It has been a while since I reviewed a camera case or backpack. While I think that one cannot have too many camera cases and backpacks, the biggest reason for the lack of recent such reviews is that I am happy with the cases I already have. However, my Think Tank Photo rep was arm twisting to select another option to review.
A significant photo trip approaching would provide an excellent opportunity to put new gear into field use, so the timing was right. After browsing the entire selection, I returned the backpack I've been drawn to since its introduction, a member of a series that I already love.
The MindShift Gear BackLight series started as a single backpack, the 26L. I loved it, and apparently many others also did as there are now four sizes to choose from, with the Elite 45L being the largest option at review time.
Think Tank Photo (MindShift Gear) cases are all very high quality, so the word "Elite" added that model piqued interest. The bigger draw to the MindShift Gear BackLight 45L Elite was the overall gear capacity. Not only could this case carry my largest lens, but it could also carry many layers of clothing, along with food, water, and whatever else was needed for a trip, long hike, etc.
That the Elite 45L's design was substantially reconfigurable, especially in combination with the Stash Master 13L Travel Cube, greatly added to my interest in this model. One configuration could be used for travel, and another layout quickly implemented in the field, with a solid harness system to hold everything in place regardless of configuration. There is much more to rave about with this backpack.
I packed 35 lbs (16 kg) of camera gear into the 45L (overall weight), another 25 lbs (11 kg) in the MindShift Gear BackLight 18L, put the loaded Stash Master in my checked luggage, and headed to the airport with my daughter.
Let's take in the features lists and go for a quick visual tour.
*Check with your airline for current carry-on requirements. Remove top pocket and waist belt to reduce exterior dimensions
As one would expect from the word "Elite" included in a Think Tank Photo camera backpack, only the best-of-the-best materials have been used. Here is a list:
The MindShift Gear BackLight 45L Elite is a full-size photo backpack that holds a LOT of gear.
|Exterior Dimensions (travel mode*)||13" W x 23.5" H x 8" D||(33 x 59.7 x 20.3 cm)|
|Camera Compartment||11.4" W x 19.3" H x 6.8" D||(29 x 49 x 17.3 cm)|
|Laptop Pocket:||11.2" W x 16.1" H x 1"D||(28.5 x 41 x 2.5 cm)|
|Tablet||10.6" W x 10.2" H x 0.6" D||(27 x 26 x 1.5 cm)|
|Weight||3.9–7.0 lbs.||(1.8–3.2 kg)|
|Volume||45 Liters||45 Liters|
*Travel mode denotes waist belt and top pocket removed with an empty front pocket except for a laptop
As I'm also reviewing the Stash Master 13L travel cube, I'll share it's dimensions also:
|Interior Dimensions||11.8" W x 11.8" H x 7.1" D||(30 x 30 x 18 cm)|
|Exterior Dimensions||12.2" W x 12.2" H x 7.5" D||(31 x 31 x 19 cm)|
|Weight||0.9 lbs.||(0.4 kg)|
|Volume||13 Liters||13 Liters|
With the backpack dimensions specified, let's address the "Meets most international and U.S. carry-on requirements*" bullet from the features list. When flying, I want my camera gear with me in carry-on for protection against rough handling and theft, and I (usually) want to take as much gear as possible. Thus, the dimensions are important.
At review time, the "standard" domestic carry-on luggage size limit is 22 x 14 x 9" (56 x 35 x 23 cm), with some airlines varying by a small amount (usually within 1") in one or more dimensions. I am aware of only two airlines with limitations that currently exceed the 22" (56 cm) length — Frontier and Southwest permit a 24" (61 cm) bag length. My flights were on Frontier aircraft, and the Backlight 45L with top pocket and waist belt attached and a monopod in a side pocket fit nicely in the Airbus A320 and A321 aircraft overhead storage, as seen below.
With the BackLight 45L exceeding the 22" (56 cm) max length dimension of most airlines by 1.5" (3.7 cm), will those airlines prohibit this backpack from the cabin? That risk exists, and the aluminum frame prevents the long dimension from being compressed. It appears that the seams at the bottom of the frame could be opened and the frame cut shorter, but an additional rigid material around the top of the frame appears to prevent this mod from being successful.
Insuring is that the camera compartment is removable and that it measures well under most limitations. If required to gate check the backpack, remove the inner compartment first.
The removable inner camera compartment is a key to this pack's versatility. The camera compartment has a zippered cover (unpadded) and light-duty backpack straps that store under the compartment when inserted into the backpack. Three Velcro tabs hold the insert in place. With the camera compartment removed, the Elite 45L provides a wide range of general-purpose uses. For example, individually cased cameras and lenses can be carried in the open space. Without the camera storage cube in place, the backpack collapses to fit compactly any object placed in it.
Optimally, add the Stash Master 13L Travel Cube to the kit.
The Stash Master 13L is noticeably shorter than the included camera insert. This smaller dimension provides less space for camera gear, but additional general storage space is availed. I found this versatility quite useful.
Somewhat strange is that the Stash Master 13L measures about 1" (2.5 cm) deeper (7" vs. 6", 18 vs. 15 cm) than the larger included cube. I realized this when sharing dividers, thinking it was odd that I was finding differing divider depths. The included camera storage compartment seems to be somewhat shallow relative to the depth available in the backpack, and the Stash Master cube fits fine. The bottom line is that, unless constructed of an elastic material, a backpack can expand by a specific volume, and the larger cube provides more storage space above the cube.
Upon arriving at a location, all gear not always needed at all times, and both of the inserts provide great for storing gear while traveling. The padded dividers can be shared between the cases (despite the differing depth, increasing the configuration options.
When traveling by ground, overall backpack size is generally far less important. In general, larger is handier — though heavier. As "light" is included in the name, this camera backpack is relatively light for its size and serious-adventure-grade quality.
When carrying a backpack in the rain, most of the water lands on the top of the pack. The simple addition of a top lid sheds most of such water. The 45L's top lid is position-adjustable and removeable.
When carry needs are minimal, the lid can be used as a waist pack on the also-removeable waist belt. A slot with Velcro sections in the top lid fastens it to the waist belt. The sealed zipper opens the top lid to a space that has held various items from me, including my lunch.
A strap and buckle are provided under the top lid, enabling various items such as clothing to be lashed on, and the top lid attachment buckles offer the same convenience.
Under the top lid is zippered access to a small storage area above the camera compartment. The camera compartment is also zippered in this location. Removing the piece of padding from the camera compartment lid enables this lid to be tucked under the camera compartment, allowing unfettered access to this section. A removeable padded divider provides thicker padding at the top of the camera compartment. Thus, moving this divider down or removing it completely permits deeper access into this section. The configurability of this pack is impressive. Obviously, great thought was given to this design.
The padded carry handle provides a sure grip for lifting the pack.
As good as it gets? You are looking at a high-grade harness system. The materials are all top quality, and the design, including the bright padding color showing through, looks great. The padding is generous, yet good airflow is facilitated.
While this pack's entire frame cannot be vertically adjusted as some other MindShift Gear photo backpacks (due to the rear-opening design), the strap height and length adjustments easily covered my needs. As usual, the sternum strap is height and length adjustable.
The main compartment is rear accessed. When placing the pack down, the harness system (what contacts clothing) can stay cleaner. The contents of this pack can also be accessed while rotated around to the front while still belt attached, though the large size of this case makes this access more awkward than with the smaller BackLight packs.
The main compartment is accessed via a robust sealed zipper with two pulls. Sealed zippers can be more challenging to use than non-sealed equivalents, but the Elite 45L's zippers work very nicely. The Elite model gets T-shaped zipper pulls that look like little ice axes vs. loops on the non-elite models. I don't have a strong preference between these two options. Loops are more likely to catch on things. The T-shaped pulls can be interlocked to better ensure they stay closed.
An easy-to-access small sealed zipper pouch is provided on the belt.
The left and right sides of the backpack get large, deep, stretchy, adjustable elastic strap-closed pockets. The uses for these pockets are great, and I found them ideal for large water bottles, full-sized tripods, monopods, etc.
The bottom of the backpack consists of a tough waterproof Tarpaulin protective material, ready to protect the pack from bad environments.
While carrying, you don't see most of the backpack. But, surely those you pass on the trails will be impressed as this camera backpack looks great. I especially love the durability and appearance of the exterior material.
Two storage areas are provided on the front of this pack. A vertical sealed zipper accesses the smaller pocket.
The larger storage section accommodates a large laptop or water bladder, along with other devices. Expanding hinged sides help to avoid dumping the contents of this storage area.
The front storage sections accommodate a specific overall size. In other words, if you stuff the inner section, there will be little room raiming in the outer section. No dedicated pen or business card storage provisions are included.
A tripod holder is stored in a small pocket at the bottom, and a pair of full-width straps are stowed in small pouches.
Most of the 45 liters are dedicated to the primary storage section (the camera compartment dimensions measure 40 liters). As already discussed, this section is highly configurable, with a nice selection of padded dividers included.
A rain cover is provided and shown in the black pouch in the open case pictured above.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, I had an extended photo trip on the schedule. My daughter and I had the privilege of sharing two weeks in Rocky Mountain National Park, Badlands National Park, and Custer State Park and the Black Hills of SD.
Shown below is the Elite 45L partially loaded before leaving on this trip.
The large lens is a 600mm f/4 without a camera mounted (there is not quite enough room provided for the camera to remain mounted). In addition, four mirrorless bodies (one removed to take this photo), two more lenses, and a Swarovski Companion Binocular (love it) are shown included. I noted above that the camera compartment permits storage space above it. A bag full of batteries and other accessories went into that additional available depth (this bag was moved out for the photo). Battery chargers, drives, cables, and other accessories went into the top storage areas. A Monopod traveled in one of the side pouches.
Less important and redundant accessories, a couple of lower-cost lenses, random clothing, etc. filled out the Stash Master 13L that traveled in the checked bag.
The loaded Elite 45L weighed in at 35 lbs (16 kg). Though heavy, the pack seemed solid and unstressed, and this weight was quite manageable on the back, even with the 25 lb (11 kg) loaded BackLight 18L simultaneously worn as a front pack.
Upon arrival, the 600 f/4 went into a LensCoat camera rain cover, freeing up space in the large backpack that became a storage bag when the smaller MindShift Gear BackLight 18L (my personal item on the flights) was sufficiently sized.
Note that some of the dividers shown above were taken from the Stash Master 13L. Aside from during the flights, the large camera insert was removed and used only for storage.
On long hikes, carrying lots of gear was avoided. However, with temperatures as low as the 20s (F) high in the mountains, many layers of clothing were needed, but mostly while not hiking and at lower altitudes. The Stash Master 13L provided adequate space to store a small camera kit while providing space to store those layers fully inside the backpack (vs. lashed on), along with plenty of food and water for the longest hikes.
The alarm went off at 2:30 AM, we were on the trail by 3:30 AM, and not surprisingly, we were alone. We arrived at The Loch (a mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park) in time to discern the best available composition for sunrise. The many warm layers of clothing carried up to the lake in the backpack became minimal by the time the warm-colored sunrise light had passed.
Then it was on to other lakes, including Glass Lake (where the selfie at the beginning of the review was captured), Sky Pond, and Mills Lake.
The hike ended when the water filter bottle failed, sending us down for a refill of that important resource. At the end of the hike, the GPS was indicating 13 miles of distance covered. Much of the hike was over deep, sometimes unstable snowpack that required microspikes to maintain footing, making the stability of this backpack's harness system especially important.
The MindShift Gear BackLight Elite 45L was on my back for most of this nearly 11-hour hike. It comfortably staying locked in place while carrying the gear I needed.
The versatility offered by this pack made it optimal for the wide variety of needs encountered on this entire adventure.
While not an inexpensive backpack, the Elite 45L price seems in line with the size, quality, and features provided. Think Tank Photo provided the MindShift Gear BackLight Elite 45L review backpack. Everything Think Tank Photo makes is high quality and backed by excellent customer service that includes a "Limited Lifetime Warranty".
For years, the MindShift Gear FirstLight 40L has been my preferred large-capacity camera backpack. While the FirstLight 40L remains no less of an excellent solution, and it space-efficiently carries a very significant amount of gear, this model lacks the versatility of the BackLight Elite 45L.
My only Elite 45L disappointment is that the length exceeds the primary airline carry-on length. It seems that shortening the frame by 1.5" without making any other size changes would have little negative impact on the usefulness of this pack, but carry-on compliance would be assured.
Otherwise, it doesn't get better than this. The design and quality of this pack are exceptional. If a full-size camera and adventure-ready backpack is needed, I highly recommend the BackLight Elite 45L.
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