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Mindshift Gear Backlight Elite 45L Review | The Best Adventure Photography Backpack Ever?

By Matthew Saville on July 1st 2019

Do you like long walks on the beach, …with 40 pounds of camera gear on your back? If that sounds like an exciting activity to you, then you’re probably in the right place.

(Or if you’d like to comment below with your “photographer dating profile” humor below, you’re welcome to.)

I’ll be honest- if all you own is just one camera body and a couple/few lenses, and not much else, then this backpack is probably not right for you. Instead, check out my review of the Mindshift Ultralight Dual 25L.

June Gloom Meets Golden Hour | Moro Bay, California

[ReWIND: Think Tank Announces New Mindshift Gear | Backlight Elite 45L Camera Backpack For Adventurous Photographers]

However, if you’re looking for a backpack that can carry two or three camera bodies, plus four or five lenses, (and/or a giant “big gun” telephoto lens) plus a drone, a ton of batteries, a complete set of filters, some hotshoe or strobe flashes, …and a whole lot of other accessories including a tripod, (or three) and maybe even some skis or a snowboard, …then YES, you are in the right place! Which is, my review of the new Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L camera backpack.

Mcway Falls at Midnight …Did the fog ever clear to reveal the Milky Way perfectly in position over this scene? Scroll down to find out!

Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L Specs

Main Compartment Dimensions: 11.4×19.3×6.8” (29x49x17 cm)

Exterior Dimensions: 13×13.5×8” (33x60x20.3 cm)

Weather Resistance: Water-resistant material, plus full rain cover

Laptop Accommodation: Yes, up to 17”

Weight: 7.05 lbs (with all parts)

Other Attachment Points For: ice axes, snowboard/skis/snowshoes, ropes/carabiners, tent poles, tripods, hydration systems…

Price: $399, with a full-size camera ICU (removable compartment)

Get It From Our Preferred Vendors Below

Adorama | B&H | Amazon | Thinktank

Milky Way over McWay Falls, Big Sur, California
Nikon D600, Nikon 24mm f/1.8 G | 15 sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400

Slik 700DX, Oben BC-139, Adobe Bridge CC

Who is the Backlight Elite 45L Made For?

There are tons of different styles of camera backpacks out there. Some are aimed at the urban commuter, others are aimed at the wanderlust traveler. Some, of course, try to be as generic and universal as possible.

Usually, I’ve found that the “everyday” backpacks simply don’t work for outdoor adventures. Most of the small and medium backpacks out there don’t even have a waist belt, or if they do it’s flimsy and not very padded. If you’re going to be carrying a lot of gear on your back for more than a few minutes at a time, an “everyday” backpack is probably a bad idea, even if it’s big enough to fit all your gear.

Even many of the “wanderlust” types of travel-oriented backpacks don’t seem to be designed with long-day comfort in mind. They’re often a little too concerned with looking stylish, and indeed I wouldn’t want to have to hoist them on my shoulders for any longer than the few minutes be

Simply put, whether you’re going off into the wilderness or just into the urban jungle, the Backlight Elite is a smart choice for anyone who will be actually carrying their gear on their backs for hours at a time.

I have no idea where this is. I just stopped when I saw a pretty beach!

Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L | Pros

[Related Reading: Mindshift Backpack Review | Firstlight VS Backlight Camera Bags]

Versatility

Having 45 liters of capacity alone does not make a backpack versatile. Many backpacks this large still don’t offer a laptop compartment, because they’re wholly oriented towards outdoor adventure. Other large backpacks that do offer a laptop compartment will probably be more urban oriented, and not be as versatile for outdoor adventure, in fact they might not even offer an ICU system.

The Backlight Elite is an amazing combination of everyday/urban usefulness, and wilderness/adventure readiness. The other Backlight and Firstlight backpacks that come close to matching the capacity of this Backlight Elite, the Backlight 36L and the Firstlight 40L, do not have an ICU system, their main storage compartment is a traditional design. (See my review of both of those backpacks here!)

With the Backlight Elite, you finally have the entire (cavernous) main camera compartment available for ICU usage. Previously, the Firstlight, Backlight, and Rotation 180 series of Mindshift backpacks had either split designs, or non-ICU type designs.

This means that you can swap out the massive (included) gear ICU for smaller options, such as the half-sized “Stash Master 13L” Using this smaller ICU will free up the top half of your main gear compartment for other oversized items, such as a small bear canister, cookwear/food, and other items that you might need on an extended/overnight backpacking trip. (The Stash Master 13L is $59.99)

Be Careful when shooting on rocks and tide pools! Never step on anything living, or set your tripod feet on anything other than actual rock.

Durability

I used to be a little embarrassed to admit that I had done horrible things to the Mindshift backpacks that were sent to me for review. I dragged them through slot canyons, across some of the most abrasive rock and other surfaces that mother nature can offer. I stood in the rain for much longer than I usually feel comfortable doing, without putting on a backpack’s rain cover.

By now, I know these backpacks can take it. In fact, the Backlight Elite 45L achieves a whole new level of “almost indestructible”, with respect to both the materials used and the workmanship involved. The outer shell, from the bottom skid-pad to the side walls and top compartment, are made of much more rugged material than most other backpacks out there. It’s definitely aiming to be as impervious to the elements and general abuse as any extreme adventure backpack, (mountaineering, alpine skiing, etc.) or a similarly adventure-oriented backpack such as F-Stop.

Teeming With Life | Northern California Coast

The Mindshift team never fails to deliver when it comes to the small details of workmanship, too. The zippers (YKK Aquaguard) are, to my surprise, both amazingly weatherproof and easy to open/close. Most “weatherproof” zippers are horribly annoying to open/close.

Also, the padding is amazingly well designed, both the materials used and the overall design. In the past, with other “adventure-ready” backpacks, I’ve been led to believe that if you want something to be extremely durable, you’ll have to compromise on comfort by settling for less cushy padding, and less breathable materials. Mindshift has proven that this simply is not the case. Their honeycomb design padding on the back, waist belt and shoulder straps is simply the best stuff I’ve ever encountered in this class of backpacks.

PRO TIP: Never set your bag down on a cliff. (Have you ever set your backpack down, only to have it gradually tip/roll over, 10 minutes after you set it down?)

Comfort

One of the major drawbacks of camera bags that achieve such incredible durability, and indeed my main quarrel with the F-Stop Sukha which I reviewed a couple years ago, is comfort. If you want a backpack that is indestructible, you usually have to sacrifice quite a lot of comfort.

Mindshift has bucked that trend, and this is probably the most exciting thing about the Backlight Elite for me as a wilderness adventure photographer who needs such a spacious backpack. Simply put, the Elite 45L is just about as incredibly comfortable as any of the other 30-40L backpacks in the Mindshift family. It also achieves a high level of overall flexibility with regard to the strap configuration, which is critical to comfort when you’re going to be lugging 30-40+ lbs of gear around on your back for any amount of time.

For how much gear 465L can carry, you absolutely want to get a backpack that has a large, cushy waist belt, and adjustable shoulder straps. If you try and put this much weight entirely on your shoulders and not your waist, you’ll be hurting or even injuring your shoulders rather quickly, let alone on an 8+ hour hiking day. Just don’t do it!

Having a backpack that is comfortable enough to continue wearing while actively shooting in sketchy conditions is key for me

Lastly, not all back padding or shoulder strap padding is created equal. And, as I’ve said in previous Mindshift Gear reviews here on SLR Lounge, the Mindshift backpacks get everything right when it comes to having just the right amount of padding in just the right place, for almost any body type. I’m 6’2”, and have a 32” waist. I’ve talked with other photographers of all shapes and sizes, and they’ve mentioned how comfortable the Mindshift backpacks are.

Bixby Bridge & June Gloom, Big Sur, California
Nikon D600, Nikon 24mm f/1.8 G | 1/15 sec, f/14, ISO 100

Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L | Cons

As with all the gear I review, usually, the cons aren’t enough for me to flat-out say “don’t buy this product”. These cons are only going to affect specific types of photographers, with certain habits and preferences that they may already have, which might incline them to buy the slightly smaller Backlight or Firstlight backpacks from Mindshift instead.

After we cover these cons, we’ll talk about the other backpacks that are the closest competing options on the market.

How to organize your backpack, that is the eternal question! In this case, the Backlight Elite seems almost not wide enough for three full-sized compartments, at least not without the dividers being at a slight angle…

The Backpack Learning Curve

With any piece of camera gear that you’re going to be handling a lot, let alone wearing on your body, there is always a learning curve that is involved, before you become truly familiar with the way it works. At first, you may find yourself getting a little frustrated as you try to remember which pocket you decided to put which accessory in, or where the zippers usually wind up to open that particular compartment. However, after you have spent a good amount of time to get truly familiar with this gear, hopefully, everything can become second nature.

I’ve been testing camera gear of all sorts for about 15 years, so by now I can usually tell the difference between the issues that will go away with familiarity, and the issues that will never go away because they’re actual flaws, or major factors relating to personal preference.

I guess if I had to attempt to quantify how easy it is to become familiar with the backpack and get past any initial annoyances and committing things to memory, I supposed I’d give the Backlight Elite a C+ or a B- grade. That is one benefit of more traditional designs like the Firstlight 40L- If you don’t need what the Elite 45L offers, the Firstlight 40L actually has about the same amount of main storage compartment space, and is just a lot more effortless to “get acquainted with”…

The zipper pulls on the Backlight Elite are an odd T-shaped grappling hook type design, instead of the loops that I’ve always preferred on other Mindshift backpacks. This is something I can get used to, but I do believe that the loop design is indeed truly superior.

The free movement of the rear main (laptop etc) compartment zippers is hindered by some of the buckle straps that are used for securing gear to the sides and top of the backpack. So, if you have some small tripods or light stands in the side pockets, you might have to un-buckle their straps to gain full, adequate access to the whole rear compartment.

The top access situation is also a bit confusing at first, since there is the removable top pouch that has four buckles holding it on, and the top access to the main gear compartment is under that. This is totally normal for a backpacking backpack, so again I can get familiar with it rather quickly, but some photographers might find it to be a little impractical if they were hoping to have truly rapid access to a camera+lens that is stuffed into the topmost zone of the main storage compartment, instead of having to open the whole rear “mega-door”…

Last but not least, that “mega-door” that allows you to access all your gear without putting the backpack down, indeed without even taking off your waist belt, has a bit of a scary learning curve to it. Because the backpack is so large and tall, you must be careful when opening the whole rear compartment while still wearing the backpack, because the backpack itself could just fly open and spill your gear everywhere if you don’t hold onto it and “hinge” it open carefully. And 45 liters is enough for at least 40-50 lbs of gear, so whatever you do, just don’t let that heft catch you off guard when you’re opening the backpack with the waist belt still attached to your waist.

As a side note, the Backlight Elite 45L’s waist belt is actually attached to that main rear door itself, which is different from the other Backlight series packs that have their waist belt attached to the main structure of the backpack itself. Once again, I think I actually preferred that other design, however this is a matter of personal preference, and not superior/inferior design.

To sum up this overall “con”, I’ll say this: The Backlight 45L is absolutely worth getting familiar with, because once your muscle memory starts to kick in it’s a mostly perfect experience. But, you’ll definitely need to put in some effort, and be a little careful, during the “honeymoon” phase when you take it out for its first couple hikes.

Is the (detachable) belt perfectly even? Or are the shadows just playing tricks on me? My eyes and hips have trouble being certain…

Jack Of All Trades Syndrome

One thing that I did notice was that the Backlight Elite does try to be a little more versatile than most camera backpacks. Primarily, for example, the topmost pouch of the backpack is completely removable, and so is the main backpack’s waist belt. You can combine these two parts to make a run-and-gun fanny pack, however, the practicality of such a small backpack isn’t as worthwhile as the compromises that must be made to the backpack design itself.

Namely, once I removed the main waist belt itself, and then put it back, I had to re-adjust it quite a few times in order to get it to sit perfectly symmetrically on my hips again. And, even when I could actually measure that the waist belt was in its perfectly even position, it still didn’t feel right on my hips for a while, and I could definitely feel an overall difference between the support capability of this removable waist belt versus the permanent, delightfully comfortable and cushy waist belts found on backpacks like the Backlight 36L, or the Rotation 180 Pro 38L. In short, I wish the Backlight Elite’s waistbelt was permanently attached.

Rock Abstract | Northern California Coast

Alternatives To The Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L

First and foremost, forget about all those cheaply made “affordable” camera backpacks that you might also be considering. Simply put, 45 liters of gear is so much gear that you would be extremely foolish to trust so many thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars worth of gear to anything less than a bag of this quality. And when it comes to quality of this level, $399 for the Mindshift Backlight Elite should really be considered rather affordable.

How many thousands of dollars of gear do YOU own? If you’re even considering a 45L backpack, whether you’re going to fill it entirely with camera gear or partly with camping gear, just spend the money for a bag of this caliber. End of discussion.

With that said, what is the Backlight Elite’s most direct competition? Probably an F-Stop or Shimoda backpack, whichever one has a similar capacity and gear access design. Both of these brands have backpacks that hold about the same amount of gear, such as the F-Stop Anja (40L) and Tilopa, (50L) or the Shimoda Explore 40/60(L).

On the plus side, all of these backpacks are incredibly well-made, with durable materials, great workmanship that should stand the test of time, and generally adventure-ready features all-around.

On the downside, however, all of the other options besides the Mindshift backpacks require the separate, additional purchase of your ICUs, the padded camera/lens storing “cubes”. The Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L is the only backpack that offers a giant full-sized ICU in its $399 price.

This ICU also has convenient shoulder straps, in case you have to hop on a smaller plane that can’t fit your whole backpack in its overhead bin; instead of kissing your precious gear goodbye as it gets gate checked into the cargo hold of the airplane, you can remove the entire ICU and  take it onto the airplane with you, so that you never have to part ways with your precious bodies and lenses.

You should also be able to slip your laptop out of the Backlight’s rear compartment and lay it inside the giant ICU, in an emergency transport situation, however, there is zero padding on the front door of that ICU, so just be careful.

PRO TIP: Never put your backpack down on the beach and leave it un-attended, no matter how certain you are that waves can’t reach it. Just get a backpack that is comfortable (and splash-proof) enough to wear while shooting!

Sometimes, you gotta get your feet wet! (Don’t forget to take your cell phone & keys etc out of your pants pocket, and put them in the top compartment of your camera backpack first!)

Mindshift Backlight Elite 45L Review | Conclusion

I’ve been hoping for years that Mindshift would make some bigger backpacks because all the ones I’ve previously used were amazingly well-made and comfortable. Indeed, they delivered an awesome product with the Backlight Elite 45L, even if it does take some time to get in the groove and get the modular ICU system set up just the way you want.

Honestly, the only reason I might have to think twice about the Backlight Elite 45L is, in fact, another Mindshift backpack- the Rotation Pro 38L. That backpack has been my absolute favorite medium-large backpack ever since I first hoisted it onto my back, some 4-5 years ago.

The Rotation 180 Pro isn’t as big as the Backlight Elite 45L, though. (Actually, the Rotation 180 Pro is officially 37.5L, I just noticed when I looked it up) Plus, its overall capacity is also hindered by the divided design of the main compartment system that its namesake. For me, that’s a very good thing, and I would happily trade that ~7L of extra space for the amazing functionality offered by the rotating, padded “fanny pack” design.

[Related Reading: Mindshift Ultralight Dual 25 L Review | The Ultimate Lightweight Camera Backpack]

However, I think that most photographers will want the more traditional, modular main compartment design offered by the Backlight Elite. I guess my only question is, I wonder if Mindshift is working on a Rotation 180 Elite 50-60L? That might be an exciting backpack for those who are looking to carry even more gear, and yet still have a truly effortless, intuitive quick-access system.

So, if you’re looking for a backpack of this overall design style, the Mindshift Backlight Elite is likely going to be your best choice!

Check Pricing & Availability From Our Preferred Vendors Below

Adorama | B&H | Amazon | Thinktank

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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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