After testing out twenty or so backpacks, I have found a few that I really like. Now, I am on the search for an awesome messenger bag. While I think a backpack is more useful eighty percent of the time, there are a few select scenarios where I really prefer to have a good messenger bag. First and foremost is for use at work. Sometimes, I have appointments out of town or somewhere I might have some down time and having a professional bag that can also securely carry my camera is a must. Second, depending where I am traveling, a messenger bag can be great as a personal item on a plane if I am bringing limited gear. Finally, I prefer using a messenger bag when I am shooting street or urban photography as it is easier to access my camera and I can stay a little more inconspicuous.
My first few attempts at messenger bags have been mixed. Some of the bags have had some really great features, but all have had some pretty serious drawbacks as well. When Think Tank launched a new messenger bag that could fit a fifteen inch laptop, I was excited to give it a go. The Spectral bag has been a pretty good success for me. While there are definitely some things I would like to change about the bag, this is the first messenger bag I have used without any significant downsides. It is definitely my favorite messenger bag right now.
The design on this bag is a little boring for my taste, but will be much appreciated by many readers whose complaints about theft-inviting bags I have read. The bag is very inconspicuous and could be mistaken for a normal laptop bag or casual briefcase. This is perfect for all those that complain of camera bags being too obvious and enticing to the thief.
The Spectral bags are made of fabric treated with a water-resistant coating. While I wouldn't want to use this bag in a downpour, I would not have reservations carrying it in the rain. I don't get any opportunity to test it here in Vegas, I have plenty of experience in the Pacific Northwest and I would use this bag comfortably without a rain cover on the misty winter days there. However, it does come with a rain cover so you are covered if you need a little extra protection.
If you have read any of my other reviews of Think Tank, you know their zippers are one of the things I appreciate most about their bags. While zippers seem like such a small thing, a cheap zipper ruins a bag. I have used bags where the handle comes off or the zipper tread simply comes apart. That has never been an issue with any Think Tank bag I have used, and I am confident it will not be here either. While the zippers on this bag aren't as buttery smooth as those on my favorite Think Tank bag, they are still plenty smooth, and are much less bulky.
The shoulder strap on this bag is nice. It is not too bulky, but does come with a nice shoulder pad with plenty of padding. The adjustment mechanism is smooth and easy to use such that adjusting is no concern at all.
The magnetic clasp on the flap is a great concept. In practice, it was a little frustrating at first until I got used to it. Early on it seemed troublesome to connect the clasp, but after getting used to how it worked, it has been much easier and, while it still isn't as fool-proof as I would like, I do enjoy using it.
Something I really like about this bag is that there is a zipper under the flap that allows you to completely close of the inside of the bag. This is great if you are going to be doing any kind of traveling with this bag or even just putting it in your car. A complaint I have had with other messenger-style bags is small items can slide out. I have had this happen while my bag is tucked under an airplane seat, and it can be a real headache when your mouse slides out during take-off and there is nothing to stop it from sliding back ten rows. While an extra zipper would be annoying when trying to access gear quickly or frequently, the problem can easily be avoided by letting the extra flap velcro to the main flap and not having it in the way at all. There is also a spot to conveniently tuck it away if you prefer. While this little extra flap and zipper seems like such a small addition, it is one of those things that is really thought out and takes the bag to the next level. It is definitely one of my favorite features.
Another of the coolest aspects of the Spectral bags are the tripod attachment straps. This is not a common feature on most messenger bags I have seen. However, if a messenger bag has any hope of being more than just an occasional bag that I take with me on work outings, a way to carry a tripod is an absolute must. The tripod attachment on these bags are little straps that attach to the base of the bag, allowing you to tightly secure your tripod. Obviously, you will not have room to comfortably carry a large tripod, but it is perfect for a smaller travel tripod like I enjoy carrying. The straps are easily removable, leaving almost no trace so you do not have to worry about unsightly or cumbersome straps dangling off the bag. The attachments are also compact so they will easily tuck into the bag when you aren't using them without displacing any of your other gear.
The Spectral comes in three sizes: the 8, 10 and 15. The Spectral 8 is obviously going to be the smallest bag of the three. You could get by with a standard DSLR as long as you only have one or two small lenses. It should be fine with a mirrorless system and collection of three or four lenses. It will also fit an eight inch tablet.
The Spectral 10, unsurprisingly, fits a ten-inch tablet. It will also fit a standard DSLR with a 20-70 lens attached. It claims to fit up to three additional lenses, unless one of those is the 70-200. In that case, you are likely limited to just that lens, unattached to the body. Your mirrorless system will fit just fine.
Finally, the Spectral 15 fits a fifteen inch laptop. This seems to be the maximum carrying size for most photography messenger bags. Because I carry a 15.6 inch laptop, the fifteen inch carrying slot often proves a tight fit. It varies from bag to bag, but there is inevitably some difficulty. With the Spectral 15, the difficulty comes in height. My laptop easily slides into the pocket, but sticks up half an inch too high. While this is not ideal, I was still able to fully use the zipper to enclose the interior compartment while traveling. In addition to the 15 inch laptop, the Spectral 15 can fit a 10 inch tablet in the front pocket. You can plan on fitting a standard DSLR body with 70-200 attached with 2-4 extra lenses, up to a 70-200. There is also a bit of extra space for a flash or other gear.
Within the main compartment, I found there to be plenty of space. I often carried my laptop, mirrorless body with three lenses, one flash, four filters, my mouse, battery charger and some snacks. The outside of the bag has four additional pockets. On one side is a nice mesh pocket that expands large enough for a water bottle. I have been using it to carry my ball head. The ball head fit so nicely inside of the pocket, I forgot it was there. I have spent the last two months using my back up ball head as I feared I had mistakenly left my favorite ball head at the beach during a recent trip. I have used this bag on multiple occasions, not realizing the ball head was even there. Luckily, I explored the bag some more in preparation for this article and found the ball head.
The remaining three pockets come on the front of the bag. The largest pocket is a zippered pocket intended to fit a tablet with room for other gear. I find this pocket quite useful and have used it for my shutter remotes, memory cards, batteries and any other small item I want to be kept secure. I have also used it for larger hard-back books while traveling (I know, if I would just read books on my phone, it would save me a ton of space. The final two pockets are on the very front and have no zippers. One is fair-sized with room to comfortably fit a paper-back book that I take more often when traveling. I have also used it for my filter nest mini when I want quicker access to change filters. The last pocket has slots for three pens and a small area in front of that. This pocket is most convenient when the bag is seconding as a work bag and I can place pens, notes and other such materials in that pocket for easy access.
Overall, I really like the design of the bag. It is fairly compact, but still fits plenty of gear. While I wish my laptop fit a little nicer, it can still be sealed when traveling, which was a major downfall I had with the Peak Design bag as I couldn't close the zipper over my computer. I would have liked the front two pockets to have zippers as I think they would be more useful for storing small pieces of gear that way. I also would have preferred another pouch on the empty side.
The price point on this bag is very reasonable for something of Think Tank quality, ranging from $99 to $139. While this is still a decent chunk of change for a messenger bag, Think Tank is known for their quality and this bag definitely ranks more on the easily attainable side from Think Tank or similar brands. While you can find a cheaper brand out there, I have owned more Think Tank bags than any other brand and have always been more than satisfied with the quality and design in exchange for the price. For me, the Spectral 15 is the obvious choice, but if you have other needs, you can check out the Spectral 10 or Spectral 8.