Camera bags are all about compromise, and messenger bags even more so. Choose a size too small and it won’t be able to hold all your gear. Choose a size too big and it’ll be too heavy to carry on your shoulder all day.
I’ve experienced both of those problems in the past, and there’s just no good way around it. My Think Tank Retrospective 5 is an awesome camera bag in every way, but there are times when I need to carry more stuff than it can accommodate. Similarly, my leather Brixton by ONA is the most beautiful and classy bag I’ve ever owned, but if I fill it up with gear, I can’t wear it on my shoulder all day without feeling pain. Something had to give.
Released in 2016, the Retrospective 6 is the latest entry into Think Tank Photo’s excellent lineup of rugged messenger bags, and it might just be the perfect size for me. It’s certainly bigger than the Retrospective 5, but it’s not as big as the Brixton. And it allows me to carry my camera and up to four lenses without hurting my back. It just feels right.
Let’s take a closer look at it.
Build quality, materials, and overall aesthetic
The Retrospective 6 retails for only $155, making it one of the best values in the market. It comes in three colors, all of which are similarly low-key: Black, Sandstone, and Pinestone (as reviewed). Personally, I find the Pinestone to be even more understated than my Retrospective 5 in Blue Slate, which is a good thing in my book.
As for durability, the Retrospective 6 is built to the same standard of quality as the 5. For extra peace of mind, Think Tank Photo offers a No Rhetoric Warranty that covers “any defects in material or workmanship” for as long as the bag is being actively used. It won’t cover improper care or the normal wear and tear that occurs with regular use, though.
The exterior of all bags in the Retrospective series is made out of water-resistant canvas, but they also come with a rain cover that clips to the shoulder strap and keeps everything safe from even the heaviest downpours. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works, and it has the added benefit of keeping all compartments tightly shut and protected against unwanted access. I also like the small webbing loop on the outer pocket that allows you to keep the rain cover attached to the bag at all times.
In the event of light rain though, the rain cover is probably not needed. The main compartment is protected by weather flaps on each side, which should be enough to ensure water sliding along the sides of the bag doesn’t sneak into the interior.
On the front, the Retrospective 6 has a main flap cover that’s big enough to close even when the bag is completely full. Besides, the flap cover — and indeed the rest of the bag’s interior — is lined with a water-resistant synthetic material, which should still keep everything inside nice and dry even if the exterior canvas were to get wet. This is a cool design touch that provides even more peace of mind when using the bag.
Another nice feature is that the inner side of the flap cover includes a clear plastic card holder. This is great if you occasionally need to hand out business cards to prospective clients, but it’s also a convenient way to identify your bag in case you ever misplace it.
The bag also features an elastic cotton band and a pocket on each of the sides. These cotton bands can be used with clip-on accessories. Though the pockets are somewhat shallow, they provide enough wiggle room to store an iPhone, or a charger and cable, for example. The bigger size of the Retrospective 6 means these pockets are more useful than the ones on the 5, but they’re still not exactly what I’d call spacious.
The back of the bag features a zippered pocket, which is spacious enough for a notebook or a Kindle. Length-wise it can also fit a 9.7-inch iPad, but you won’t be able to close the zipper because the compartment just isn’t tall enough. If you need to carry a tablet, the front pocket works much better. I usually keep some extra dividers and a softbox for my flash in this pocket.
Another critical area in any messenger bag is the shoulder strap, and I’m happy to say the Retrospective 6 features the same awesome strap as the 5 and the rest of the Retrospective series. It is by far the best strap out of any bag I’ve ever used. It’s adjustable on both ends, and provides plenty of leeway to fit a very wide range of body types. The strap is extremely comfortable, is made of heavy-duty cotton, and has with a shoulder pad wrapped by canvas and with rubber accents for a better grip.
And just to round things out, there’s also an adjustable handle made of nylon and padded with canvas, which makes it easy to carry the bag in your hand instead of using the shoulder strap.
Overall, the Retrospective 6 is a very solid bag, and has a discreet and understated appearance. Branding throughout the bag is kept to a minimum, for example, which certainly helps keep a low profile. I wouldn’t necessarily say the Retrospective 6 doesn’t look like a camera bag, but maybe that’s because I’ve looked at so many of them by now that I can pick up on certain design patterns that usually go unnoticed by most people. In any event, this bag doesn’t scream “rob me”, unlike some other fancier bags out there.
Think Tank bags are extremely functional, with lots of nice features that make living with them a pleasure. They are near perfect examples of form in the service of function.
Opening the flap cover of the Retrospective 6 grants access to the main compartment, which is spacious enough to accommodate a full-sized DSLR with a lens attached, and up to three additional lenses. This compartment can be customized using the supplied dividers in order to adapt it to your particular needs. The bag includes several of these dividers, and unlike the ones in the Retrospective 5, these can be attached to each other using a half-width Velcro strap to form half-compartment divisions inside the bag, which greatly expands its organizational capabilities.
Running along the back side of the main compartment there’s a zipper that gives access to a pocket that provides a nice, segregated space for documents, among other things.
The opposite side of the main compartment features another segregated section that can be secured using a small flap cover at the top. This section includes several smaller pockets that are perfect for organizing filters, step-up rings, microfiber cloths and similar items that are small in size, but need to be easily accessible at all times. This is the same layout of the Retrospective 5, but since the 6 is a wider bag, there’s room for more accessories here. And just like on the Retrospective 5, there’s also a built-in hook for your keyring in this section, which is a nice touch (although I personally don’t use it at all).
Both narrow sides of the main compartment feature additional pockets that can be closed with Velcro flaps. I usually keep a small pouch with a few extra batteries and memory cards in one of these, and it works very well for that purpose.
There’s one problem with those compartments, though, and it’s that the Velcro flap can get stuck with some of the items you’re likely to carry in the main compartment. This happens to me all the time with lens hoods, but it can also happen with camera bodies or any other sharp-edged objects.
Besides the main compartment, there’s a second, smaller compartment in the front, which is also covered by the main flap cover and can additionally be secured using a smaller flap at the top of the bag. This is a sleeve-like compartment that expands in size quite a bit more than it initially seems possible. It can store a 9.7-inch iPad, and there’s also enough space for cleaning tools and a few extra filters. If you’re shooting with a 35mm film camera, it’s also the perfect place to keep a few extra rolls of film.
The 12-inch MacBook, however, doesn’t fit in this compartment. It’s really, really close, but ultimately it doesn’t sink all the way to the bottom, so you won’t be able to close the main flap with the MacBook sticking out. It’s a shame, really. Had the bag been just one centimeter wider it would have been a near perfect fit.
Now, you could technically put the MacBook inside the bag’s main compartment, but you’d have to find a different way to arrange the dividers, which I don’t recommend doing. The bag wasn’t designed to carry a laptop, and any attempt on your part to force it to do so is going to be awkward at best.
Like the Retrospective 5, the 6 also features the same silent closure system to allow you to get your gear in and out of the bag without making any noise. Using some pull tabs, the Velcro patches fold in on themselves, which renders them inert. This is a clever feature, but it comes at the expense of safety, because the bag needs to be open — or, I guess, not closed — in order for it to work.
Besides the main cover, a similar silent closure option is available for two other flaps that grant access to the internal dividers and the outer sleeve pocket. Each of these covers can attach to two different spots: one that secures the associated pocket, and another one that leaves it open for easy and silent access. This works very well in combination with the silent feature of the main cover, and it means everything inside the bag can be retrieved without making a sound.
Comfort and real world usage
The Think Tank Retrospective 6 manages to pull off something very difficult with ease: it’s comfortable enough to carry for extended periods of time while still holding a considerable amount of gear. In fact, I can fit my Sony a7 II with the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 prime attached, plus the Sony Zeiss FE 24-70mm F/4 and the Sony FE 70-200mm F/4 zooms and even a full-sized flash and a softbox. This kind of setup is versatile enough to handle all my regular shooting, and I can comfortably carry it on me for several hours at a time without getting tired.
Before using the Retrospective 6, I had to choose between the smaller Retrospective 5 and my leather Brixton by ONA. Now however, the Retrospective 6 has become my go-to choice for almost everything. I still pick up the Retrospective 5 when I have to travel extremely light, but the difference in weight between both bags is so small that I often just take the 6 with me instead, even if it’s half-empty. As for the ONA, I’ve been using it less and less lately, which, to be honest, makes me a little sad. It’s still my instinctive pick when I want to look good though, because you just can’t beat the gorgeous leather in the looks department. Most times, however, the Retrospective 6 is the smarter choice, especially if I don’t need to carry a laptop with me.
The fact it’s not big enough to fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro is my only real quibble with the Retrospective 6, but even that is bothering me a lot less than I thought it would. Adding an extra 4 lbs. of weight would certainly make the bag too heavy to carry — much like the Brixton — so that wouldn’t have been practical anyway. Instead, I’ve learned to leave my laptop behind more often. I don’t really miss it anymore, and when I do need to use it, backpacks are always a more comfortable choice anyway. As a result, the Brixton hasn’t seen a whole lot of action lately, and something tells me things are going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
I also love the fact that the Retrospective 6 can be folded down and stored into the outer sleeve compartment of my rolling suitcase, which means I can travel with a fully-loaded backpack carrying my laptop and all my camera gear, plus the suitcase carrying all my clothes, and still have the messenger bag available to use as a day bag when I arrive at my destination. It’s a neat trick, and being able to pull it off has dramatically improved my traveling experience, to the point where now I can’t imagine doing things any other way.
After a brief time with it, the Retrospective 6 quickly earned a place in my life as both my everyday bag and my travel bag, which I assure you is no small feat. Well played, Think Tank.
Room for improvement
Even though the Retrospective 6 is a solid camera bag, it is, of course, not without its minor flaws. Most of these are not even close to being deal breakers, but they are shared issues across the Retrospective line of bags. If you’re considering a different model, be sure to keep them in mind.
Better looks / more colors: No matter how you look at them, the Retrospective bags are not among the most stylish camera bags out there. They’re not ugly by any means, but they are a bit… boring. Adding some character wouldn’t hurt, but I wouldn’t want Think Tank to completely redesign the bags into some sort of fashion statement, either. Just spice them up a bit.
Removable padded insert: This is a very popular feature these days, and with good reason. Having a removable camera insert makes the bag a lot more versatile because you can use it as both a camera bag and a regular messenger bag without having to completely remove all of your gear and tear off each divider one by one. It’s a very convenient feature and there’s no downside to it, so why not add it?
Better inner side pockets: This is the only part of the bag that doesn’t seem as well thought-out as it could have been. The little Velcro flaps in the side pockets get caught with items in the main compartment all the time, which can make it awkward to retrieve those items.
Improved weatherproofing: Think Tank doesn’t need to make the bags fully waterproof — as in, submerge-it-in-water waterproof — just make the bag tough enough that a rain cover is no longer needed. That’s the right goal and it should be feasible. Think Tank is already most of the way there, after all.
The Retrospective 6 is a great, versatile camera bag, but if for some reason it isn’t up your particular alley, here are some other excellent options you can consider:
Another Retrospective bag: If you like everything about this bag but the problem is size, take a long look at one of the other bags in the lineup. In particular, both the Retrospective 7 and the Retrospective 10 should offer a bit more space without compromising too much on size, weight or comfort. The Retrospective 5, on the other hand, is smaller and therefore better suited for small mirrorless systems.
The ONA bags: If you’re not crazy about the looks of the Retrospective 6 and you don’t mind paying a bit more, check out some of the excellent ONA bags: the Berlin II and the Prince Street are perhaps the closest equivalents in terms of size and weight, while offering a significant upgrade in the looks department. And if you’d like to go a little bigger, the Brixton is another great choice. Just be aware that the leather versions of any of these bags will be heavier, so if you’re concerned about that, go with the also-excellent canvas or nylon models when available.
The Billingham bags: Another great alternative is the Billingham Hadley Pro. High-quality materials, great construction techniques and an impeccable sense of style are its main credentials. The bag comes in a variety of styles and colors, but the black version should be just as understated as the Think Tank bags while looking significantly better.
The Everyday Messenger: Peak Design’s first foray into the camera bag world took Kickstarter by storm in 2015, and with good reason. Available in both 13-inch and 15-inch configurations, the Everyday Messenger is perhaps the opposite of the Retrospective series: instead of going with a traditional and understated design approach, Peak Design packed the Everyday Messenger chock-full of tech and went for a far more radical look. Love it or hate it, the Everyday Messenger won’t leave anyone indifferent. Check out our own review of the bag for more information.
The Everyday Backpack: In yet another massively successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, Peak Design took a crack at designing the ultimate backpack for photographers, and the Everyday Backpack is the result. It comes in both 20-liter and 30-liter sizes, and it shares many of the same design cues found in the Everyday Messenger. If you like modern bags and prefer a backpack, this could very well be the one to get.
The Incase DSLR Pro Pack: If you want a backpack but are not too fond of the Peak Design bags, I recommend the Incase DSLR Pro Pack. This is a far more traditional camera backpack, and has many of the same features as the Retrospective bags: tough, discreet, versatile and affordable, all in a streamlined package. A great camera bag well worth your consideration.
The Think Tank Retrospective 6 has quickly become my most used bag, and that’s saying a lot. I tend to obsess over bags, and I’ve tried a lot of them over the years. No other bag to date has given me such a seamless and worry-free experience, and that’s probably why I keep coming back to it. Even its admittedly dull looks are kind of growing on me.
Think Tank Photo has a good thing going with the Retrospective series of bags, which is probably why they keep experimenting with new form factors without ever altering the essence and trademark features of their very distinctive design. It’s a solid approach, and upon using one, it’s easy to understand why they’re such popular bags.
Great design means form should not be in opposition to function, but in its service instead. The Retrospective 6 certainly embodies this philosophy better than any other camera bag I’ve ever used. If you’re in the market for a messenger camera bag, I strongly encourage you take a good, long look at it. You won’t regret it.