Recently the exceptionally generous people at MindShiftGear sent me an advance copy of their new 20L adventure backpack for photographers. I reviewed that pack here, and as you may have read in that article, the problem I had with the 20L was that with a grip attached to my Olympus E-M1, the bag became a tad harder to close, which in turn made putting a 13” laptop in the front pocket impossible. So they sent me the slightly bigger one, a 30L version, a few weeks later. That’s the focus of this review.
If you look at the 30L standing next to the 20L from the front you’ll notice that it isn’t all that much taller. It’s only slightly wider, but the main difference comes in the depth of the pack. Check out the side view image of the two bags and you’ll see what I mean.
As I said in my review of the 20L the build quality of these new FirstLight packs is pretty impressive. They are also quite versatile on the inside, especially the 30L with its additional dividers. You should have no problem at all finding the right configuration for your gear given all the additional dividers that are supplied with the bag. There’s also a kind of cushioning U-shaped rest for your larger lenses. I don’t have much of a need for that, but I can see that DSLR lenses like a 300mm f/2.8 or 200-400mm f/4 would benefit from it as it also has a stretchy strap that will secure the lens even more inside the bag. My biggest lens is the Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 seen in the image below.
I can’t repeat this enough: these FirstLight packs are very comfortable. They are designed for hiking, so if you plan on walking long distances in the outdoors with your camera gear, you’re going to want to invest in one of these.
What I like about them is that they are easily adjustable where you need adjustments. While I am not really into hiking with lots of gear, I was able to load up this pack with just about every bit of kit I have and make only a few adjustments to the height of the harness and a few other straps for it to feel really very secure and stable enough for me to probably go running with it on my back and not have it jostle about (yeah, that running thing isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but you get the idea, I hope). The padding on the back, shoulder and waist support is excellent. I wish I’d have had this pack when I did the iMfolozi Trail Blaze with Olympus a few months back.
If you refer back to the 20L review you’ll find I spoke about some of the features, which include the neat way that the clasps lock, so there’s not creeping of the straps once you get going on your walk. On the 30L there is also an area where you can insert a hydration bladder and feed the tube through an opening (see the H2O pic below). Elasticated retainers on the right shoulder strap will hold the tube in place so that it isn’t left dangling around while you walk.
There’s an extra handle on the side of the pack compared to the 20L which adds an additional way of carrying it in places like airplanes. You can also easily secure your tripod to three of the pack’s sides. I would probably use either of the side options on a hike since I have a small carbon fibre travel tripod from Sunwayfoto. Putting the tripod on the flap would mean having to remove it every time you wanted to get something out of the pack - not something I would relish doing, so on the side it would go.
Dividing It Up, Packing It Up
This pack will hold a lot of gear! As you can see in my photo below I have the E-M1 with grip and 35-100mm f/2.0 attached in the main compartment. Directly in front of it is the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5, standing upright, with its hood reversed and tripod mount off to the side. In front of that is the dedicated rain coat for the 30L (I still need to see how that fits).
In the top part of the photo you’ll see I have one of the Olympus FL-600R flash units siting in the division in its pouch. I could easily put the other one on top of it but I wanted to leave it out to show the depth of the pack. Also note the divider I have pressed up against the side of that compartment has velcro sewn midway through both sides, so that increases the flexibility of compartment size. Three of the dividers that come with the pack are like that, so for smaller items they are going to come in pretty handy. I’m not showing all the dividers in these shots because I simply don’t have enough gear anymore, but when I did my weekend safari with Olympus at Nambiti they came in handy for the extra gear supplied on that trip.
Still on the top section of the bag you can see I have my Pan/Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Olympus 9-18mm, Olympus 75mm f/1.8 and Samyang 7.5mm fisheye packed in those spaces. Now it would actually be very easy for me to double up those lenses in each of those compartments to free up additional space if I ever needed it. I have actually put little felt pads on many of my rear lens caps specifically for that reason - it stops the lenses from impacting one another.
In the bottom part of the photo you’ll see from left to right:
LEE Seven5 Filter system (contains 4 filters in the Lowepro GPS holder and the filter holder in its pouch)
Giotto Rocket Blower - shown only for scale - the second E-M1 will go in there when I go on safari
Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 (note that it is standing upright with space to spare)
Olympus PEN E-PM2
A Safari Travel Solution
So this is the perfect bag for me to take with me on safari to Botswana and Sabi Sabi in September. The only thing I am a little concerned about is whether it will be OK to take it on the small planes that will fly us between Johannesburg and Kasane in Botswana. Those propeller planes don’t typically have large overhead stowage so there’s a strong chance I may have to gate check it, which is obviously a concern since it’s not a crush proof pack. I suppose as long as I can get it on the apron on disembarking and not have the baggage handlers get their mitts on it it should be fine to gate check.
I just weighed it on the bathroom scale and with all that stuff in there now it is 8kg, which is bang on the limit for domestic flights here. This is without the laptop. According to the information I have received from the airlines, they don’t weigh your laptop when you pass through security now, so I can hold that in my hand and then slip it back into the FirstLight 30L when I have passed through security. I’m also in two minds as to whether or not that 35-100mm is going to come with me on this safari. I may still get the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO with 1.4x TC on loan again instead.
On the whole this is a great pack for the outdoor photographer. It has more than enough space to accommodate big lenses as well as a few small ones. If you are using a small micro four thirds system like mine you may want to consider the 20L which is also very cool, but you will have to remove the battery grip if you are using one.
So there you have it. Another winner of a pack from the good folks at MindShift Gear and one less thing for me to think about when I go to Botswana in a few weeks time.
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