We’re used to reviewing and recommending beautiful, designer-like camera bags here at Tools & Toys because well, we love them. There are some really excellent bags out there that offer plenty of features in a sleek, beautiful package, like the ONA bags, which are some of our favorite camera bags in the world.
However, as beautiful as those bags are, they usually fail miserably in the discretion department. Just ask any ONA bag owner how often they receive compliments on their bag, and you’ll see what we mean. Everybody loves a nice-looking bag, but there are situations when it may be better to opt for a more discreet approach instead. When you’re carrying several thousand dollars’ worth of gear on you, the last thing you want is to attract too much attention towards your bag.
In that sense, Think Tank bags manage to hit a very elusive spot: they’re good-looking enough that you won’t be embarrassed to take them with you anywhere, while being understated enough that you won’t need to worry about prying eyes, either.
These are not precious objects intended to double as fashion statements. Instead, they embrace everything a serious camera bag should be: tough and understated, while offering plenty of protection and organizational features.
The Retrospective 5 is the smallest bag in Think Tank’s Retrospective series and, like its bigger siblings, it’s the perfect embodiment of all those qualities. And at $145, it’s also relatively affordable, giving you a huge bang for your buck.
All Retrospective bags come in three colors, all of which are similarly low-key: Pinestone, Black, and Blue Slate (as reviewed).
These bags are built to incredibly high standards of durability. The use of tough materials and solid construction techniques mean you can carry your gear without ever worrying about it. And for extra peace of mind, Think Tank 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.
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.
The bag closes with a main flap cover that, ahem, covers all internal pockets with a bit of wiggle room. This makes it just as easy to close the bag when it’s completely full as when it’s barely empty.
The flap cover — and 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 nice design touch that improves the bag’s reliability and performance in everyday use.
The inner side of the flap cover includes a clear plastic card holder, which is ideal for two reasons:
First, it’s a convenient place to store a few business cards, in case you run into an amazing photo opportunity and need to hand out a card to your subject for later.
Second, it also doubles as a way to identify your bag in case it gets stolen and then miraculously recovered by the police, or if you accidentally lose it and a genuinely good person happens to find it before a thief does. Hey, it could happen.
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, and though the pockets are very shallow, they provide enough wiggle room to store an iPhone 5S, or a charger and cable, for example. Just be careful when trying to get those items out because it gets a little cramped in there.
The back of the bag features a zippered pocket, which is spacious enough for a notebook or a kindle device. It won’t fit a full-sized iPad though, and getting a Retina iPad mini inside is no easy task. It can be done, but it’s not something we’d recommend. The front pocket works much better for that.
The bottom of the bag is made out of the same material as the rest, and it doesn’t seem to be specially reinforced. This is not a problem in practical use though, since padding is more than adequate already. There’s no need to be gentle when handling this bag.
The bag also comes with one of the best shoulder straps we’ve ever seen on a camera bag. 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, and it’s made of heavy-duty cotton, with a shoulder pad wrapped by canvas and with rubber accents for a better grip. 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.
A myriad of pockets
Opening the flap cover grants access to the main compartment, which is spacious enough to accommodate a standard size DSLR with a lens attached, and up to two 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, one of which has a foldable upper half. This allows you to stack two small lenses, using the fold as an improvised separator.
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, memory cards and the like. This is a great place to store the extra dividers that came with the bag when they’re not in use.
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.
Both narrow sides of the main compartment feature additional pockets that can be closed with Velcro-like flaps. These are useful for storing extra batteries, chargers, cables, etc.
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 cover at the top of the bag. This is a sleeve-like compartment that expands in size quite a bit more that it initially seems possible, and is even capable of holding a full-sized iPad. There’s enough space in this pocket for all your cleaning tools and a few extra filters, for example. And if you’re shooting with a 35mm film SLR, it’s also the perfect place to keep a few extra rolls of film.
One of the most important aspects of a camera bag is how comfortable it is to carry for long periods of time. A photo shoot or a day’s worth of photo-walking can easily extend over many hours, and it’s definitely not fun when your bag is causing extra strain on your back and shoulders. In that sense, finding the most comfortable bag usually depends on the amount of gear you need to carry.
For medium or heavy loads, backpacks are usually the more comfortable solution because weight is more evenly distributed across your shoulders and back. Messenger bags, on the other hand, tend to work best with lighter loads and, since they usually hang at waist level, provide easier access to your gear at all times.
For those reasons, we would usually recommend using a backpack for a full-blown professional setup, like a full-size DSLR with a few massive telephoto lenses. For smaller systems, though — think one or two mirrorless bodies and a few lenses, or a single DSLR body with one or two small lenses — a messenger bag can be a great choice.
With that in mind, the Retrospective 5 is a very comfortable bag to carry. That’s in part thanks to the excellent shoulder strap and the included shoulder pad, which provides excellent cushioning and helps distribute the load more evenly. But it’s also partly due to the smaller size of the bag, which effectively puts a cap on how much stuff you can carry inside.
The Retrospective 5 isn’t big enough to hold most tripods and if your workflow depends on always having one with you, then you should probably look at a bigger bag. That said, carrying a small and light travel tripod clipped to the side of the bag every now and then works fine, and it won’t make the bag significantly heavier or more uncomfortable to carry.
We haven’t yet tested any of the other bags in the series but going by the way the Retrospective 5 feels, we’d say the Retrospective 7 and Retrospective 10 should be just as comfortable, although we wouldn’t really go with any of the bigger bags without at least trying them on first. This is especially important if you plan on carrying a laptop inside your bag along with your camera gear. Given the excellent quality of the shoulder straps though, even the bigger bags will probably be fine but at that point, it won’t hurt to consider other options.
One of the hallmark features of the Retrospective bags is their silent closure. Sometimes, a photographer needs to be as stealthy as humanly possible in order to get a difficult shot, and fiddling with a noisy bag is a sure way to ruin any such opportunities.
In normal operation, the main flap cover attaches to the exterior of the bag using two patches of Velcro-friendly material. This provides an easy and convenient way to secure the bag’s contents, but it has a potentially important downside: Velcro is really loud.
In order to solve that problem, the inner side of the flap cover has a nifty little feature: the Velcro patches of the flap cover can fold in on themselves in such a way that they are left completely covered, thus rendering them unable to attach to anything anymore. This means you’ll be able to open and close the flap cover in total silence.
Besides the main cover, there are two smaller flap covers in the Retrospective 5 that are used to secure individual pockets. 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.
Unfortunately, as convenient as this feature may be on occasion, leaving the bag in its silent configuration by default is probably not a good idea. The thing to keep in mind is that, by removing the Velcro closure, the flap cover won’t attach to the bag anymore, so your gear will be more vulnerable to theft. For that reason, we recommend only using this feature when you actually need it, and returning the bag to its standard, loud-as-a-helicopter configuration when you’re done taking pictures of unsuspecting ninjas.
Branding, or lack thereof
One of the most frequent sins of camera gear manufacturers is the excessive branding they sometimes put on their products. Luckily, that is not a problem with the Think Tank Retrospective bags. In fact, branding on these bags is so absolutely minimal that it’s practically non-existent. There’s only one instance of the Retrospective name on the bag, it’s located on the back, and it’s even covered by the zipper guard, which means it’s invisible to anyone when the bag is in use, even the wearer.
Similarly, there’s only one small — really small — rectangular leather patch with the Think Tank logo on the back, which will be invisible to anyone in real world usage.
Simply put, you needn’t be concerned about inadvertently broadcasting a statement to the world about your gear. This is as discreet, low-profile a bag as they come.
One bag, many possibilities
This section will provide a few examples of the many different gear setups that can be carried in a Retrospective 5 bag. Each example is a completely real-world scenario:
One camera, one lens: The main compartment provides ample space to hold most camera bodies and lenses out there with room to spare, with two minor caveats: 1) full-sized professional bodies like the Canon 1D-X won’t fit with a lens attached, and 2) massive telephoto lenses like the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM will not fit at all. This goes without saying, but always be sure to check whether your gear will fit before buying a camera bag.
Two cameras, two lenses: If your lenses are small, you’ll be able to carry two bodies with the lenses attached. This is a very useful configuration, since it allows for great flexibility when shooting. You could carry a DSLR and a second compact body as backup, or you could carry both a 35mm film camera and a digital camera and keep them both ready to shoot at all times.
Full-frame DSLR (or 35mm film SLR) and up to 3 lenses: By placing one lens on each side of the main compartment, you can create enough space in the middle to then place the camera body with a third lens attached. In this configuration, the camera goes in the bag with the lens facing down.
Compact System Camera (CSC) with lenses: This is where the Retrospective 5 shines. If you own a small mirrorless camera with a few prime lenses, you could potentially fit your entire system in the bag with ease. For example, there’s enough room for a Micro Four Thirds camera body, 5 prime lenses and a zoom lens without a problem.
DSLR (or film SLR) with lens and CSC with up to 4 lenses: This is probably the most efficient configuration, but it comes with the downside of not having the lens mounted on the DSLR. This is a great way to travel light while still carrying a considerable amount of gear with you.
This should give you an idea of the kind of usage you can realistically expect to get with a Retrospective 5 bag. It is worth noting that all of these scenarios refer only to the main compartment. Besides the cameras and lenses mentioned above, there’s enough space left in the other pockets to carry a decent array of filters, step-up rings, chargers, batteries, memory cards, cleaning tools, etc. Having those extra items in your bag at all times can make your life significantly easier when you’re out there shooting.
Room for improvement
Even though the Retrospective 5 is a really solid camera bag, it is of course not without its minor faults. These are some areas Think Tank could work on to make it even better:
Better looks / more colors: Although this is meant to be a low-profile bag, it probably wouldn’t hurt to expand the color range a little bit. Brown would work very well, for example, as would gray. Also, slightly improving the aesthetics wouldn’t dramatically change the bag’s stealth factor, and would be a welcome improvement.
Removable padded insert: This is a no-brainer. A removable padded insert would grant the ability to quickly switch between using the Retrospective 5 as a regular messenger bag and as a camera bag, without having to spend several minutes playing with the dividers every single time. There’s no good reason not to include this feature, and many other manufacturers have been doing it for years.
Improved waterproofing: It’s difficult to design a fully waterproof messenger bag that is quick and convenient to open and close but the fact remains, the current rain cover solution seems like a half-hearted effort, at best. They can, and should, do better.
Full-sized DSLR body and big lens compatibility: This is hardly the bag’s fault, but it’s still something to keep in mind. Even if you only carry one camera and one lens, some of the bigger professional full-frame bodies and telephoto lenses won’t fit inside the Retrospective 5. If you need to carry these items, you’ll have to take a look at one of its bigger siblings instead.
The Retrospective 5 is a great, versatile little bag, but if for some reason it isn’t up your particular alley, here are some other excellent camera bags you can consider:
A bigger Retrospective bag: If you like everything about this bag but the problem is space, take a long look at one of the bigger Retrospective bags. 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 ONA bags: If you like having a small bag, you’re still not crazy about the looks of the Retrospective 5 and you don’t mind paying a bit more, check out some of the excellent ONA bags: The Bowery and The Prince Street should feel quite similar in 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 fantastic choice. These bags are Tools & Toys favorites for a reason, you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
The Billingham bags: Another alternative that works great and looks even better is the Billingham Hadley Small. Great materials, great construction techniques and an impeccable sense of style are its credentials and boy, does it deliver on every one of those. And for a bigger version, check out the Billingham Hadley Pro. Both bags come in a variety of styles and colors, but the black version should be just as discreet as the Think Tank bags.
A backpack: Finally, if you need to carry a significant amount of gear and you’re not sold on the idea of using a messenger bag, you should probably go with a backpack instead. We like the Incase DSLR Pro Pack, which has many of the same attributes as the Retrospective bags: tough, discreet, versatile and affordable, all in a streamlined package. A great camera bag well worth your consideration.
All in all, the Retrospective 5 is a really solid performer, and a great walk-around camera bag. It’s big enough to carry more gear than you’re likely to need on a daily basis, without being as bulky as other bags out there. If you never want to leave home without your camera, this is the right bag for you.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a bag that can hold all of your gear, all of the time, this probably isn’t it. On that note, keep in mind that bigger Retrospective bags will feel very similar in nature and will have many of the same features, with the added benefit of extra space. It’s just a matter of figuring out which size works best for the amount of gear you want to carry.
For the vast majority of people out there though, we think the Retrospective 5 will hit that elusive spot that is so hard to get right most of the time. It’s not too big, and it’s not too heavy. It’s not too small, or too cramped. It is, simply put, just right.