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Gear Reviews

Mindshift Backpack Review | Firstlight VS Backlight Camera Bags

By Matthew Saville on April 28th 2019

In this review, I’m going to compare two of Mindshift’s flagship backpacks, the Firstlight and Backlight camera bags.

They’re quite similar at first glance; however, they have some key differences that are very important for you to consider when shopping for the perfect photography backpack.

Packing by moonlight for a big hike – Which backpack is right for YOUR next big adventure?

Mindshift Firstlight 30L Backpack Specs

Price: $279
Capacity: 30 Liters
Fits: 2-3 camera bodies, (depending on FF DSLR versus APS-C Mirrorless, etc) 4-8 lenses, (depending on FF f/2.8 zooms versus compact / crop-sensor primes, etc) 13-15″ laptop, plus a handful of other accessories!
Airline Carry-On: Yes
Weight: 5.4 lbs (2.4 kg)
Other Features: Fully customizable harness system with reinforced frame and 11 adjustment points

Mindshift Backlight 36L Backpack Specs

Price: $289
Capacity: 36 Liters
Fits: 2-4 camera bodies, (depending on FF DSLR versus APS-C Mirrorless, etc) 4-8 lenses, (depending on FF f/2.8 zooms versus compact / crop-sensor primes, etc) 13-15″ laptop, plus lots of other accessories!
Airline Carry-On: Yes
Weight: 4.9 lbs (2.2 kg)
Other Features: 11L of capacity is available for accessories

Basically, these backpacks are almost exactly the same, despite their stated 6L difference in capacity. They also come in different capacities; for example, you could get a Firstlight 40L if you wanted even more space.

You might be able to fit one or two extra lenses into the Backlight 36L compared to the 30L Firstlight, but in either case, you may already be well past your own personal standard of comfort if the bag is totally crammed full of heavy gear.

In other words, you can easily fit 40+ lbs (18+ kg) worth of gear into either of these backpacks, so unless you’re in pretty good shape (do yoga, lift weights, etc), you may be hurting after a long day of hiking with either backpack fully loaded.

That’s not to say these backpacks aren’t very comfortable, especially for their weight class. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: their padding is truly the best in the industry, which is one of the main reasons why I love all Mindshift products, from their Ultralight Dual 25L, (review here) to their Rotation 180 Pro backpack which is still my all-time favorite camera backpack, period.

Indeed, I’m just making sure my fellow hikers understand, that if you plan to actually fully load either of these backpacks, you’d better do some stretches before you set out on your epic photography hike/adventure, because they can both hold a LOT of gear.

In fact, they both probably hold far more gear than most photographers even own. I only find myself filling these backpacks to the brim when I’m reviewing multiple camera systems at once, and/or doing vlogging and timelapse or nightscape photography with multiple camera bodies, numerous lenses, and loads of accessories, such as audio equipment and time-lapse gear.

Key Differences Between Mindshift Firstlight and Backlight Backpacks

Okay, so, what are the key differences between the Firstlight and the Backlight backpacks?

The biggest difference is how they open to their main compartment. The Backlight backpack opens on the side that is closest to your back, hence the name. The Firstlight series opens on the other, outer side, meaning you’ll have to take the backpack off and lay it down in order to access your gear.

The design of the Firstlight backpacks, on the other hand, allows it to offer a bit more cushion/comfort and strap adjustability.

Which style of main compartment access you prefer is indeed a personal decision. The advantages and disadvantages of both designs are pretty straightforward, so, just ask yourself which type of gear access you prefer, and how much comfort/padding you require. (How much “cushion” do you have on your tailbone/hips? Any preexisting shoulder/neck/back issues?)

There are a few additional aspects that we’ll cover later in the Pros & Cons sections for each backpack.

Either way, it’s great that Mindshift was able to design such similar backpacks which allow you to make this personal preference decision and yet not compromise in most other aspects.

For example, both backpacks have fantastic hip/waist belts, which I absolutely love for aiding in weight distribution. These waist belts have just the right amount of stiff framework and cushy padding, they’re far better than most other backpack’s designs. More on that later.

Unfortunately, both backpacks do lack the useful waist belt mini pocket that I’ve enjoyed on Mindshift’s Ultralight Dual and Rotation 180 series of backpacks. But, that’s what an accessory waist pouch is for, I guess.

Both backpacks also include dual side pockets that are secure enough to hold a water bottle without it falling out, and yet also big enough to side-mount a medium-small tripod, if you’re crazy like me and prefer to carry two (or more) lightweight tripods instead of one.

On that note, both backpacks also include center-balanced tripod accessory mounting systems, for those who want it. (Keeping your heaviest gear at the center is very important for the health of your spine, folks! NEVER buy a camera backpack that expects you to side-mount one tripod!)

Oh, and the in-line tripod straps also make a great skateboard carrying system, too.

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 Sport, (full review coming soon!) Nikon Z6, FTZ adapter

Both backpacks have secondary compartments for extra accessories, however the Backlight’s outer compartment is much more spacious, with room for both a slim laptop/tablet and tons of other random stuff, while the Firstlight 30L’s external sleeve compartment barely has enough room for a 15″ laptop, and it’s an extremely tight fit.

Having said that, I don’t know anyone who wants to lug a 15″ laptop into the wilderness, so it’s more likely that you’ll be using these compartments for accessories only, in which case I’d say you’ll be able to fit about double the amount of misc. accessories into the Backlight backpack. So if you have tons of extra little stuff like filter pouches or time-lapse rotation devices like I do, you’ll probably wind up using a couple of the internal compartments of the Firstlight backpack for those accessories, instead of lenses. That’s probably OK, though, because there’s room for ~15 normal sized lens/body compartments in the Firstlight 30L.

Both backpacks have plenty of external attachment points for adding unwieldy or bulky things like ice axes, rope, or even a sleeping bag and pad if you’re going on a quick overnight hike. (You’ll probably need to add your own straps to the attach points for such an ambitious endeavor, though.)

One final difference, before we move on: The weight difference between the two packs is 0.7 lbs, which is nothing to sneeze at, and yet it will likely be the heavier Firstlight backpack that is more comfortable overall due to its strap system, and also the fact that its main torso area has an aluminum reinforcement to help with overall weight support. Overall, don’t let the weight of either of these packs fool you; they’re two of the most comfortable 30-36L backpacks you’ll ever hoist onto your back.

Mindshift Firstlight and Backlight Backpacks VS The Competition

What about other types/brands of backpacks on the market? There are too many brands and series/lineups to mention them all, so I’ll just say this: Mindshift (now owned by ThinkTank) is absolutely one of the top brands, and I consider their offerings to be some of the best quality both in design, craftsmanship, and value, as opposed to most of the other “industry newcomer” camera bag brands that either offer poor quality at a dirt-cheap price, or high quality but at an overinflated price.

Here’s a few key design aspects to keep in mind:

  • Mindshift’s Firstlight and Backlight backpacks don’t use an ICU system; their compartments and dividers are built into the backpacks. If you’re the type of photographer who wants to be able to completely or partially remove ICU’s from a backpack for whatever reason, you’ll want to consider a different backpack lineup.
  • For those who really do fully pack such medium-large backpacks, I cannot emphasize enough just how welcome Mindshift’s waist belt design(s) and overall back padding are when it comes to comfort on long days of hiking. Both the Firstlight and Backlight backpacks have large, stability-increasing waist belts that can and should be used to transfer most of the actual weight of your gear off your shoulders and onto your hips.
    By comparison, literally all of the “hip” trendy/fashion-focused backpacks I’ve ever used utterly fail in this regard, and are unbearable to carry for more than 20-30 minutes. Other “adventurous” brands do offer good waist belts, but most of them err by either being too small to be of any real use, or over-stuffed with padding such that weight transfer and stability are compromised.
  • The fully adjustable shoulder strap design of the Firstlight backpack(s) which I mentioned earlier is particularly more welcome for anyone (gender, body type, etc) that differs even slightly from the norm.
    I’m 6’2″, and I have always had difficulty getting most backpacks to fit perfectly, especially considering how heavily I rely on a waist belt for correct weight distribution. The Firstlight backpack is a rare and welcome option.

Pros And Cons Of the Mindshift Firstlight Backpack

The main advantage of the Mindshift Firstlight backpack is that it is by far the most comfortable way to carry large amounts of gear on your back for extended hiking or other activities. Whether you get the larger 30L or 40L models, or the smaller 20L model, you can expect to have a comfortable day with your gear on your back all day long.

The main drawback is that, as I noted earlier, this incredibly comfortable design requires that the main compartment be accessed from the “other side” (front? aft?) of the backpack. So, you have to take off the backpack and put it down in order to access your gear.

In other words: the sweaty side of the backpack goes in the dirt. If I’m in the wilderness and I’m focused on getting the shot, I don’t really care, (as long as there are no cacti or scorpions nearby) but it is still a slight inconvenience for anyone who likes to access a lot of their gear, often.

So, here’s the deal: get the Firstlight if you plan to do a ton of hiking with your gear, but only plan to access your gear a few times here and there during the hike, and once you reach your destination.

But, if you’re the type of photographer who likes to incessantly access all of your gear, get the Backlight instead. Or, consider a specialty camera mount such as a Capture Clip for your Firstlight backpack’s shoulder strap, to keep a camera and lens accessible at all times without taking the pack off.

Personally, I often use an accessory waist pouch that can fit an entire (small) camera and lens, such as an APS-C mirorless kit, so I don’t have to take my backpack off just to take some snapshots while hiking. Or you could just consider my all-time favorite backpack design, the Mindshift Rotation180 series of backpacks. They offer the best of both worlds, although they sacrifice a bit more overall capacity in the serving of their purpose.

Pros And Cons Of The Mindshift Backlight Backpack

The main advantage of the Backlight series is that it doesn’t really compromise too much at all on comfort, compared to the Firstlight, and yet it does offer access to the main gear compartment without having to take the backpack off.

Also, the separate aft compartment for accessories on the Backlight series is much more spacious than the Firstlight, which as I mentioned will allow you to carry a whole lot more accessories without having to consume main compartments that you’d like to use for lenses or bodies.

There are no major disadvantages to the Backlight series, unless your body type is so different that you find yourself missing the fully adjustable shoulder strap system. Many people will be able to use the existing adjustments to get the Backlight to fit them correctly, though.

The Backlight main compartment zipper may have a tendency to jam.

One last con: The Backlight’s main compartment zipper seems to catch on its own buffer material quite often, requiring much more attention when opening or closing the backpack.

Most Mindshift Backpacks (including the Firstlight) are easy to open/close with just one finger, thanks to their brilliant loophole zipper pulls.

In all other Mindshift backpacks that I’ve used, main zipper pulls were amazingly easy to open and close, so this seems to be a potential design flaw and an area with room for improvement.

Mindshift Backlight & Firstlight Backpack Review | Conclusion

Who should consider either of these backpacks? Adventurous people who plan to carry their gear on their backs all day long, whether out in the wilderness or somewhere urban, instead of only ever actually shouldering the backpack for a few minutes in between connecting flights at the airport or rental car kiosk.

These backpacks combine incredible durability with incredible comfort, and they do it at a reasonable price. They may not look very fashionable to some, but if I do say so myself, they’ll look quite sexy on a trail in the great outdoors. If that type of thing matters to you. For those of you who are interested, the Backlight comes in either charcoal grey or woodland green, while the Firstlight comes in charcoal grey only.

I’ll leave you with my final bit of advice that I give everyone whenever we talk about camera bags and backpacks:

The amount of gear that would completely fill a backpack this big is probably worth many thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands. Don’t you dare skimp out on its protection! Get yourself a durable, reliable backpack like these.

Also, that much gear is going to weigh a lot. Do your spine, shoulders, and hips a huge favor, and get a backpack that can be perfectly balanced and fitted to your exact body type. You’re welcome!

Personally, as a tall guy and as someone who highly values comfort and a perfect fit, I’d probably go with the Firstlight, for its added adjustability. I’d add a small camera pouch to the waist belt for carrying my GoPro or vlogging setup so I can capture images and video without taking the backpack off.

I’d probably go with either 30L or even 40L, for those quick overnight trips where I need to bring not just a bunch of camera gear but also extra food, water, maybe even a small stove and pot, plus a pad and sleeping bag strapped to the outside. Here’s me on an overnight backpacking trip with the Mindshift Rotation 180 Pro 38L, in 2014…

Mindshift Backlight & Firstlight Backpack Options

Firstlight 20L ($229), Firstlight 30L ($279), Firstlight 40L ($329)
Backlight 18L ($199), Backlight 26L ($249), Backlight 36L ($289), Backlight Elite 45L (coming soon, $399)

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

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