The Retrospective series has long been Think Tank’s most popular range of shoulder bag and the reasons for this are plentiful. Not only are the bags superbly built, but they also include a range of useful features including “soundless” Velcro fasteners, a variety of pockets, weather-sealing and a good amount of padding. Available in three sizes (the 5, 7 and 30), they perfectly suit both the DSLR and mirrorless user.
Now, three years on from its initial release, the company has built upon the success of the Retrospective series by giving it a stylish leather finish.
Since we run a mirrorless website, it made sense for us to review the smallest bag in the series, the Retrospective Leather 5. It is the fourth Think Tank bag we’ve had the chance to test following the Mirrorless Mover 20, Urban Approach 10 shoulder bag and Perception 15 backpack, and I have to say that we’ve been consistently satisfied with the design, quality and durability of their products.
Design and Ease of Use
The Retrospective Leather 5 keeps all the excellent features of the original Retrospective 5 while incorporating premium leather accents, a Dual Cross buckle for extra security and an updated zippered pocket on the rear for your tablet or laptop depending on the bag size you choose.
Much of the bag is fashioned from water-repellant sand-washed cotton canvas, giving the bag a rugged and understated appearance. In fact, you could easily mistake this bag for a standard messenger bag, which is great if you don’t want the world to know you’re carrying around a lot of expensive camera gear.
As the name suggests, there are a number of leather accents found on the handle, the borders around the mouth of the bag and certain pockets, the shoulder pad, and of course, the front flap. Being Full-grain Dakota, the hide has not been buffed and as such it showcases the skin’s natural texture. It is smooth, supple and attractive but, as with any leather product, should be treated with more care than your standard canvas or nylon camera bag. I used a waterproofing spray the first day I received it to give it extra protection from the rain which, as we know, falls all too often here in the UK!
The bag itself is a good size with ample room for your mirrorless gear and other small accessories. It features a main compartment whose walls are covered in a protective velex layer and five foam dividers – two inside the bag and three in a separate package – whose position you can adjust according to the size of your gear. You can see a practical example of the gear you can fit inside the bag at the end of this article.
In the case of any bag, I always feel that the more pockets there are, the better, and this is one area where the Retrospective Leather 5 excels.
There is a total of four main internal pockets. Of the two that lie flat against the walls of the bag, one is zippered while the other has a velcro closure. They are useful for small notebooks, smartphones, lint-free cloths and other flat objects.
The pocket with the velcro closure actually hides an even smaller pocket inside, as well as two compartments for memory cards. The only issue I’ve had with this pocket is that the velcro won’t close if you place a foam divider at the centre of the bag, as you can see in the example image below.
The other two are loose nylon pockets with a simple velcro closure. They are fine for storing extra batteries, air pumps and other small accessories but they can be difficult to access when the bag is fully packed.
I actually wish that Think Tank had added some padding to these pockets for a couple of reasons. First, they are the ideal size for storing the smaller Micro Four Thirds primes like the 25mm or 45mm, and second, the thin nylon on its own doesn’t act as a protective barrier between the accessories in the pocket and your gear. A good substitute could be the foam pocket found inside the Think Tank Perception 15 backpack (see second image below).
Moving to the outside of the bag, we find yet another four pockets – one at the front, one at the rear and two on the side.
The front is home to the largest pocket. Since the fabric on either side folds, it lies flat against the body when there isn’t anything inside but can expand to accommodate larger items such as your wallet, memory card holder or the provided rain cover.
Like many of the other pockets, it closes via a velcro flap. Should you want to remain discreet, you also have the option of placing the velcro flap inside the pocket so that it doesn’t make any noise. Even when the pocket is expanded to its maximum capacity, it is easy to close the bag with the main leather flap.
The pocket on the back is one of the features that has been updated. Whereas the original had a zipper just along the top, the Retrospective Leather has a zipper that runs along the top and halfway down the sides as well. The additional zipper length makes it easier to open the pocket and insert/remove your belongings. On the Retrospective Leather 5, you can fit a small tablet/reader or a paperback book.
Finally, the two flat side pockets are good for items like smartphones, batteries, lip balm, tissues or lint-free cloths. I personally tend to use them for objects to which I need quick access.
Something I should also mention is the transparent compartment on the back of the main leather flap. It is meant for storing business cards or displaying your home address but can also be used store memory cards.
Closing and opening the bag
What I love about the Retrospective and its contemporaries within the Think Tank range are the multiple ways you can close the bag.
For the most secure closure possible, you can use the new Dual Cross buckle, which is also found on the Urban Approach series we recently reviewed. You can use the buckle when you know you won’t be opening the bag for a while and want to keep your gear as safe as possible. I often use the buckle when I’m travelling on the subway or walking through a busy crowd of people, for example.
The second option is to use the two velcro pads found on the front pocket and the underside of the main leather flap. Velcro closures can be useful when you want to keep your belongings safe but know that you’ll be opening your bag frequently. I turn to the velcro when I am outdoors and actively taking photos, as I often find myself changing lenses or fishing various accessories out of my bag.
Finally, you can choose to “silence” the velcro pads by covering them with a flap (Sound Silencers). This is the least secure closure but it is essential when you are shooting in very quiet situations like a church service or a theatrical performance. After all, nothing echoes quite as much as velcro in a large building!
Overall I find the main closure very secure. Though there is a slight gap between the main flap and the edges of the bag, the contents remain protected from the elements by two small flaps of cotton canvas on either side.
How about the strap?
If I had to criticise one aspect of the Retrospective Leather 5, it would the strap. Coming from the sleek and lightweight nylon strap of the Urban Approach, I was surprised by how bulky and inflexible the canvas webbing of the Retrospective strap was in comparison. And while it was a good length for me, I can imagine that it would be too short for very tall people who want to wear it cross-shoulder.
Given the other updates Think Tank made to the series, it is a shame that they didn’t take the opportunity to rethink the strap as well.
The shoulder pad was a different story. At first, I was disappointed because the leather accent made it very stiff and rigid. However, a day of using the bag broke the leather in, and it is now both comfortable and supple. The shoulder pad also features a series of non-slip silicone strips along the base to stop it from slipping off your shoulder.
How much gear can I carry? A practical example
Knowing the dimensions of a bag can be helpful but there’s nothing quite like seeing a practical example of the gear a bag can comfortably hold. Since most of the gear we own is Micro Four Thirds, that’s the system I’ll be using to demonstrate the maximum capacity of the Retrospective Leather 5.
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8 attached
- M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8
Internal flat pockets
- Two lint-free clothes
- Pouch with business cards
- Memory cards
Internal nylon pockets
- M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 (protected inside black pouch)
- Small air pump
External front pocket
- Lens caps
External zippered pocket
- Italian paperback phrase book
External side pockets
Both the original Retrospective 5 and the new Leather version are very good bags, with a rugged and inconspicuous design, multiple pockets and an unbeatable shoulder pad, yet despite the added improvements, I find it hard to recommend the Retrospective Leather 5 over the original version.
First, I feel that the company could have taken the improvements a step further. For example, they could have refined the strap or improved the practicality of certain pockets such as the two nylon pockets on the inside. However, I freely admit that what I might consider a flaw may not bother other users of the bag. As I’m sure Think Tank took customer feedback into consideration when designing the Retrospective Leather 5, this may well be the case.
Second, we have the issue of price. The new Retrospective Leather 5 costs about $50 more than the original. This is no doubt because of the leather accents, so unless you are desperate for leather, I would suggest that you save yourself some money and go for the original.
What are your thoughts about the Retrospective shoulder bag series? We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section!
What I like about the Think Tank Retrospective Leather 5:
- Sturdy and rugged design with attractive leather accents
- The perfect size for a mirrorless system like Micro Four Thirds
- A plethora of pockets for accessories
- Three excellent ways to close the bag (the Dual Cross buckle, velcro and Sound Silencers)
- Extremely comfortable shoulder strap
What I don’t like about the Think Tank Retrospective Leather 5:
- The bulky canvas webbing used for the strap could be improved or changed
- The interior nylon pockets should be slightly padded, as they are a good size for very small MFT primes
- More expensive than the original Retrospective 5, which is nearly identical