newswear vs think tank pouches – which one works?

[A while ago I wrote about bags, and suggested that if you weren’t interested in photography bags, you probably shouldn’t bother reading the piece.  Same goes here – if you don’t know what a pouch system is, I recommend you go and do something more interesting than reading this…]

In the ongoing battle to still be able to walk when I’m 55 (or even 45), I continue my long and seemingly unending opening of my wallet and pouring of cash after the perfect camera carrying solution. While still being able to appear in public with my head held high (or at least not having to hide in embarrassment…).

I’ve been using Domke shoulder bags for a long time – there’s a blog post about them here.  But they have a major flaw, which is that they put a whole lot of weight on one shoulder, and therefore make you walk in a most peculiar way over time. And if you’re on a long event shoot, I end up putting mine down in a corner, with the resulting risks of (a) all my stuff being knicked or (b) not having that essential lens with me at the moment of truth.

Travelling somehow lowers my concerns about looking odd, and for quite a while now I’ve been using the Newswear chest vest. In fact, I’ve used it on probably a dozen overseas trips, and there’s a lot going for it – it keeps the weight of your camera gear very close in to your body, it’s very secure (the velcro is, as promised super strong – but of course that does mean that it’s also incredibly noisy when you’re trying to change lenses in corners of churches or conferences – you just can’t open velcro quietly – I’ve really really tried…).

The equipment sits quite high up on your body, and all the weight is carried over your shoulders, but distributed very evenly if you’re wearing it properly.  It’s possible to carry the whole unit over one shoulder if you’re just moving from one space to another.  And one of the huge plus points for me is that it’s very very vehicle friendly – you can hop in and out of a car (or a light aircraft – see the pictures below) and be safely strapped in over the pouch system. That’s pretty useful, and I’m likely to revert to this system for an upcoming trip to Bangladesh, as there’ll be a lot of hopping in and out of planes and boats, and anything that lowers the risk of dropping all your kit in a massive river is a bonus…

However – there is a but.  And it’s after these Newswear pics:

Newswear chest vest in Papua New Guinea

Newswear chest vest - useful for getting out of a plane... PNG

That's quite a draft... No lens changing going on here - little too much wind... And I know I should have taken my lens hood off. Oops.

You may have noticed that I said ‘revert’ to Newswear on this upcoming trip.  That’s because there are problems with the system.  And one is that it’s very odd looking. That maybe shouldn’t matter, but actually, I’ve got to be able to walk into a whole range of situations and have people respond in a generally positive way to me, so I can ask them to do what I need to make a picture.  If you’ve just jumped out of a plane, somehow that’s already less of an issue than if I roll up in my car, and am wandering around a fancy reception.  So in practice, I’ve used the Newswear vest very infrequently in the UK.  Hardly ever. But I was still trying to work out a solution to the carrying thing.

So, as well as using Domke bags (see above), I’ve also been using Think Tank bags, again particularly on trips away.  I’ve got an Airport Ultralight, which I just use to get there and back – it’s a way of getting everything to and from a country, rather than something I work out of when I’m there.  I like its build quality, flexibility, and very photographer-led development – as with Domke, the people making these bags aren’t just keen photographers, they’re pros, and they’ve thought about how we work.  So before heading off to Pakistan with Tearfund earlier this summer, I bought the Think Tank pouch system.

I went for the Skin Component System version of their pouches, and bought the set (‘Skin Set‘), which gave me some options – it’s always hard to choose exactly what you’ll need in terms of storage, and this gave me some choices, which has worked out well. I’m not a huge fan of too much padding on bags, which is why I went of the Skins rather than the rather more robust Modular set. I paired the Skin set with a ‘Belly Dancer‘ Harness – again, great name (!) (see here for more on names…).  What this offered is the spread of weight between my shoulders, but more significantly, to my waist. The belt system carries the majority of the weight, which is very comfortable, and the shoulder harness spreads it around a bit. All bought from the really rather wonderful Harrison Cameras, here in Sheffield, who are Think Tank dealers.

But why bother?  It’s another £150 or so, and I’ve already got multiple bag options. However, I’ve stuck with this, and have used it significantly in the UK too. Good things?  Well, I like the way it feels when I’m wearing it, and it doesn’t look totally ridiculous. A little, but not totally. I’ve worn it for weddings and corporate events as well as in Pakistan covering the anniversary of the flooding and Tearfund’s response, and it fits in.  I like that there’s a ‘silent’ option on the velcro – basically if you know you’re going to be somewhere that you need to be quieter in, you can cover up the velcro with a flap, and just use the drawstrings to keep your kit in place.  I like the weatherproofing covers stored in the bottom of the pouches, and I like the flexibility of choosing different setups for different situations.  The whole thing is well made (as expected), and has nicely thought through bits – the way the zip pockets work, the dividers in the larger pouches.

But…  There’s a few niggles. Or just differences.

I find it harder to lie flat on the ground with this rather than the Newswear, though neither work that well – basically you’re lying on your gear, which is never ideal…

Overall, the system is bulkier than the Newswear, sticking out more, so working in confined spaces can be  an issue slightly.  You have to be careful to have really properly closed the flaps – on the Newswear it’s a simple slap it shut approach that’s needed, with the Think Tank, you need to be doubly sure you’ve shut the pouch properly…  And I’m finding I have to juggle which pouch my 70-200 f2.8 ends up in a little more on the TT (it only really sits safely in the 75 Pop Down). It’s harder to hop in and out of vehicles – because the belt sits on your hips, it’s hard to wear a seat belt or an aircraft harness over it.  The Belly Dancer harness took a while to get used to (origami with lenses…). And there’s a bit of movement really – the pouches (and this is both good and bad) move and rotate a little on the belt.  Overall, I think that’s a positive, but again, it took some getting used to.

The whole belt/harness/pouch combo is pretty unstable when you’re not wearing it – if you pick it up in a hurry, there’s a good chance you’d tip lenses or accessories onto the floor, if you weren’t careful with doing everything up. My workaround for this is to keep a Billingham 445 canvas bag in the back of the car, and just drop the whole lot into that when I’m done – it keeps everything together, and stops bits rolling out.  It also means I can keep my camera body safely packed in the same bag when I’m not using it.

Having said all that (and it reads a little negatively), I’m still using this set up as my main day to day kit bag, and have been for the past four months.  I’m very comfortable wearing this in almost any situation, and once it’s actually on you (and it can easily be worn under a short jacket, which is helpful), it’s very effective (though I did get stuck going up a very narrow spiral staircase the other day…). The real test of either of these systems is whether I use them – I’ve got enough bags sitting on shelves to really not need more…

And one of the reasons for that is that different situations do actually need different bags – that’s not just me justifying more expenditure, but actually where I’ve got to in practice.  For now then, it’s the Think Tank Skin system, set up using a Skin 75 (for 70-200 f2.8), Skin Strobe (SB900), Skin Double Wide (16-35 f4 + 24-70 f2.8). And a Pixel Pocket Rocket CF card holder (I like this a lot!).

Here’s some pics from Pakistan showing the Think Tank pouch system in use (thanks Lynsey…):

Think Tank in a very very hot place...

Think Tank in the shade...

Think Tank on the floor...

And on a completely unrelated point, but which I came across as I was digging out iPhone pics for this, I found a pic of the back of my D3s on the Pakistan trip – below.  That’s 4008 photos from one battery charge.  RAW, compressed, with certainly some chimping along the way.  That is quite astonishing. With the old D1 we were carrying around bucket loads of batteries that would just suddenly die on you after 236 pictures with no warning.  This is progress I think (though probably at some hideous cost to environment…).  Just thought I’d add it in (if you’ve got this far through the pouch thing, you probably deserve a treat…  This probably isn’t it…).

More pictures than you know what to do with...

So, to make this as search engine friendly as possible, this is a user review of the Newswear Chest Vest versus the Think Tank Skin pouch system with the Belly Dancer harness, with occasional mentions of Domke, Billingham and Nikon. Hope this is of interest to someone, somewhere, sometime…

richard hanson :: photographer :: sheffield