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BELT SYSTEMS COMPARED - LOWEPRO AND THINK-TANK
By Vandit Kalia (with additional notes by Phil Burton & Jim Hom)
Updated November 2008

PREFACE

I had been going through the websites and extensively comparing the offerings from Lowepro, Kinesis and Think-tank Photo for a belt-system to use while hiking.

After putting together a list of all the bits'n'bobs I needed, the Kinesis setup was coming to over $700 - which immediately disqualified it from contention ($700 for a bag is flat-out ridiculous. For that price, the bag better go out and take my photos for me while I have a sleep-in). Lowepro's Street & Field system was the most reasonable of the lot, and Think Tank not too far enough, so these two became my contenders.

With any belt system, the main factors are going to be:

  • Comfort: how easily does the belt sit on the waist, especially when worn for long periods of time
  • Stability: how securely does a laden belt stay in place when moving about?
  • Ease of use: How easy is it to work out of the belt? This is where the needs of an outdoor photographer can differ from that of an event photographer. For an event photographer, the belt is a way of managing the gear while in use - however, for an outdoor photographer, the belt system is also a way of storing and transporting the gear. So padding, weather protection, etc. all play a bigger role for the outdoor photographer than the event photographer.

As a long-term Lowepro user (I own a Microtrekker AW, a Photo Trekker AW, a Stealth AW, a Computrekker AW, a Stealth AW, a Road Runner II and a Nova 4 AW), I know that their gear is going to be exceedingly well-engineered and robust. And the AW tag on all their pouches means excellent rain protection as well. But Think Tank, a new kid on the block, has been getting a lot of praise for their system. While it is designed for event photographers, it seemed as though it could fit my needs as well.

I posted some inquires on the FM forum, and didn't really get a definitive answer. However, it has a very useful side effect that it put me in touch with Phil Burton, who does a lot of outdoor and travel shooting as well and had been trying to make the same decision as me. His notes, along with those of Jim Hom, also from FM, are posted further below, and formed the original review.

However, a few months ago, I got myself a TT belt system as well (mainly because they had a good solution for carrying a body and a 400/5.6 or 300/4 lens on a harness, while Lowepro didn't). Recently, I spent a few weeks in Ladakh with the TT system while doing an exploratory trip for a project on snow leopards that I am working on. I got to use the system fairly extensively during this time and that experience forms the basis for the update to this article.

MY COMPARISON OF THE TWO SYSTEMS IN THE FIELD

Before starting, let me describe how I was using the TT belt system. We were camping at various high-altitude locationsin the Himalayas, ranging from 13,000ft to 15,000ft. From our base, we would go on day walks, checking various trails, ridges and mountain slopes for wildlife. I was carrying a 50D with a 400/5.6 in a Digital Holster and a 17-40/4L in another lens case - both these cases were attached to the Pro Speed belt and a shoulder harness. In addition, I had my 10x42 binoculars on my chest in their own harness, and was carrying a daypack with emergency supplies (storm gear, water, snacks), hiking poles and a Televue 85 scope set up for prime focus photography.

What I needed the belt system to do was (1) to provide a comfortable storage place for my camera gear while we walked along trails or climbed sraight up the mountain slopes to vantage points, (2) provide easy and rapid access to my gear when needed and (3) work well with all the other bits of kit that I was festooned with.

Phil and Jim's comments below detail the design differences between Lowepro and Think Tank fairly well, so I will not bother with it. Instead, I will talk about how the TT belt system fared in the above 3 areas.

For starters, the TT belt is very comfortable. Despite wearing it all day, it never became uncomfortable. And after a long day of stomping up and down steep slopes, I was ever so thankful of the light weight of this setup. By comparison, the thicker Lowepro belt tends to get much hotter (which may not have been a bad idea in the Himalayas in the winter, but which is generally not as comfy).

One concern I had when I started using the setup had to do with balance, as I was carrying a 50D+400/5.6 on one side and a 17-40/4L on another side. I solved it by moving both the Digital Holster and the Lens Pouch to the small of my back, where they didnt get in the way and also where balance was not an issue. Then, when I needed the camera or the second lens, I'd simply spin the appropriate case to the front for easy access.

Accessing the gear inside the bags was quite easy as well. The pouches and the holster open up very quickly and allow rapid access to the contents. And the low profile of the setup meant that it was quite easy to use my binocular/harness setup and also carry a daypack without getting tangled in a mess of webbings, clips and straps.

That's the good news. But there were also a few ergonomic issues I had with the setup.

The first issue was a direct consequence of the relatively small width (or height, depending how you look at it) of the belt. The Lowepro belt is a big, beefy thing that wraps all around your hips. The TT Belt is much slimmer - and when used with a harness, it had an uncomfortable tendency to ride up, so that it was no longer sitting snugly around my hips but on top of them. This would cause my fleece and/or jacket to bunch up, which became quite tiresome after a while. No matter what I did, I was unable to avoid this. If I loosened the harness, it no longer distributed the weight of the belt. If I tightened the harness to snugness, up rose the belt. By comparison, the Lowepro belt, because of its greater width, simply does not ride up the hips.

A second issue has to do more with the Digital Holster than the belt system - for some reason, the rain cover on the holster is not tucked away under a zip or flap, hidden until needed, but attached to the inner side of the holster. So it comes in the way every time you remove or replace the camera and lens into the holster. You cannot just stuff the camera over the cover - for some reason, it gets in the way of the lens going all the way into the holster. You have to wrap the cover around the lens barrel and then insert the whole mechanism into the holster. Now, this only takes a short amount of time, but when you have to do it repeatedly, it gets to be a pain (or atleast, it does for me).

Lastly, a minor issue I had was with the harness. The cinch strap on the shoulder (used to adjust the length of the harness front and how much weight was distributed to the harness) would repeatedly loosen up on its own, causing one side of the harness to not support the same amount of weight, which in turn would throw off the balance of the setup - especially given the tendency of the belt to ride up. Again, every 2-3 minutes, I would have to adjust the cinch strap in order to get the perfect balance. A minor thing, yes - but when you are struggling along a very slippery, steep slope strewn with loose rocks, and your lungs are screaming for oxygen, you really do NOT want any distractions. However, this is merely a QA issue - I doubt if most TT harnesses are prone to slipping. It was just unfortunate that I got the one that did.

After a few weeks of use, I have to admit - I was wishing I had my Lowepro system with me. That is not to say that the TT was a bad setup - the belt was more comfortable than the Lowepro belt (when it was in place on my hips, that is), and it is also lighter. However, in use, this system required me to constrantly fuss over it - bring the belt back down on my hips, adjust the cinch straps, carefully pack and remove the camera from the holster. I would rather give up a wee bit in comfort in exchange for simply not needing to fuss with the setup.

By comparison, take a recent week I spent shooting with the Lowepro S&F system. I was carrying 2 bodies, 3 lenses (17-40/4, 28-75/2.8 and 70-200/4) and a flash. The Lowepro belt simply stayed in place, even when I was running from one location to another to grab a better vantage point.

However, the Lowepro system is not perfect either. I've already mentioned that the bigger belt tends to get quite hot, especially in India's tropical weather. The pouches also tend to flop and sag a noticeable bit - TT's pouches stay in place a lot better. And of course, with Lowepro, you cannot move the pouches around. So it is a little harder to set the rig up for optimal balance.

Still, overall, once I got used to the weight distribution and balance of the Lowepro setup, I no longer had to fuss about with it - it simply got out of the way and let me concentrate on photography. This is very important to me. I absolutely cannot stand gear that continuously requires my attention, no matter how minor - it distracts me from my main job (taking photos).

There is one other incident I need to point out - in August this year, I had gone to Africa and taken a TT Ultralight (great, great bag!!!) and the same Digital Holster as above (this time packing a 1-series body attached to a 400/5.6). On the last day of the trip, as we checked into the hotel, I took out my gear to clean it. And lo and behold - the filter on the front of the 400/5.6 was smashed to pieces, although thankfully, the front element escaped unscathed. Now, I had not dropped the Holster or abused it in any way - I had simply treated it the way I normally treat my camera gear when traveling (with good degree of care but not babied). By comparison, I probably have 500,000km of travel logged on my Lowepro Photo Trekker with absolutely no damage to the contents,

The purpose of this story is not to knock TT but to point out a difference in philosophies between the two companies - Lowepro provides superb protection but at a cost of greater bulk and weight. This makes it great when you need a bag for transported as well as using gear. TT, especially their belt system and the Digital Holster, design their gear for event use - IMO, these are not ideal for transporting gear (their rollers and backpacks are a different story). I learned my lesson - on this trip, all the gear was carried in a TT Ultralight, and only packed into the belt system once on site.

I can definitely see the appeal of the TT setup with a few smaller lenses and under less extreme conditions. And it is quite possible that other users may evaluate the tradeoffs differently than me - however, for me, the Lowepro belt Street & Field system gets the nod ahead of the TT Modulus belt system simply because once I have it on, it gets out of the way and I don't have to do anything else to it. Everything else, I can deal with.

THE ORIGINAL THINK TANK AND LOWEPRO COMPARISON - PHIL BURTON'S NOTES

My visit focused on TTP, but at one point, the sales person suggested that LowePro (LP) might be better for me.

TTP has designed their equipment around the needs of photojournalists and sports photographers. It turns out that the TTP designs also work very well for wedding photographers.

Quick access is a key design point. For example, TTP lens pouches are closed on top by a drawstring. In contrast, LP uses a zipper. The LP zipper provides better dust and dirt protection, which might be important for an African safari, using the sales clerk's example. But it would be must faster to open up a pouch held closed with a drawstring.

The TTP pouches also have a top flap to cover the opening and there is a rain cover at the bottom of each bag. (there is a strap that allows you to lift the rain cover out of the pouch.

The TTP Speed (Racer/Demon/Freak) are shoulder bags with a built-in belt. The belt has a limited number of "slots" compared with the separate Modulus belts, and can probably hold only one or two pouches on either side. The Speed bag belt is not removable, although it can be tucked away if you want to use only the shoulder strap. A separate Modulus belt could be used with one of the Speed bags, by threading the Modulus belt through a flap running the length of the bag. However, the bag would not stay in place and would slide around.

The TTP pouches are designed to be either fixed in place on a Modulus belt, or moved around from back to front, e.g., for quicker access. In contrast, the LP pouches must be fixed into one position only on a LP belt. Professionals who shop at this store seem to prefer the TTP design as being more convenient.

I had read that someone on some web site said that LP lens pouches were more likely to flop around than TTP. Now that I have seen both lens pouch designs, I think I understand what the original poster was talking about. The pouch "belt fastener" on the TTP products is a stiff piece of plastic. In contrast, the LP belt fastener is cloth, and might not stay "rigid" if the belt wearer tilted his/her body at an angle. Thus, if the belt wearer were to kneel, the larger LP pouches might "rotate," but not the TTP pouches.

Due to the way each pouch system is designed, it would be possible to carry an LP pouch on a TTP belt. However, the TTP plastic belt fastener is too wide to fit into the mounting loops on an LP belt. Thus, you don't have
two-way interchangeability.

Due to the difference in belt designs, it would be practical to mount a TTP Speed-type bag (or the LP equivalents) on an LP belt. This was the reason that the sales clerk thought I might prefer the LP system. However, considering my needs in total, I think I still prefer the TTP design.

Finally, the sales clerk confirmed that TTP users do not use the system to transport their equipment. Some users carry their equipment, still in the TTP pouches, in a backpack that has enough room to accommodate the pouches. I have a LP Trekker backpack, and I will probably adopt that approach for travel.

ADDITIONAL NOTES AND COMMENTS

Jim Hom (jhom) from Fred Miranda's forums has the following comment:

"In addition to what has been stated, another point should be made. The TT pouches are less padded than the LP cases. This is most convenient for me when I pack and travel. I can simply compress the TT pouches and cases to fit in a larger bag that I'm using as storage and transport, such as the TT Airport Security Bag. When on site, I can easily outfit the TT belt with the necessary pouches and cases. With the LP S&F system, it is much more difficult to do this because of the heavier padding. They are not easily compressible like the TT components. As you and Burton state, the LP system would likely be the choice for hiking because of the greater protection afforded by the additional padding and zipper/lid system.

Through experience, I have gravitated to the TT system from the LP S&F system because of my shooting style. However, I have used several of the LP components with the TT belt. In fact, I find the LP Utility Case quite adaptable to the TT system. TT has a similar styled case but slightly smaller. Regardless, it is nice to be able to mix and match.

FYI, Doug Murdoch and Mike Strum of TT used to work for Lowepro. This is likely why there are some similarities in products. "

 
     

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