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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Living (and traveling) with an F-Stop

There is no such thing as the perfect camera bag. Photographers have driven themselves broke in the attempt to find one. Unfortunately, the reality is that the active photographer needs a specific bag for a specific purpose. Bad news for photographers, excellent news for bag manufacturers as they have a captive and desperately seeking market. Over the course of my interest in photography I have had the opportunity to own several types of bags from various manufacturers. On starting out in the mid nineties I, like many other South Africans, had limited choice that was essentially constrained to Tamrac, Tenba and Lowe-Pro. As we entered the noughties finally brands like Domke, Billingham, and ThinkTank became more readily available.

For a long time my go to bag had been a ThinkTank Airport Antidote (the early version…and after a zip replacement and several home-brew repairs is still being used). As a hiking bag though, the ThinkTank is far from ideal (which in turn is one of the reasons that ThinkTank broadened out to create the brand ‘MindShift Gear’). So, for short photography oriented hikes into the Berg I ended up using an old Lowe-Pro Nature Trekker AW II. This is a great bag, but insanely heavy for what it is. It has an awesome harness system, but access to the bag also means that system invariably gets caked in mud.

Then in 2012 I was introduced to the F-Stop Gear Tilopa and Satori bags when British landscape photographer Joe Cornish made an exploratory visit to the Drakensberg mountains with myself and Nick van de Wiel from Nature’s Light. My intrigue with the bag turned to lust within days. By the time I bid Joe farewell I was convinced that an F-Stop was to be my next bag. Not long after, an order to the United States resulted in delivery of an Aloe Green 70 litre Sukha with large Internal Camera Unit.

What is Different about the F-Stop Bags

The primary difference between an F-Stop Bag and something like a Gura Gear or Lowepro Trekker is that access to the equipment is through the back panel of the bag (i.e. where your back rests against the bag). This isn’t something that is unique to F-Stop bags incidentally. Lowepro now have their own version of this and Kata have been doing this for years. What makes the F-Stop mountain bags a little different though is that they are essentially deconstructed hiking shells. At first glance the bag doesn’t look anything like a camera bag. It looks like it should have a bed roll strapped to the bottom and house a sleeping bag and cooking kit rather than a bunch of lenses and a camera.

The essence of the system is the ability to select a shell that suits your body type and travel requirements, and then slide the appropriate Internal Camera Unit (or ICU for short) into the shell. The Shell opens through a padded back panel directly to the ICU inside the bag. However, the ICU can also operate as a camera bag all on its own; meaning that you can remove the ICU from the shell and use it without the shell.

From left to right: Pro XL ICU, Medium Slope ICU, Pro Large ICU & Pro Small ICU

The great thing about this is that the bag becomes extremely customisable. In theory you can opt for a small or medium ICU and fill the rest of the bag with hiking and camping equipment. Like a proper hiking bag, the F-Stop shells also have a plethora of mounting points to which other hiking equipment (or tripods) can be attached. 

What I particularly like about the customizable shell and ICU setups is that you can own several ICUs and one shell. This means you can use multiple gear configurations depending on what you are shooting. Or alternatively, you could have several shells of different sizes and use the same ICU, selecting the shell based on the activity. I now have the Pro Extra Large, the Pro Large, a Medium Slope and a Pro Small ICUs. I end up using all of them, configuring them for the different types of shoots I am doing. The images below show two suggestions based on a multiple day client shoot (usually a factory or mill of some sort) and a shorter landscape excursion. Bear in mind that this is only what could potentially fit into the ICU. there are still various pockets on all the shells as well as space for other small accessory pouches to better organise gear.

In the cavernous interior of the XL Pro ICU sits: a Laowa 12mm, Nikkor 16-35mm, Godox Ving flash, Nikkor 70-200mm f4 (with cleaning kit behind), Nikon D800e with 24-120mm, Nikon D3x, Full filter system including 10 filters and a polariser, Extra batteries (behind the 50mm f1.8), a Nikon SB910 and Godox trigger.

In the smaller Pro Large ICU are: Nisi long exposure set, holder and polariser, full set of graduated filters, Nikkor 70-200mm f4 (cleaning kit tucked behind), Laowa 12mm, Nikon D800e with Zeiss Milvus 18mm, Nikkor 24-120mm, memory card wallet and extra batteries.  
An added bonus in my mind to the ICUs is that they are far and away the cheapest gear totes on the market if you use them on their own. My Pro Large ICU is now the de facto lighting bag on industrial and commercial shoots. In fact, for any shoot where carrying the actual equipment over distances is not important, the ICUs become brilliant, easily accessible gear organisation. If you are working from the back of a vehicle for instance, the ICUs are now my preferred means of gear protection. As a bonus, the Pro Large ICU fits nicely into the standard ammo box that is used by the 4x4 community (with a little bit of space on either side that can be used to store cables etc). 

The Good

Here are some of the reasons why I really love my F-Stop bags and why my next bag will probably also be an F-Stop.

Back Panel Access - The American writer and camera critic, Thom Hogan, has complained that access to an F-Stop bag is slow and finicky because of the back panel. I disagree. If you are carrying your gear on your back and stopping to shoot, using the F-Stop is no slower than any other backpack. The only time that the F-Stop might be slower is in a studio or commercial setting where the bag is lying next to you for a prolonged period of time and you are accessing it every few minutes. If this is the case though it is an easy thing to simply slide the ICU out of the shell and then you have full unimpeded access once more.

The reason I like the back panel access is the better protection it gives my gear and the harness system itself. If you shoot in the outdoors a lot there is a more than good chance you have had to set up equipment in less than ideal conditions. This means muddy ground and lots of dirt. With a conventional backpack said dirt then gets smeared onto the harness and back panel, and thence to your back and clothing when you set off again. With the F-Stop series the rear of the bag gets placed 
in the dirt and is never anywhere near either the harness, nor your equipment.

This became particularly salient for me while shooting for an industrial client in the maize triangle of South Africa’s interior. While working in several mills I had to create some images in an area that was flooded (and in the act of being repaired) with wet sulphur. This wasn’t a problem for the Tilopa bag that I was using. I was able to keep the bag and the lenses and flash system that I was using at hand on the ground next to me through the shoot. At the end of the day I just hosed off the caked sulphur from the bag.

Materials - The Sukha and Tilopa bags that I own are both essentially waterproof, or at least rainproof. You can add the fitted rain cover, but the bags themselves are the most weather resistant backpacks I have ever used (with the notable exception of Lowepro’s unique DryZone bags which I have only ever seen and not used).

There is a thoughtfulness to the materials used that I appreciate. I still love the material used by ThinkTank, but in reality the materials chosen for the F-Stop bags are better suited for outdoor photography. They are light, durable, easily washable and water resistant. I particularly like the fact that the base of the bags is done in a tougher rubberised material, hypalon, which is the same material that rubber duck boats are made from. Basically the bottoms are virtually indestructible. These are bags that are made to last. 

An iPhone BTS shot showing the Tilopa lying next to a tripod on the coast. It shows off how access to the camera equipment still keeps the straps dry and clear of the ground

Travel Friendly
- I started with the Sukha which is an enormous bag. Despite it’s size though, I have managed to get it onto just about every commercial flight I have had to take (exception being the tiny regional prop planes where you get questionable glances if you even suggest taking a small laptop bag on board, in which case the bag gets placed in the hold, but is ‘sky-checked’ rather than being handed over at check-in). The Sukha did raise eye-brows though, so I have ended up purchasing a Tilopa bag for workshops and commercial shoots where I have to travel by air. The Tilopa is amazing! Although only being slightly smaller than the Sukha, it manages to carry almost as much kit and actually fits into most regional jets (think Airbus A320 or Boeing 737) without any hassles.

The beauty of the F-Stop system though, is that when you really get a belligerent steward checking you in, you can always slide the ICU out and check the bag itself. I have done this on one occasion where a particularly unhelpful checkin agent (thank you Kulula) insisted my bag was too large, but grudgingly admitted that the Pro XL ICU was well within size limits (and weight limits when lenses were tucked into jacket pockets and the camera strapped around my neck). So the now empty Sukha was zipped into my duffel bag along with tripod and clothes and I happily went my way with the ICU carried by a single strap over the shoulder.

Another notable feature of the bags' travel friendliness is their weight. The Sukha and Tilopa, both with ICUs inserted, are lighter than the MindShift, ThinkTank and Lowepro equivalents. This does make a difference when you are balancing the scales as to what kit can be brought on board an airline (see this article  #29 for a tip on transporting equipment on flights).

I also love the top pocket of the bag. It’s a relatively well thought out design and is the usual stow pocket for passport, flight ticket and cell-phone as well as some of usual travel paraphernalia. With the Tilopa that fits hull to opening lengthways on the overhead lockers of an airliner, it is an easy pocket to access without hauling the entire bag down (although watch out that the contents don’t spill everywhere as the pocket would be opening downwards). 

A fully loaded Tilopa (with laptop case above) in the overhead bin on a - if I remember correctly - Boeing 737-800

Having said all this, as mentioned above, I did end up getting a Tilopa in addition to the Sukha. Not due to any disappointment with the Sukha, but to put an end to the questioning glances every time I brazenly walked up to the checkin counter and said that it would be my cabin bag. The Sukha fits, just, and only if you leave the top pocket empty. The Tilopa on the other is just small enough that I seldom get questioned as to it’s size anymore (it looks smaller and lighter than most of the wheeled contraptions that other passengers manage to get on board). 

The Look
- No, I am not trying to say that the bag looks the part or is ‘sexy’ in any way. Quite the opposite actually. Because it looks like a hiking bag it attracts slightly less attention than a conventional camera bag. It also protects the main contents from pick-pocketing as the opening is against the wearer’s back. For added security for the terminally paranoid, you can also zip up the ICU before placing it in the shell, although access is now really tricky if you need to get at your kit.

Another advantage of not looking like a camera bag is that you might get a little less attention from customs officials (although as a downside you now have zero chance of having your seat upgraded to business…they don’t let smelly hikers into that part of the plane). I am always amused when I fly into Mozambique and the officials are surprised when they see the gear inside the bag as it rolls through the X-ray machine (admittedly Maputo is one destination where I have yet to get through without having my bag inspected - although to be fair to F-Stop, my bag is always inspected after the X-ray and I have seen other photographers have their gear inspected before it even gets to the X-ray).

Comfort - Hands down, the F-Stop bags that I own have been the most comfortable to carry large and heavy loads of camera gear with (there is a caveat that I mention below). On a recent shoot in a sugar mill in Mozambique my activity tracker pointed out that I had climbed over 40 flights and covered 12km of walking in a day (in searing heat and humid conditions to boot). I had the Tilopa with between 12-15kg on my back for the duration of that (sometimes heavier when I strapped the tripod to the bag instead of carrying it). The bags are essentially designed to haul loads. Even the smaller bags have been designed for a slightly taller back (unlike the ThinkTank Airport Antidote or any of the smaller Lowepro bags), meaning that a small bag will still fit a range of body types without hurting the wearer.

Although I would love a slightly more adjustable harness system, the waist strap is excellent. On numerous hikes over desert sands and into mountains I have come to appreciate the load spreading ability that the waist belt and sternum strap allow. The slim-line shape (similar to conventional alpine bags) is also excellent if you happen to be scaling a peak or cliff and need as much manoeuvrability as possible. It’s no surprise that adventure photographers around the world have gotten used to using F-Stop bags. 

Myself about to head up a hill in Iceland (shot by Chris Allan) with the large Sirui R3213x sreapped to the side of the Tilopa

Something else that I don’t think gets mentioned enough is the way that the F-Stop bag carries tripods. Lowepro and Tamrac for some obscure reason place the tripod on the very back of the bag. This is an awful placement in terms of ergonomics and usability. For a start it puts the weight even further from your spine and makes it almost impossible to access equipment without first removing the tripod. ThinkTank and now F-Stop put the tripod to the side where it doesn’t interfere with gear access and still puts weight closer to the body and spine (as any proper trekker or hiker would suggest). F-Stop takes it a step further by using straps that would be familiar to any mountaineer - side compression straps to which just about anything can be cinched to the side of the bag (critics might say that puts the weight to one side of the bag - the answer is to distribute weight properly as any hiker/trekker would - in my case I put the heaviest lenses on the opposing side to the tripod).

It’s Even 15inch Friendly - Both my Sukha and Tilopa have a padded pouch inside the bag that a 15inch laptop can slot into. In fact, F-Stop claims that the slots are 17inch compatible. Personally, I prefer putting the laptop into a neoprene sleeve - which makes it a tad bulkier - and then sliding it into the bag. I still feel it’s one of the best designs I’ve used for carrying a laptop with all my other equipment since it take up so little space or weight when not in use, but is there and fully protective when required. Admittedly I now tend to travel with a dedicated Laptop bag so that I can get a few more weighty items onto the plane when traveling, but if I only have the one bag, then the laptop slot is an awesome addition. 

It’s a System - I keep coming back to this. The Shell and ICU configuration mean that F-Stop bags make up a carrying ‘system’. The components work together and allow you to configure your carrying setup based on the shoot requirements. In a perfect world (where photography paid more) I would have a full range of shells and multiple ICUs. Need to do a short dawn shoot and only need a small run and gun kit? Slide the Pro Large ICU into something like the Kashmir or Loka Shells. Need something bigger to handle an industrial shoot? Take the same ICU and slide it into the Sukha along with a Pro Small ICU. Need to simply keep gear organised in the studio or on a large shoot? Store and transport using just ICUs with labels on the straps to keep everything organised.

Yet, there’s more. F-Stop keep adding to the system by bringing out packing cells that fit with ICUs, dedicated straps for the shells, fitted rain covers, dedicated laptop sleeves and even chest mounted bags that clip to the shoulder straps of the shells. Systems are ultimately more useful to a photographer who shoots multiple subjects and F-Stop is very much a system. 

Where the Marketing Hype Fails

I mention above that you could potentially use an F-Stop bag for proper overnight hiking. Yes, in theory you can, but the harness system, as good as it is, does not compete with a proper hiking harness from the likes of Karrimor, Deuter, The North Face, First Ascent or even K-Way. Although I don’t do as much hiking as I would like to, I have done a fair share of mountain trekking with 25-30kg of equipment loaded onto my back. My aged Karrimor Jaguar 70-95L manages this far better than the Sukha. In fact, in attempting to put the same weight and kit into the Sukha all I succeeded in doing was bending the internal support rods of the bag. In the few times that I have overloaded the Sukha with kit and brought the carrying weight to above 20kg, it has been extremely uncomfortable and difficult to handle. To be fair though, it has handled better than any other camera bag I have ever used with a similar load. To put it this way: I would rather carry 30kg with my Karrimor over rough mountain terrain than 20kg with the Sukha over the same! I would then rather carry 20kg in the Sukha than 12kg in any other camera backpack that I have used.

My other major peeve with F-Stop is the material they use for the lining in the ICUs. Unfortunately it is simply not as grippy to the velcro dividers as the material used by companies like Think Tank. It is almost guaranteed that the Velcro dividers are going to come loose in the bag while traveling - meaning that some kit has the potential to float and bang about rather than stay in a nice snug ‘nest’ as they should. To be fair I think that F-Stop have updated their material somewhat as dividers seem a lot firmer in my more recent ICU purchases than in the original ICUs that I bought. 

Not to put to fine a point on it, but F-Stop as a company is plagued with issues. They survive due to innovative products and a seriously devoted fan base of users. For a while they had production issues when their manufacturer suddenly dropped them. That took 12-18 months to get over.

Several years ago, F-Stop also raised the ire of the photography community when it tried to create a new product through Kickstarter called the ‘Kit Sentry’ (read part of the story here). Ultimately the project was canned and backers did not receive their money back.

Then there are the plethora of anecdotal accounts of poor service that can be found on several forums (always read these with a pinch of salt though). My personal experience has also been mixed. When I bought my first kit, the Sukha with the Pro Large ICU and gatekeeper straps, the straps never arrived. On questioning this it took two weeks to get a response, and the straps were sent two months later and to the wrong address. Needless to say I never received them. My experience with F-Stop in South Africa though is completely different. Here, you deal with the importer (landscapegear) so you get fantastic service and zero headaches (because they are the ones dealing with the flakey head office in the US rather than you). What South African buyers have to contend with is the exorbitant 30% that the government levies on the imported bags, despite the fact that there is no locally manufactured alternative. This means that Landscapegear have to sea-freight all the bags in order to make them cost efficient. Don’t expect a quick turnaround on your order in other words. Still, the wait is worth it if you ask me. 

The Sukha lying next to a tripod while shooting on botswana's extraordinary 'Kubu Island'


F-Stop bags are still something of a speciality gear choice. For a while they were obscenely expensive, but the South African retail price has now come down to the point that they are almost equivalently priced to the higher end Lowepros and ThinkTanks. When you consider that multiple ICUs mean for a variety of configurations and uses, the pricing can actually come below that of the competition (e.g. A Tilopa and Kashmir UL shells and one large ICU or two medium ICUs is cheaper than a single Lowepro Trekker AW II yet gives a range of configurations for travel from quick hikes to the beach with the Kashmir to more strenuous treks up mountains with the Tilopa).

Outdoor photographers will fall in love with the F-Stop bags. Wedding photographers, studio based photographers and others who want a bag that is essentially a drawer with straps might find it a little frustrating (unless they remove the ICU in which case it’s perfect). The F-Stop bags are designed to haul gear to unlikely locations. Their revels in this fact with lots if images of photographers atop mountains, in caves, climbing cliffs and skiing down snowy slopes. This is where the bags excel. What buyers don’t seem to realise is that they are also perfectly suited to other inhospitable environments like factories, mills…and airports.

There are certain products that have become so intrinsic to my workflow that I actually struggle to work without them (my Wacom tablet for instance). The F-Stop bags are one of those products. I struggle to imagine a trip without one now. Despite flakey service in some parts of the world and interior material of the ICU that really should be improved, my first recommendation to any travel or outdoor photographer is an F-Stop. I already know what my next bag is going to be. An F-Stop.

The Next Batch... (A note on ordering)

Just after finishing this article I checked with Hougaard Malan at Landscapegear.co.za to check on the status of their stock. They are going to be putting in a new stock order in March (to arrive in April) so if you are interested in any F-Stop bags or accesories please get in touch with him to make a pre-order. Right now the most popular bag, the Tilopa is out of stock in South Africa with a waiting list of buyers. If you want one, you need to put your name on the list to make sure that the next order includes your next bag! You can email on info@landscapegear.co.za or go directly to the website on www.landscapegear.co.za.

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