift Gear FirstLight 30L Photo Backpack

Note: if you want to skip the preamble and get to the review, jump down to the FirstLight 30L Review header below.

I’ve been a big admirer of ThinkTank’s photo gear for a long time.  My two favorite pieces of gear–well, outside of my 500mm lens and 1DX body–are my ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket and the Skin component system.  ThinkTank, a company started by photographers, always seems to have a good sense of design, bag construction and especially customer service.  However, they’ve always targeted a broader, more general consumer base.  A lot of portrait and sports photographers count themselves as ThinkTank customers.  As a (primarily) nature photographer, I’ve always had to find myself needing to adapt what’s available from ThinkTank to my own specific needs, which has led to one major challenge I have not been able to overcome:

Finding the perfect camera bag.

It’s an impossible task.  And not just for nature photographers.  One bag that fits every piece of gear you need, which is convenient and comfortable to wear/carry/haul, and which fits on every aircraft ever invented hasn’t been created yet.

 

A History of the Max’s Camera Bag

In order for you to properly interpret this review, you need to understand the reviewer.  I first started using a “big” lens for nature photography in 2001.  That was a Sigma 50-500mm, so it was still somewhat compact in relative terms.  Five years later I had upgraded to the Canon 500mm f/4 IS lens.  My first truly big lens.  Though I spent some time covering sports locally, I was spending more and more time traveling for wildlife photography.  It started with Yellowstone, but I was eventually hauling gear to Costa Rica, Africa and beyond.  So I needed a bag that carried my large lens and additional gear.  Something that was easy to travel with, but not necessarily a bag that required long-term hauling through rugged terrain.  So much of my photography is road-based–in safari vehicles, for example–that a hiking pack wasn’t necessarily what I needed.

I first started out with a LowePro AW Trekker II pack, back in my Sigma 50-500 days.  Though the bag fit fairly well on board even smaller planes, it suffered from at least one major design flaw: the huge padded waist straps flopped all over the place.  Plus, it was adorned with elastic cords, sprouting like weeds on all sides, and which kept getting caught on things.  My new, larger 500mm lens still fit in the bag, but the pack sure was annoying.

So when ThinkTank came along I eagerly picked up one of their new rollers, the Airport Security bag.  Big enough to fit all my gear, perfect for transporting gear through the airport, great security features, and big.  Too big in fact.  I started running into issues during trips, especially on overseas flights or shorter domestic hops utilizing small commuter jets.  Inevitably, stubborn gate agents or miniscule overhead storage bins fought against this giant roller.  So I had to invest in something smaller.  Enter the Airport Takeoff roller.  And look, it even had backpack straps in case I needed to wear it while dragging a suitcase.  It still held most of the gear I usually needed, and seemed like a great fit… except when it didn’t fit.  Even the Takeoff was too big for some overhead compartments and under some seats.

So I kept downsizing and invested in a third ThinkTank bag.  This time, it was the StreetWalker HardDrive (a.k.a., the StreetWalker HD).  Definitely smaller, it can fit under nearly any seat and escape the attention of most gate agents.  The one major drawback?  No wheels.  Still, my 500 could be stuffed inside (sans lens hood), and it the bag fit on nearly any plane.  This was as close as I had come to finding the perfect camera bag.

ThinkTank and MindShift bags

From Left: ThinkTank’s Airport Security, Takeoff and StreetWalker bags, next to the MindShift FirstLight 30L.

Still, the StreetWalker HD had a few drawbacks.  The lack of wheels meant I was forced to carry my gear on my back and couldn’t bring along my additional small backpack for my other carry-on travel accessories.  And the StreetWalker is too small to fit anything other than camera gear inside.  So once again, during certain trips I was finding that even my third, smallest photo pack wasn’t necessarily the best option.  I was even forced to sometimes carry gear in my Skin pouches while hauling the 500mm in my regular backpack.  This is a super compact way to travel–the pouches can be stuffed easily into even the smallest compartments–but of course you look silly and advertise to the world that you’re carrying lots of expensive gear with you.  Camera packs, at least, are more subtle.

So after four different photos packs (plus a pouch system!), I was still looking for the perfect pack.

 

Enter MindShift Gear

In 2012 ThinkTank announced the creation of a sister company geared toward nature photographers: MindShift Gear.  You can imagine my excitement.  High quality gear and great customer service with photographers like me in mind.  But I had to quickly temper my expectations.  The first bags MindShift announced targeted landscape photographers.  These were more akin to hiking packs, built for comfort and quick gear accessibility, but they couldn’t fit any large lenses.  So a large lens user like myself was out of luck.  When prompted, I spoke up and urged them to design a bag for longer lenses.

What exactly was I hoping for?  I’m not so sure any more.  It’s not really feasible to create a “quick access” bag for long lenses.  Even bags with backside flap compartments (like those from Gura Gear) still need to be removed and unzipped, and then one typically needs to mount the lens on a tripod anyway.  This is why, when I do hike with my big lens (in the tropics especially), the lens and camera are already on a tripod, slung over my shoulder, with the rest of my gear tucked away in those ThinkTank Skin pouches.

So yeah, I begged for a long lens pack from MindShift, without really having a sense of what they could do that would suit my style of travel and photography.  I guess I just hoped they’d succeed where so many others had failed and would create the perfect camera bag.  Read on to see if they pulled it off.

 

FirstLight 30L Review

At long last, MindShift announced a set of bags for wildlife photographers: the FirstLight series, which comes in three sizes.  I requested and received a review copy of the mid-sized pack, the FirstLight 30L, which according to the specs was designed to be large enough to fit my 500mm (the longer Series I lens), while purportedly being small enough to fit on board even those small commuter jets.  I knew that this new bag was likely going to compete with my StreetWalker HD as my go-to “small plane pack.”

You can imagine my surprise, and slight disappointment, when I pulled the 30L out and set it next to the StreetWalker.  At first glance, it’s basically the same pack!

StreetWalker HD and FirstLight 30L

The StreetWalker HD (left) and FirstLight 30L are nearly identical in size.

The exterior and interior dimensions of the two are nearly identical, so you’ll find me occasionally making side-by-side comparisons in this review.  Also, I’m judging the FirstLight 30L from a couple different angles: as a Nature Photo Pack, and as a Travel Photo Pack.

The fact is that some nature photographers are absolute hard core hikers, and will go after wildlife subjects in hard-to-find places.  Sometimes an assignment–or plain old personal desire–will force us to hike for miles to reach an out of the way spot where wildlife is known to congregate.  For these shooters, it’s important to have a well-built, comfortable pack we don’t mind hauling on our back for hours.  Then you have the other type of wildlife photographer: traveling by vehicle–plane, car, boat, etc.–to reach shooting destinations, with little need to haul a pack around over long distances.  Again, I consider myself more of the latter.

 

Extra Comfort for Hikers

The FirstLight series was designed by a nature photography company for nature photographers, so let’s tackle that aspect of the bag first.  In this sense, the 30L excels.  I tested the 30L during a hike up my favorite trail in Yellowstone: Mt. Washburn.  The trail (from the Chittenden Road side) ascends around 1500 feet over the course of 2.8 miles, culminating at over 10,200 feet at the summit.  It had been several years since I’d done this hike, so the backpack gave me a good excuse to tackle it again. 😉

First, and perhaps most importantly, the FirstLight 30L is comfortable.  This is thanks to three major design advantages over the StreetWalker: padded waist straps, adjustable torso length and adjustable shoulder straps.  For the “long haul,” these are absolute musts.  Better, more even weight distribution on long hikes can certainly help conserve a bit of energy, avoid extra muscle ache and even do a little for one’s mental health.

Adjustable shoulder strap

The adjustable shoulder straps on the FirstLight 30L make for better fit and comfort.

With padded waist straps there’s always a concern about portability.  The StreetWalker, after all, has non-padded straps that tuck inside a pocket and can virtually disappear.  So how did the folks at MindShift decide to avoid the “flapping waist strap” problem I experienced with my old LowePro pack?  They designed the FirstLight’s straps to fold back and clip around the bottom of the pack, essentially hugging the bag and remaining tight and constricted.

MindShift FirstLight 30L

The 30L’s waist straps fold around to “hug” the pack when not in use.

It’s a brilliant idea, though not without its flaws.  Along with reducing the compactness of the bag, it also means you can’t actually unzip the pack all the way without first having to unclip the waist strap every time.  It’s a hassle, but certainly a lesser issue than having wild, free-roaming straps.  The padded straps also make it a little less comfortable to attach MindShift’s or ThinkTank’s component pouches along one’s waistline.  That could be a handy solution for those needing to carry just a bit of extra gear or extra water (using ThinkTank’s RU Thirsty pouches).  The non-padded straps on the StreetWalker do make it easier to hang pouches and utilize this extra storage space.  With the MindShift pack, long-term comfort ended up being the priority over extra perks and convenience.

 

The Problem with Photo Packs

But keep in mind, I’d recommend the 30L for longer hauls.  If I’m walking trails where wildlife may pop out at any moment–the rainforests of Costa Rica are a perfect example–I want to be ready to shoot.  This is why I shy away from using any photo pack on shorter excursions.  The Mt. Washburn hike with the 30L was a perfect example of the problems presented by tucking all your gear away in a pack, and why there still isn’t a perfect “quick access” photo pack out there for long lens shooters.

About fifteen minutes into the hike, I heard the call of a familiar but elusive critter: a northern pygmy owl.  I had only seen this tiny predator in Yellowstone for the first time this spring, so it would be a coup to find it again and get some photos.  It didn’t take long.  I soon spied the small silhouette of the owl perched in the open and, thanks to the contours of the mountain, it was nearly at eye level.  A perfect opportunity for photos.  Except for the fact that all of my gear was packed away inside the pack.

So after unstrapping the tripod, unzipping the pack, removing the lens and camera, reattaching the lens hood and mounting the lens on the tripod, I was finally ready to go.  And the owl was gone.

Hiking Mt. Washburn with the 30L

A fairly well-balanced load, even with the large tripod and head hanging on the back. Unfortunately, it takes far too long to get out gear and set up (a problem with all big lens packs), which led to a missed photo op during this hike.

This is why on shorter excursions I prefer to carry my tripod, lens and camera on my shoulder, all ready to go.  Smaller accessories and lenses are in my Skin pouches, all easily accessible.  This is the type of challenge photo pack manufacturers may never be able to be able to overcome when it comes to big lenses.  So, just keep that in mind.  The FirstLight series is great for longer treks, but for more immediate long lens shooting, it suffers from the same major drawback of any other backpack design.

 

Additional Features for Outdoor Enthusiasts

The FirstLight comes with a side pocket built specifically for a hydration pouch.  Again, they’ve got hikers in mind, so this is a handy design feature.  Not being a hard-core backcountry shooter, I didn’t have a hydration pouch, so I simply clipped my Nalgene bottle to one of the front loops on a shoulder strap using a carabiner.  Alternatively, I could have attached an RU Thirsty pouch to the waist strap.

MindShift designed the FirstLight 30L to have two different tripod carrying options: a side strap and pocket system, or one on the back of the pack.  With larger tripods the latter is probably a bit more comfortable to carry, simply for the sake of having the extra weight centered.  This is what I used when hiking Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone.  The bottom tripod pocket is hidden at the bottom of the pack, conveniently tucked away when not in use.  Given my large tripod and heavy, unwieldy Wimberley head, I was worried about the whole setup feeling unbalanced, but it actually felt fine.  The tripod was attached securely and did not throw the balance of the pack off, though I occasionally had to retighten the shoulder straps.

FirstLight 30L with tripod attached

My large tripod and head attached securely to the 30L. Unfortunately, this setup means I have to detach the tripod before opening the pack.

Once again, there are a couple of minor drawbacks to this feature (specifically, the backside tripod holder).  First, one obviously cannot open the pack with a large tripod strapped to the back (Update: the folks at MindShift reminded me that this problem could be alleviated by the Tripod Suspension Kit, which allows a tripod to be carried loosely and comfortably off the pack).  The second minor issue is that the bottom tripod pocket tucks away in the spot where the pack’s rain cover would traditionally fit.  So where’s the rain cover?  It sits in its own separate little pouch, which needs to be stored somewhere.  When stowed inside of the pack’s main compartment, the pouch takes up storage space that could be used for additional accessories (teleconverter, card wallet).  On the outside of the pack it could be stuffed into the hydration pouch pocket if that is not already being used, or similarly in the back laptop compartment.  It will also barely fit in the top pocket under the bag’s handle.

 

Smaller Details Make a Big Difference

The FirstLight 30L features a lot of thoughtful smaller details geared toward nature photographers.  These include larger loop zipper pulls, which could definitely be handy for those wearing gloves in cold or wet conditions.  The interior pouches on the main flap are actually mesh pockets, rather than the standard clear plastic pockets found in most ThinkTank bags.  You may not be able to see your accessories as well, but the folks at MindShift have taken the elements into consideration.  I’d imagine the mesh would help reduce fogging and condensation a bit on rainy days.  Even the strap clips on the FirstLight are better, featuring hinged clips that are easier to adjust and tighten.  The aforementioned rain cover, though it doesn’t store conveniently, actually doubles as a ground cloth.  Lay it on wet or dirty ground and use it as a staging area.  Believe it or not, the sternum strap on the 30L even features a built-in whistle in case you get lost!

FirstLight 30L features

The 30L’s large zipper pulls and hinged clips make adjustments more convenient.

There’s no question that the FirstLight packs were designed with the outdoors in mind.  The added comfort for long hikes and additional features for inclement weather definitely make it a better hiking option than the StreetWalker HD.

 

Hitting the Road with the FirstLight 30L

How the 30L works as a Travel Bag is a pretty important consideration.  Unless you refuse to fly, stuffing as much gear as possible into as small and compact a container as possible is a constant worry.  None of us want to check our bodies, lenses or additional electronics, so it’s important to have a photo pack that fits everything and fits into every conceivable overhead or underseat storage space on a plane.

 

As a Carry-On

FirstLight 30L under seat

The FirstLight 30L fit under the small seats on the Saab 340… barely.

My first flight with the FirstLight 30L was a good test.  For my Coastal Wolves and Sea Otters tour, we had to fly Pacific Coastal Airlines’ miniscule Saab 340.  This plane has just about the smallest overhead compartments imaginable.  No reasonable large lens bag would fit in those (though the Skin system pouches with smaller gear could).  So the pack had to fit under the seat.  And it barely did.

Those “hugging” side straps didn’t cause any issues in terms of height, though width could have been a problem if I had neighbor with a medium sized bag underneath.  In that sense, it’s not as “slim” as the StreetWalker.  Height is about the same though, and in this case I was barely able to cram the pack in the relatively small area underneath the Saab’s seats.  Which pretty much tells me that this bag should fit underneath on most commercial flights.

No, it doesn’t have wheels (which makes it more compact), but the 30L does have the added benefit of both a top and side handle for better handling.  The only thing I wish all of these photo packs would add would be two metal eyelets on the side, so that one could clip a shoulder strap to the bag.  This would convert my photo pack into a duffle-style bag that could be carried in tandem with another backpack.  Bags with added versatility are great when one’s various adventures present different packing requirements.

 

How Much Does It Hold?

As mentioned, the FirstLight 30L is nearly identical to the StreetWalker HD.  The official interior dimensions are within an inch of each other every single way:

FirstLight 30L: 11.2” W x 18.1”H x 7.1” D (28.5 x 46 x 18 cm)
StreetWalker HD: 11” W x 19” H x 6–7” D (28 x 48.3 x 15–18 cm)

Here’s the rundown of what I normally try to fit into this size bag:

  • Canon 500mm f/4 IS (vI) without lens hood
  • Canon 1DX
  • Canon 1D Mark IV or 7D Mark II
  • Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS (vII)
  • Canon 24-70mm 2.8 (vI)
  • 1.4x teleconverter (vII)
  • Accessories: card wallet, batteries, brushes, filters, cables, etc.

Lens hoods are rigid and wide, so they’re a big hassle when it comes to packing.  Traditionally, I pack my 500’s lens hood in my checked bags along with my tripod.  The smaller lens hoods are also a pain though, so I remove them from the smaller lenses and stack them over the narrow end of my 500 when packed away.

MindShift FirstLight 30L

My standard set of traveling photo gear fits in the 30L, though it’s a tight squeeze.

As mentioned, the presence of the rain cover inside the FirstLight 30L is a problem, as it takes up additional storage space for accessories.  Also, despite the very similar interior dimensions, it seemed as though the FirstLight was a tighter fit for much of my gear compared to the StreetWalker HD.  This may just be due to the fact that the FirstLight was a newer bag, and the interior dividers hadn’t loosened up yet.  The dividers for both bags are virtually identical in thickness, by the way.

For my Washburn hike, I did try an alternate arrangement.  I kept the lens hoods on, and attached my 1DX to my 500, for better accessibility and shorter setup time.  As mentioned, this still didn’t help me in the case of that pygmy owl.  You can see the layout with the lens hoods below.

FirstLight 30L

A different configuration, with the 500mm attached to a body and lens hoods on. The bag barely closed (notice the side bulges thanks to the hoods), and I had to carry additional accessories in a pouch hanging from the waist belt.

I barely got the pack closed with this setup, but it did work!

 

About that Laptop Pocket

I should also address the “laptop compartment.”  On the FirstLight 30L, this pocket is on the outside of the pack, with a top zipper.  The StreetWalker HD, meanwhile, features a side pocket on the inside part of the pack, so laptops or tablets rest against your back.  In this comparison, the StreetWalker wins hands-down.

First, despite the fact that it’s designed for a 15″ laptop, the FirstLight’s pocket is pretty tight.  With a pack full of gear, I found it difficult to stuff more than a single tablet inside the pocket.  With the StreetWalker’s more flexible inside pocket, I can usually fit my iPad and Kindle (which features a thicker, leather cover) together.  This is the price MindShift paid for making a more comfortable hiking pack.  With additional back padding and the adjustable torso, there wasn’t room for an inside laptop pocket on the FirstLight.

 

Security

One last thing about the laptop compartment.  I feel more comfortable knowing that with the StreetWalker, my laptop or tablet isn’t the first thing a potential thief can reach on the pack.  That outward-facing pocket on the FirstLight does make the contents more accessible.

Zipper lock

The useful zipper lock is an important security feature on the 30L’s main compartment.

Both of these packs feature sturdy metal zippers with lock loops, allowing you to secure your most important gear.

 

Verdict

MindShift Gear designed the FirstLight series for the outdoor photographer who needs a pack to carry larger gear over longer distances.  They definitely achieved this goal with the 30L.  It is a pack that’s ready for the long haul, a ThinkTank-quality bag made for wildlife photographers.   The added padding and adjustable straps make it a much more comfortable option than urban pack designs.  Larger zipper pulls, a hydration pouch pocket, a rain cover that doubles as a ground cloth, and even a whistle if you get lost… these are all small details made for the adventurer that set it apart from other similar bags.

FirstLight 30L at the summit of Mt. Washburn

The 30L made it to the top of Mt. Washburn.

It’s also a good travel bag, though not the best.  An additional handle and the hugging waist straps make the bag easier to handle and compact for smaller plane travel.  When compared to its cousin, the Streetwalker HD, the 30L comes in second as a travel bag, but this is primarily due to the necessary sacrifices made during an outdoors-oriented design process.  With a nature photo pack, one would expect comfort and outdoor readiness to trump general travel convenience, and the folks at MindShift have achieved a good balance with the FirstLight series.

I’d highly recommend this bag for any long lens photographer who needs to haul their gear more than a couple miles at a time, especially if you don’t need immediate access to your camera and lens.  If you plan to do any hiking with bigger gear, the 30L is a solid choice.  For road and vehicle-based photographers (such as myself), the StreetWalker HD from ThinkTank may be a more slightly more efficient alternative.

 

Buy the FirstLight 30L

If you’re interested in buying the FirstLight 30L, you may do so here (purchases through this link help support my business).

7 Comments

  1. Jim DeWitt November 10, 2015 Reply

    Very helpful, Max. Thanks. I’ve been thinking of replacing my aging LowePro CompuTrekker AW; a couple of times now I’ve had no choice but to gate check it. Bad ju-ju. Have you evaluated the FirstLight 40L? My gear is much the same as yours, but I also like to pack a 300mm f2.8 and the 100-400mm zoom, as well as a second body.

    Thanks for any info you have.

    Jim DeWitt

    • Author
      Max November 11, 2015 Reply

      Jim, I did not get my hands on the 40L, mainly because I wanted to go as small as possible while still fitting the big lens and additional gear (I think the 20L may have been too small for my purposes). I bet you could fit the 300 2.8 and your 500 f/4 together in the 40L, but I’d be pretty surprised if you could also get the 100-400 AND two bodies (and possibly smaller lenses) in as well. I’d have a tough time fitting that much stuff in my Airport Security roller.

      Max

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