If you have been following me in the past couple of years, attended one of my talks or read one of my books, there is one thing you will have heard more than anything else. Over and over and over, I keep repeating that the key to good photography in the mountains is very simple: your camera needs to be available at all times. Keep it buried in your backpack and I will guarantee that you will rarely take it out, certainly never in time to capture the perfect moment that suddenly appeared in front of you.
The job of a good adventure camera bag is simple: it needs to allow the photographer to have all the necessary gear available in an instant when needed, and be as discrete and unobtrusive when not. And contrary to what many believe, it is not its primary role to protect the equipment against the elements – your camera and lenses should be built well enough to withstand most conditions, and if things hit the fan too badly, a real waterproof bag (or the bottom of a backpack) is what you need.
Like every photographer out there, I have a closet full of bags, all of them sort of working but none of them perfect for what I need. Until, that is, I discovered the Thinktank Skin belt system. Let’s cut to the chase right away: if you shoot in the mountains, this (or something very close to this) is what you want to use, period. It is hands down the best camera bag for hiking and mountaineering photography.
Before we go any further, a couple of disclaimers:
Full disclosure: The Skin I am using was provided free of charge by ThinkTank for me to test. There was no obligation of any sort attached to it and the opinions I express are mine only. It turns out that this review is mostly positive, but I wouldn’t have hesitated to post negative comments had I not liked the product.
One big issue (and a reason why this review has been so long in the making) is that I can’t photograph myself taking photos, so have to rely on my outdoor partners to get images of me using the equipment. None of the images in this review are actually mine, and their credit can be found in the caption line.
The Skin is a so-called belt system. It consists of (surprise) a belt and a series of pouches which can be hung from the belt with a velcro system. ThinkTank has 5 different pouch sizes, named for the pro-level equipment they are designed to hold: 50, 75, Strobe, Chimp Cage and Double Wide. All pouches share a similar simple design: a main compartment with optional separator, a flexible lid attached with velcro and a single zip pocket on the lid. In addition, there is a raincover hidden in the bottom and all but the 50 and the strobe offer “pop down” modes to expand the vertical space via some bellows hidden at the bottom.
Like the belt itself, the pouches are thin and have next to no padding. This means that they are highly compressible and very lightweight, but also that they offer little protection against bumps. I view this as a positive trait, since weight is obviously of paramount importance, but mountains can be harsh environments. Especially when climbing, any fall can have dire consequences for the equipment, something to keep in mind at all times.
Here are some of the things that I really like about the Skin:
- It distributes the weight of the camera and lenses in an awesome way. Just like any good backpack, the weight is entirely supported on the hips, which makes it feel a lot lighter and causes no back pains even after long days. This is where shoulder packs often fall short, as their asymmetric weight distribution on a single shoulder often leads to unnecessary suffering, which in turns discourages carrying the camera where it is most accessible.
- Having the weight on the hips also means that no balance is lost. This is valuable for hiking but absolutely crucial for climbing. I have been able to climb fairly close to my limit (WI5, F6a, Scottish IV and E1 pitches) while carrying my camera where I can access it in seconds. This is huge and greatly simplifies logistics for alpine days. Shoulder packs (because they swing everywhere and are asymmetrical) and chest packs (because they hide your feet) often require the camera to be stored inside the backpack whenever a technical section is encountered. With the Skin, I just rotate the pouches to my back and stop worrying. The only exception is chimneys, where the pouch seems to always be on the wrong side.
- Everything is very accessible, without the need to open zippers or buckles, just tear the velcro lid away and grab the equipment. It is very glove friendly and stays reasonably easy to operate with big mitts on.
- It is compatible with the rest of my equipment. Sure, photo backpacks are great, but it is very rare for me not to already have a backpack on with survival equipment – if nothing else, water and extra layers. The belt of the Skin conveniently fits below most packs hip belts and above a climbing harness. It is not quite perfect, though: big trekking backpacks like my Osprey Argon 85L have such hefty hip belts that I can’t really fit the Skin anymore. The cut-off point seems to happen around 50-60L, though it depends on the exact backpack model. The Skin will also get in the way of some of the gear loops on my harness, usually making one or two difficult to access. I solve this problem by distributing my equipment in a smart way, putting gear that I rarely need (prusik loops, locking biners, knife, etc) on the loop(s) below the Skin. Since it is possible to rotate the pouches (see next point), it is not too big of an issue.
- Pouches can be attached to the belt in two ways, either in a fixed slot or simply velcroed, which allows them to slide along the full length of the belt. I only use the latter option, which I find incredibly useful. Whenever actively shooting, I will rotate the relevant pouches to the front, where I can access them easily. When I am done, they go back on the sides, where they are out of the way yet still within reach. Finally, whenever I need good balance, I will put the pouches all the way to the back, reducing the chances of them hitting anything or getting in my way. It is a very simple, very natural system and works extremely well.
- The whole system is very modular. I can choose which pouches match best the equipment I have available, and it is very easy to leave some lenses in camp and only have the footprint corresponding to what I actually carry. Since the pouches are so flexible, it also means that even if they are too big for the gear I have, they will compress well and won’t get in the way. I have used the Skin with anything from a single compact camera to two DSLRs, three lenses and sound equipment.
- it is a no-nonsense system. There are few bells and whistles, only one zip pocket and most pouches have no internal separator. The material used for the pouches is gnarly and has withstood all I have thrown at him so far, including a lot of rubbing against Chamonix granite. Simple, efficient and sturdy is how I like my gear.
- The raincovers are nice to have as a backup option. I use them very rarely but they are so light and unobtrusive, hidden in the bottom, that I gladly keep them packed. They are simple to attach (though the gear will become unavailable) and there is a handy keeper cord to keep them from flying away.
- Finally, it is very easy to take on and off. Simply undo the giant plastic buckle and you are free. It makes it easy to transfer all your camera equipment to your partner (so you can lead the crux pitch without additional worry) or to clip it to an anchor.
That’s quite a list. But there also a few negative points, and photographers should be aware of what the Skin is not, lest they be disappointed:
- The bags don’t close hermetically. Actually, they barely close at all, the lid is mostly there to keep the gear from falling out, but it leaves big holes through which rain, snow and dust will happily enter. Waterproofness can be achieved with the raincover, but at the cost of not being able to access anything inside. On a similar line, there is almost no padding, so every bump will be taken directly by the equipment. The bag is there to carry your gear, not protect it.
- Though I haven’t lost anything bigger than a lens cap, I don’t trust the lid velcro too much and am extremely careful whenever handling a pouch upside down (well, I try never to do it, that is). I wouldn’t be surprised to see a heavy body + lens fall out of it, and small items can also slip out of the gaps between the pouch and the lid.
- This is not too relevant in the mountains, but if you plan to use it as your main camera bag, you should be aware that it makes the wearer look like somewhat of a dork. While this is obviously a matter of personal opinion, the Skin shouldn’t be your first choice if you want to be a bit discrete. I wouldn’t be surprised either if overzealous police officers and TSA agents might also find its passing resemblance to an explosive belt to warrant at least some questioning.
- It can be a bit tricky sometimes to insert or retrieve gear of a dimension too close to the diameter of the pouch, unfortunately the case of my GH1. If there isn’t enough space to slide fingers below the camera to access its grip, dropping it when pulling it out of the bag is a definite possibility. The straps can also occasionally be very annoying. It leads me to being extremely careful when using the Skin while shooting from a free hanging fixed line.
- Finally, while the pouches themselves appear very sturdy, the zippers aren’t. I have lost virtually all the easy opening cords and some zippers are stuck open from too much grit and abuse. It is not really a big issue since the zip pockets are far from crucial, but still annoying every now and then.
Finally, because I get the question all the time via email and the ThinkTank website is not too helpful, here is how I distribute my equipment (as of today, June 2011):
- Skin 50: Most of the time, my Panasonic GH1 + kit 14-140mm lens + a small Sennheiser mic. I also sometimes pack my wireless mic set, but it is then a bit too full. I also use it for small lenses (50mm f/1.8 or my old Tamron 11-18) and compact cameras.
- Skin Strobe: My Nikkor 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR. It is a tight fit with the hood on (most of the time) but still fine.
- Skin 75: My new Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR II. Length wise it’s perfect with the hood on, but it is a fair bit too wide so the lens tends to float and move around. I still remove the internal separator as it otherwise makes the lens too difficult to insert.
- Chimp Cage: The D90 with its attached Nikkor 16-35 f/4 VR. I have to use the bellow extension, especially with the hood of the wide lens on. It is a fairly tight fit horizontally but there is a lot of space left vertically.
- Double Wide: Never used, it is way too big.
After 18 months of heavy use, the Skin has far exceeded all my expectations. While not absolutely perfect, its few flaws are easy enough to forgive in the grand scheme of things. If you intend to do any hiking or mountaineering and to pack a camera, look no further.
For technical rock climbing (i.e. shooting from a fixed line), things are not as clear cut, and the dangers of dropping the camera from the bags are a bit too high to my taste. More specialized equipment like the Cotton Carrier (which I am currently testing) would most likely work better.
Addendum: Since I wrote the review, something new happened: while ascending a fixed line to take some climbing pictures in Sweden, the main buckle opened itself and the bag with my spare lens fell to the ground (thankfully, the camera itself was around my neck). The big plastic buckle has a tendency to not lock completely unless you push really hard, and the danger comes from the fact that it’s impossible to tell whether it is really locked or not. I usually double check but must have forgotten this time. The result: destroyed mount and AF contact on my (brand new) 70-200 f/2.8, of course out of warranty.
I am blaming myself more than the bag, but this is something to be aware of. I was lucky it happened while low on a single pitch climb, and not halfway up some alpine face!